Maggie Newell is a program manager in MD Anderson's Internal Communications department. A native Houstonian, she's been with the institution for seven years.
Times of stress can distance many of us from the very people we need most. And when the stress involves a loved one with cancer, that distance can be a daunting gap to cross.
For my husband Tim and me, a December 2000 a phone call from London to Houston proved to be the moment that confirmed our relationship -- and led to our future as a family.
We'd been dating for a year that summer when The Itch arrived. Day and night, Tim scratched himself incessantly, to the point of drawing blood. But it was worse at night.
In August, Tim saw a dermatologist, who diagnosed him with scabies. We thought it was odd given that I wasn't itchy, but we dutifully went through the inconvenient treatment.
The Itch didn't go away.
We did the treatment again. The Itch remained.
Taking a different approach, we tried different creams, lotions, soaps and detergents, but The Itch wouldn't budge. Nothing gave Tim any relief.
Then he started to keep track of other odd symptoms: a persistent low-grade fever, a lump on his clavicle and weight loss.
Tim's nights became sleepless. The only way he could fall asleep was to sit on the sofa with his feet in a tub of ice water. He'd try to catch up on sleep by taking naps in his car during breaks at work. We grew increasingly frustrated with each other and The Itch, but mostly with not knowing what was wrong.
Persistent physician assistant
On Sept. 16, Tim gave up with the skin treatments, walked into the triage department of a clinic and asked to see a doctor. The receptionist asked if he'd see a physician assistant (PA) instead, and he readily agreed.
He explained what had been going on and showed her his journal of symptoms. After reviewing the journal and listening to his tale, she immediately sent him for an X-ray.
Still itchy, he flew the next day to Atlanta, where he'd been assigned as a consultant. But a few days later, the PA called, told him he had a spot on his lung, and said he really needed to come back to Houston.
Tim had a couple of weeks left on his assignment and said he'd come back then. But she didn't like that response and persisted, trying to convince him otherwise. Nothing she said changed his mind.
That night, he had one of the worst fevers he's had in his life. Dry, hot and itchy, he got no sleep. The next morning, he called his project manager to arrange for someone to take his place, and then got on a plane to Houston.
The next step was a CT, scheduled by the same PA. And when the scans came back in October, she called Tim to say she was scheduling him to see an oncologist.
The first oncologist told Tim he had a cyst and not a tumor, and then sent him home.
The Itch and the fevers didn't budge. We kept trying different soaps and lotions.
Then the PA contacted Tim to follow up. He told her what the first oncologist said. Her reply? "I don't think so. I'm scheduling you with a different oncologist."
The appointment with the second oncologist in November went much differently. He listened to Tim's description of what had been happening since the summer and reviewed his scans. He then scheduled Tim for a biopsy. It looked like Tim might have Hodgkin's lymphoma.
A turkey of a day
The day after Thanksgiving 2000 -- Friday, Nov. 25 -- found us in a Texas Medical Center hospital, him in surgery, me in the outpatient surgery waiting area. I had my luggage with me because I was flying to London that evening to visit my 3-year-old daughter. The surgeon assured me the procedure would take less than an hour.
So, when it hit the three-hour mark, I was in pieces.
After what seemed an eternity, the surgeon called me to a consult room, explained the surgery had been more involved than expected, and said it looked like Tim had Hodgkin's lymphoma. He offered some comfort: until the pathologist's report came back, he couldn't know for certain.
Sitting in that consult room, wanting to see Tim, thinking of my foster father who was recovering from his own cancer-related surgery at MD Anderson, and knowing that I had to catch a flight, I felt utterly gutted.
I just cried. To me, it seemed cancer was trying to take away the two most important men in the world. And there wasn't a thing I could do about it.
While two of our closest friends waited for Tim in recovery, I left for the airport.