Today I thought I would do a post about the symptoms of cancer I did or didn’t have before getting my diagnosis. My particular flavor of cancer is a form of low-grade lymphoma; which by its very nature is rarely caught early. Since I have found myself and other cancer patients ask this I thought I would share my pre-diagnosis symptoms (or lack thereof). Maybe this will help other newly diagnosed cancer patients with this hard question.
First and foremost I have to say that I am a middle-aged overweight smoker. These three factors have always been brought up by doctors; as you will see throughout this post. For about the last five years I have been diagnosed with bronchitis about twice a year. Without fail I would get bronchitis every winter and every spring. I went to a variety of doctors for this. Each time I would get a prescription for albuterol and some antibiotics. Then I would be told to lose weight and quit smoking. Within a couple of weeks my cough would be gone and I would move on with life. Some of the doctors did say I would eventually get COPD if this continued; some doctors didn’t.
In late November of 2017 I decided to give a new doctor a try. I was once again having some breathing problems and a “smokers cough” that wouldn’t go away. I was kind of apprehensive because he is not a MD, but a DO. I had never heard of a DO before, but apparently a doctor of osteopathic (DO) medicine considers the whole body when treating symptoms instead of just treating symptoms. I immediately liked this doctor, and he is still my general physician. He was the first doctor I felt actually listened to me and asked questions about my cough. At this time I was starting to get winded very easily when going up stairs. An X-Ray was done and he could see fluid in my lungs. He put me on an Advair inhaler twice a day and an albuterol inhaler as needed. Finally he wanted me back after the new years for a physical so we could see how well the inhalers were working.
The inhalers worked great. My breathing problems improved dramatically. Due to that I decided to live healthier. I put treadmill and weight machine in my basement. Five days a week I would do a job on treadmill and three times a week I would do a light weight workout. I was feeling better than I had in years.
I should probably mention now that my youngest son has a debilitating muscle disorder which was being diagnosed at the time (and still is). Due to this I was making constant trips to specialists in St Paul, MN, and had to work from home for the days he was unable to attend school. Also my wife and I own a tax office. Even working from home this meant very long hour for me from January through April. Between caring for my youngest son and work I never did go back to the Dr in January like I was asked to. As February came about I had stopped working out as well, there simply wasn’t any time for that. Most of the weight I had lost up to that point was gained back during tax season. I was also starting to get winded on stairs again.
It wasn’t until late May that I went to my doctor again. He did the standard physical for me. All of my blood tests and other tests he ran showed I was fine (especially for anything that would point towards cancer). He once again noticed I had fluid in my lungs and scheduled me to have a pulmonary function test (PFT) and a stress test. He was looking towards some type of lung disorder.
The stress test was in late-June. For that stress test I had the injection and scan done. The results from that didn’t come back until well to the end of July. I was not happy with the results, they were “unreadable”. So after visiting with the cardiologist about the results I was scheduled for another stress test of a different type. At that appointment it had been noted I still had not had my PFT; that had been rescheduled due to the liquid in my lung. I was supposed to reschedule that after my antibiotics were done. Due to a misunderstanding on my part that was never rescheduled. The cardiologists then rescheduled me for the PFT.
Once again though I let other parts of my life interfere with continuing my diagnosis. During the summer I had been traveling the state for baseball; both to watch my kids play in Midgets and Teeners, and also to watch American Legion games. It was in late July at a baseball game that I noticed a large swollen lump on my neck while swatting a bug. I thought it was weird for me to have a reaction like that, but I didn’t put much more thought into it since it didn’t hurt.
In mid-August I then did my second stress test; this time an echo cardio stress test. I HATED this test! My breathing was getting very bad by this time, and running on a treadmill felt almost impossible. I almost felt like I was having a panic attack. Despite how I felt, the cardiologists informed me in a few days that I had passed the stress test and my heart was healthy.
Around the same time I had my PFT. That was another test I absolutely hated! Trying to breath in and hold my breath was very taxing. When the results of this test showed up on my Sanford MyChart app I could tell I failed it. It seemed like progress was being made, we are narrowing where my breathing problems are.
In late-august I finally met with my doctor again. He did let me know I should have come back sooner. I let him know my breathing had gotten so bad that I had to rest anytime I walked at all. I then mentioned the lump almost matter-of-factly and he immediately scheduled a CT scan. The results of that scan showed I in fact had a lot of swollen lymph nodes and possible problems in my lungs and liver. This was the first time I was faced with the possibility of cancer, instead of just a lung disorder (although some of the lung disorders can be just as bad as cancer). This was also when I found out a swollen lymph node was pushing on my windpipe, and thus likely the cause of my breathing problems.
I will handle the further diagnosis of cancer in a future post. For the purpose of this post I believe I have shared enough pre-diagnosis information to show I really didn’t have any cancer-specific symptoms. Most of my symptoms were leading towards some type of lung disorder. The doctor did have blood works done on me, especially CBCs. None of the tests raised any red flags for cancer. It wasn’t until the lump showed up that a possibility of cancer entered the equation. Even then cancer was not a sure thing, since lymph nodes can swell for other reasons. It is possible that if I had followed up on my appointments sooner (when I was supposed to) that a CT scan had been done sooner and the swollen lymph nodes would be discovered. Perhaps that wouldn’t have happened either. It is hard to know what would have happened.
As I noted at the beginning of this post I have spoken with other cancer patients about whether we should have been diagnosed sooner. My conclusion is that I don’t think I would have been diagnosed sooner. Until the lymph node came out of my neck there was no reason to believe I had cancer. Even with that lump it took a few weeks for me to go in, since I wasn’t feeling pain in the lymph node I figured it was benign.