How I Found Out My Cancer Came Back
January 25, 2017
The Call – Slightly elevated tumour markers
Wednesday, January 4th 2017
It was my first day back at work. I was pumped and ready for 2017. I went to the office knowing that my colleagues were still on their extended vacation, so I’d be alone in our department. The morning was calm and easy. I slowly caught up to my emails sipping on a fresh cup of coffee. Co-workers from other departments came up to my desk to wish me a Happy New Year! “Happy New Year!” I’d reply cheerfully. “Wishing you nothing but good health this year, that’s all that matters” is what I always say.
Around 12:30pm, my phone rang – UNKNOWN number. Wondering whom this could be, I answered with interrogation, “Hello?”
“Hi Miss Agustin, this is Matoula from the Jewish General Hospital, Dr.Panasci would like to speak with you.” My doctor always says “No news means good news”, so hearing that alone made my stomach turn. Dr. Panasci immediately hopped onto the call saying, “Miss Agustin, I did not want to frighten you during the holidays, however your blood test results from December 22nd show that your tumour markers are slightly elevated. They’re not that high so it’s nothing too alarming.”
I immediately questioned, “What does this mean?” He explained, “It could mean that the disease came back, or it could mean something else like inflammation. I will schedule you for a PET scan on February 1st at noon. You can then call Matoula 2 days later for the results.”
I did the math quickly… that’s 3 WEEKS! 3 weeks of wondering whether or not my cancer may have returned. I ran out of the office into the corridor pacing and crying. Not knowing what to do, I called my sister-in-law who is a nurse practitioner to get a better understanding of what the hell tumour markers even meant. She informed and comforted me to the best of her ability and as we hung up, I crouched down into a ball in a corner by the freight elevator of the building and cried. That’s when I recorded the vlog in my video above.
Thursday, January 5th 2017
I’ve been coughing on and off for over 3 weeks now. I remember being at the office early December and coughing at my desk thinking “Oh I hope I’m not sick for the holidays.” It was an annoying dry cough. No fever, no pain, no mucus or phlegm. I’d mostly cough when I’d breathe in cold air. Some days I wouldn’t cough at all.
My boyfriend, Vee is always concerned about my health. Before I could even think of it, he came home with Buckleys cough medicine and a pack of Halls. The Halls soothed my throat, but the Buckleys never made the cough go away.
I remember walking to work from the metro and being strangely out of breath. It’s a 7-minute walk! I flip tires at Amenzone Canada. Not normal to feel so out of breath from my daily walk to work. I figured it was due to my “cold”.
When I got home at night, my boyfriend and I watched the World Juniors Hockey Championship on TV. What a game! Canada vs USA. 4 to 4. A 20-minute overtime and still, nobody scored so it even went to a final nerve-wracking shoot out. We were both at the edge of our sofa, but again, I found myself short of breath. I wasn’t sure if it was from the anxiety of the game, or if it was due to my cough. Vee was now concerned that it could be pneumonia or bronchitis, especially due to my “slightly elevated tumour markers” from my last blood test that he was aware of.
Knowing how stubborn I am, Vee got up, grabbed our jackets and insisted we go to the emergency to finally get checked. I didn’t bother arguing so I put on some jogging pants and a hoodie, bundled up in my winter jacket, scarf and boots and together, at 10:30pm we headed out the door.
THE DOCTOR’S BIG MISTAKE
Friday, January 6th 2017 – Early Morning
Like all emergencies in Canada, the wait was dreadfully long. We grabbed a number, waited for triage and then to be called by a doctor. Total wait time – 7 hours. Silver Lining: I finished my entire book – A Dog’s Purpose. If you’re a dog lover like me… You’ll LOVE it.
The Doctor clinically examined me. Asides from spotting a small ear infection, he could not identify why I was coughing and experiencing shortness of breath. For this reason, he suggested an X-ray and a blood test.
One long hour later, the results were in! My name was called on the intercom and so I made my way back to the Doctor’s office. “X-ray is clear and blood test is fine!”, he said. You have no signs of infection, so you can just take some over the counter cough medicine! Have a good day!”
I was ecstatic! Kind of annoyed with my boyfriend for dragging me to the hospital for a stupid cough that could be cured with over the counter medicine, but overall thrilled to know that I didn’t have anything severe.
I ran back to my boyfriend who was in the waiting room with excitement to let him know that everything’s A-OK! Despite my childish “I told you so!” Vee was like, “I’m just relieved to know it’s nothing!”
It was now 7am. We walked back to our car and drove all the way home. We even stopped for a little celebratory breakfast on the way. I opened the door of our condo in such good spirits greeting my little 7-month Chihuahua with absolute excitement. “Mommy’s not sick Neo!” I said as I grabbed him in my arms and spun him in the air dancing around like I always do.
Then, I finally had the reflex to check my phone. I had stashed it in my backpack filled with my books and sweater. It was on silent. I flipped it over to see 13 missed calls. All Unknown. I knew right away. It was the hospital.
By the time I realized, my boyfriend’s phone rang simultaneously – also an Unknown number. He answered, and it was in fact the Doctor at the emergency. How did he get Vee’s number? Well the second number in my hospital file is…. my parents’ home phone number!!! That’s right… they ended up calling my parents at 7am, revealing how I was just at the hospital and they absolutely needed to get a hold of me. Talk about “How to scare the sh*t out of parents” 101.
My parents’ then gave them my boyfriend’s cell phone number. That’s how they reached Vee.
The doctor asked to speak with me… I hesitated to take the phone, but knew I had no choice. He was quick to mention how they had been trying to call my cell since the moment we left the hospital.
“Miss Agustin, we’ve made a mistake with your X-ray. You need to come back to the hospital immediately.” he said. “A mistake? What kind of mistake?” I asked in confusion. “Unfortunately, we see abnormalities. Can you please come back to the hospital? I will explain.” I looked at my boyfriend with worry, answered ok and quickly hung up.
How could they tell me everything was ok and suddenly call me to say they see abnormalities? I didn’t understand.
From that moment, I knew something was wrong. I broke down in tears repeating “I DON’T WANT TO GO BACK TO THE HOSPITAL! BABY! NO, PLEASE NO! I DON’T WANT TO GO! What’s in my lungs baby… what’s in my lungs?”
Vee tried called calming me down by saying that perhaps, the X-ray machine simply didn’t work and I needed to do it again.
But I knew, I knew that wasn’t the case. He picked me up from the couch where I was crying. We still had our jackets on as we literally just walked in our home, thinking everything was ok.
Again, together, we headed out the door.
THE REAL RESULTS
Friday, January 6th 2017 – In the A.M
Everyone at the reception was expecting me. That alone made me anxious. We did not have to wait in the waiting room. Upon saying my name, the receptionist jumped as if it were an emergency and went to get the person in charge who then escorted us to a room in the back of the ER.
Vee and I waited for no more than 10 minutes. But those 10 minutes felt like 10 hours. I was shaking with anxiety, so I forced myself to take a seat in the chair in front of the hospital bed. The same Doctor walked in. He sat on the bed and confessed,
“I would like to apologize for the mistake. What happened was… my assistant accidentally put up the wrong X-ray. He showed me the X-ray you did back in 2013 which was clear. After sending you home, I thought it was indeed strange that you’ve been coughing for so long without any cold or flu symptoms and knowing your history with breast cancer, I felt like I needed to go back and check. 10 minutes later, I returned to your file and the new x-ray was released. That’s when I saw several nodules in your lungs.”
I had no words. I wanted to punch in him in the face. Yet I knew, that would not make the nodules disappear. So instead, I asked questions. “What does this mean? What could they be?”
The Doctor said that it could mean the disease has returned, or it could mean it’s another type of infection…
I cut him off by asking “What kind of infection? Like pneumonia? If it’s not cancer what else could it be?”
He then responded, “It can be anything, but because of your history with cancer, we’re going to transfer your case to the Oncology department. We’ve contacted your Oncologist and he should be here shortly. With his experience, he’ll be able to give you more details. Just wait here, and he’ll come see you soon. Again, I’m terribly sorry for sending you all the way back home and back to the hospital again. Very sorry! Ok?” I said nothing. He replied, “Take care.”
And then he was gone.
From this moment forward, I was crying. On and off. Tears would drop the moment the thought of cancer returning came to mind. The tears stopped when I held on to the tiniest bit of hope that it may be “something else”.
When I pulled myself together, I turned to Vee and caught tears flowing down his flushed face. I couldn’t help but attempt to comfort him by whispering, “It’s going to be ok”. He whispered back, “I know baby.”
Shortly after, my parents barged into the room. My mom and dad hugged me tightly. I allowed myself to weep. My parents tried their best to “think positive” by holding on to the possibility that it may be “something else”. “Let’s just wait for the Oncologist before jumping to conclusions”, my Dad said.
Vee and I hadn’t slept all night. It was now 9am. My parents contacted my big brothers to let them know the situation. Justin rushed to the hospital as soon as he could.
I was lying on the hospital bed. Surrounding me was my parents, my boyfriend Vee and my brother Justin who joined the brutal wait.
We waited for 3 hours. The longest 3 hours of my entire life (I know I’ve said this before. But this wait, was way worse than any stressful wait in my life). During those hours, we were visited by 2 Doctors who were a part of my Oncologist’s team – one a woman that I had never met, the other, a young male student. Both of them asked me the same questions over and over again and clinically examined me the same way. They listened to my lungs, took my heart rate, checked my throat, etc. We’d ask them questions, but both responded with, “We’re analyzing the x-ray and discussing everything with the team. Dr. Panasci will be here soon to give you answers.”
It was hard not to look at them with evil eyes of anger. I felt so betrayed by the first doctor that the only person I wanted to see was my Oncologist. I didn’t want to talk to anyone else.
It was now 1pm and we saw Dr. Panasci walk into the ER through the drapes. As soon as he walked into our room, he began to speak. Like a machine gun firing at my family with rage, he shot us all in the hearts by saying, “It’s bad news. We’re 99.9% sure that the cancer has returned in the lungs. We believe it’s metastatic breast cancer. We’re going to have to do chemo on Monday or Tuesday. (It was Friday!) Let’s get her to start the tests so we can begin with treatment.” Talking to his assistant so he can note it down, “Schedule her for an ECG, and CT scan. We’ll need to do a biopsy too.”
My mom wasn’t convinced. “How do you know it’s not something else like an infection or pneumonia?”. My oncologist responded, “In my 40 years of experience, I’m 99.9% positive this is a breast metastasis to the lungs. There’s a small chance that it may be a new cancer, or there could be a mutation turning it into a different type of cancer. But I think it’s best we start treatment immediately. There is no cure. But there are treatments like chemo then hormone therapy that can put you in remission for years and years and years”
“How long will treatment last? What kind of treatment?” my Dad asked (thankfully, as I had no strength to speak).
“We’ll start with Adriamycin and Taxotere assuming that this is the same cancer that was in her breast. But until we receive the biopsy results, I can’t give you more details. We’ll know more when we receive the biopsy results.” Looking at me now, he said “Let’s get you to do some scans and we’ll move you into a room. I’d like you to stay in the hospital until we begin treatment so we can follow you closely. I’ll come see you after your scans.”
And just like that. He was gone.
My mind was spinning. My jaw dropped to the floor. There was 60 seconds of silence in the room once the doctor shut the door behind him. It was as if someone just died. That’s when I broke down. Head in my boyfriend’s lap, sobbing as he caressed my hair. My mother crouched over me from the back like a lioness protecting her cub. My father sat in the chair in the corner of the room, hand to his face, praying to God. My brother Justin, did not cry, but for the first time, I saw fear in his eyes.
I screamed, “AM I DYING?”
My family screamed back, “NO!!! You’re not dying! You can beat this. You heard him. There are treatments.”
At that moment, for the first time in a long time, I could not think positive. I could only think the worst. The words metastatic breast cancer equalled a death sentence to me. For one, every single woman I’ve done an “RIP Tribute” to, had metastatic breast cancer. I couldn’t help but think of Jenny Cooper, Anne Pursell, Nikki Rashan – beautiful, inspiring and positive young women who all passed away too soon from metastatic breast cancer. I couldn’t help but immediately associate myself to them.
This thought stuck to my mind all day, as I passively laid in the hospital stretcher, being moved around from test to test. Pushed to a temporary waiting room. Rolled to my ECG. Moved to my CT scan. Pushed back to the room where I was told I would stay until my first treatment. I felt like a robot obeying orders. “Drink this liquid once every 30 minutes. It’s for your CT scan. So we can see your insides.” the nurse said. “Ok.” I didn’t care that it tasted nasty. I just drank it.
Lying in that hospital bed, all I could picture was my funeral. My Dad giving my Eulogy. The thousands of people I’d disappoint because I was supposed to be their symbol of hope. “How will I even announce this to my followers?” I thought to myself. My initial reaction, “I won’t”.
Everything was happening so fast. I couldn’t get a grip on this reality. I did not understand what was happening. How? Why? What did I do wrong?
1 week into 2017! This was supposed to be MY year. I kept saying 2017 was going to be MY LUCKY YEAR (because I’m born on November 7, so 7 is my lucky number – it only makes sense!). I was supposed to launch The Nalie Show with the hopes to jump start my YouTube career. Maddy K just signed me as a speaker. I became an Ambassador at Amenzone Fitness and I was ready, SO so ready to step my fitness game up and get my body in the best shape it’s ever been!
But the Big C had to come back and haunt me. It seems as though every time I’m doing good and that I’m happy… the world can’t deal with it! Is it the universe’s way of creating balance? Was I doing TOO good? Should I slow down a bit? Is God taking me away too soon because I’m living my purpose? These are the crazy thoughts that crossed my mind.
Next thing you know… I was rolled back into my new room. D-8824 at the Jewish General Hospital. Vee and I did not sleep for 24 hours now…
I felt empty inside. Like someone came and physically ripped out everything inside me. My heart, my soul, my energy. I felt empty.
My brother asked me, “Do you want to film a video?”
I said, “NO.”
I just wanted to sleep.
My family and I waited for the Oncologist to tell me when my biopsy would be…
To be continued…