The body: No place to store fruit salad.

This big.

Oh hey, here’s a thing you probably don’t know about me: I only have one adrenal gland.

Now, if you’re like most people, you just went: “Hold on. How many adrenal glands are we supposed to have?”

Two. The answer is: two.

This brings us to another thing that you likely don’t know about me: Once upon a time, I had a tumor the size of a grapefruit atop my left adrenal gland (which, for the sake of comparison, is about the size of a large almond). It was a surpassing rare thing called a pheochromocytoma (or “pheo” for short, which: Cute?).

Pheos are pretty dang deadly, particularly if you are a pregnant person who goes into labor — but bizarrely, I never went into labor with either child, because the pheo created medical crises that quickly led to two emergency C-sections (and don’t you dare tell me that it was my body or my babies being wise because that’s just stupid and yes, I’ve heard it a lot).

No one really understood why I’d had these medical crises, though, until six months after the girl was born and I had a sudden renewal of acute symptoms that scared the poop out of everyone, including a long list of medical professionals (many of whom had missed the pheo during the roughly 10 years that we now presume it was growing & making me vaguely-to-very-unwell in ways no one could figure out), but then I got the correct diagnosis within days, and was immediately scheduled for surgery.

The surgery itself is dangerous (lots of blood vessels on a pheo), but we got through that ok, and upon extraction, learned that my pheo was, ahem, “benign” (I much prefer the term “non-cancerous,” because honestly, does any of the foregoing sound “benign” to you?) — and, well, that adrenal gland on which my pheo sat and which had to also be removed? Who really gave much thought to that? After all, I have another one, sitting right there, pheo-less, just above the other kidney (in case you wondered where your adrenal glands are situated).

Well guess what? That extra adrenal gland isn’t like the spare heart that it turned out Worf had in Next Gen — it’s not, actually, “extra” at all! You need it. Your body actually needs its organs and removing any of them, even if it saves your life, is still rather traumatic for the whole. And not only that, but the adrenals are absolutely critical to the functioning of the entire endocrine system. So, you know: ripples upon ripples.

As a result, after my March 2004 surgery, I spent a few years in a hazy state of not-quite-right-ness, saddled with a daily cycle of exhaustion that I couldn’t make sense of but could track on the clock. Eventually, through a variety of small fixes and efforts at fixes, I found my way to a naturopath who has since worked marvels and wonders for me, through cold hard scientific testing of my body’s functions and slow-but-sure tinkering with a variety of supplements and herbs. I am so, so much better than I was when I first hove up on Lisa’s doorstep that I can’t rightly put my gratitude into words. Everything is better. Every. thing. is. better.

And yet — I am still, as Lisa says, “down an organ.”

If I have to expend an unusual amount of energy for any reason — say, cleaning for Passover, or traveling across the globe — it tends to knock me flat, the minute I can let down my guard. I know this, and tend to plan for it, carving out as much “I will be sub-functional” space as I can on the day after some big event has passed — but on a very real level, even though I “know” it, I realized today that I’ve never truly taken it in. Here’s what finally dawned on me today, as I left Lisa’s office after talking (again) about how hard my lonely little adrenal gland has to work:

I’m an amputee.

You can’t see it, but I am, in fact, an amputee.

If disease or disaster had led to, say, the amputation of one of my limbs, or (better analogy) part of limb, say: My lower left leg, below the knee — no one on earth would expect that amputation to have no impact on my ability to function in the world. Least of all me.

I could get the best prosthesis on the market, the one with all the bells and whistles — and it still wouldn’t be a leg. I would still have rough days, certain aches and pains would nag, particular activities might well stop all together (pogoing at concerts, for instance. Maybe? I don’t know. Can you pogo with a prosthesis?). My life would be full and active, with all the joys and sorrows — but I would be half a leg down.

I am an organ down — and yet something inside the very deepest recesses of my brain seems to think that if Lisa and I tinker enough, my body will magically act as if that’s not the case. As if my wee, singular adrenal can shoulder double the workload, no prob Rob!

I think that this dawning realization is wrapped up in the other dawning realization I’ve had this summer — the understanding that I have to (at the very least) change my relationship with writing, self-promotion, my career. That when I try to do an enormous amount of time-consuming work that is also emotionally draining, I wear myself down to a little nubbin, and only in part because I’m weak/wimpy/a crybaby, whatevs.

My body literally doesn’t have what it takes to do that anymore.

So anyway. There’s that. Don’t know that I have any grand and/or pithy conclusions, but I thought I’d share. Peace out. And be nice to your adrenals. Both of them.



  1. Lise

     /  July 14, 2011

    Worf … had an extra heart? Whoa. I recall that I pulled out a big medical text when you called me with your long-awaited yet quickly arrived at diagnosis. I practiced saying “feo-chro-mo-cy-to-sis” and noted that the rarity (1:60,000?) meant that I was unlikely to see another one in my life time. And certainly hoping that you’ll never see another one, either.

  2. dmf

     /  July 15, 2011

    for friday and citE’s beat, but not down, soul:

    Organ of Complexity

    One organ’s brutalizing corruption.
    Can simultaneously lead to another’s destruction.
    Internally apocalyptic, preparing to explode.
    Planted into the chest, written in a complex code.

    Built by peace, no cruel purpose in mind.
    But it’s out of our control what the unconscious half conveys.
    Luring more fiends after we give into their seduction.
    An inhumane design is the goal of these conductors.

    After serenity, peace of mind.
    Comes the pits of regret.
    The desire to turn back time and set everything straight.
    If possible, it could have prevented the offender from finding ground.
    The disrespectful betrayer who blocked he who truly cares enough to wear the crown.

    These are the patterns of life for those who have found no real enlightenment.
    You wouldn’t get it if you never really felt your heart scalding from an unknown ailment.
    A hope for better days beats into these aging veins.
    Connected to the beast containing wrath and love, all the same.

    Aaron Lynn

  3. My thyroid was (necessarily) rendered inert by radioactive iodine, and while the replacement hormone is both cheap and produces zero side effects, my body just doesn’t work as well with a dead thyroid as it did with a live (and healthy) one. Most of the time this isn’t an issue, but I push myself too hard and WHAM, I’m out with a migraine.

    So, yeah. Sucks. Better (so, so much better) than what it was when my thyroid was in hyperdrive, but, still.

    • I had my thyroid removed, then had radioactive iodine to make sure any stray cells were dead. I can totally relate to you. After having my thyroid removed ant the radiation after…I’m half dead most of the time. If I have something stressful or that requires a lot of physical exertion, I’m done for a day or two. Since I work as an apartment manager you can imagine how much stress and physicality I have. lol
      Have been trying to get the right levels of replacement hormone for almost 17 years now. My body was destroying my thyroid gland and slowly growing cancer for 16 of those 17.

  4. PK

     /  July 17, 2011

    So it turns out that my husband has a rare, for a guy, type of brain tumor. This tumor is why we built our family through adoption. This tumor is why he was so tired, so much of the time. This tumor is why he got these terrible headaches, which finally led him to the doctor. Turns out he had this tumor for more than 10 years, before we knew about it. He’s now in the getting used to having a chronic condition and always being on medicine stage.

  5. I don’t know if you’re still dealing with anything Pheo-related, but there’s a pretty supportive Pheo facebook group here:

    I had a paraganglioma on my Carotid Artery removed about a year ago (Paras are the same as Pheos just outside of the adrenal gland). I didn’t lose an organ to the ordeal, but it’s been a pretty interesting journey nonetheless. Mine was discovered during pregnancy, but didn’t cause symptoms like Pheos and Paras in the abdomen will.

    Anyway. I’m always glad to find fellow Pheo-people. Makes me not feel so rare. 🙂

  1. Things I do of which I am ashamed. — Feministe « hahayourefunny