My genetic inheritance

I can write about this now because my condition has changed from life-threatening back to healthy and normal again. Ok. I never had a life-threatening condition. Outside of my mind, anyway.

This is my father's fault and he admits it. Through nature or nurture the man has instilled in me a worry so great it can only be classified as, well, crazy. As in: You. Are. Crazy.

Let me tell you about my cyst. Or, more aptly, my panic-driven frenzy.

A few weeks ago I noticed a slight pain on the left side of my pelvic region. It was very minor pain, just enough to make me realize it, but not enough to keep me from eating, drinking, sleeping, or complaining about other things. I thought maybe it was gas. Gas specific to the lower left quadrant of my pelvic region.

I don't necessarily deem myself a hypochondriac. When I'm sick, I know I'm sick, if I'm sick enough that I have to stay home and rest, I do that. But I don't tend to make things up. What I do tend to do is run absolutely wild with possibilities once they're presented to me. This is why no one should present me, or my father, with possibilities, unless those possibilities are a) you are the healthiest person on the planet and b) your family will never be in harm's way.

After several days of wondering about my slight pain, and why it was so specific to only one area of my body, J convinced me to go to the doctor. He said I'd feel better once I at least told a doctor about the issue and found out it was nothing, and let me tell you, he was wrong. He was so wrong it was unbelievable. It wasn't his fault, but Jesus - wrong. After talking with my general practitioner that afternoon - explaining my symptoms and a small examination - he said it sounded like what I had was an ovarian cyst. Since the pain was only on one side of my body and I noticed it just before I got my monthly period ("Gas," he explained, "Doesn't, you know, usually come in cycles...?") that was the most likely culprit. While this wasn't my favorite explanation in the world he assured me that cysts were extremely common, totally harmless and would have no bearing on my fertility. I'd heard as much and was satisfied with my visit, and went home with a hand over my cyst, cradling it. It hurt a little more once it had a name.

In order to understand what happened next you might need to know a little bit about my family. Skinned knees as a child, nothing more than a hindrance to whatever rough-and-tumble game my brother and I had gotten into, were reason for nail-biting and moans on my father's part. Every doctor's visit was like a test we were trying to pass. Healthy? Hooray, father can get on with his life! This may sound pretty neurotic, and believe me, it is, but it's merely a matter of my father worrying (too much, true) about his family. That part is sweet. I remember a particularly endearing afternoon just after my mother had suffered a pulmonary embolism and was staying in a hospital in Houston, Texas (where she'd been on business). I flew out to visit and witnessed my father, sitting in a hospital chair by my mother's bed, vigilantly watching the monitor near the ceiling which measured how much oxygen she was getting into her lungs each time she took a breath. Higher numbers were better. My mother, who is way too cool for all this nonsense, and would have probably gone straight back to work the day after collapsing in a hotel lobby had the docs not insisted she needed immediate medical care, was chatting with me while my father sat, fingernails in his mouth, interrupting us every three or four seconds. "Kathy! 95! Good. 94. Ok. 96!! Kathy. 96!" She had to tell him to stop.

So he worries. We worry. But the other trait, not as endearing, and which I seem to be developing rather rapidly, is making a mountain out of a molehill - a brain tumor out of a head cold.

Not the serious stuff, mind you. My father has been faced with serious medical conditions and pretty much remained calm. I bet I'd be the same way. It's when the doctors say you're ok and you decide they might be wrong. The doctors. Who've gone to medical school. For seven years.

After I learned about my potential cyst I decided to research the issue until I found something to worry about. I conducted my research on the internet, the haven of all that is good and true and reliable. While all the medical sites echoed my doctor's words - that cysts were normal and harmless usually - I noticed something else. Women on birth control, it seemed, weren't prone to getting these "functional" cysts as they were caused by ovulation. Birth control, in fact, was prescribed to help women avoid cysts a.k.a. since I was on birth control it was pretty weird that I had one a.k.a. I was going to die.

I was going to die and I was never going to be able to have children. Surprisingly I was slightly more worried about the latter, although if the former was true, it didn't really matter, did it? I wrote my mother and J emails expressing my new fears. I called the gynecologist office, where I'd scheduled a visit to follow up at my doctor's suggestion, and left a message for the nurses. It went something like, "Hi. This is Cara McDonough. I'm coming in next week to check out this ovarian cyst I might have and I just read that I'm not supposed to have a cyst because I'm on birth control and I think I'm going to need to come in immediately. Alright. You can call me back."

I emailed my father, too. We agreed. The doctors weren't taking me seriously enough. Not at all.

J and my mother didn't really follow. While both were happy that I was getting everything checked out by the gynecologist, and assured me this would make me feel better, they didn't get it. They didn't get the fact that I couldn't go about my daily life - making dinner and having normal conversations and whatnot - until this was settled. I couldn't wait until the next week, but I had to. My doctor wasn't going to be in the office until then. I know because I called about three times.

In the meantime all I could do was wait. Wait and go a little bit more crazy. I heard back from a nurse, assuring me everything was ok. J reminded me that since my regular doctor and my nurse seemed to think I was going to be just fine, I could probably calm down. My father spent his time researching my condition in his millions of medical books. During one phone conversation I was rattling off some details regarding cysts and he said, "I already knew that." When I asked him how, he said he'd asked his cardiologist to educate him on the subject during his checkup that day.

All the while my cyst ached. It didn't hurt very much, but I'd prod and push it until it ached sufficiently comparable to the dread I was feeling in my heart.

Somehow, mostly through the infinitely comforting power of wearing sweatpants and watching DVDs I'd watched a million times already all weekend long I made it to the next week, which was busy. My full schedule helped Thursday, that fateful day of my doctor's visit, come faster.

When Thursday morning arrived I showered and dressed like I normally do, but with the added knowledge that today might be The Day I Get to Start Living Normally Again and whatever I wore and did mattered more than usual. I got in my car with plenty of time to spare and made my way to my doctor's office. Nervous. Excited. Total nutcase.

When I arrived I checked in and sat in the waiting room with a pregnant woman. I pretended to read. I imagined that the nurses in the back were getting out my file and whispering, "Uh-oh. It's that crazy girl. Called three times to see if she could get an appointment sooner than today? Left messages on the nurse's line? Yeah, she's out there pretending to read."

I was escorted to the back, had my blood pressure taken and was left in the examining room waiting for the doctor to give me my sentence.

I love my gynecologist. He's calm, but thorough. Funny, but takes me seriously. Allows me to talk as much as I want, which was obviously going to be an issue. I told him about the pain, how it wasn't very much pain, but that my doctor thought it was probably a cyst. I hadn't been in pain for several days and told him so. He asked if I was still on birth control and I said yes and then told him in a nervous rant all about how I'd researched cysts and knew women on birth control didn't usually get them. Suddenly a ray of light broke through the clouds, at least concerning the fact that everyone thought I was crazy, and my doctor explained that what I'd read was, in fact, correct. I was right. It would be unusual for someone on the pill to get one of these cysts. He didn't think I was crazy. I knew it. I'd known it all along.

My doctor suggested a vaginal sonogram, which is exactly what it sounds like. I was taken to a quiet, dark room where I undressed from the waist down and waited while an extremely friendly woman got the equipment ready and in it went. I've never minded going to the gynecologist, I think in part because I've always had good ones and also because I'm completely fascinated by what they can do. The nurse kept me updated the entire time, explaining that she'd be getting a good look at my uterus and ovaries and could see if anything was there. I liked this. Take all the time in the world, I thought.

I told her about work and laughed until the fact that she had something up inside me was nothing more than a minor circumstance surrounding the girl talk we were enjoying. Plus, she wasn't interrupting any of her or my thoughts with "Uh-oh. What the hell is that?" like I thought she might.

Quite the contrary. Uterus. Totally normal. Right ovary. Totally normal. Left ovary. Totally normal.

Totally normal. Totally healthy. Perfectly good working order. No cyst. I didn't have a cyst.

I didn't have a cyst.

In a mere three minutes my condition had done a 180. My doctor and I sat in a waiting room where he told me my pain could have very easily been due to a "muscular or skeletal twinge." A twinge. I, of course, wondered immediately if my pain could have also been due to self-induced neuroses but kept that thought to myself. He assured me that I'd been right to be a little worried, and that there was nothing wrong with taking your health seriously. "Thank you," I told him. "Because I was worried and people thought I was crazy." He'll never know, of course, about the phone calls - six or seven a day - between my father and I. He'll never know about my crumpling on the couch and crying completely out of the blue one night as J told me over and over again that everything was fine, which I couldn't accept. He'll never know, but I bet he does know, sort of. He's a good doctor, and I'll bet there are a few more like me out there.

After departing the office and getting into my warm car I called my parents to assure them everything was alright, and that I not only had nothing seriously wrong with me, I had nothing wrong with me at all.

My mother was happy like a normal person gets happy when their child is finally free of worry.

My father, like me, understood that now we all could return to our regular lives. That a huge impediment had been moved. Knowing I'll always have him as an ally when the others say everything is ok is important. I wouldn't like being all alone in such a state.

But while we find comfort in the humor of such melodramatic reactions to ordinary news, I realize my week-long obsession was extremely selfish.

Poor J had to live with this extreme version of the person he married. A person who couldn't hold a conversation longer than 5 minutes before veering the topic towards her own physical state. I appall this sort of narrow-minded thinking, and often have reminded J, when he or I is suffering a particularly bad headache or a bout of allergies and complaining, that there are much bigger things going on in the world.

And there are people who are actually sick. There are people who go in to their doctors worried and come out with bad news, rather than my "twinge." And I feel that behaving the way I did somehow disrespects those who are actually dealing with life-threatening illnesses.

This experience (once I'd returned from the depths of crazed indulgence) also reminded me that while my doctor's visit allowed me to carry on the happy, healthy person I'd been before I got scared, life won't work like that every time. Good news can only bring as many elated moments that are possible before there's something new to worry about, and I hope to God that I'm able to deal with my life's challenges with more dignity than I dealt with my 100 percent non-existent ovarian cyst.

The thing is, I bet I can. Perhaps the reason my father and I are stronger in the face of real danger is that those instances require true heart and dedication. Working yourself up over something that you, really, somewhere deep inside, know isn't going to be a big deal, lends comedy to an otherwise annoyingly stressful situation. Don't get me wrong. I still think the way I acted was insane. And my father? He's far gone. No matter, though. Our friends and family will always have a good time chiding us (and then, perhaps, screaming at us) regarding this horrid method of dealing with potential health issues.

During my ordeal my father sent me many emails expressing his empathy, including this one:

March 27, 2006 Subject: If you are still breathing From: Fred Rotondaro To: Cara McDonough

I woke up this a.m. with: A sinus headache A stomach ache And sore feet I expect to have the stigmata by this afternoon.

It's funny, sure. But don't even think that he didn't, if only for the tiniest fraction of a second, believe it.