Needles and Lies

3.14.2005

By Brian Malloy

Today begins with a muscle relaxer. It's surprising how much this needle hurts, surprising because it's simply the latest in a series of needles.

As with bee stings, I expect each new penetration of the skin to feel like the one before it, yet there are differences, and whether they're a result of the needle's diameter, the nurse's skill, or the site of the injection, I can't say. Before this needle there were the needles to draw blood, inject contrast dyes, and retrieve tissue samples, which were then delivered to the laboratory for testing and diagnosis.

Of all the needles, I remember the one used for the spleen biopsy most vividly; it was this needle that submerged beneath my skin like a submarine, only to swiftly resurface, bringing the mutated cells into the unwelcome light of day. The doctor performing the procedure asked me, while I was laid out on the operating table, what my own physician had suggested as the likely cause of the symptoms I had been experiencing, the hot flashes and the pain. Menopause had been ruled out; I was a bit too young and too male.

I told him, 'He said I could be recovering from an infection, or maybe my lymph nodes are simply larger than normal. He also said it could be lymphoma.'

I couldn't tell what expression the doctor wore behind his mask, but his tone was matter-of-fact. 'Oh, it's cancer. You have lymphoma.'

They can't anesthetize bone, of course, so after the muscle relaxer has begun to do its work, they administer the minor, slight injections that numb skin. Marrow will be extracted from two sites on each side of the small of my back. I sense that Terry, my partner of 14 years, is growing tense as he waits for the doctor to tell him to leave the room so they may continue. Terry asks, 'Should I go now?'

This doctor says, 'No, you can stay.'

I say, 'Why don't you leave? I don't want you to see me cry like a little girl.'

The doctor and nurse laugh, and Terry gets up, tells me he'll be right outside in the waiting room.

The doctor instructs me to close my eyes and rest my head in the crook of my arm. He says, 'Deep breaths. Breathe with me, in and out. In'and out.'

Needle is forced through bone. This isn't what causes the pain; it's the moment when the plunger is lifted and the marrow is drawn up and out. It's for this moment that I received the muscle relaxer: There's no medical reason for it, apart from preventing me from jumping off the table, screaming, a needle sticking out of my back like a hunter's arrow.

The team moves on to the other side, extracting more marrow and a core sample. In a few days my oncologist will tell me that the cancer has breached the deepest recesses of my body. I will officially be in stage IV of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which, like all cancers, does not have a stage V. There will be some comparatively good news, however: My type of cancer grows very slowly, and, statistically speaking, over half of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma patients live for at least five years after diagnosis.

To read the rest of Brian Malloy's story, pick up the April issue of Out.

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