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R-J reporter relates his cancer scare story

It’s 2 a.m. I can’t breathe. Literally.

Can.

Not.

Breathe.

It’s like someone duct taped my nose and mouth closed and the only way I can get air is to poke a hole in my cheek with a pen.

I have no pen. I’m a newspaper reporter without a pen. Story of my life.

I gasp. Oh God, the pain. It’s sharp, on my right at the bottom of my ribs. It hurts only when I breathe. I suck in enough air to keep me alive as I try to figure out what the hell’s wrong.

I sit up. Wince and hunch over. Heart attack. Must be. I’m only 42, and I’m not in terrible shape. But that’s what’s going on. It could happen.

But I’m not clammy. Not dizzy. My left arm isn’t tingly. And the pain. It’s not on my left, where the TV always says heart attacks happen.

So it’s not a heart attack.

Probably Ebola, like in that movie with Dustin Hoffman. But I haven’t been to Africa or to a military research facility, so this is unlikely.

A parasite. An exotic California worm is liquefying my organs At This Very Minute. I read about this a few years back.

No, no. Don’t be ridiculous, Richard. That only happens in the movies or to captives in South American jungles.

Be realistic.

Sheesh.

It’s cancer. Crap. I’ve got cancer. It’s the Diet Coke. That’s all I drink, probably two gallons a day. It’s my own fault. There’s a monstrous aspartame tumor behind the pudgy belly I’ve been nurturing like it was my third kid. The tumor is slick and shiny. Probably purple. It glistens. It’s the size of a baseball — no, a softball. But it’s shaped like a potato. Yes. I am sure I have a giant mutant potato growing in my torso.

I suck in breath. Endure the pain like a man. Ten seconds have passed. My wife is awake now.

“Some (breath) thing’s (breath) wrong,” I say.

This is the story of how a relatively not unhealthy, relatively not old, relatively not insane man becomes a paranoid lunatic over several weeks in the heart of a beautiful Las Vegas summer. There is a slip-and-slide involved. Lawn care. Several doctors. Wisdom, drugs, panic, pop culture, a road trip, Google, and, of course, my mother-in-law.

Don’t all tragic comedies start with mothers-in-law?

Her name is Toni. She lives in L.A. (that’s Lower Alabama, y’all) and hadn’t visited us for more than a year. She is a sweet woman. Always wants to do the best for her grandbabies.

She offers to take us to Disneyland. Whoopie! I hadn’t been there since the 1980s, when neon Ray-Bans and tight tank tops rounded out my permed mullet.

Except for this one time I am trapped in a rabid fireworks-crazed crowd while pushing a baby stroller and with my 6-year-old grasping the back of my T-shirt like it is a lifeline, and I am convinced we are going to be fatally trampled right there between the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and the frozen banana stand, we have a blast.

The hotel kinda sucks, but don’t they all. It’s right across from Disneyland. It has a McDonald’s in the parking lot. That there’s a score.

A few days after we get home, I itch. I get a rash. No big deal. A mosquito bite.

It grows, burns. It looks like a line of pimples. I tell my wife, Ashleigh.

My wife tells Google.

Google says I have shingles, which is not possible. I had shingles 25 years ago. You don’t get that twice unless you have AIDS or have otherwise lost your immune system.

So I wonder if I have enough life insurance. Certainly not.

Ashleigh does a calculation:

Swelling. Burning. Redness. Itching.

Plus.

An icky hotel room.

Equals.

Bedbugs.

With that solved, the tooth at the very back of my mouth begins to throb.

It is a wisdom tooth. I never had them pulled. This one poked through the gums 15 years ago. Never gave me problems so I pretended that’s how things were always going to be.

It stops hurting for three days. Probably crunched down on a taco shell. Whew. Dodged a bullet there.

Then, on a Friday, when I’m leaving work for the weekend, the throbbing returns. Hmm. I go home. More throbbing. Whoa, I think. This is some kind of intense pain. It begins to make me dizzy. It becomes the kind of pain where you’re certain that your body has been constructed in such a way that your nerve endings are unusually sensitive. Other people cannot feel pain like this. The world would cease to function. It hurts like sticking your hand in boiling water would hurt. Like piercing your ears with a fork. Like a paper cut on your eyeball. With salt.

And it’s getting worse.

And it’s Friday night.

And I don’t have a dentist.

I forget about the itching.

We call emergency dentists. They say they don’t take new patients after hours.

My wife asks Google what to do. The answer is clove oil, which is only sometimes fatal.

Sounds great!

Ashleigh runs to the pharmacy, which is closed. Walmart. The grocery store. She can’t find it.

I swallow Advil. Tylenol. Aleve. Over several hours, this lessens the pain to what you might feel if you ran over your feet with a Chevy Suburban equipped with concrete tires. It’s tolerable.

Saturday morning, my wife finds a dentist, who turns out to be Santa Claus. He gives me an antibiotic, Vicodin and a reference to an oral surgeon.

■ ■ ■

What’s this got to do with the mutant potato?

Hold on, man. We’re getting there.

■ ■ ■

It is 2:30 p.m. Monday. I inform the friendly folks at the oral surgeon’s office that I haven’t eaten or drank since yesterday, so let’s get a move on here.

X-rays reveal that I have only three wisdom teeth. Staffers assure me that I am not a mutant. Some people have three, four, five or even six. It’s a crazy world!

They make me watch a slickly produced video that says, basically, there’s a better than even chance I will die today. It’s a legal thing, I assure my wife, who watches with eyeballs the size of Diet Coke cans.

Did I mention I haven’t eaten or drank anything? I’m dehydrated. My head is pounding. My tooth is pounding. The doc says I gotta be put to sleep for this one. There will be much yanking involved.

They stick a needle in my arm. I think I flirted with the nurse, but I’m not sure.

Seven seconds after the needle goes in someone removes bloody gauze from my mouth, inserts a clean piece and instructs me to rinse with pudding, eat salt and drink applesauce through a straw for the next few hours.

I’m glad I’ll be back at work Tuesday.

Tuesday morning is Holy Mother of God This Hurts Day. Wow! The rash itches, my mouth kills, and the pain meds stop me up like a fat guy on a tiny water slide.

Think I’ll skip work again.

I keep my appointment for Wednesday, however. I’m meeting a UNLV researcher at Mount Charleston for a story about his work. I skip the Vicodin because you’re not supposed to drive on it. Advil should do.

I get up to the mountain and tough it out. We hike. We look at trees. I learn some stuff. It ought to be a good story.

Except I’m not going to write it today. I rush home and take more pain meds.

It’s Thursday morning and it still hurts, like, really bad. Shouldn’t this be getting better? The surgeon’s office says come on in, let’s have a look-see.

The doc pronounces his work perfect. It’s supposed to hurt. I tell him I need more Vicodin. With an accusatory look, he gives me a prescription. I picture the TV show “ER.” I’m the junkie who finagles his way into the emergency room because he needs a fix.

Everyone in the office stares at me as I slink out the door.

I figure the pharmacist has put my name on a federal registry.

And then it’s Friday. I still can’t get by without the narcotics. I feel like a failure. I skip work again.

By Saturday, I’m a little better. Some pain, but nothing worse than what I imagine an amputation feels like.

I pick up a slip-and-slide for my daughter. We set it up on the lawn I just mowed. She’s giddy. But she’s also afraid. She won’t flop down on her belly like you’re supposed to. Just slides down the thing on her knees.

I explain that she’ll be just fine. Flop down all you want! It won’t hurt!

She can’t do it. So I demonstrate. I do not read the warning that says “serious injury or death,” etc. Nor do I consider that I installed this lawn myself last year, from scratch, with seed instead of sod. All of which means it’s not the smoothest surface on the planet.

My lawn is, quite frankly, bumpier than a meteor crater.

I launch my 175 pounds through the air. I land, thud, knock the wind out a little. Was that a cracking sound? Certainly not. I slide like a hockey puck coated in cooking oil. What fun.

I feel good. Sunday goes by. I may have tweaked something, but it’s nothing. I do a little housework, hit the library. Nothing but Advil. Life is great.

I hit the sack Sunday night, ready to get back to work. There’s some pain on my right side, down at the bottom of my rib cage.

It is nothing.

■ ■ ■

It’s 2 a.m. and I can’t breathe.

If it isn’t a heart attack, a worm or a potato, then something else is going on. I’m probably blocked up from the pain meds. That’s it. Google says my large intestine runs right around the part of my body that hurts. There are probably organs in there that Google doesn’t even know about.

Ashleigh wants me to go to the emergency room. No way I’m paying good money to wait for six hours so I can pick up a staph infection from the Coke machine while the doc tells me to take Tylenol.

So my wife gets me a bottle of magnesium citrate on the recommendation of the pharmacist. He says that’s the stuff they give you before surgery, so it ought to work real good.

It certainly does work real good.

Except: It doesn’t help the pain.

Reluctantly, I hit an urgent care facility. My regular doc can’t get me in, but I leave a message and ask her to call. I’m desperate here.

The urgent care doc convinces herself that the cough I’ve been dealing with these last two weeks is the culprit. I’ve coughed so much, she says, that I pulled a muscle in my rib cage. But I’m barely coughing. A chest X-ray shows that my lungs are good. (I sneak a look and, although I am no radiologist, I have seen every episode of “Scrubs.” It’s obvious that: 1. There’s no potato! and 2. There’s no giant worm!) Maybe a mild case of bronchitis, which I can deal with.

The urgent care doc says, almost casually, that there might could maybe be something wrong with my gall bladder. Probably nothing, she says, but I might want to have that looked at.

I forcibly refuse to give Google the gall bladder info. I see this as progress.

My doctor calls me that afternoon. She says, hmm. She says uh huh. She wonders if I did anything strenuous over the weekend. Any heavy lifting? Any outdoor activity, perhaps?

Well, sure, I say. There was this thing with the slip-and-slide.

After she stops laughing, the doc says to come see her tomorrow.

She pokes and prods and questions me like a private detective in a hardboiled crime novel. She dismisses the gall bladder nonsense. She declares that I probably strained a muscle when I hit the ground. Might have cracked a rib. Might have torn cartilage that holds the rib cage together.

Which is cool.

It’ll take a month or more to heal, but whatever. The tooth is fine. The bug bites are almost gone. I have plenty of Advil.

And while my daughter hasn’t yet flopped down on her belly, she keeps trying.

As for me, I’m going to sit back and watch her learn.

Probably from a crooked lawn chair.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.

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