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A year of the dragon

According to the Chinese New Year, 2004 is the year of the monkey, but in our house, it is the year of the dragon. While the dragon is a beast of mythical, magical and in some cultures healing properties, it is also a creature of fire and destruction. In western European legends and stories humans battle the beast -- fighting with swords, potions -- anything that would yield victory. Unbeknowst to us, Mother would soon be engaged in a war for her life with the most vicious medical dragon known ... cancer.

As we drove back from Amarillo, I tried to get Mother in to see her doctor on Tuesday morning. He was not available and recommended the Memorial Hospital After Hours/Urgent Care Clinic. Done, I thought, and made the appointment for 10 a.m.

Tuesday morning. Mother and I arrived early and Alice came in shortly thereafter. We met with one of the nurse practitioners who was amazing -- caring, knowledgeable, thorough, willing and eager to help -- one of the many we would eventually encounter in the Memorial Hospital system. She inspected Mother's neck, and "appreciated" the two lumps that I had felt in Texas, but suspected there was a third. She ordered a CT scan of her neck and upper chest for that afternoon. We asked for immediate results, given the holidays, which she readily obliged. She agreed to call us if she received the results later on that afternoon.

Fear and worry spread across Mother's face. Alice and I, determined to be voices of optimism, tried to allay her concerns. I called Tommy and told him what we were up to and that we would keep him informed as soon as we knew anything. The CT scan was uneventful. Mother was in and out in record time.

Then the waiting began. Mother and I went home, neither of us saying anything -- too involved with our respective thoughts. As promised, we were called later that afternoon. The nurse practitioner spoke with Mother first and then to me.

"I'm so sorry to start your New Year with this news," she said, "but it is as I feared. You need an oncologist -- as soon as possible."

The initial diagnosis: metastatic cancer. Primary site the mediastinum, the thoracic cavity that houses the heart and lungs.

Mother has been a breast cancer survivor since 1996/97, "clean" for almost eight years. None of us remembered her initial oncologist, so we were at square one in finding a doctor. The nurse practitioner gave us names and numbers of oncologists she recommended here in the city. I wasted no time, and tried to get Mother in that week. No such luck with the New Year's holiday, but we secured her first appointment the following Thursday, Jan. 8 at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center. Meanwhile, I set an appointment with her primary care doctor for Tuesday, Jan. 6 to follow up with the initial diagnosis and to push him on the "weirdness" in her arm, which was getting progressively worse.

Tuesday came and Mother, Alice and I went to see her family doctor. It was late afternoon. Mother has been his patient for over 20 years, and he had known our family for even longer. He was very frank about the diagnosis and ordered additional CT scans, including full chest, abdomen and pelvis in anticipation of her oncology appointment. Mother was the epitome of calm with the addition of these tests, but as she questioned him regarding her arm, her facade shattered.

"Why does it feel this way? I'm losing more mobility of the arm; it tingles at the top of the shoulder like it's been asleep. What on earth is going on?" she probed.

Sciatica was his thought; steroids were prescribed.

"See what this does, and let me know," he said. Just as the appointment was ending, the doctor looked at my mother. "You know, I'd like to add your brain to the CT scans that you're going to have," he said. "I think it might be a good idea. Strictly precaution." Off we went.

Mother and I drove home; she was furious. "He didn't fix my arm. He still can't tell me what's going on." Try as I might, my optimism and positive take on the appointment did not help. As we would find out later, the arm was key to a great many things.

Little did any of us know that we would meet the dragon that night and our world would be altered permanently.

-- Subtitled "One family's journey to living," Prisms of Hope is Carolyn Carroll's diary of adult caregiving for an aging, sick parent. This is the second of a multiple-part series. Domestic Bliss will return when the series concludes.

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