By Michael B. Cohen
On the Run
A cancer survivor (and doctor) races into the unknown
By Michael B. Cohen
In the early summer of 1983, I left Albany, N.Y, at the end of my internal medicine internship and headed west on I-80 to start my pathology residency in San Francisco. It was then, and still is, the longest road trip of my life.
A quarter of a century later, I can clearly recall the intensity of those six days—a time during which I was alternately anxious, bored, cowed, diffident … yearning and zealous. It was Christopher Cross’ then-four-year-old song Ride Like the Wind that kept me going through the 3,000-plus miles: It is the night / My body is weak / I’m on the run / No time for sleep / I’ve got to ride / Ride like the wind / To be free again.
Today, once more, I am feeling the need to ride fast. But this time, I am not on an exhilarating journey toward the next step in my career. Instead, I am almost two years out from a diagnosis of non–small cell lung cancer.
The diagnosis of cancer itself was incidental. Experiencing chest pain, I went to the emergency room of the Iowa hospital where I work. After getting a chest X-ray, I was told I had a 1.5-centimeter granuloma in my lung—an inflammatory response most commonly seen with fungal infections and tuberculosis. I was quite sure the emergency room physician’s diagnosis was off the mark. Based on my own experience as a pathologist, I knew then that I had lung cancer.
CT and positron emission tomography (PET) scans promptly followed my initial chest X-ray. There was some consternation by my physicians about the results of the PET scan because it was not entirely consistent with a cancerous condition. But I was not swayed from my personal diagnosis. Within a week of my ER visit I underwent a lobectomy, during which the cancer was removed. The pathology report came back as a non–small cell carcinoma, more specifically an adenocarcinoma. In retrospect, my chest pain was most likely caused by a completely unrelated spasm of my esophagus.