The Day I Found Out I Had Cancer

Oakland bankruptcy attorney James Pixton talks about being diagnosed with cancer.

The year was 2004. I had been running my bankruptcy law office in Oakland, California, for about five years. My wife Jennifer and I had four children between the ages of seven and six months. Our youngest was suffering through some serious health problems. We weren’t expecting this, but then I guess no one ever is.

A couple months earlier, I had caught a cold and the lymph nodes in my throat became very swollen and tender–not unusual for me and colds. After the cold worked its way out of my system, however, the nodes on the left side of my neck stayed swollen. I remember sitting in my office in Olde Oakland working on bankruptcy files for my clients, running my fingers up under my jawline and feeling a lump.

Finally, I went to the doctor to have it checked out. The GP took one quick feel along my jaw and agreed vociferously, “Wow! That is a big lump!” He immediately sent me to a throat specialist. A few days later, I was in Kaiser Oakland with some sort of specimen collecting syringe jammed up into the growing lump under my jaw. A few days later, I got a call from the doctor saying that the biopsy was inconclusive. He suggested it might just be an infection, so I should keep taking my antibiotics and then call for another appointment if the swelling didn’t go down in a few weeks.

Well, the swelling didn’t go down. I made another appointment and this time, the doctor went at the lump with a bigger, much nastier looking device clearly intended to collect a large enough sample to find whatever it was they were looking for. That was on a Wednesday.

On Friday afternoon, the phone in my office rang. At the time I was on 9th Street in downtown Oakland. I set down the client file I was working on and grabbed the phone. I really wasn’t expecting a call from my doctor, but that’s who it was on the line. I’ll never forget the odd way he pitched the diagnosis to me. He said, “I have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that your biopsy came back and you have lymphoma. The good news is that now that we know what it is, we can start treating it.” He finished the call quickly and politely and hung up. I just sat there too stunned to move.

People have asked me since then if it bothered me the way the doctor told me I had cancer. I’ve always answered no, not really. I was certainly bothered that someone was telling me I had cancer. But I’ve thought about it some since then and always conclude that there’s really no good way to tell someone he has cancer. Think about it. How would you tell someone?

I appreciated that he told me as soon as he found out. I appreciated that he went straight to the point. I appreciated that he told me I’d be getting a call from the oncology department on Monday. It was probably about as good as any such lousy situation could get.

I left my office early in that afternoon, went home and looked up lymphoma on the internet. I guess I had a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face because when my wife immediately went pales when she came home and saw me sitting there on the edge of the bed. Her first question was, “What’s wrong?” I told her that I had lymphoma. We both cried. It was kind of like telling her that I’d received a death sentence with only a small possibility of clemency from the governor. One of the worst days of my life. Gratefully, I’m still here to look back on that day and shudder.

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James Pixton

James Pixton is a bankruptcy attorney in Alameda, California. He is a graduate of Brigham Young University and Boston College Law School. He is an avid cyclist and rode the DeathRide in Markleeville, California, eight years in a row. When not cycling, he plays water polo and has the scars to prove it. James is the parent of four precocious children who keep things busy around the home with schoolwork and water polo. James and his youngest child Porter are cancer survivors. When he's not saving his bankruptcy clients from the evil designs of big banks or on his bike, he can be found reading, writing and reflecting on what makes a society run better.

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