In the early hours of 17 Aug 2014, moments after I had the news in hand that there was an unwelcome mass in my son that had been the cause for all of his distress, the social worker came in. My immediate thought was, “Oh great! I get to endure the questioning that comes with all of the bruising and the black eye that my son has.” I braced myself for the line of questioning that should accompany any child that shows up at a hospital with a black eye and bruising on his body, the apparent knowledge of the mass inside my son still rattling around the inside of my brain not really certain on which brain cell it should land.
I started to formulate a preemptive strike against the social worker. I knew that I had no idea how the bruising got there; but how could I encase this in language that would allow her to believe that I had really not done it?
I started to speak, but then I decided not to. Instead I stood there frozen while she came in and introduced herself.
“Do you have any questions for me?” She asked.
“Like what?” I asked, now on about my fifth iteration of my almost believable yet true story.
“Well, sometimes parents need to talk after a diagnosis of cancer is revealed, and we just want to make sure that you are OK.” She said.
‘Cancer.’ This word started rattling around with the word ‘mass’. They really didn’t register quite yet. Cancer. The only childhood cancer that I could think of at this point was Leukemia. I didn’t know much about it, but it seemed that the odds of survival were pretty good for it. Of course, I had no data to support that claim, but I believed myself anyway.
“No, I think I’m OK.” I told her. I felt fairly relieved that I had not been asked to explain the bruising.
“OK, well, if you need to talk, just have the nurse page me.”
“Sure.” I said having felt the victory of dodging the bruising question.
It wasn’t long after the social worker came in that I was meeting with the oncologist Dr. Tanya Watt. As I would come to find out later that day, she is the doctor at Children’s Medical Center that specializes in Nuerobalstoma. I was assured that I was in the best hands possible.
“Right now, it is important to stabilize Liam. It’s likely that he has Neuroblastoma, based on where the cancer is in his body. It has likely spread to his bone marrow and started to compromise his blood production…” She said.
Wait, did she say ‘Spread’? I thought we were talking about a mass on the adrenal gland? Wait! Spreading is bad!
The words: Tumor. Mass. Cancer. Bone Marrow. Spread. They all congealed in a place in my brain that controls the pit in the bottom of my stomach. The fight or flight response now activated, I thought (and possibly said out loud), “Ohhhhh Crap. Crap. Crap Crap Crap Crap Crap!” –Why had I been so foolish and not brought him in sooner? Had I really missed all of the signs leading us to this point?
The oncologist said, “I want you to realize that you did the right thing by bringing him in. I realize that in the first twenty-four hours of a diagnoses like this, all the parent hears is ‘Cancer’, but I want you to realize that this is not your fault. You did not do anything to cause this.” She said with certainty. “I’ll be managing your case, so I’ll come talk to you once you are upstairs on the oncology floor. Do you have any questions for me right now?”
“Yeah.” I remember stammering. “What type of cancer did you say this was likely to be?”
“Neuroblastoma. N-e-u-r…. Here let me write it down for you.” She pulled a napkin from the counter and wrote it down. “I know that you are going to look this up, but try not to freak yourself out before we have a chance to talk,” she said. And with that, she left the ER patient room.
“We need to start an IV.” A nurse said entering the room.
“Sure.” I said. Picking up the phone to call Jenn. Synapses were starting to fire. I knew I needed my wife here with me.