A native New Yorker, Shira Kallus Zwebner is a communications consultant and writer living with her husband and three children in Jerusalem, Israel. Diagnosed in 2017 with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, she's fighting her cancer battle and blogging about the journey at hipstermomblog.com
Sometimes, you're ill prepared for a scan that might change the course of your life.
The sudden numbness in my face started off on my right cheekbone. At first, I played around with my face, pressing fingers against each cheekbone to try to figure out if there was a difference in sensation. My right eye had been twitching for a couple of days already, but I just ignored it. Over the years, I've become very good at creating reasons for any aches or pains. In my non-medical opinion, I'm able to explain away the things my body has been trying to tell me throughout the years. The shortness of breath climbing stairs was attributed to being out of shape, the itchiness of my skin due to the dry air, the sudden hair loss prior to chemo due to perimenopause.
But if there is one thing that I've learned from my cancer journey, it's the importance of self-care and to actually listen to what my body is trying to tell me. So, I started playing around with my cheek and gave it a day. The next morning, the numbness had traveled down the right side of my face and around the edges of my mouth. That night, while playing around with my daughter on Snapchat, we took a selfie and I noticed that my smile was lopsided. Like the joker, one side definitely wasn't curling up like the other side. I deleted the photo, pressed my fingers again against my face to assess the numbness, and went to bed.
In the morning, I couldn't feel the right side of my tongue or the drool that was dripping out of the right side of my mouth. At this point, I called for an appointment with my primary care physician. All signs according to Dr. Google pointed to Bell's palsy, and as I read through the rest of the signs and symptoms, my heart started to sink. Was it going to get worse?
Two hours later, my doctor diagnosed a very mild case of Bell's palsy. He was apologetic and sympathetic, shaking his head in disbelief that after eight months of intensive treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma I was now dealing with Bell's palsy. I felt the injustice of it, the frustration that I somehow managed in my rehab state to come down with another ailment. He prescribed a course of prednisone, but since it was so close to the end of my cancer treatment, he requested that I consult with my hematologist-oncologist as well. One phone call later and the next thing I know, I'm heading to the emergency room at Shaare Tzedek Medical Center to see a neurologist.
In all honesty, I was severely annoyed. I went from being depressed that I now had a mild case of Bell's palsy, to frustrated that I had to go back to the ER. I was looking forward to a much-needed three-month reprieve from the hospital, to getting my life back on track with a clean bill of health. Instead, I was sitting in a crowded triage across from my husband who once again had to leave work to rush over to take care of me. Reminiscent of the weeks pre-diagnosis, I wondered what the children would think when their grandmother picked them up from camp instead of me. We had all been healing so nicely, rebuilding the trust that was lost during cancer treatment, I knew this incident was going to set us all back. But, as I was fifth in line for an EKG and tenth in line for blood work, I tried my best to meditate and filter out the retching and cries of pain that surrounded me.
Four hours later, the ER doctor diagnosed a mild case of Bell's palsy and I was ready to walk out the door with some steroids. I had managed a conference call in a corner of the ER and work, the children, and a pile of laundry waited for me at home. I wanted the needle out of my arm and to be on my way. While the ER doctor was waiting to speak to my hematologist-oncologist about the neurologist consult, I was ready to check myself out of the hospital. If two doctors agreed on a diagnosis, couldn't we just call it a day and let me go home?
As I asked the nurse to take the needle out of my arm, the ER doctor walked over and told me that he was sending me for a CT. I was in shock. A CT? Why? My oncologist wanted to make sure it wasn't cancer.
#Scananxiety. Before that moment, I hadn't truly understood what that meant beyond being a hashtag cancer patients and survivors share on social media. The rush of emotions I was feeling overwhelmed me; I went from being depressed about Bell's palsy to absolutely terrified that the cancer had returned.
I walked down the hall from the ER towards the CT room in a haze, my husband guiding my arm. We were early and the room was so cold. I flashed back to the first CT back in October 2017, where they confirmed the presence of cancer in my liver. It was the first test of many, the one that turned me into a cancer patient. With shaky fingers, I broke one of my earrings trying to get it out of my ear. I took off my baseball cap and filled it with my earrings and necklaces, as instructed. I handed it over to my husband and caught a glimpse of my reflection in the window separation between the two CT rooms. My hair was just starting to grow back in; would I be going bald again?
Once again, we had to call in for reinforcements as we waited for the test results. My husband had to rush home to relieve my mother-in-law of the children, so she could go to an appointment. My friend Tami rushed her children out of the pool and raced over to the hospital to wait with me and I prayed that the scan would be clean. My stomach was roiling, the contrast dye settling into my muscles made them ache, but Tami kept me positive, distracted and laughing.
When the ER doctor called us into the examination room to tell us that he was discharging me, relief just flooded through my body. Thank g-d, the scan was clear, and it was, in fact, just a minor case of Bell's palsy. Tami and I celebrated in the hospital parking lot as we walked towards her car, happy and thankful that the cancer hadn't returned.
Later that night, after walking over to the pharmacy to pick up the seven-day dose of steroids and eye drops, I sat on a bench outside my apartment building. I needed to be outside in the fresh air, to feel the freedom of health, to process the #scananxiety and try to prepare myself for follow up care for years to come.