So apparently I have a blog. It’s my first ever, so please bear with me. Since obviously everything on the interwebz is true, I’ll start with saying I don’t have cancer and I just won the lottery for $200 million. What? You mean everything on the interwebz isn’t true? Dammit. So I guess I do have cancer and I didn’t win the lottery. Well, hell.
So it’s been a tough couple of months. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m an Air Force chick – have been for going on 20 years. I had a 9-month deployment with the Army to Iraq in 2006-2007, then a year-long deployment to Qatar in 2009-2010. I moved to a new base in early 2011, and thought I might be safe from deploying for a while. Wrong. In February 2012, I got notified that I was headed off to Afghanistan for 6 months. Boo. But as I had just had minor surgery on my foot, everyone assumed I wouldn’t go since I was still recovering. Then we did the math and realized my ‘no running, walking etc’ medical profile ended the exact day I was supposed to leave for combat training. So preparations began for my deployment. I wasn’t looking forward to it – I had never wanted to deploy to Afghanistan, and generally had a bad feeling about it. But I talked myself into looking at the bright side – it possibly would be my last deployment before retiring, I’d make a boatload of extra money, I’d get some snazzy new uniforms and toys, and I’d get to see a country I’d only ever seen from the air. No problem. Let’s get this show on the road.
Now when you’re out-processing for deployments, you have a lot of checklist items to go through – basically you see every possible agency on base, even if you’ve never heard of them, and have them clear you for deployment. I regularly contemplated throat-punching people that I dealt with who repeatedly told me, “you’re so lucky! I’ve been in for XX years and can’t deploy because my career field doesn’t!” Yeah, that’s helpful. Jerks. But I soldiered on (get it? Soldiered? Yeah, I’m a moron) and continued to spend my days driving all over base looking for obscure offices and sneakily hidden buildings to have people look at my checklist and spend exactly 0.8 seconds initialing a little box.
In April, I had an appointment to see the doctor on base to get medically cleared. He saw no problems, but I needed to do one little thing. The new commander for the area I was going to had laid down the law – all females coming over needed to have a current pap smear on record, whether they needed it or not. For those of you who don’t know, chicks get (or I should say are supposed to get) a pap smear every year, until they have 3 years of normal tests. My last one had been a year prior, and I wasn’t due for 2 more years. I griped about it to the doc, because let’s face it – having random folks poking around your lady bits just isn’t fun – unless you’re a complete freak. Even my doctor told me he didn’t agree with it. He thought it was a waste of time and resources, but that he had to schedule it for me or he’d get his butt chewed. Probably figuratively, not literally – unless the base clinic is a more bizarre place to work than previously imagined. So I scheduled it, had the test and continued on my merry way with out-processing.
4 days before I was supposed to leave for training, I swung by the hospital after qualifying on the 9mm (handgun training, for you non-shooting hippies out there). Enough time had passed that my test results should have been back, so I just needed someone to sign off on my checklist. I figured someone would just pull up my records and sign my form – in and out, right? Wrong. I sat in that waiting room from about 2:15pm until 4:10pm getting more and more pissed off. Didn’t they realize I was leaving soon? Why couldn’t someone just sign my damn form? Finally, a little airman came out and told me the doctor had time to see me now. I may have snarled back that I didn’t need to see her, I just needed to get a piece of paper signed, but I can’t quite recall. So then I sat in the doctor’s office for another 15 minutes, getting crankier and crankier. Finally the doctor comes in and tells me, ‘well, your results came back abnormal. You’re not deploying for at least 6 months.’ I just stared at her with a stupid look on my face and probably said something wickedly intelligent like, ‘uhhhh…’ She handed me my test results and said lots of reassuring stuff like, ‘this doesn’t mean you have cancer’ and ‘we’ll just need you to see a doctor off base for some extra tests and when those come back normal, we’ll send you again in 6 months to make sure it’s all clear.’ Huh. Not once did she explain what the test results meant, could have meant, or ask me if I had any questions. Guess it was getting close to 4:30pm and she just wanted to go home. But on the flipside, my feeble brain couldn’t think of any questions to ask. All my brain was doing was screaming ‘you’re not deploying! Whee hoo!’ Stupid brain.
Having never had an abnormal pap test in my 19+ years of getting them, I immediately went home and started googling. Well, not immediately. The first thing I did was the responsible thing – call my deployment manager and let her know I couldn’t deploy. I do still occasionally follow military protocol. It turned out my test results came back with pretty much the only 3 abnormal things they can measure on a pap. Atypical squamous cells – undetermined significance (ASC-US), atypical glandular cells (AGC) and high-risk HPV. After a little research, I learned that the ASC-US result is the lowest of the low for abnormal test results – the earliest possible detectable surface-type cell abnormalities that usually revert to healthy cells on their own. Ok, piece of cake. High-risk HPV wasn’t even too scary – an estimated 80% of Americans have some form of HPV – some of them cause no symptoms and some of them can cause cancer – but again, it usually goes away on its own. AGC – huh. That one was a little scarier. It’s a rare result – as in 0.2% of abnormal paps – that reportedly has a 50/50 shot of indicating a ‘serious medical finding’ and has to do with the glands inside the cervix, so it usually doesn’t pop up on a routine pap smear. Ruh roh. But I still wasn’t worried – all the experts say cervical cancer takes 10-15 years to progress from abnormal cells to invasive cancer, and this was my first abnormal test. So I went home and celebrated with my wonderful man about not having to deploy. Little did I know then that the universe was not exactly doing me a favor – which is exactly what we thought at the time.
I remember being relieved that you weren’t being deployed despite the foreboding feeling that comes with questions about your health. In my mind the fight against cancer was less daunting than the risk of you in Afghanistan facing IEDs, the Taliban and god knows what else. Bombs and bullets are so big; cancer cells are so tiny. Seems like a much easier fight.