One often hears about people who, after reading or hearing about symptoms of potentially fatal diseases, believe they exhibit such symptoms. One term for such people is hypochondriacs. But what about people who dismiss the suggestion that their diagnoses may be serious or who downplay the potential that their diseases might be extremely challenging or even fatal? I looked for the antonyms of hypochondriasis and hypochondriac and found no suitable word. So, based on neologisms I found during my quest for the word, I developed my own set of words: autopathagnosiasis and autopathagnosiac. An autopathagnosiac is one who is unable to—or refuses to—recognize the gravity of one’s own illness.
The reason I searched for this word that apparently does not exist is that I learned this morning that I had convinced myself that my lung cancer diagnosis, while serious, was not really all that bad. I convinced myself that the tumor was relatively small. I convinced myself that it was discovered early in the process of cancer development. I convinced myself that whatever surgery would be required would be relatively minor and quite possible minimally invasive. I convinced myself that I would be out of the hospital in just a few days, maybe less. I convinced myself that I probably would not need chemotherapy. I convinced myself that I would be back to “normal” before Christmas if I could get the surgery scheduled quickly. This stuff was wishful thinking. I allowed myself to interpret some of what I’d read online and some of what I heard my oncologist say earlier to mean my cancer was almost trivial. So insignificant that I should be embarrassed to suggest it was anything but a minor inconvenience.
My appointment with my oncologist cleared up those misapprehensions. She said chemotherapy is triggered in virtually every case in tumors greater than 4 cm in size; mine is 6.4 cm. I can expect chemotherapy to start four to eight weeks after surgery. Four rounds, three weeks apart. She said she thinks I am a candidate for surgery, but only a surgeon can make that determination; it’s possible there could be multiple reasons I would not be a good candidate. It’s important that I see a surgeon soon to see whether I am, indeed, a candidate. She said I am most certainly not a candidate for minimally invasive surgery. “They’ll have to open your chest. It’s major surgery, like open heart surgery. They need to get at your lung and they will remove a lobe.” Or words to that effect. The size of the tumor suggests it has been growing for at least a couple of years. “This isn’t something that started just a few months ago.” Again, words to that effect. And thinking I might be back to “normal” by Christmas is a delirious pipe dream. “I can’t predict how long it might take you, but you have to assume it will be six months to a year, depending on how well you respond to treatment and physical therapy.” Or words to that effect. My hospital stay will depend on how well I do, but “I would expect at least five days, maybe longer…this is major surgery.” Somewhere along the line she slipped in a suggestion that this sort of surgery isn’t always survivable, but usually is.
The next step is to schedule a consultation with the surgeon. If I don’t hear from him by Thursday, she asked me to call her to intervene on my behalf. Lots of tests and preparations are apt to be required before surgery. My oncologist scheduled my next visit with her for four weeks from now; “hopefully you will be finished with all that” (meaning surgery and the hospital stay) “by then.” I sort of doubt it.
I asked what if I just didn’t have surgery; no therapy. She didn’t answer directly, but suggested that it would be unlikely I would survive five years. “The cancer would metastasize and cause other problems in other organs.”
This rearrangement of my understanding of the situation has done some damage to my attitude, but it hasn’t wrecked it. Now, I am aware that the challenges are considerably more onerous than I thought, but I am confident I will meet them. I just will not meet them quite as easily as I had hoped.