Is it cancer?: My paranoid health scares

How two loving parents and a penchant for late-night Internet searches fueled a series of ridiculous medical crises

Topics: Life stories, Real Families, Cancer, Health, Online culture, cancer scare, Editor's Picks,

I was sprawled out on a wicker couch, engaging in an activity known as sideways-lying-down-chip-eating, when my father staged an unlikely intervention. My family was holed up for the holidays in a Puerto Rican vacation rental, and my dad had interrupted not to offer my triangular friends and me some pico de gallo, as would be customary, but to announce that I most likely had cancer.

“Malignant melanoma,” he said. “I’ve arranged an appointment with a specialist on January 7th.”

I’d heard him whispering to my mom all week, complaining about the lack of Internet as he worked out the details of some top-secret mission. I’d hoped it was my own version of The Manhattan Project, consisting not of an a-bomb but an a-partment — ideally one I could live in rent-free (my 26th birthday was coming up!). Instead, his daily grind had to do with finding a dermatologist in New York City who (1) specialized in cancers of the toenail variety and (2) could see me on short notice. He had spotted an unidentified mark on my big toe earlier that week — one that I’d actually noticed the summer before and assumed to be some sort of nonlethal fungus that would clear up if asphyxiated with nail polish for long enough. But by the time the winter solstice rolled around, my last-known pedicure had chipped off to reveal a yellowish streak that — come to think of it — did look suspiciously cancerous.

My father was an ophthalmologist and my mother a physical therapist. Keeping up with the Kasbeers meant listening to medical banter in Latin over dinner about any one of our suspected injuries: a case of lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow), a stress fracture in the medial tibia (shin splints), or possibly a strain in the semimembranosus (pulling a “hammy”). I was constantly warned about such things as playing with fireworks because “one could go straight into your eye,” and wearing my seatbelt at all times because “the worst thing that can happen in a car accident is not death.” As an already anxious child, such cautionary tales, however well intentioned, helped cultivate a finely tuned neurosis — so deeply rooted that I eventually moved to New York City and gave up driving for good. I’ll take my chances with the terrorists and the shin splints, thank you very much.

“Let me see it again. Do you remember anyone stepping on your big toe?” he asked.

My mother finished washing up the dishes before offering her consolation.



“We didn’t want to ruin your vacation, so we waited to tell you.”

*

I returned home on New Year’s Day and did exactly what one should not do when faced with plausible toe cancer: I shuffled through photos of diseased feet on the Internet for the next week. And there it was, plain as day: acral lentiginous melanoma.

Maybe my parents weren’t just being paranoid: My cancerous toe looked exactly like the cancerous toes of others, most famously, Bob Marley. He had apparently refused his doctor’s advice to amputate, citing religious beliefs — and died shortly thereafter. I pictured myself being brave, undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy. Yes, flowers would be placed next to my bed. Yes, my hair would fall out. But more importantly, I wouldn’t have to go to work. And maybe it would even help push The Manhattan Project through budgetary approvals.

After a week of stalking the melanoma slide show on mayoclinic.org, the morning of my appointment finally arrived. It could have been the last day of life as I knew it. When the little man at the coffee cart asked how I was doing, I almost burst into tears. I pretended to have something in my eye and let him keep a quarter for his trouble — or to help fund orthotic lifts for his tiny shoes. If there’s any time to launch a karmic campaign, it’s now.

Since I was most likely dying, I wouldn’t be giving up my seat on the subway to any pregnant women. They had their whole lives and their children’s lives to look forward to. When I finally arrived at the doctor’s office, I sat in the waiting room for 45 minutes reading a Self magazine, which happened to have a feature on top cancer risk factors (yay!). I was just about dive into six ways to revamp my fitness routine when a woman with a thick Eastern European accent called me into an examination room and asked that I slip into a paper gown.

“Uh, it’s actually just on my toe?”

“We do a full body check,” she said. “Lie on your back.”

A dermatologist with perfect skin and a Polaroid camera came into the room and introduced herself. The doctor, with help from Ms. Ukraine, made me open the front of my gown as the camera flashed under the fluorescent lights. They worked in tandem, digging through my hair like gorillas, grunting when they found an amorphous mole of interest and then photographing it. I was then asked to turn over and felt two fingers spread my butt cheeks apart. Jesus, do people really get cancer of the ass-crack? Finally, she aimed her magnifying glass directly at my big toe and just looked at it for a while.

“I think it’s a bruise. Did someone step on you?”

“No.” I sighed with relief, too overjoyed to care about the tawdry photo shoot in which I’d just involuntarily partaken.

“It’s not melanoma,” she said. “But I am concerned about the acne on your forehead.”

If I could have listed my fears in order, before my fake cancer scare, anyway, it would have looked something like this:

1. Car accident.

2. Shark attack.

3. Car accident where I drive off a pier, fly through the windshield, and land in the mouth of a hungry shark.

4. Childbirth.

5. Adult acne.

Now that cancer was off the table, I had time to focus on the future — specifically by smearing my face with topical prescriptions, utilizing effective contraception and avoiding sunset car rides anywhere near open water.

*

Four years later I had nearly forgotten my brush with acne/death. I was at work one sunny afternoon, honing my live-online-panda-cam-watching skills, when my right arm went completely numb. So I did what any normal person would do — either in this situation or upon entering a Macy’s during the holiday shopping season. I started screaming hysterically until someone came to usher me out.

The numbness was now interspersed with shooting pains descending both of my upper limbs. A colleague escorted me to a walk-in clinic where I was given a diagnosis of carpal tunnel, a pair of wrist splints and a referral to an orthopedic surgeon, who then passed me to a neurologist, who passed me to an MRI tech, who figured out that I was actually suffering from a herniated disc (pinched nerve) in my spine. I kept the wrist splints anyway. They would make for a cool and unexpected fashion statement on anyone not rollerblading backward through Central Park while dancing and wearing biking shorts.

At the advice of my team of professionals, I spent thousands of dollars on ergonomic office equipment in hopes of improving my spinal alignment: a special keyboard that forced me to sit upright (forget sideways-lying-down-typing), a mouse that looked like what a lump of clay might look like if you rested your hand around it for 17 hours, and a thousand-dollar Danish chair called the HAG Capisco, which boasted a detachable headrest that “made me look like Christopher Reeve,” according to unsolicited feedback.

In addition to resembling a quadriplegic at work, I spent months in physical therapy doing exercises that amounted to giving myself a double chin and then releasing it — with no relief in sight. I even tried putting my neck in an old traction device of my father’s, which seemed to be little more than a cranial jock strap attached to a weighted pulley system. The scene made my 2-year-old niece cry, but I didn’t make too much of it — toddlers can be such drama queens most of the time.

“Have you been in an accident that I don’t know about?” the neurologist asked at my next visit.

“Not recently.”

Rear-ending the Dumpster behind my old apartment in Chicago multiple times seven years ago certainly didn’t count.

“Do you get headaches?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm. I’m sending you on an MRI to rule out multiple sclerosis.”

After requesting a copy of my new brain scan for posterity, I went home and ran through all of the symptoms of MS online: tingling in the extremities (check), visual disturbances (yup, but I always thought they were just acid flashbacks), mood swings (every day, oh dear god!) Yes, my life expectancy would most likely drop by five to 10 years. Yes, I would be forced to pretend I didn’t enjoy lying in bed all day playing “bear tent” with my stuffed animals. But more importantly, I would get a chance to catch up on Maury Povich. I was just about to announce a medical leave of absence from work when I got the call with my diagnosis. Brain status: normal-ish.

Since my neck botheration persisted, and I wasn’t a candidate for surgery (boo, hiss!), the next stop in my complain-a-thon was masking the pain with hard-core drugs. I learned I could be sedated with twilight anesthesia and receive epidural injections directly into my spine. While there was always a chance the doctor would botch it by blowing a hole through my spinal cord, the procedure was relatively safe, and the prognosis, good.

“Don’t kill me,” I said to the anesthesiologist as I slipped away into the comforting blackout of anterograde amnesia.

*

Six weeks later, I was watching TV while practicing the ancient art of eye-blinking, when Maury Povich and I were rudely interrupted. The perpetrator: a little bar running along the bottom of our television screen. It read something like, “Fungal Meningitis Breakout Linked to Tainted Pain Shot. Six Dead. Hundreds of Others Suspected to be Infected.” My jaw dropped to accommodate the dry cereal I was haphazardly tossing at it. Apparently, a batch of medicine contaminated with fungus had been distributed around the country and shot into the spines of unsuspecting patients. I immediately called my doctor’s office to determine the appropriate level of worry: nail biting, pacing in circles, or full-blown panic mode where I lie on the floor elbow-deep in a box of Lucky Charms.

“We did use the supplier you’ve seen on the news,” the doctor told me. “But no one’s gotten sick yet, which means the medicine probably wasn’t from the tainted batch.” If my cyberchondria had taught me anything, it was that if you can touch your chin to your chest, you don’t have spinal meningitis. While my at-home chin test results came back negative, I did notice something when I was eyeing around down there: unidentified blue streaks on the toenails of each of my big toes. I almost choked on a purple horseshoe before racing to the phone to consult my most valuable professional: Dad. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite able to speak English.

“Ta, Ta, Ta-oes … Ca, cancer … Fu-fungal meningitis-is!” I sputtered, hoping Tourette’s wasn’t an early sign of infection.

“Slow down. I can’t understand you. What’s wrong?”

I explained the situation: the thing I saw on the news, what the nurse told me, the streaks on my toenails and my current hypothesis, which was that while I probably hadn’t been fully infected with spinal meningitis, a single spore from the contaminated medicine had traveled into my spinal fluid and down my body to my toes, where it planned to take root and grow upward, forming a tree of death that would burst out of my head like a scene from “Alien” with the sole purpose of letting off more killer spores and decimating life as we knew it.

“Hmm,” he responded. “Did anyone step on your toes?”

“No!”

“All right, I’ll do some research and call around. In the meantime, settle down and see if you can make an appointment with your podiatrist.” Oh, sweet podiatrist. He who hath treated me after a past accident for which I seek punitive damages. He who hath filed off my corns for no extra charge. He who hath agreed to get me in tomorrow morning on short notice. I always assumed podiatry was for those with an MD and an unrequited foot fetish. As it turns out, my top-rated and underappreciated podiatrist was the only one who could crack the mystery of the toe streak once and for all.

“It’s bruising from your toenails repeatedly running into the tip of your shoe,” he explained when I stuck my feet in his face. “You probably couldn’t feel it while it was happening.” Oh podiatrist, I could kiss you, if you weren’t 30 years older than me (and a podiatrist — sicko). I practically skipped home, winking at the little man in the coffee cart on my way. I wonder if he ever got those orthotic lifts? Since I no longer needed the help of the universe, I didn’t stop to ask. When I called my parents to give them the good news, my mom answered the phone.

“Yeah,” she said. “We figured it was unlikely you were ravaged with disease, given that everything but your toes looked perfectly fine.”

I had to give it to my parents — they were always there, cracking their books and racking their brains in an attempt to cure their own little nonlethal fungus. What I probably needed all along was a thick coat of “chin-up, buttercup” nail polish asphyxiation. Unfettered, my hypochondria flourished in the warm folds of parental concern. Perhaps I shouldn’t have called them later when a hematologist pointed out that my palms looked yellow or faxed them my blood test reports with the platelet count circled (thrombocytopenia is a valid concern!). Eventually, I vowed to stop the online obsessing and late-night calls. I would behave less like a fungus and more like a benign tumor — a mass of cells content just to be, lacking the need to metastasize and invade its closest neighbors.

And if I couldn’t do that, at least I had my health.

Sarah Kasbeer is a writer and creative producer in New York City. You can follow her on twitter @sarahkasbeer.

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