by Lisa Pawlak
The same morning my world was set ablaze, I slept in, peacefully, eventually waking up to the sound of my phone ringing and the smell of smoke in the air. The phone call was from my oncologist. The smoke was from one of the region’s raging wildfires.
Nine fires still burned throughout northern San Diego County that day. An unusual mixture of forces had combined that week to create what was already being dubbed a “firestorm.” Weather conditions remained optimal for the chaos–temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, with humidity down in the single digits and the Santa Ana winds howling. And, as if that wasn’t enough, there may have been arson involved. It was under investigation.
Firefighters worked around the clock; helicopters dumped fire retardant on the roaring flames; thousands of homes had been evacuated. School throughout the county had been cancelled for the second day in a row.
Although I live in North County, I’d actually watched quite a lot of the firestorm’s news coverage throughout that week from about thirty miles further south–in a very quiet, climate-controlled basement-waiting room of a hospital’s nuclear imaging department in Hillcrest. Over a three-day period, I’d gone there each day to undergo a nuclear imaging study called an Octreotide scan.
So, as soon as I heard my doctor’s voice on the phone that morning—my oncologist, who never called with good news, or bothered to return my calls at all—my heart dropped into my stomach.
This phone call meant that a new fire, very, very close to home, had been discovered.
The wildfires of San Diego’s firestorm popped up rapidly, one after the other. Reports seemed to vary, but I believe at one point there were as many as twelve fires burning simultaneously.
Living up on a ridge, we had a particularly good view of several of them. Smoke from three of the biggest fires—Bernardo, Carlsbad, and San Marcos—was clearly visible, and at one point we gaped at huge, orange, flames from the Carlsbad fire. When the winds blew from San Marcos, ash rained down in our backyard.
The first fire started on Tuesday. I had just checked in for my injection, a radioactive isotope that would be placed into my body via IV and take several weeks to fully dissipate. I’d spend the next two days getting scanned.
“Going radioactive in five,” I attempted to text my husband as I waited for my name to be called, but there was no coverage in the basement. Instead, I looked to the TV for distraction. A local news crew showed a fire burning in Scripps 4S. Wasn’t that somewhere kind of east of where I lived? But I was more consumed by the concept that soon, I’d be able to trigger Geiger counters.
The nuclear tech placed my IV, administered the injection, and had me wait fifteen minutes to make sure I didn’t have any type of negative reaction—whatever that meant—but I didn’t. The whole thing was over quickly, and I felt exactly the same when I left as when I’d arrived. I glanced at the news on the waiting room’s TV on my way out. The fire was growing.
I got home before school let out and casually walked out into my backyard, pondering my radioactivity, while looking to the east. My jaw dropped. Smoke poured down the nearby hills into the valley. The wind was humming—it was hard to tell exactly where the fire was coming from, but it didn’t look far at all. In fact, it looked awfully close to my son’s school. I stood frozen for about a minute, trying to make sense of it. Then, I picked up the phone.
Four years earlier, I’d been diagnosed with lung carcinoid cancer – an extremely rare, slow-growing cancer. My primary tumor was in my lung, but carcinoid tumors can appear anywhere in the body—most often in the gastro-intestinal system. I’d opted to treat my tumor with major thoracic surgery and was still in mourning for the half of my left lung that was lost.
My diagnosis and surgery came only a few short years after I’d lost my mom, also a non-smoker, to a more aggressive lung cancer. Despite my own fairly positive prognosis—stage 1B, “hopefully cured”, I’d still be monitored the rest of my life for metastasis and recurrence.
The lung carcinoid tumor was my first fire, and I’d hoped my last.
My son’s school was not on fire, though I was not the first parent to call and check. The smoke was blowing over from the wildfire I’d seen earlier on the news.
Many additional wildfires popped up over the next couple of days – growing huge, out-of-control, destroying homes, other property and even a couple of lives — completely overwhelming our region’s abilities to fight them. The governor declared a State of Emergency in San Diego and brought in additional resources. Eventually, the heat dropped, winds died down and humidity rose to normal levels. The fires finally admitted defeat. Entire communities rallied to support those families with losses. Gifts of gratitude flooded local fire stations.
During that time, I also declared a State of Emergency—first panicking, then seeking out second opinions, specialists, state-of-the-art scanning technologies—anything, anything other than another major surgery resulting in the loss of any part of another organ.
The medical process took most of the summer, but eventually, by obtaining additional information through other scanning techniques, consulting with one of only a handful of carcinoid specialists in the country, changing oncologists to one who actually returned my calls, I was given the “all-clear-until-I-see-you-next-year”.
The spot that sparked the concern, located on my liver, was diagnosed as “most consistent with” a benign hemangioma — something to monitor in the future, but not something that needed immediate removal. We wouldn’t know what it was, with absolute certainty without surgery, since, due to its unfortunate location, a biopsy was a risky medical procedure that involved puncturing and possibly collapsing my one healthy lung in order to get a needle deep within my liver. It didn’t sound like a great option.
Still, overall, the additional information I’d received was reassuring enough, and it was with overwhelming relief that one day, towards the end of the summer, I found myself sitting in the specialist’s waiting room after my appointment, sobbing uncontrollably with gratitude for a full twenty minutes before I pulled myself together to drive the two hours home. My tears had doused all those chaotic summer flames and I realized, for months, I’d been completely caught up in my own firestorm.
Just like wildfires, my cancer may light up again in unexpected places, at unexpected times. Perhaps the spark will be quickly battled and defeated, like my recent liver tumor scare. Perhaps other fires will require all of my resources to extinguish their power. All I really know is that when and if those flames are re-ignited, I hope to maintain calm, arm myself with the knowledge to douse the flames, welcome the first responders, my friends and family and, ultimately defeat this destructive force of nature.
Lisa Pawlak is a San Diego based freelance writer and regular contributor to Carlsbad, Orange Coast, Hawaii Parent and San Diego Family magazines. Additionally, her work has been featured with Working Mother. Lisa’s personal essays can be found in Coping with Cancer magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Mothers Always Write and in six books of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Additional pieces will be soon become available in Greenprints and several pending anthologies.