So I toyed with the idea of writing about this for a while but I thought it was important for more black women to be upfront about their health and experiences in the medical space. Last summer I started to notice that my thumb on my right hand didn’t function as well as it used to. I chalked it up to early signs of carpel tunnel because millennial, because texting. When it got to the point where I couldn’t lift my thumb (no thumbs up) or put my hair in a pony tail I went to the doctor.
Initially they had no idea what was wrong, an X-Ray of my thumb showed no abnormalities and for all they could see it should be functioning. They referred me to a hand specialist and after that visit he to was dumbfounded. It wasn’t trigger thumb, carpel tunnel, or anything he felt was in his purview. The only saving grace for me was that they could tell something was wrong but just didn’t know what yet. Stories I’ve heard of black women telling doctors they felt like something is wrong and being told it was in their head always terrified me. I was referred to a nerve specialist who determined the nerve that controls my fingers was damaged but he couldn’t figure out how and then he noticed a mass protruding from my inner elbow, it’s crazy how much you don’t notice changes to certain parts of your body. Once he pointed it out I couldn’t stop seeing it. He asked me if I had fallen lately and I said no.
The mass was growing out of the very nerve that controlled my fingers. Because of the sensitive location, he referred me to the top surgeon for this part of your body, who just so happened to be in NYC. What started off as a simple twitch turned out to be a tumor the size of a golfball in my inner elbow, the medical term being schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma. I couldn’t believe it, no one in my family had cancer so it all felt surreal. Luckily, I had an amazing doctor and his team was wonderful. He was so dedicated, clear, and upfront with me which really helped me with processing the possibility of cancer. Although unlikely, there was a chance that it wouldn’t be benign. And in those moments where I thought of it, going to the doctors office for the pre-op testing, and seeing the many other patients there who were actually suffering from Cancer, really scared the shit out of me.
Going through something like this while still trying to be a functioning adult was especially challenging. I only told a few people what was going on but I think it’s important to note the psychological effect when you know something is wrong but won’t know the full effects to your quality of life until after surgery. Because of the sensitive nature of the location, my doctor could not do a biopsy prior to surgery because if it were cancer that could possibly make the situation worse. So instead we scheduled a full removal but within that surgery they would do a biopsy, have a tumor specialist do a quick test to gauge if they thought it was cancer, and if not they would give my doctor the go ahead for full removal. When I woke up, I was told the entire thing had been removed, they didn’t think it was cancer, and relief washed over me. Still, they would send it off to be dissected and tested over and over again for the final result to be sure.
I am so grateful to my family during those times and for my job who let me work from home the entire month of December while I recovered from surgery. My mom especially, who flew up from Atlanta to visit the doctor with me, and took every phone call where I broke down in tears at the idea of going through chemo. What I learned from this is it’s so important to pay attention to your body, if you’re unsure if something is serious, talk to a doctor. Also, the importance of health care. I am lucky enough to work for a company with great benefits and while I racked up medical bills around 60k total for a month of visits/surgery, my out of pocket costs were under $200.
Prior to my surgery, my doctor. wasn’t sure whether or not I’d lose function in my hand entirely or gain any of it back. And I’m proud to say that a month post-op I could finally do a thumbs up and put my hair in a pony tail. Now 3 months post-op my fingers are a lot less weak and I’ve bounced back way quicker than they anticipated.
I want to send a special thank you to Dr. Athenasian and his staff at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. You all made a terrifying experience a little less scary and handled me with the utmost compassion and care. I was always the girl who never thought of the importance of healthcare (for myself) because I’ve always been generally healthy. But now I realize how fortunate I am when in reality it shouldn’t be for the fortunate but standardized for everyone. This experience has reminded me of how resilient I am, with everything that I’ve been through in the past two years, both mentally and physically, I know I can overcome whatever life throws my way.