Chapter One

September, 2004

HOT WATER PELTS MY BACK on a stunning, late summer morning. I stretch my neck toward my chest and sigh in pleasure. I adore hot water. My soapy fingertips slide down my neck then stop at a bump a few inches under my left jaw. I press at it. Hard and painless. A jab of fear makes me frown. What is it?

Nothing clearly, just a swollen lymph gland that will quickly disappear.

Placing a hand over my obstinate, rounded belly, I push it in; it pops right out. Despite sporadic dieting and occasionally resisting that second—or third—glass of wine, the tummy bulge has moved in, loves the location, and isn’t going anywhere. Good God, Dan, my husband, thinks it’s sexy. It makes me feel tubby and old. Add to my expanding waistline is what I call, “noun droppage”—the charming inability to remember names of presidents, books, movies, and countries. Who was the president after Gerald Ford? Ford? He was a president, wasn’t he?

Like my chubby belly, noun droppage, and now this thing on my neck that has a shape and size, a location, and a hard feel under my fingertips, I’ll have to learn to live with it. Still, I am not comatose and—a couple of months after first noticing the lump—I mention it to my gynecologist.

“I have a thing, like a knot, on the side of my neck.”

“What?”

“I have a lump. It might be getting bigger.”

Without a glance, he waves his hand. “You’re just fighting a virus, or something. Don’t worry about it.”

Granted, necks are not his area of expertise, but I accept—am even relieved at—his latex-glove brush off and continue to ignore the little nuisance. With my hair down—the way I always wear it—the lump is hardly visible.

A year later, in September 2005, other symptoms—that I can no longer ignore—indicate that something is very wrong.

Like shortness of breath.

On a recent Sunday, Dan and I begin a two-mile walk. I’ve hiked the slight but steady uphill trail dozens of times with little effort. But after less than twenty minutes, gasping for breath, I have to stop. Not just to rest, I’ve already done that twice, but to turn around and go home. This is like Pavarotti pushing himself away from the table without finishing his Primi course. It just doesn’t happen. I rationalize that my fatigue is because of the pesky little virus, “diagnosed” by my gynecologist, or menopause (boy is that a catchall!), or a funky biorhythm day.

Beside the inability to breathe with any activity, I have night sweats. That symptom gets handily dumped into the menopause bucket. I attribute agonizing leg and foot cramps to too much exertion. (Which is ridiculous, since I can’t exercise.)

On the morning of September 15, 2005, I wake in damp, tangled sheets. Turning to dislodge my leg, a searing pain shoots up my back. I gasp, breathe, then ease my feet onto the carpeted floor. Dan has already left for work. Wincing as I stand, and holding tight to the bannister, I make my way downstairs. In the kitchen, I brew a cappuccino and head to my home office.

Along with the back pain, I type my other oddball symptoms into Google. In a nanosecond, the results flash onto my computer screen: a kidney infection. A quick trip to the doctor, a bottle of antibiotics, and I’ll be fine. I down three aspirin and call to make a same-day appointment.

CONTINUE READING: CHAPTER TWO