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Sunday, January 22, 2012


I have been absent from this blog for a while, and I have also been very dilatory in responging to emails.  This post is a general apology.  I have just been through the worst five days of my life, and although life looks a good deal brighter now, I am still not able to function normally.

Last Wednesday, troubled by my inability to throw off what I thought was a bad flu, I went to the Same Day clinic at UNC Health Services, and was seen by a young Doctor Vance.  After listening to my heart and lungs, he ordered some blood work, an ekg, and a chest x-ray.  The blood work showed a slight anemia.  The ekg was normal.  But the chest x-ray revealed what is called a pleural effusion -- fluid in the bottom of my left lung.   The next morning, Thursday, I went to the Pulomonary Clinic of UNC Memorial Hospital, where a young specialist named Dr. Bice hooked me up to a variety of monitors and inserted a catheter into my lung, withdrawing 360 ml of fluid.  When he saw that the fluid was bloody, he said there was a 50% chance that I had lung cancer.  He said he would order a CT scan, while the lab examined the fluid.  My primary care physician, by phone, told me there was a 70% chance that I had stage 4 lung cancer, which is incurable.  He started talking to me about making my remaining time as qualitatively valuable as possible.

I was devastated.  I have spent my entire life protecting myself against stroke or heart attack by diet, exercise, and medication.  I had before me always the image of my father, who died at 79 of emphysema, obese, alcoholic, and a chain smoker.  I swore that I would not lead my final years as he had led his, and now it seemed I probably would not live even to be as old as he was when he died.

My entire world contracted sharply, so that it included only Susie, my two sons, my sister, and Susie's two sons, all of whom, especially Susie, were imm ediately supportive and helpful.  Nothing else -- politics, philosophy, my blog -- mattered at all.  I was numb -- not really with fear, but with a dead feeling.  I even lost four pounds rather rapidly, apparently because I was not eating very much.

I waited all day Thursday for a call setting up the CT scan.  On Friday, I called the pulmonary unit and was told that Dr. Bice had scheduled the scan for the following Friday!  I was outraged.  I desperately needed some definitive word on the cancer, even if it was, as I fully expected, bad news, so that I could start making plans to make sure that Susie would be taken care of.  I told the secretary who informed me abou the appoitment that that date was unacceptable.  She fussed a bit and said she had rescheduled it for Wednesday.  Not good enough, I said,  What about this afternoon [it was then about 3:45 p.m.]  Well, she allowed, she would have to transfer me to the Radiology lab.  Fine, I replied, do so.  The Radiology lab said they could take me right then.  By 4:00 p.m., Susie and I were sitting in Women's Hospital, where the Radiology lab is, waiting to be admitted.  By 4:15 p.m., we were in the basement, waiting to be called.  I had to wait for more than an  hour, but then I went in and had a CT scan "with contrast" [they inject a fluid through an IV, which makes it easier to see things on the scan.]  The med tech, who was very, very nice, told me that as an outpatient, I would be at the end of the line for reading the results, but that if my doctor called and asked, they would read the scan and give him the results.  I had already called Dr DeWalt's secretary, while I was waiting for the scan, asking her to send him an email requesting that he get the results.

The next morning, at 6 a.m., I sent DeWalt an email, repeating the request.  Later that monring, he called back.  It seems that he had not only the CT scan results but also the results of the tests on the fluids.  The results?  NO SIGN OF ANY TUMORS ON THE CT SCAN, AND NO SIGN OF ANY CANCER CELLS IN THE FLUID.  Dr. DeWalt said that they still did not know what was making me sick, and therefore cancer of some sort was still a possibility, but he agreed that stage 4 lung cancer seemed ruled out.  There was also no sign in the CT scan of a pulmonary embolism [blood clot], a secondary possibility they were considering.

If I had not insisted on having the CT scan immediately, I would still right now, and until next Friday, be living with a diagnosis of incurable terminal cancer.

I am sure all of you will understand that everything else -- emails, inquiries about the Paris apartment, politics -- has simply not been on my mind.

I don't know what is wrong with me.  I awoke this morning at 4:30 a.m. drenched in sweat.  My body is fighting something, but it will be a while before the doctors figure out what, if indeed they ever figure it out.


Dan Hicks said...

What a wrenching experience; I can barely imagine what the waiting must have been like. (I've been waiting on emails concerning fly-out job interviews, and that's been bad enough!)

I deeply hope that the diagnosis comes in soon, and that the news is good.

heydave said...

Dude! (as the kids say) Take care, maintain, and best wishes.

Aliyah said...


Reading your post gave me a micro sense of what the past week must have been like for you. I was horrified at the initial diagnosis, kept in painful suspense by your description of the wait, and then massively relieved at the CT scan results.

There is absolutely no need to apologize for you absence (which I did note with curiosity).

Recover, rest, and be well. My hopes and best wishes are with you.

Bay Radical said...

So sorry for the scare. And so frustrating how often doctors forget that while they are just doing their jobs each day, their jobs are our lives.

Unknown said...

Get well soon. I'm a long time fan of yours.

NotHobbes said...

Thoughts are with you Professor, get well soon.

C Rossi said...

Professor Wolff:

Best wishes for a complete and rapid recovery. Exudative pleural effusions can be caused by various disorders, and I hope your physicians can make a definitive diagnosis; doing so will affect further therapy and monitoring. You were missed by your loyal readers and fellow students of the philosophic arts and low-down politics. Best wishes to you and your wife. With fond regards.

Daniel said...

I wish your full and complete recovery professor. I am a big fan of your writing both in blog and book form. Get well soon.

trane said...

Dear Professor Wolff

I frequently read your blog, but seldom comment.

My best wishes for your speedy recovery.


imcdpe said...

What a scare! Living with with a 70% probability of incurable lung cancer and being told that you fell within the remaining 30%, I can only imagine the emotional roller coaster.

Happy to hear about the outcome, and hope you get well soon. We need many more years of your rants!

formerly a wage slave said...

I hope you'll get all of this straightened out! Good luck!
But, please allow me one observation: You had to insist that you would not wait. And your insistence got you what you wanted. How many people would not have done that?
For the past two and a half years I have been helping my eighty-six year old father (soon to be eighty-seven) and my eighty-six year old mother with doctor visits and assorted tasks. When I first arrived, my mother was having problems getting her very much needed pain killer. (She has a degenerative spinal condition as well as very painful arthritis.)
I helped my mother write a letter which merely detailed the facts about her attempts to get the pain-killer she needs. And, I was there when the doctor who was primarily responsible (a specialist in treating pain) complained to her about the letter. As he told the story, here he was working so hard for his patients, not able to focus on their health the way he imagined he would be able to in medical school, all because of the interference of insurance companies, and what does he get? He doesn't get thanks from his patients, but only complaints. Needless to say, I have no sympathy for the man. (Well, maybe a little, since I assume the complaint about insurance companies is correct; however, so far as my mother's care went, it was a clear case of 'the squeaky wheel gets the grease'. And, in any case, the local gossip is that the doctor has an expensive sports car that attracts a lot of attention--not the sort of thing an unemployed Ph.D. like me will ever purchase, I assure you.
If only more people spoke up.....And I myself am worn down by the whole process of waiting for hours in the doctor's office, so that there can be little doubt that I don't always react as I should.
In any case, I will tell my mother your story. I do hope you will get better. And thank you for writing about your experience in a public forum. Mark L.

Murfmensch said...

Hoping for good news soon.

Kevin said...

What a harrowing few days... Here's hoping to your safe recovery. Happy to here about the CT scan and blood test results.

jbartol said...

Prof Wolff,

Best of luck for a speedy recovery. It seems the worst is now behind.

Justin Clarke-Doane said...

My thoughts are with you. (I'm just another secret fan.)

Unknown said...

Just checked in to your blog and read the harrowing account. What scary uncertainty to live with, still, even after you dodged that particular bullet. I hope you're feeling better soon. Please keep us all posted on your progress.

all best, Dick Moran

Mikey said...


Glad to hear the worst case is unlikely. Get better soon.

Phersv said...

Dear Professor Wolff,

I am really sorry and I hope this new year will turn out better soon.

You have to know that your fascinating philosophical articles bring clarity and rigor to every subject you write on. Thank you again for writing all of this.

Portez-vous bien,

Conrad Decker said...

Another lesson from this horrible experience is the inanity of the various statistical estimates that are thrown around. All little epistemological modesty would have spared you and your family a horrible few days!

all the best!

Bennett said...

Good grief! I am glad you are well.

ajrosa said...

Bob-I wish that you had started this off by saying that "I don't have stage 4 lung cancer, but...." It wasn't a good experience reading through this, but, as I can imagine, nothing near as difficult as actually going through it. You, Susie, and family are in my thoughts.

ajrosa said...

Bob-I wish that you had started this off by saying that "I don't have stage 4 lung cancer, but...." It wasn't a good experience reading through this, but, as I can imagine, nothing near as difficult as actually going through it. You, Susie, and family are in my thoughts.