Like most people, I’ve had my share of hardships and disappointments. Things got heated when my firstborn was 18 months old—I gave birth to my twins! While I had all three in diapers, my parents divorced. My support system crumbled. My children’s early years were easy compared to their teen years. By then I was pursuing a career in medicine as a physician assistant. However, after three grueling years of medical school, I failed the boards—not once, but three times! Then, my own twenty-five-year marriage ended in divorce when I met a woman who restored my true sexual orientation. Yet none of these trials was as harrowing as the month that followed my diagnosis of lung cancer.
On that fateful day, the pulmonologist turned his computer monitor so I could see my MRI results. He tapped the computer screen with the paddle of his glasses and said, “You definitely have lung cancer. Nothing else looks like this.” Those words stung like an angry wasp. The rest of his words fell on deaf ears as furious heat seared my face. A halo appeared around the doctor as his speech slowed to a crawl like a car running out of gas. Dru, my spouse of eight years, squeezed my forearm just in time to jolt me back to consciousness.
Still, no matter how the doctor shaped his mouth, the only words I heard were, “You definitely have lung cancer,” over and over in my head. I vaguely recall the doctor standing in a dismissive gesture. Dru shepherded me from the room, through the waiting room and out to the car. The surreal, spring day was juxtaposed against the news on which I was choking. Lighthearted chirping and chattering of tiny critters filled me with envy. Would I ever feel that kind of reverie again?
Dru and I had fallen in love, a love that blossomed naturally from our intense friendship. I had harbored a long-standing denial of my lesbianism, choosing a man and family 25 years ago, at a time when the word “lesbian” was considered profanity. When I met Dru, I knew I had found the missing piece to my puzzle. With my three closely spaced kids gearing up for college, I envisioned the hollow life I would have with their father. After a two-year friendship with Dru, I realized I wanted to be with her to the exclusion of all others. We couldn’t go a day apart. When we finally put our feelings into words, I knew I had returned to the truth of who I was.
The discomfort in my chest had begun early that morning. It felt like something jabbing me just under my left breast. It wasn’t painful, but I was aware of it all day. A cardiac work-up quickly ruled out a heart attack. Dru and I were so relieved. Then, the ER doctor had me get a chest x-ray. Our premature relief crumbled when the ER doc snapped my chest films into the clips on the x-ray viewer and flipped on the light. A baseball-size, opaque spot occupied the exact place in my left lung where I was feeling discomfort.
I could taste the backwash of bile in my throat. I turned to find an emesis basin and saw Dru fall back against the gurney, her ghostly lips quivering.
Neither of us felt up to driving, but Dru took the wheel and forced herself to concentrate. She kept reminding me that we still had hope for a good outcome. We promised each other we’d keep a positive attitude. At home, we immediately climbed into bed, hoping sleep would rescue our aching hearts. There, we took refuge in each other’s arms and cried ourselves to sleep.
The morning brought a sense of renewal. The bright sunlight that drenched our bedroom bathed us in hope. Every time the phone rang, we jumped. Finally, we received the call we’d been expecting from the pulmonologist’s office. I was told I could go in to see him in two weeks. Two weeks? I screamed silently. That’s an eternity. How can I carry this load for two weeks? I knew my mind would conjure up all sorts of horrifying scenarios during that time! I wanted to shout at the scheduler and demand an earlier appointment. Instead, I managed to thank her and hung up the phone.
During those weeks, I reflected on my 53-year life. After wrestling with the thought that I was being punished for having left my marriage, I found solace through some forced introspection. I prayed and meditated and read uplifting books. “The Secret” and “The Law of Attraction” were gaining popularity, so I gave up my conventional thinking and bought into their positive messages. I knew I had it in me, but like a miner, I had to dig to my core to harvest it. Careful to demonstrate courage each time one of my children called, I sensed relief in their voices that I was holding it together. After a while, my bravado became my true persona.
It wasn’t easy carrying an anvil on each shoulder, but I tried to be rational about it. After all, I had smoked for 20 years before quitting. The years leading up to this dilemma were fraught with tremendous stress. Not only had I struggled through a divorce, I had come to terms with my sexuality, and watched a promising career crumble before it had even launched. It’s no secret that stress erodes the immune system and opens the door to cancer.
There’s a strange sense of peace that slips over you when you finally know how you are going to die. One of the ironies of life is that we move closer to death every day. Our days on this earth tick away like a car’s odometer. Sooner or later you know that the car will come to a grinding halt. Because the threat of death was a constant subtitle in my life, having cancer freed me from that worry and stress. Surprisingly, I began to see death as the natural consequence of life. I felt clarity and acceptance. Harder to accept was the feeling that I was blessed and God was calling me home.
I had to wait another two weeks to have the surgery, so there was time to have more diagnostic tests. The brain scan was a quick, fifteen-minute test. However, the hour-long body scan had me gasping for breath and fending off a panic attack. The tests were to determine if the cancer was contained to my lung. If so, I’d be a candidate for surgery. If cancer popped up anywhere else in my body, the prognosis was grim and my only option would be chemotherapy.
With surgery still a week away, my younger sister, Annette, came to visit. Being a very spiritual person, she offered to lay hands on me and pray. She asked me to lie on the couch. She lit candles and burned incense. Dru was stationed at my head and my daughter, Lindsay positioned herself at my feet. Annette concentrated on the area of my left lung. I gazed out the window and admired the dappled sunlight playing on the leaves of our ancient oak. Lindsay’s warm tears dripped onto my bare feet, dashing my reverie. I closed my eyes and focused on Annette’s prayers as she addressed the chakras. Dru massaged my temples. I gave myself over to the moment, deeply moved by the ceremony. By the time it was over, I was cocooned in a warm fuzzy blanket.
The news that I could have surgery brought a surge of optimism. We celebrated with banana splits! Funny how we thought it was such great news that I only had cancer in my lung. Yet, in light of how far it could have spread, this news was fantastic.
I was grateful that while all of this was going on, spring held us in its embrace. Dru and I began going to Beaver Lake and meditating on its banks. Everywhere there were puffs of chartreuse leaves. I saw my very first bluebird there and I watched the butterflies flit around the ground in search of food. My favorites were the monarchs and the black swallowtails with their blue punctuation marks.
I took a special interest in the butterflies. Pondering their life cycle filled me with promise. I gave a butterfly charm to Dru, my mother, and Lindsay, and asked them to wear it through my surgery. Lindsay gave me a plush “cowardly lion” doll that wore a medal of bravery. She said I, too, had found courage. That lion came to the hospital with me and sat on my bed for the entire week of my surgery and recovery. Today it sits on my desk, reminding me of the strength I have within myself.
The night before surgery, I received many emails and phone calls. My oldest son, Ryan, called from California and broke down. I reassured him that everything would be alright and he apologized for upsetting me. My other son, Matthew, called and told me how proud he was of me for handling it all so stoically. Their father, my ex, also called and had a difficult time containing his emotions. My dad and stepmom came to the hospital to wait out the surgery, along with Dru, my mom, and Lindsay. Lindsay had made up custom badges for everyone to wear. Hers said, “My Mom is my Hero,” Mom’s said, “My Daughter is my Hero,” and so on. I was so touched by her thoughtfulness that I started to tear up as we caravanned to the hospital.
Like all closely-knit Italian families, we traveled in a herd. As we all trudged up the hill to the hospital entrance, I spotted a monarch butterfly feeding off the flowering bushes that lined the hospital driveway. Suddenly, the gorgeous monarch turned and flew directly toward me and circled my head a few times. Everyone stopped to watch this unusual behavior. When it had finished its dance ritual, the copper butterfly hovered in front of my face. I held my breath and stood perfectly still as it seemed to lock eyes with me. Seconds passed. It stayed poised there as if relaying a message. Then it flew away and out of sight so quickly we couldn’t track it.
The surgery went well. The lower lobe of my left lung had to be completely removed because the tumor had wrapped itself around the bronchus (major air passage). In light of the extent of the tumor’s involvement, the surgeon was surprised I hadn’t been having any breathing problems. He asked me about the pain I’d had. I told him it really wasn’t a pain, but more like a poking sensation and I mentioned I hadn’t felt it since that day. He smiled broadly and a twinkle appeared in his eyes. He stated authoritatively, “That was God poking you to get your attention.” I said, “That would explain why it stopped once I did something about it.”
On the third day of my hospital stay, I was becoming more alert. I still had a morphine pump, IV’s, and four or five tubes coming out of me. I wasn’t able to roll over, and I experienced excruciating pain three times a day when the occupational therapist came in and had me breathe into an apparatus. I had my iPod clipped to my hospital gown, piping serene music into my ears for hours. I still cry whenever I hear those instrumental tracks that nourished my soul when I needed it most.
Mom and Dru were reading and I was lost in the serenity pouring from my earphones, when suddenly the door flew open and the surgeon glided into the room with his arms over his head. “It’s not cancer! I can’t believe it. It’s not cancer. I’ve never seen anything like it!” Dru and my mom started crying tears of joy and moved toward me—but I wasn’t celebrating yet. I looked at the surgeon in disbelief. “If it’s not cancer, what is it?” I demanded. Silence dropped on the room. Then he said, “It’s an impostor !. Just some inflammatory tissue wrapped into a ball. A pseudo-tumor unlike any I’ve ever seen before!”
The news sank in slowly. I had lived as a cancer-patient for an entire month. Three doctors had agreed it was cancer. An MRI and a body scan had confirmed it. Now they didn’t even have a name to call the thing that had taken up residence inside of me. I didn’t get it. What had all this been about?
The answers tripped over each other in my mind. I had transformed. I had made peace with my fate. I felt my family’s love on a deeper level. I remembered the butterfly and the inner levels I’d go to when I prayed and meditated or listened to my healing music. I remembered what the doctor had said about God bringing it to my attention. I reflected back on the healing service Annette had held for me. There had been family and friends up and down the east coast praying for me. My younger son even prayed for me with his co-workers.
How could I not have had cancer? Oh, but I did have cancer. The professionals hadn’t been fooled. The tests had been accurate. The reason the surgeon couldn’t identify it was that it had changed into something of God’s creation! Suddenly, it was clear that the metamorphosis of the butterfly represented the transformation of a malignant tumor into this benign gift.
As if I wasn’t fortunate enough receiving that good news, a month after surgery I received another mysterious blessing. My insurance company had been paying my medical bills all along, with the exception of the usual twenty percent co-pay. So I was surprised to receive an envelope from them. I opened it immediately. A mixture of disbelief and hope swished around inside of me. It was a check for fifty thousand dollars! The accompanying letter said it was a onetime benefit for a life-threatening illness. I dialed the claims department to check it out. When I told the agent a mistake had been made because I didn’t have cancer, she laughed and said, “Having half of your lung removed is a life-threatening condition, even if it’s not cancer.” I said, “Are you sure? Because if I spend this money and then you ask for it back, I’ll be in big trouble.” We both laughed. I thanked her and she told me to enjoy it. My next call was to Dru.
We paid off our portion of the medical bills (and many other bills) with the money. The worst nightmare of my life had turned into a blessing that knows no end. I know I’ve changed. I take my time. I savor the gifts of my senses. I lose my patience less often—and I love with abandon. Although I’m not practicing medicine, I have discovered a fulfilling way to use my medical education to earn an income. Dru and I are about to celebrate our twelfth anniversary together. She is seventy-three and I am fifty-seven. We are still deeply in love and cherish the time we have been given together. During my follow-up visit to the pulmonologist, I told him my explanation for the rare misdiagnosis. He leaned toward me and said, “I know you’re right, because I too, believe in miracles.”
Vita Ruvolo-Wilkes is a special education teacher and physician assistant. She is currently a Demand Media Studios health writer. Her articles appear on the LiveStrong health and fitness site. You can view her work at livestrong.com and you can contact her by email: email@example.com.