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By Jackie Nickel (2003)
“I’m afraid we’ve got some bad news. The tumor was malignant.”
The words had hardly left the surgeon’s lips when the numbness set in. I went dead inside, stone cold, seeming to look down from above on this unbelievable scene in a
doctor’s office on Belair Rd. three and a half years ago. How could a stupid lump on the inside of my upper arm, nowhere near my breast or vital organs, be cancer?
It wasn’t a skin cancer, this damned lump, but a growth deep inside my arm. It was soft and moveable, the size of a jelly bean, when I first felt it while rubbing my
arm a year before. I mentioned it to a doctor who told me it was probably just a lypoma, a fatty non-malignant tumor, but should be removed anyway. He referred me to a
surgeon downtown at Mercy Hospital, writing the phone number on a card. Then life stepped in and the card got lost among the receipts and gumwrappers in the bottom of
my purse. The lump was just a harmless ball of fat anyhow.
Life and times
There was a hotbed of political strife in my community in the year 2000 with Senate Bill 509 and the referendum/election and I was right in the middle of
it. Trips to Annapolis, meetings, strategy sessions, petitions, lobbying, ear and elbow bending. Every time I’d feel the lump, it would remind me of my promise to get
it taken care of but there just wasn’t time, especially to travel to a not-so-great part of the city to an unfamiliar medical practice. I even went so far as to call my
insurance company to make sure they’d cover a procedure at Mercy and there was no problem. But I put it off.
In early 2001 it was obvious that the lump was growing and becoming more solid and attached. Things had settled down in my life and I finally made an appointment with a
surgeon I knew at Franklin Square.
Dr. A. Vanguri checked out the lump and agreed it had to be removed but I insisted on his using just a local anesthetic. I’m usually more afraid of being “put under”
than of surgery itself, and I’ve had my share of both. The operation, done in an OR at Franklin Square, seemed to go OK although it took longer than I anticipated.
Through the numbness I could feel Dr. V. pulling to release the tumor which had grown to the size of a small egg. Of course it was sent for biopsy, which brings us to
my follow-up visit, described above.
The word CANCER sends chills down my spine and seems to stick in my throat as I try to say it. My parents both died of the horrible disease, but theirs was LUNG cancer
caused by years of smoking. I’ve never smoked so why…? I drove home in a fog, repeating Hail Marys over and over and over. Then I started cleaning house, throwing
things out. No use leaving all this junk for my kids to go through when I’m dead. And I hadn’t even told them yet.
Plan of attack
Dr. V. sent me to see Dr.George Elias, Chief of Surgical Oncology at Franklin Square, a man known for his precise treatment of the disease. My son John
went with me, all 6-ft. 7 of him. He was the rock to lean on as I almost passed out during the explanation of my cancer and more surgery to come. This was a very
aggressive type of blood-borne cancer, some of which still remained in my arm and might have spread beyond. Dr. Elias warned me of the consequences of not following
through on treatment until I told him I didn’t want to know any more. He was stern yet fatherly and I knew my life was in this man’s hands.
There were CT scans and blood tests and the decision to do surgery followed by radiation or chemotherapy, depending on the outcome. I was so cold during those days of
testing and waiting, I felt like I was already in the tomb. Meanwhile, I found great relief in talking to anyone who would listen, but especially those who had lived
through the disease. And I prayed. I prayed in church and in the car, in bed and in the grocery line. I put myself on the prayer list at Mt. Carmel and friends put me
on prayer lists all the way from Hope Lutheran in Middleborough to the Monastery in Catonsville.
The next surgery went well with excellent treatment in the oncology unit at FSH where I spent one night. Dr. E. set up the unit, the nurses told me, with private rooms
and lots of personnel to attend to patients’ needs. But when I went back for my check-up, Dr.Elias wasn’t happy. “Our margin isn’t good enough,” he said. “We have to go
back in.” I wasn’t at all upset, but thankful for a surgeon who wanted more than just “good enough” for me. I was blessed.
We had to wait until my foot-long incision “cooled down” enough to go in again. I was taking vitamins and drinking green tea and meditating a lot to prepare myself for
the next round. Cards and flowers were coming in from friends and relatives and my kids got me laughing when my mood was at its darkest. My friend Carole who had nursed
more than one person through cancer was perhaps my best support, a sounding board at any time, day or night.
Then I discovered a power within myself, a glowing white light I could visualize flowing into me, warming my bones and burning away the poison of cancer. I could turn
it on at any time, anywhere. I welcomed the whiteness throughout my body and surrendered to its healing as I went under the knife for a third time. All went well in the
hospital and I nervously waited for the biopsy “margin” results. A few days later, my son and I went to Dr. Elias’ office for the report and ran into him in the waiting
room. He opened his arms saying “We’re clear now” and I gave him a big hug and cried.
Then we discussed treatment to make sure all stray cancer cells were destroyed. Dr. E. ordered six weeks of radiation treatments and check-ups four times a year for who
knows how long. I didn’t care. I was still alive.
Franklin Square radiation machines at the time couldn’t rotate around my arm the way my treatment mandated so I was sent to St. Joe’s for treatment. The staff there was
wonderful but it was tough sometimes as my arm became redder and more tender to drive to Towson in the hot summer of 2001. I bought an off-white, long-sleeved, light-
weight man’s cotton shirt at the thrift store to protect my arm. I wore it over a tank top every single day that summer, washing it out each night. It was loose fitting
enough to accommodate the vaseline-saturated gauze that soothed my burned arm and it slipped off easily several times each day when I soaked my arm in a healing
solution. It protected my arm from the sun when I began to work my way through the weeks outside in the garden. And it kept me from getting arrested since I couldn’t
wear a bra.
Following the radiation treatments came exercise to regain strength in my arm. But I was still very tired, whether it was from stress or the radiation or a
combination I don’t know. So I continued to work part-time waiting to build up my stamina. I read and took naps and long drives with friends, appreciating each day.
When I turned 60, I decided to collect my Social Security widow’s benefits rather than waiting until age 62 or 65. A few dollars more wasn’t worth the gamble I thought.
I could do freelance writing parttime and devote the rest of the week to community work and enjoying the things I’d been missing out on. The most wonderful new
diversion came with the birth of my grandson Thomas 16 months ago.
I didn’t die from the cancer but learned to live through it. I made it with the help of faith, friends, family and wonderful care. This doesn’t mean the cancer can’t or
won’t come back. I had a basal cell skin cancer removed from the bridge of my nose just this summer. The disease can return in many forms, especially in a family so
predisposed and I’m always on the alert for signs, sometimes over anxious perhaps. But I know where to go to get help when I need it. And it’s all close to home now…
so there are no more excuses for putting things off.
P.S. Since my diagnosis going on four years ago, many of my friends and acquaintances are undergoing similar battles. My personal prayer list seems to be getting longer
as months go by. Early detection is the key to beating cancer so please get regular check-ups and know your own body signs. Let your inner light guide you to peace,
health and happiness. J.N.
A few years later the cancer returned. Jackie passed away on August 17th, 2007, a few weeks after her 65th birthday.