Squinting into the white light, I awoke to the familiar scent of rubbing alcohol and latex. I was groggy, confused, and tormented by a nagging urge to urinate. I saw objects rather than a coherent hospital setting. My memory is fragmented with broken images: a smile, an alcohol wipe, and the mandatory, tan colored, slip-free socks the nurse had slipped onto my cold toes hours before. I caught a glimpse of the nurse’s white hair as she disappeared out of view. I felt a tug on the tubing that trailed my forearm, and was unable to focus on what she was doing behind the headboard. A hypnotic beeping hummed in the background. Diving through the thick fog of anesthesia, I managed to groan, “I have to pee”. A voice called back from somewhere far away, “Oh, well that shouldn’t be a problem, sweetie. You’re wearing a catheter.”
I remember telling myself to keep calm and pay attention while the urologist’s voice jutted through the haze. “Tumor,” “treatable,” and “potentially cancer” …I grabbed for the words, clutching onto them and hoping to reassemble them into a coherent message later. As the doctor turned and pulled the curtain behind her, I was only partially aware of the tears that slipped down my cheeks.
Over the next few days, I was conflicted by battling reactions: the emotional versus the rational. The human side of me (that was sporting a catheter as my newest accessory,) would howl in anguish when someone stated they were simply “going to the bathroom.” I would try to make light of my situation, strutting like a model with the bag dangling off my thigh, but simultaneously stifling the laughter that sent shoots of pain through my bladder. I found the most cathartic approach, was the rational. My scientific mind funneled the information about the tumor. The scientist reduced it to an overgrowth of cells, not something that was threatening my emotional or physical states. To me, this tumor had become a fascination. It distanced me from confronting the reality that I could soon be a cancer patient.
My friends and family battled their own emotional reactions. What would it be like if Olivia actually had cancer? They noted how calm I appeared. They said, “Oh, you must be so scared.” The truth is, I didn’t realize just how scared I was. I was preoccupied with my own research. Whether it was cancerous or benign, it was still highly uncommon for a woman of my age. If you Google who develops bladder tumors, the search returns the image of an old man. He has grey hair, his face is weathered, and his arm stretches out from a tan pantsuit while he leans to one side on a cane. My cell biology professor confirmed to me that most research on these tumors focuses on patients more similar to my grandfather than myself. Instead of feeling alarmed and alone by what this meant as a patient, I was unnaturally excited about something in my body that was so rare. With great curiosity and little certainty, I toyed with pieces of my medical history and a basic understanding of cell biology. I was enthralled by the manifestation of cancer cells. I skimmed old notes and lecture slides, avoiding the realization that my life could be changing forever with the return of a pathology report.
When the cancer-free result came in just four days later, relief rolled over my loved ones. To my surprise, I felt little relief. The aspiring doctor mind frame I adopted had shielded me from the anxiety of being a patient. A benign tumor only answered a fraction of the questions I had. I felt conflicted. I should have been reeling in joy, but instead I felt like I was sinking deeper into the quicksand of even more questions. The test result couldn’t tell me why I was getting a tumor that’s usually only found in older men. Being cancer-free couldn’t remove the humiliation and dehumanizing effects of a urine bag. It’s as if the benign test result forced me to realize the fragility of my own health. I knew what this mass wasn’t, but I still didn’t know what it was. I was still going to have issues with my bladder. I was emotionally distraught by the fact I might never be normal again. Its rare origin will continue to terrify me as a human being and intrigue me as a scientist. So as I press forward, I leave room for my emotional side and allow it to accompany my objectivity. My hope is that I may succeed in a harmonious balance of empathy and skeptical curiosity because that is what I believe breeds a great physician.
About Olivia Lacny
Olivia is a recent graduate from the University of Virginia. She majored in Psychology and was very involved in activities on campus. She was a member of Kappa Delta Sorority and a member of the Peer Health Education program, serving as the Recruitment Intern her senior year. She helped to establish UVA’s first chapter for the National Alliance on Mental Illness that remains active today. Currently, Olivia is employed as a Recruitment Assistant at the George Washington University. She hopes to obtain full-time working experience while taking classes to finish her Pre-Health requirements.