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My Little Secret

by Lisa Pawlak

Inspiration image

Lisa with her sons Jonah (middle) and Joshua (right)

At the time of my cancer diagnosis, I was training for a half marathon. I was 37 years old with two children. My lung tumor, previously thought to be benign and stable, had grown. When a lung biopsy was recommended, I was stunned.

“Oh my God, you’re kidding!” I had exclaimed to my pulmonary doctor – as if a pulmonary doctor would kid about something like that.

After the recommended biopsy, my doctor showed me photos of my tumor. Then she showed me photos of what a “normal” air passageway in that part of the lung should look like. I stared at the contrast between the two. It was clear that my tumor was taking over. It seemed amazing to me that I could breathe at all. I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. My doctor called the next day with results of the biopsy and identified the tumor as a lung carcinoid.

Carcinoid cancer isn’t a particularly aggressive cancer. But even before my tumor was identified as malignant, I knew from seeing the photos that it was going to have to come out. Sur­gery to remove half of my left lung was scheduled soon after. “This is good news,” my doctor told me. It took some convincing.

I was in the hospital for eight days after my lung surgery. The pain from the chest tubes was so severe it made my two natural childbirths (even the one of a 10-pound 4-ounce baby) seem like nothing. Even now, I can hardly bring myself to look at the twin scars from the chest tubes, those being the site of so much agony.

On the other hand, I am happy to show my massive thoracotomy scar to just about anyone who wants to look. I even enjoy sharing the fact that my surgeon actually removed a piece of one of my ribs – a “controlled crack” as he put it. And don’t even get me started on how many times I’ve men­tioned the term “rib-spreader” during my lengthy recovery.

Last summer, I relocated. Very few people in my new town know that I am a cancer survivor. It just doesn’t come up in casual conversation. I look com­pletely healthy, and my scars are usually covered by clothing – invisible in my new life. Somehow, through my move to this new city, cancer has become my little secret.

Though there are times when I do mourn for the missing part of my lung, something about my recent physical move has prompted me to realize that it is also time for me to move on emo­tionally. Although I have been indelibly scarred by cancer, that truth is just one small element of all that ultimately defines me.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Lisa Pawlak is a lung carcinoid cancer survivor living in Encinitas, CA.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2013.