(Illustration by Eric Shansby)
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So how was your last month? Mine went like this:

While shaving, I discovered a lump on my throat. Not a “lump in my throat,” such as one gets when one watches, say, Bambi’s mommy getting shot. This was like a big old lump where, based on previous casual neck reconnaissance, I was pretty sure there should only be non-lumplike structures.

I went to my doctor, who diagnosed an enlarged lymph node, prescribed antibiotics, and advised that I wait and see if it got smaller. This did not seem like a solid plan to me. “If I was your daddy, what would you advise me?” I asked. She said: “I would advise you to get an immediate sonogram.”

And that is how I found myself at the radiologist, who ran a sonogram wand over my neck, gasped and sent me straightaway to ... an oncologist. Had he been a cardiologist, he’d probably have noted my elevated heart rate.

Purely by happenstance, I knew this doctor. Twenty years ago, when I was researching a pseudo-medical book about hypochondria, I interviewed him and asked him to tell me a joke about cancer. He said: “What’s the difference between Sloan Kettering and Shea Stadium? At Shea Stadium, the Mets don’t always win!”

Nothing. He was dying up there, so to speak. Forced to explain the joke, he said that among oncologists, “mets” is a term for “metastases,” which, um, apparently always win.

So here I was exactly 20 years later, same doc. I asked him what his best guess was about my lump, and he said, basically, “mets.” Most likely it was cancer that had migrated from some original tumor elsewhere in the head, possibly in my tonsils or hard palate. I didn’t ask him what the five-year survival rate is because there are some things even recovered hypochondriacs simply know. And one of them is that the mets always win.

The oncologist sent me to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who — surprise! — checked out my ear, nose and throat, including that gristly tissue under the tongue that even in the best of circumstances feels like a squirrely sac of tumors. The doctor found no cancer in my head. Her guess was lymphoma, which is better than mets, in terms of survival rate, but worse in the sense that you become as lumpy as a poorly upholstered beanbag chair. She sent me for a biopsy.

The biopsy doctor stuck a needle into the lump, withdrew it, made a slide and said everything looked fine, that I just had a swollen lymph node. Yay! Only just to be sure she was sending it out for more-sophisticated testing. For two days I was elated. Then I got the call: The tissue came back “abnormal,” which is the adjective doctors use when they don’t want to say right out that you probably have cancer.

Now I was going into the hospital, where a surgeon was going to remove the entire lymph node, under general anesthesia, and send it to a pathologist. After the surgery I asked her, casually, like it didn’t really matter, what my lump had looked like, and she said, cagily, “not entirely normal,” which I decided was a half-stage better than “abnormal” but not nearly as encouraging as “fine.” The node would go to a pathologist.

Friends and colleagues don’t really know what to say to you in circumstances like this. Being cheerful doesn’t quite work because it feels like a lie. My friend Caitlin said she was pretty sure a spider had laid eggs in me, and that’s all the lump would turn out to be, which was really revolting but, under the circumstances, preferable to other things. My editor, Tom the Butcher, trying for maximum tact — a trait not really in his wheelhouse — messaged me at one point to inquire when I would have the biopsy report, only he accidentally called it an “autopsy.”

Eventually the pathologist decided it probably wasn’t cancer, but she also acknowledged that it didn’t look NOT like cancer, so she needed to consult with even mightier pathologists employed by Johns Hopkins. My primary doctor was still laying odds on lymphoma. That took another three days. Finally, the dueling pathologists agreed I don’t have anything alarming. No cancer.

So, that happened.

And yes, had I simply taken the first doctor’s initial advice, I’d have saved myself weeks of hell and a pretty nasty-looking scar. But where’s the fun in that?

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