From Bad to Worse / by Leslie

Since Wednesday, so much has happened. My Mom went in for surgery late that afternoon, expecting to have a growth removed that was pressing against her colon. We already knew that this growth might be cancer, but there was a chance that it was a benign growth and that she would simply have it taken out and would quickly recover from surgery. Instead what happened was totally unexpected and almost the worst news we could have received. (Read Part 1: My Mom Needs Some Positive Thoughts)

The surgery began over an hour late and lasted only thirty minutes. Once Dr. Witzke saw what was in her abdomen, he decided not to touch anything and close her back up. That’s how bad it was. Oddly, there was no growth or tumor. It was the CT scan that led him to believe that there was a growth and her symptoms also suggested that there was something blocking her colon. 

But the surgeon found nothing where my Mom had been reporting pain. Eventually he moved aside the lining of her gut and saw that the muscles behind her ribs, extending all the way down to her pelvic bone, were completely invaded by cancer cells. He didn’t describe to us what it looked like, but he said that he recognized what it was and that it was extremely bad news, either advanced stage sarcoma or lymphoma.

Now, this doctor is a good surgeon, but he is not an oncologist experienced with cancer, so all we can do is hope that an expert who is more familiar with these types of things will not paint this in such a bad light. He did say that he would be calling a specialist in Calgary to find out what to do and my Mom would need an MRI. 

The next day, Thursday the 28th, was excruciating, waiting for the doctor to do his rounds so my Mom could ask questions. I called the nurses station twice asking for information, and once talked to my Mom briefly. My Dad was there for the morning, but was not there when the doctor finally came by. My Mom was able to ask some questions, but forgot a few things. I had so many questions myself and it was so difficult to be so far away. I wanted to know why didn’t they do the MRI before the surgery? Who was the specialist in Calgary? When could she see an oncologist in Medicine Hat? 

Meanwhile, Chris called the Tom Baker Cancer Center to find out what we needed to do to get her admitted up there. He talked to admissions and they told him that we needed the pathology, which is a microscopic examination of a tissue sample, a referral from the doctor and the operating room report. So the big question became, did Dr. Witzke take a tissue sample?

That afternoon my sister headed down to Medicine Hat from Calgary. My sister, who’s birthday it was the day before, and who called me right before she went out for dinner and a concert to hear this bad news. She said she had to know before she went out. I wished she had waited, enjoyed one last night before this shit storm. It’s no way to celebrate your birthday, worrying about someone whom you love with the depths of your soul.

My sister arrived at the hospital and spent the rest of Thursday with my Mom. When she got home that night, she answered a lot of the questions that I had been asking all day. They were focusing on pain management, Mom was walking around after the surgery and healing well, the staples would be out in a week and she would have to wait for the MRI until then, there was no tissue sample taken, the cancer was not in her pancreas just in the muscles, there was no tumor, she didn't need to be on nutrition yet. My head was spinning. No MRI for another week? No tissue sample? What were we going to do?

Our only consolation was that Jill also told me that the surgeon would be willing to talk to the family on the phone. Maybe we could get some answers and try to figure out how to get things moving a bit faster if we got on the phone with him. It was unbearable to just wait for the surgeon to appear on his rounds and the long weekend was looming. I asked Chris if he would do it for me. He had been asking me all day if we could get the doctor on the phone. Talking to strangers and getting information out of them was routine while he was researching his book and he had lots of experience dealing with doctors from the last year of being involved with his Dad's fight against leukemia and bone marrow transplant. He would be much better at it than I would.

Chris called first thing the next morning, Friday, and the surgeon was right there and ready to talk. He was very forthcoming and had all the information we were looking for. The specialist he had been talking to is Dr. Walley Temple, one of the top oncologists in the country. He is a faculty member at the University of Calgary and an oncologist at the Tom Baker Cancer Center. His credentials go on and on. He is a specialist in sarcoma and has experience in both Canada and the USA. He is also Dr. Witzke's college friend and treated his own colon cancer. It was perfect, he was a doctor for doctors! This was the guy we wanted.

Dr Witzke explained to Chris that he couldn't take a tissue sample due to it's difficult location, he didn't want to begin cutting and risk her bleeding internally. He also said that Dr. Temple had suggested that they do a needle biopsy in Calgary to determine if this was sarcoma or lymphoma. Chris asked if they could do the needle biopsy first, before the MRI, and have my Mom transferred to Calgary immediately. He readily agreed and said he'd make the calls, leaving Chris his personal number to follow up with.

So the wheels were put in motion immediately for my Mom’s air ambulance transfer to the Tom Baker Cancer Center in Calgary, and I think we were able to skirt around the normal admissions procedure due to the fact that Dr. Temple was directly involved already though Dr. Witzke in Medicine Hat. The bump though is that it’s summer and a long weekend in Canada, so my Mom will not be transferred until Tuesday morning. The good thing is that it’s actually a little breathing room for my parents, a chance to absorb all this information and prepare for the trip to Calgary and the tough fight ahead.

On Tuesday, my Mom will be meeting with Dr. Mack, he works alongside Dr. Temple and will be covering my Mom's case until Dr. Temple comes back from vacation on August 10th. This coming week should be diagnostic work, first the needle biopsy and then hopefully the MRI. By the time Dr Temple is back everything should be ready to discuss treatment for my Mom. If this turns out to be lymphoma, the treatment should be effective. If this is sarcoma, it will be much harder to treat.

I've booked my ticket to go to Calgary on Friday the 5th, and I'll be staying for a week, until the 12th, so I hope to meet with Dr. Temple and discuss my Mom's treatment. I can't wait to get there but I do feel bad that I am leaving my own family. I will be missing my wedding anniversary and Chris's birthday, not to mention how much I will miss my kids, but I need to be in Canada with my Mom. I am so grateful to Chris for understanding that I am distracted, upset and need to be there. His parents and sister are ready and willing to help with the kids and do whatever they can to make this easier for me. I thank them all so much for that.

My sister has been amazing, she's been with my Mom all day, every day, since Thursday. I am so happy that she is there, when I can't be, and that she is able to take time off to be with Mom and to cook Dad dinner and to let me know what's going on. She's been a rock.

I’ll be honest, this sucks. It’s scary and it’s easy to imagine the worst. We've all cried about it, and it's ok to cry about it, but then we pick ourselves back up and we stop crying and we resolve ourselves to this new reality. We practice positive thinking, affirmations and meditation. We call on our family and friends. We get support, hugs, love, and suggestions about how to cope and stay strong. There is so much love.

Thank you also to every single person sending emails, consolations, understanding and hope. I am grateful to everyone who is praying and keeping my Mom in their good thoughts. I believe that it will help all of us get through this. My Dad and I are printing out emails and messages and sharing them with my Mom. If you would like to send her a personal card or letter, please email me and I can give you a Calgary address to send them to. Handwritten notes are tangible messages of love, courage and strength that she can hang onto and I think it would be a wonderful gift.

Related posts:

Part 1: My Mom Needs Some Positive Thoughts

Part 3: Waiting For a Diagnosis

Part 4: My Mom Has A Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumor

Part 5: A Treatment Plan: Sandostatin and Peptide Receptor Radionuclide Therapy (PRRT)