An Unwelcome Diagnosis

Whenever I take our dog, Joey, to the vet, he treats me to an ear-splitting performance of terror and woe. Just getting in the truck prompts panic; although I took him everywhere when he was a pup, he’s spent most of his adult life in the house, yard or shop. As a result, the truck has come to signify just one thing: that terrible destination where he gets poked, palpated and robbed of all agency. We turn from Woodyard Road onto Smith Pike and all hell breaks loose: the angry barks and plaintive cries, the look – part-imploring, part-accusatory. “Mom! NO! You CANNOT take me there! PLEASE! I won’t go! I can’t stand it! Turn around! MOM!!!” – all on repeat.

But I’ve always been struck by what happens as soon as I park the truck. His demeanor instantly shifts from avoidance-at-all-costs to single-minded resolution: OK then, let’s get this over with.

Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.

I thought of Joey last Thursday as I contemplated the pint or so of “Mochaccino Smoothie” barium sulfate suspension I was going to choke down between 7:30 and 8 the next morning (it turned out to be just fine, even if it would fall short of the expectations some might have based on the cup of foamy cappuccino and random chunks of chocolate that illustrate the label), followed about a half hour later by another 10 or so ounces, before driving to the local radiological center for a CT scan.

“How is it possible that I am doing this to myself?” I marveled, as I always do when facing a frightening medical procedure. I’m still the person who, as a 6- or 7-year-old kid with an extreme fear of needles, was struck one day at the doctor’s office by the realization that I had the power to walk right out the door. And so I did. As I recall, my mother and one of the nurses ran after me, but for those few moments the sense of agency was potent. It lasted until my mother informed me I’d have to swallow two pills the size of grenades if I wasn’t going to have the shot. (I still chose the pills, which we pulverized.)

Last Thursday, the urgency of my desire to know what was causing my vague but increasing abdominal discomfort shifted me into resolution. I thought of Joey. (It wasn’t the first time I’ve regarded a dog as an exemplar.)

I parked the truck, signed the consent forms and followed the technician through the labyrinth of offices, radiological suites and exam rooms to our destination, where I replaced my jeans with a pair of pants that would have fit John Candy and lay down on the table. The tech stuck an IV in my arm, not without some wincing from me, and described the sensations I should anticipate when the contrast medium went in.

After 42 interminable hours of waiting, my doctor called with the results: there was a mass on my pancreas, and it was likely malignant. The reading didn’t come as a complete surprise; this medical mystery tour had started with an abdominal ultrasound the week before that suggested reason for concern. The next step would be a biopsy.

The biopsy was performed at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, confirming the preliminary diagnosis. I never imagined I would write the words “I had a biopsy this morning (possibly the most pleasant endoscopic experience *anyone* has ever had – the nicest people, most respectful/non-paternalistic doctors, and totally pain-free procedure),” as I wrote to Chris Schwarz later in the day, but there you have it. I have an appointment with an oncologist next week to learn more and discuss where we might go from here.

My maternal grandmother died of pancreatic cancer. I’ve known others personally, as well as followed news of prominent people who have faced this diagnosis. I am well aware of its gravity, so please spare all of us any ominous warnings you may feel moved to share in the comments.

Why this post on a blog devoted to woodworking? For a start, woodworkers are people; all of us face devastating news at one time or another, and I’m not the first person to note that no one gets out of here alive. The more we acknowledge these Instagram-unworthy dimensions of life (despite their dampening effects on the kind of commerce that thrives on implicitly denying so much of what makes our lives truly worth living), the more responsibly we can act, and the better we can savor what life has to offer. Knowing you’re not alone in your experience is golden, whether of breast cancer or back surgery, sudden homelessness in the wake of a hurricane or fire, or having to choose between keeping your home above freezing and being able to purchase the medicine on which your life depends.

There’s also value in sharing honest appraisals of the experience for those who may come behind. As much as I dreaded yesterday’s endoscopy, I faced it with less fear than I would have, had I not heard about a friend’s experience of the same procedure. A frank assessment of how easy “Mochaccino Smoothie” barium sulfate is to swallow is no less valuable to anyone facing a similar procedure than an honest review of the SawStop slider to a woodworker with a relatively small shop.

Mostly, though, I would love the company of any readers who might like to be my companions in this adventure, which I would obviously have preferred not to have thrown in my path. (You can follow by subscribing here.)  Many readers of this blog have become friends in real life; I also appreciate the back-and-forth I’ve enjoyed with some of you I haven’t yet met. Lost Art Press is home to thoughtful and intelligent readers from a variety of backgrounds, and I’m honored to be in your company.

It’s important to emphasize that despite the diagnosis, and apart from the abdominal discomfort, I feel fine. I seem to have no other symptoms – I have plenty of energy, even if the endless waiting and existential upheaval of the past two weeks has made it hard to focus on getting “real work” done. I plan to keep up the series of profiles categorized under “Little Acorns,” and I have a few design jobs, along with a wall of built-ins I have underway in the shop. We’ll go from there.

— Nancy Hiller



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