“We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”
– Carlos Costenada
My plan to hide the scoliosis worked until I reached the middle of my sophomore year because I started to experience intense, constant pain radiating throughout my entire back. I remember tossing and turning at night, not being able to sleep because the pain would become so intense. Since I had been going to the doctor for years to monitor the curve of my spine, I never thought something major could be wrong. Doctors know what they are doing – they would know if there was a problem.
After months of pain and a doctor who could not offer an explanation other than scoliosis should not be a painful condition, my dad had had enough – he demanded the doctor take action. Finally, with great debate, my doctor decided I may have stress fractures from the impact of tumbling. He sent me to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for tests even though he was convinced that the stress fractures would heal on their own.
The first test I had was a bone scan. I was strapped to a table and had to lie perfectly still as a machine closely circled around my body. This was not a small machine though. It was about the shape and size of a door that circled around my body. I distinctly remember being scared that the machine was go haywire and crush me. Next, I was taken into a different room for a CT Scan. The CT Scan was very quick and easy. All I had to do was lie on my back and cast my gaze on the hot air balloons painted on the ceiling as a much smaller machine spun quickly around me. Finally, I went into the last exam room to have a MRI. Since the bone scan and CT scan had not shown any fractures, the doctors decided to use a contrast agent which would enhance the MRI image. Because the scan would be administered with contrast, my mom and I had to watch a video about the risks involved.
Contrast agents improve tissue discrimination in a MRI scan. Since they were looking for stress fractures, the contrast would “puddle” in the fractured bones or other imperfections.
Some of the risks included: allergic reactions, feeling light headed/passing out and my personal favorite…death! That is definitely not what you want to hear right before they inject you with contrast and slide you back into a tunnel, which just so happens to look like a coffin. I can laugh about this now, but I remember having this thought process:
“They said if something goes wrong I would die almost immediately after injection. Okay, it has been a few seconds…still here…it has been at least a minuet…still here…”
Needless to say, I survived the contrast injection and could focus on watching “Finding Nemo” over the loud sounds of the machine. It took over an hour for the machine to gather the necessary information. I realize that reading about my MRI with contrast may sound scary, but let me assure you that usage of the contrast agent is rare. In fact, it is only used about 20% of the time. I have always said I have horrible (or awesome?) medical luck. With all of the exams complete, all that was left was the diagnosis.
Walking out of the scanning room, I saw my mom talking behind a wall of the waiting room to a man in a white lab coat. My mom looked frightened, but I still had no suspicion of a major problem. Honestly, I was just happy to be up and moving after having to lie perfectly still all morning. The doctor explained that the test revealed a benign Osteoid Osteoma tumor, not related to the scoliosis, on my lower spine. Since the diagnosis came as a complete shock, the doctor had to explain in great detail what was growing on my spine.
Osteoid osteomas occur when certain cells divide uncontrollably, forming a small mass of bone tissue. The tumor replaces healthy bone tissue with abnormal, hard bone tissue. No one knows exactly why this occurs.
As soon as he ran down the list of common symptoms, it all seemed so clear.
- Sharp pain that worsens at night – check
- Pain that is usually relieved by aspirin or other anti-inflammatory drugs – check
- Painful scoliosis and muscle spasticity – check, check, CHECK!
- Nerve symptoms- check
Clearly the diagnosis was correct, so now came time to discuss the treatment options.
A) I could wait out the pain and trust my body to identify the irritant. Normally, and I quote, “the body will break up the tumor in roughly 24 months.”
B) Have surgery to literally burn off the tumor
I honestly do not know who would have the sanity to live two years in pain, so without a second thought, I chose surgery. The doctors said that as soon as the procedure was complete, the pain would instantly vanish. Surgery, however, required a long recovery period. Because it was in the middle of competition cheerleading season, I had yet another choice to make. I could either have surgery immediately, get rid of the pain, and leave my team with a replacement half way through the season, or I could work through the pain and have surgery at the conclusion of the season. After thinking about how my decision affected my team (and my own sanity) I decided to schedule my surgery for after the competition season.
Finishing that season was one of the toughest things I have ever done, but I felt absolutely no regrets. Practices were full of pain and tears, but my zest kept me going. I’ll never forget the competition at Winder Barrow High School when my coach had to literally carry me off the floor… I was so embarrassed! I found ways to get through the season though. Everybody knew they could find me near an outlet with the heating pad.
A couple of weeks after the season ended, I checked into Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta for my surgery. After a few hours I woke up in a hospital bed wondering where I was. A nurse came in and told me they were trying to reach my mother, but she was not answering her phone – not to anyone’s surprise in my family. The surgery was successful and was eager for the next season to start. Amazingly, I have no scar and probably could not even tell you where one would be. Also, I was able to step right back into cheerleading without any major setbacks. It was the best feeling to live pain free!