How It Feels…To Be Told You’re Dying When You’re Not

4.10.2017

As told by Rick Donnelson to Samantha Harms

How It Feels2

Twenty years ago, project manager Rick Donnelson, 55, was told that he was dying of cancer when he really wasn’t. This is what it felt like.

Sitting on the chair in the doctor’s office, I was told the test I had been given indicated pancreatic cancer and that I had less than six months to live. Pancreatic cancer is incurable 99 percent of the time and has a very quick death rate. I was 33 years old and I had five children.

It was 1994 and I was in treasurer school. I wasn’t eating normally. I had lost about 30 pounds in the last three months. I knew that wasn’t healthy. I came home and went to the doctor for a simple check up. I very quickly though received a phone call telling me that I should come in.

I sat down and as the doctor told me that the tests showed pancreatic cancer, a perpetual state of shock just came over me. I could feel the words “I don’t believe you” come out of my mouth. I asked for a second opinion right away.

The sterile, sickening smell of that doctor’s office as I got potentially the worst news of my life is something that I still carry with me. I told him that I knew it wasn’t the case that I had this. I rationalized, with him and with myself.

I always came back to believing that there was nothing wrong with me. Because how could this happen to me? I was in the best shape of my life.

Because of the limited time they had given me left to live my life, they rushed me to KU Med for additional testing. That testing showed that I didn’t have pancreatic cancer, but I had cancer of the duodenum, which is cancer of the stomach and small intestine. So they scheduled me for surgery to see if that’s actually what I had. The worst part was waiting for my surgery, for two weeks thinking I was might to die soon. I had a chance then to think about my life but I’m a believer in God and I knew I would live through all of it and have a normal life.

The nurses kept coming in while I was waiting, asking me “Are you nervous?” I kept saying, “Nope, because I know nothing’s wrong.” And they kept saying “Oh he’s in denial.” But that’s okay because I got the last laugh.

After waiting almost two weeks of thinking I had six to nine months to live, I went into surgery and had what’s called a freeze plug test. They took the part of my stomach out that they were operating on and tested it right there in the operating room. So when I came out, I got that bit of good news that not only did I not have any cancer but there was absolutely nothing wrong. They couldn’t find anything wrong; they just believed that it was some bug that my body overacted to.  Here I sit, 20 years later as healthy as I can be.

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