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Cancer Trek: Navigating The Diagnostic Maze
Jeremy Emery


Special To The Times

While many say that cancer is a personal experience, the “educator in me” always thought otherwise. I feel we should be sharing our experiences with others so that they might be more knowledgeable and prepared if or when cancer strikes them or a loved one. I probably internalized this feeling when my mother died, from breast cancer, when I was only 23. She allowed and, in fact, encouraged doctors and nurses to examine her and to ask questions about her condition.

This was the impetus for this short series of articles about my personal trek. I apologize in advance for the inadvertent misuse of any medical terminology, as that is not my forte. While I will address this cancer experience in the first person, it behooves me to recognize my wife, Becky, for her total support, strength, and love I have received from her before and since this “trek,” as opposed to a “journey,” began. This is also true for our extended family and friends.

Ever since my youth, I could feel a small, flat lump deep on the left side of my neck. It was in late April of this year, however, I noticed this lump had grown to the size and thickness of an almond.

Our GP, after a quick perusal of the lymph node and questioning about other possible symptoms, immediately referred me to one of our health care provider’s Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialists and to the Radiation Department for a CT scan of the neck. Both doctors asked about other possible symptoms, explaining that night sweats was a primary symptom for several illnesses. I had been experiencing the night sweats for over two months and began taking CBD oil to control them. CBD oil was so effective, in fact, that I began using it on the summer days I was golfing, as well.

The first CT scan, taken on May 6, indentified swollen nodes, not only in the neck, but also on each clavicle. Although our GP said he ordered a full torso scan, for May 7, the Radiation Department had no such order and just scanned the neck area again.

I met with the ENT for the first time on May 15. After checking for signs of a possible infection, she performed a “fine needle biopsy” of the large node on the side of my neck. Which often happens, however, this simple procedure did not collect enough cells for a clear diagnosis.

The largest lymph node was now the size of a small walnut and the ENT referred me to the cancer center in Stockton for a “core needle biopsy,” scheduled for June 7 and a lymph node excision for July 16. This core biopsy was performed under a local anesthetic and used the earlier scan, instead of a more time-consuming ultrasound, to target the lymph node. The ultrasound and the use of a general anesthetic would have resulted in a stay of up to six to eight hours, as compared with the hour and a half this method took. After the core biopsy, the lymph node began to shrink back down to the size of an almond.

The subsequent pathology report mentioned “atypical cells”, without further explanation, and the results were not referred to oncology. Our GP took this terminology and the shrinking node as signs that there was no cancer present. Based upon his encouraging response, I cancelled the lymph node excision planned for July 16.

On an entirely different medical issue, I was ambulanced to the ER on July 20 and ended up spending the night. An MRI was run, which eliminated a stroke or a brain tumor. Upon receiving that result, but noting the earlier core needle biopsy, that doctor marched down to the Pathology Department for a further explanation of “atypical cells.” Pathology referred him to Oncology where a diagnosis of “probably lymphoma” was received. Why this wasn’t done routinely has never been explained!

On July 23, the ENT scheduled an immediate full-body CT Scan at the Modesto office and an “excision biopsy” for late August at the cancer center in Stockton. The scan showed additional growths in the upper chest, in the stomach, and in the groin areas. Alarmed by the quick spread, the ENT cancelled the excision biopsy of the original enlarged lymph node in my neck, which was now down to the size of a pea, and opted for a less invasive excision of one of the nodes on my clavicle.

The excision was performed in her office on August 20 and a final diagnosis of “follicular Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma” was received on August 23, a full four months after initially finding the enlarged node in my neck. A more recent bone marrow biopsy determined minor involvement of the marrow, meaning an indolent or slow growing form, and no other organ involvement.

While I have decided to find another GP doctor with our health care provider, I must also accept partial responsibility for this extended process by not taking a more pro-active stance for a better explanation of “atypical cells” after the core biopsy was performed. I encourage all of those reading this to take the more aggressive, pro-active approach through the diagnostic maze in which you will find yourself.

The next article will explain the course of action for this cancer, with chemo only, as the standard protocol.


(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of special articles submitted by Jerry Emery, a longtime resident of Escalon and educator, sharing his journey through cancer treatment. He at one time served as principal of El Portal Middle School, as well as being involved with a number of community service based organizations.)