Winter 2015

Squinting at a Diagnosis

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The wind blew unseasonably bitter the day my sister and I took Mom to her first oncology appointment. As Mom leaned into the gale, her jaunty hat flew up suddenly and whirled away. The hairstyle she’d arranged with such care was defeated.

“I’m nervous,” she said as we sat waiting for the doctor at OHSU’s Center for Health & Healing on Portland’s South Waterfront. We scrunched close, three narrow-hipped women sharing two chairs. Mom’s shoulders were tense beneath her brave blue sweater. At 84, she’d been the picture of health. Then, one painful night her appendix burst. Post-surgery, the pathology report revealed abnormal cells in her abdomen.

The oncologist strode in, a confident young woman with warm eyes. She asked Mom what the surgeon had explained about her condition. “Well, the surgeon found some, um, well, some cells when he took out my appendix,” Mom said. I was puzzled. My sister and brother had been at that earlier meeting and had phoned me, distraught, about a finding of cancer. Yet there in the oncologist’s office, Mom seemed to dodge. Maybe saying the word out loud would confer power on the disease that she was unwilling to grant.

The oncologist went on to describe Mom’s diagnosis as a “low-grade neoplasm.” I’d never heard of a low-grade neoplasm, but it sounded better than “cancerous tumor” by a mile. I turned it over in my mind, tried it on for size and then latched on. I relaxed a little. Another surgery might be needed, the doctor was saying, but no chemo.

As we buttoned up our coats and walked back into the wind, the prognosis seemed bright. We celebrated with a glass of wine. But later on I looked up “neoplasm.” It means “tumor.” I called my brother. “Hey, I’m confused. Did the surgeon tell you that Mom had cancer or not?” Well, the doctor didn’t exactly say cancer, my brother reported. But when he referred Mom to an oncologist, “We assumed it was some type of cancer.” More talking and more Googling broadened our vocabularies (mucous tumor, pseudo-cancer, precancerous cells with malignant tendencies). Still, it felt vague.

Since then, I’ve talked to friends whose doctors and families also skirted the “C” word. A scary diagnosis has fewer sharp edges when cushioned in euphemisms, those handy linguistic foam peanuts for emotions. Besides, as I’ve come to learn, cancer is exceedingly complicated. And so we fumble to name and to characterize, even as we struggle to accept.

In this special issue on health research, you’ll meet Oregon State scientists who not only investigate cancer, but also study infectious disease, childhood obesity, environmental toxins and aging. We promise you’ll be as amazed as we are.

Lee Sherman, Associate Editor

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