Medical Results Mix-Up From Doctor Changed My Life

I don’t know if it was cowardice, lack of bedside manner, or just laziness that prompted my doctor to notify me by email. One assumes this kind of news is best delivered in person or at least via the phone, but in any case, it put a crimp on my weekend.

“Just received the report from the radiologist, and unfortunately, it’s bad news,” he wrote. “I’m heading out for the holiday but try not to worry. When I return, we will schedule a lung biopsy and additional testing.” He attached a report to the email with test results highlighted with the ominous conclusion I had “advanced and very aggressive” lung cancer.

I had family in town for the Fourth of July and didn’t want to ruin their weekend by sharing my prognosis, but I was not good company. When the doctor returned, I stepped into our country’s health care hall of mirrors — a convoluted bureaucracy of doctors, insurance companies and clinics seemingly designed to create such stress that one might drop dead before receiving treatment.

It made no sense. I felt great, had never been a smoker, and from outward appearances was an exceedingly healthy 54-year-old man.

A couple weeks later I had chunks of my lungs removed. The procedure didn’t go well (avoid waking up when someone is poking inside you with a sharp object), and afterward I really did feel and look sick. At my wife’s urging, I sought a second opinion, and my new doctor determined there had been a mistake in my diagnosis. The radiologist had confused my left and right lungs, but the good news was that the biopsy confirmed I was cancer free, and now I was just suffering the temporary effects of a suboptimal procedure.

I fired my original doctors. Knowing right from left seems a requisite of medical competency.

Friends suggested I sue, but I had no interest in bringing any more negativity into my life. I hesitate to equate my situation to anyone who has beaten a life-threatening condition, as there is no comparison to my short-term scare, but the revelation that I would potentially live a normal life span — without the pain and indignity of cancer treatment — left me elated and filled with more optimism than I had felt in decades.

The layers of cynicism and mental armor we tend to build as we age vanished, and I suddenly felt like the joyful young man I had once been.

It’s natural to regard life like a countdown clock, believing the passing of time strips us of options. Dreams of travel, exciting careers and adventures collide with financial, family and physical realities. Most people succumb to the supposition that to live our later years with a modicum of comfort we must abandon our fantasies and always play it safe during the prime of life. Our bodies reinforce the idea. We age more quickly than any of us could have envisioned, often beset with physical limitations that become a kind of prison.

But it occurred to me my incorrect diagnosis was a kind of gift — a reminder that the remainder of my time above ground wasn’t preordained and programmed. Would I live just one more day or many decades? It’s silly to base all decisions on a countdown clock that probably isn’t accurate. I was healthy and had options. Instead of looking at life as defined by my death, I could seek a different existence, a second chapter — one that looked more like what I had envisioned for my future when I was 12 years old.

I’d been fortunate to experience a long and successful career in advertising, living my own little Don Draper fantasy, but over three decades it had morphed from the world’s best job into an endeavor that left me weary and inexplicably angry, compounded with shame that I wasn’t happy in my privileged life. I’d dreamed of a job where I would be paid for creativity and had largely achieved the goal, but the reality of the ad business is boom, bust and constant politics, delivered over 60- to 80-hour workweeks. While I was appreciative of the financial benefits of my work, when I took stock of my career, I had difficulty deriving creative fulfillment from commercials hawking vacuum cleaners, internet service and devices designed to rescue you when “you’ve fallen and can’t get up.”

But the business had been good to me, and as I retreated from the precipice, I realized I was fortunate enough to have accumulated the resources to live the life I choose. I ran the numbers to confirm I could safely transform from earner to adventurer, essentially resetting my life.

The author with his wife, Michelle.

Courtesy of Tim O’Leary

I resigned from the agency, and in middle age returned to college to complete a master’s degree in creative writing. During the two-year program I began writing fiction, and I published my first book of short stories a few months after graduation. Now I write every day, living the life of an author, with four books on my résumé and more on the way. Life is a delightful exploration — a voyeuristic adventure observing and imagining alternative “what ifs” that I craft into my own brand of fiction.

In my previous life, I charged as much as a million dollars to create a television commercial. But I experienced more joy from the first story I ever sold, a dystopian comedy about a man who dates a Facebook profile, for which I received the princely sum of $5 from an obscure but respected literary journal.

Physically and mentally, I’m a new person. We live in angry times, and I was often a willing participant. But with mortality confronted, I realized how silly it is to expend energy on uncontrollable events and petty emotional reactions. For most people, anger begets shame, creating an endless loop of unhappiness. Exorcizing that anger positively impacted me in multiple ways, and observing the phenomenon as a storyteller reinforced how corrosive those emotions can be.

When I am not writing, I am playing like a 12-year-old. I rediscovered my early aptitude for pinball. I bought a toy train set. I bowl. I spend hours wandering rivers with a fly rod. I also do adult things. I drink martinis like James Bond, eat fine food, and go to rock concerts under the influence of something called strawberry kush. I spend several hours a week at a Pilates studio, determined to avoid the atrophied muscles that could transform me into a crippled old man. I wake up early every morning anxious for the day, hoping to uncover an interesting tale.

There was a hidden “Easter egg” in my original diagnosis that my new doctor discovered a few months after my scare. While I don’t have anything as serious as cancer, there is a demon lurking in my body, something called sarcoidosis that is relatively rare and usually not serious, but in my case menacing. It’s a sneaky condition that invades your lungs, heart or other organs, and, left unchecked, can be fatal. Periodically I go to a specialty clinic for a day of testing to make sure the demon stays dormant, and so far, all is well.

Counterintuitively, knowing the doctor might deliver bad news makes life better. Since my original faux death sentence, I have had a clearer, happier perspective. I seldom take anything for granted and have appreciation for the gifts I’ve been given. I believe that understanding and accepting your own mortality and greeting it without fear and regret is one of the keys to a happy life. With some distance, I have enormous affection and appreciation for the first phase of my career, which made the second phase possible.

There is a stark choice to make as you hit the peak of middle age and move all too rapidly into the final third of your life. For many it is only a time to watch the clock tick down, focused on regret and loss, and bemoaning the fact that it didn’t turn out as envisioned. But it need not be that way. We all have potential second acts, and you’re never too old to play.

Tim O’Leary is the author of the collections “Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face,” “Men Behaving Badly,” and “The Corona Verses,” all available now from Rare Bird Books.

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