My name is Jennifer Giuffre-Donohue. Yes I'm one of those, a hyphenator, because Giuffre (don't worry no one ever knows how to pronounce it) wasn't hard enough for people to say so I thought I'd add another seven letters to my name. Here's my story. It was a dark and stormy night... just kidding.
In December of 2008, shortly after my 37th birthday, I was shaving my underarms in the shower and I noticed that my right underarm looked swollen. About a week before I had noticed some swollen glands in my neck that seemed to be coming and going. It was winter time so I chalked it up to fighting something off, but the underarm swelling, well that raised an alarm in my head that I wasn't as willing to brush off. I got out of the shower and compared my underarms. The right one definitely looked swollen to me but I didn't want to freak out and jump to conclusions. Okay, to be really honest I was slightly freaked out, but being a relatively rational, Type A personality (yes I realize that can be an oxymoron) and being a person who likes to see the glass as half full, I did my best to remain calm and try to think rationally about what could be going on. I thought maybe since I get itchy after shaving, possibly I had scratched my underarm too hard one day. Maybe I scratched one too many times and that was the cause of the swelling. Maybe I had an ingrown hair?
Then there was the nagging thought of how you hear about lymph nodes with cancer and even though I wasn't an expert on the exact location of lymph nodes in the human body, I knew enough that there were lymph nodes in my armpits. I felt around my right axilla (armpit to us lay people but doesn't axilla sound so much nicer than armpit?) and I could feel the slightest little bump but it was there. I waited about a week and a half not wanting to seem like a hypochondriac. I thought maybe the swelling would go down but there was also that part of me that wanted to run screaming to the doctor "I think I might have cancer!"
As I came to the end of that week and a half I was now obsessed with my armpits. I would compare them in the bathroom mirror and feel for the lump every day. On the flip side I was trying hard to leave it alone thinking I could possibly be making it worse by poking at it every day. Maybe it's nothing, leave it alone! I would try to tell myself. After asking both my mother and my husband on separate occasions if they thought my armpits looked different and with the swelling not going down, I decided to make an appointment with my doctor. I saw my primary care doctor and in her office she and I could barely feel the offending lump at the time. Thankfully she sent me for more testing to rule anything out. So I was referred to an oncologist who I saw about a week later and by now the lump in question was much bigger, like "here I am, bet you can feel me now!" The doctor questioned me about possibly being scratched by an animal. Who knew cat scratch fever was actually real? Score one for you if you did. If you were like me and you didn't, see you learned something new today! I explained that the only animals in the house were my children (who I love and adore) and that nope, I hadn't been around any animals lately. She then referred me to a surgeon so they could biopsy my new unwanted friend, the lump. I had my biopsy done and the surgeon called me about a week later, confirming everything that I had Googled and was afraid of. Here's what that sounded like:
Surgeon: Hi, can I speak to Jennifer Donohue please? (Sometimes I leave out my maiden name so as not to confuse people more than I have to...you'd be amazed at the confusion that a simple little hyphen can cause... but I digress.)
Me: This is she.
Surgeon: Hi Mrs. Donohue. (Uncomfortable pause.) We got the results back and I didn't want to make you wait until you saw the oncologist to hear them. (Yet another uncomfortable pause.) You have something called Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
Me: Okay. That's cancer right? (Who was I kidding by asking? I totally knew it was cancer she was talking about. I had Googled and Yahoo'ed the Internet like crazy looking up everything I could about lymphoma, because the surgeon had mentioned that my oncologist was probably looking for some type of lymphoma. I just needed to hear her say the word CANCER.)
Surgeon: Yes, it's cancer but it's very treatable. There's a very high cure rate with the Hodgkin's.
Me: Okay, well that's good news... thank you very much for calling me back so soon. (Third uncomfortable pause. I can't imagine that this call is easy for the doctors to make. The surgeon had been so nice to me throughout the biopsy and everything. I wanted to console her and say "It's okay, I'm going to be fine, cancer knocked on the wrong door," but I didn't really know what to say in this situation either, so all I could muster was a thank you.)
Surgeon: You're welcome, good luck with everything.
Thus began my journey into Cancer Land, the good, the bad and the hairless!