Lessons from Cleveland

Should you have a body scan done? Read what happened to one local woman and then decide

I went to Cleveland. Not to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (although I did do that) or see the Browns play (I’m definitely not a pro-football fan). I didn’t go to hear the Cleveland Symphony or try to find Drew Carey. I went to the Cleveland Clinic for a laparoscopic partial nepherectomy. Laparoscopic partial nepherectomy—a month and a half ago, I couldn’t even pronounce it. Now it springs off my tongue as if I’m a urologist.

I left Cleveland nine days later without the two cancerous tumors I’d had and with 85 percent of my right kidney still intact. I was lucky. I’d been scanned.

Several months earlier, I’d had a bone density exam done. When it indicated that I might be heading toward osteoporosis, I was reluctant to take any medication. My local doc then told me, “Listen, Pam, Mother Nature wants us dead after age 45, and she’s gonna throw all sorts of things our way. Your genetic blueprint, lifestyle and environment will determine how long you’ll survive.”

Whew! I was 53, had a healthful diet, exercised and was on top of my medical check-ups—annual Paps and mammograms, colonoscopy at 50. Yet, I had to admit I was a habitual reader of the daily obituaries, especially searching for the deceased that were around my age.

A friend and local businessman confided in me that he too scanned the obits. “I read the obituaries all the time, too, but I want to know more. What did he die from? Was he overweight, did he exercise, drink too much?”

Another friend recently had a heart attack, but because he had obtained a heart scan some months before, he knew he might be a candidate for “the big one.” He had researched the symptoms thoroughly and made it to the hospital in time. His heart attack occurred while he was still plugged into the EKG machine.

My husband Steve has a liking for peanuts and port salute. I thought, gee, he needs a heart scan. I saw a newspaper ad about body scans. There was special price for heart scans and a testimonial from a local woman exclaiming that the scan saved her life. It had revealed early stage kidney cancer.

I called the clinic. “Well,” said the nice young woman in the office, “we have a special on the whole-body scan that includes the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, stomach, prostate for men and ovaries for women.” Without hesitation I said, “Sign us both up!”

A couple of weeks later, I walked into the main entrance of Enloe Hospital and found my way to the Radiology Department, where I picked up the follow-up scans of my right kidney. I walked through the halls and visualized my hospital stay as I looked deeply into the eyes of the staff as they passed by me.

When I emerged from the hospital into the radiating heat of summer, I realized I had walked out of the same door 24 years before with our little Kate in my arms and Steve by my side. That familiar back-of-the-throat lump presented itself simultaneously with the sudden flooding of tears in my eyes. As they rolled down my cheeks, I wondered, am I crying because I have cancer or because my children are all grown up?

Then I realized I was crying because life is so beautiful and so brief, and it feels good to cry.

My experience with cancer raised many questions and, in turn, altered my life’s future path. Perhaps by sharing these questions and lessons, you will examine your life’s blueprint.

To scan or not to scan, that is the first question.

For me, the answer is an unequivocal “yes!” By having a scan, you’ll find you’re doing great, or you’ll find something before symptoms arise and the scan will probably save your life.

After hearing about my tumors, some friends immediately got scans. Others personalized my condition and let it seep into their deepest fears. They didn’t take the journey with me, and they didn’t for one minute contemplate having a scan.

My husband and I both have health insurance, but we paid for the scans. Unfortunately, they’re not covered by insurance and may be out of the financial reach of many. Without substantial money, some Americans lack adequate health care when they become ill, let alone access to preventive medicine and measures. This is simply the shame of our country, that some of us have health insurance and a good job and others have neither.

Second question: Have you researched your illness or are you relying solely on the knowledge and advice of your doctors?

The field of medicine is vast and changing, and your doctor is probably even busier than you are. Knowledge is powerful, and having knowledge will make you less fearful. We like to picture our doc sitting in her or his office before our appointment poring over our personal information, test results and family health history. We like to think that she or he is knowledgeable about our particular health snapshot even before setting foot into the examination room.

Face it, doctors are no different than we are when we’re reading a file just minutes before a meeting. They’re not negligent. They’re just part of our multi-tasking lifestyle.

Once I’d learned I had tumors on my kidney, my independent research led me to laparoscopic surgery and the Cleveland Clinic. Further research helped me find a local doctor who recognized the best treatment for me and promptly forwarded my scans and his diagnosis to the clinic.

More questions: Are you happy in your daily life? Do you have life dreams you keep putting off to some future date? Can you “be” rather than “do"?

These three questions are probably the most profound and the most difficult to acknowledge. Your answers may trigger significant changes in your life. Attainment of these life elements (happiness, fulfillment and appreciation of each day as unique) can interfere with your employment, family obligations, and the media-driven desire for “the good life.”

This good life could be defined as having an expensive car, drinking the best wine, eating rich foods and having an overall lifestyle that requires that your nose be firmly joined to the grindstone and not in the proverbial flowers.

When you have a life-threatening situation, suddenly the things in life that are important to you—family, friends, belief in your spiritual soul, the goodness of people, the beauty of nature and all its wondrous inhabitants—move to the forefront of your existence. I came of age in the ‘60s and knew how to live simply, with a more spiritual emphasis. I was ready for some changes. I hope you don’t have to be diagnosed with disease before you examine your priorities.

Steve recently told me that a terminally ill acquaintance of his had said to him, “You know how you always think about what you’d do if you had six months to live? Well, I have six months, and I don’t feel well enough to do any of those things.”

Don’t wait till some future date. This is your life. It’s precious. Don’t let tomorrow keep you from living today.

What I have learned from my experience is that just “being” and not always “doing” will make your life meaningful and your day last longer. Even in this crazy busy world, one can practice “being.” On your way to work, “be the road"—see the trees and the sky, feel the smoothness of the road, observe the vacuum of time passing, rather than listening to the radio, talking on a cell phone and thinking about your shopping list for tonight’s dinner.

It’s challenging to always “be on the journey,” and you may slip back into the cluttered, chaotic existence of the 21st century, but retrieve yourself and get timeless. And if your journey ever takes you to Cleveland, enjoy it. It’s a great city.

Pam Figge is a part-time planner with the city of Chico. She lives in Paradise.