My Little Secret
by Lisa Pawlak
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.
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Lisa Pawlak is a lung carcinoid cancer survivor living in Encinitas, CA.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2013.