“I’m sorry, we found cancer.”
Those were the first words I heard while waking up from a five-hour anesthesia-induced coma. For all you medical students, please make sure your patient is in a coherent state of mind before telling her that life as she knows it is over.
At least, that’s what I thought.
In August, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The only reason doctors caught it was because I woke up one morning in May without a voice. For almost two weeks I couldn’t utter a sound. This conveniently occurred at the beginning of my summer internship at USA TODAY, so I spent my first two weeks in Washington D.C. running from doctor to doctor trying to figure out why I couldn’t talk.
Eventually my voice came back, but barely. I could only speak slightly above a whisper. The D.C. doctors diagnosed me with vocal cord paresis — a condition where the vocal cord stops vibrating, making it next to impossible to talk. The doctors assured me these things just happen, that my voice would come back in a few weeks, worst-case scenario a couple months.
It was difficult, but I continued my internship and tried to make the best out of the situation. Interviewing sources over the phone was a nightmare, as half the time the interviewee couldn’t hear my questions, and my opportunity to hold an in-person interview with Sally Ride — the first American woman in space — was dampened by the fact that I had to abstain from small talk in order to conserve my voice for questions. There went my chance to find out how astronauts pee in space.
While it’s difficult for anyone dealing with losing his or her voice — it’s impossible to do simple things typically taken for granted, like order food in a loud restaurant or chat with people at parties — not being able to speak is particularly difficult for a journalist. One USA TODAY reporter told me that if he ever got around to writing a parody of the newsroom, the voiceless intern (me) would certainly be included.
Fast-forward to the end of summer: I’m at the University of Michigan Hospital sliding through CT scans and MRIs. After coming home to Michigan, I saw a University doctor who specializes in voice disorders. The plan was to get vocal cord injections to help me recover my voice before classes started. But prior to the procedure, the doctor ordered a CT scan because he had a hunch I had more than a paralyzed vocal cord.
His hunch was correct. As it turns out, I have a tumor pressing down on the nerve that connects to the vocal cords. Doctors couldn’t tell if it was benign or malignant based on the scans, so I had a biopsy done to find out. The results sent an unpleasant ripple through my family and friends. It was cancer.
I found out that until something tragic happens, you don’t truly know how many people care about you. Once word got around that I had cancer, cards, texts and Facebook messages flooded me with support, prayers and love.
The pain and misery my family experienced can’t be described with words. No parent wants to hear his or her child has cancer and may have to undergo chemotherapy, radiation or brain surgery. At one point, I overheard my dad say this was the worst time in his life.
If this was hard on my family, no one besides cancer patients themselves can imagine what went through my mind — both physically and mentally.
For the biopsy, the surgeon cut behind my left ear, which caused temporary hearing loss followed by a magnified sense of sound in that ear. Clunking pots and pans, drawers banging shut and clinking silverware sounded like bombs dropping in my ears. Even the sound of tearing tin foil made me cringe. Now, add my two barking dogs and my squawking parrot to the mix, and it was almost too much to bear.
Although the excruciating noise was difficult to handle, the mental agony was far worse. As I lay in bed recovering from the biopsy I thought of all the things I haven’t done and places I’ve never gone. Would I ever get to go skydiving? What about becoming a famous journalist? Would I even live long enough to get married or have children?
Four days after being diagnosed with cancer and mulling over my past, present and future, my dad received a call from my surgeon, who immediately asked to be put on speakerphone.
“Remember I told you after the surgery that there is a small ray of hope?” he asked in a strangely positive voice. “Well, I just got the official report, and it’s not cancer.”
The response: My mom burst out in tears, my dad was all smiles and I was too stunned to know how to react. Yesterday I had cancer. Today I didn’t.
I’m not angry with my doctors for the misdiagnosis and all the grief they caused, putting my family and friends on a roller coaster of emotions. In reality, I’m just thankful they were wrong.
Two weeks ago I was planning to drop out of school, resign from my editor position at The Michigan Daily and fly around the country to seek treatment at cancer centers. Tonight, I’m writing this from my bedroom overlooking State Street, listening to cars and ambulances whiz by and my four roommates yell at the characters on Degrassi late night reruns.
Even though life is now back to “normal,” I still don’t know what’s in store for me down the road.
Doctors injected me with collagen shots to bring my voice back, but their effects wear off after only three to six months, and I dread the day when I will again wake up without a voice. Aside from this, I still have many decisions to make about potential procedures to have, one of which could leave me unable to hear and swallow properly. When it comes down to it, I have two choices: let this thing keep growing inside my head or go under the knife and pray I can still swallow when I wake up.
And to think, I once thought choosing which classes to take was difficult.
— Stephanie Steinberg is an LSA junior and a senior news editor at The Michigan Daily.
Correction appended: This article omitted the name of the hospital where the biopsy was performed. It was not performed at the University Hospital.