You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Tue, Sep 21, 2010 : 6 a.m.

The Roller Coaster Chronicles: Cancer calls

By Betsy de Parry

Readers: Just joining and want to catch up? These chronicles begin here.

I was born with a birth defect: I got two right brains. For half a century, I happily breezed through life with imagination on steroids and science on ignore. Cells were instruments of communication. Proteins nourished my body. And cancer what was happened to somebody else. At least until the morning of January 7, 2002, when cancer called me. Literally.

I was driving north on US-23, just south of the Silver Lake exit, when the emergency room doctor I'd seen the weekend before called and asked if I was at a place we could talk. "Of course," I answered, failing to mention that I was on a busy highway.

Several days before, fever had begun to plague me for no apparent reason. I knew I needed medical help, but I had no regular doctor since I was not one to haul myself in for regular inspections. The family practice group I phoned couldn't see me until March, but suggested I go to the emergency room if the fevers continued. They did, and I did. Several tests later, I went home, assuming that nothing was wrong that couldn't easily be fixed.

Now a voice on the phone was saying, "We suspect lymphoma." Those three little words hit me with the force of the semi traveling next to me, and I immediately pulled off the highway and onto the shoulder, where I stopped and listened to the doctor. Though he presented the facts respectfully and calmly, he might as well have said, "Good morning, Mrs. de Parry. I'm calling to bring you a message of terror. And if you think cancer is hard on your body, just wait til you see what it does to your psyche. You and your family have just stepped on to a more frightening roller coaster than you can even imagine. Be sure to strap yourselves in tightly." Of course, no doctor would ever be so blunt. At least I hope not.

I'm not certain how long I sat on the shoulder after the doctor and I hung up. It couldn't have been more than a few minutes. I didn't cry. I just sat, oblivious to everything around me. Curiously, I wondered how doctors psych themselves up to make those calls. And I wondered: What does one do when a total stranger announces that cancer has called upon you?

My husband Alex would surely know. He always had answers for everything, but when I called him, all he could say was, "Stay there. I'll come get you." It would be the first of many attempts to rescue me.

Slowly, my surroundings came back into focus. Cars and trucks were whizzing by, and the sign on a church beside the road warned, I hoped not prophetically, "Free trip to heaven. Details inside."

I assured Alex I was fine to drive and suggested that it was more sensible to meet at home and plot the next move. Ah, a logical solution. Perhaps I possessed a few left brain cells after all. I was about to need them.

Where were you when you learned you had cancer?

Coming Friday, Sept. 24: Meet the Doctor

New to this ride and wondering what lies ahead? In a recent conversation with Betsy, University of Michigan Nurse Practitioner Judy Estes offers a wealth of insight into the road ahead. Listen here.

Betsy de Parry is the author of The Roller Coaster Chronicles and host of a series of webcasts about cancer. Find her on Facebook or e-mail her.