May 11, 2016 will forever be a date embedded in my mind. That was the day that after hospital stays, blood transfusions from nearly bleeding out, and two surgeries (D&C and hysterectomy) that I learned that the part of me that was supposed to allow me to help bring a life into this world was instead, full of cancer and was trying to take MY life from me. At the age of 42, I was diagnosed with stage 3 uterine cancer which had spread to my ovaries. I remember the moment that the doctor told me.
I was on the exam table, smiling, telling him I was doing well after my latest surgery. My husband was in a guest chair nearby. After the exam, the doctor asked if I wanted to sit next to my husband. In hindsight, I should have known what he was about to tell me, but I guess I just didn’t allow my mind to go there. While doing well from the last surgery, I was still sore, so I told him I’d just stay where I was. I will never forget how he rolled his chair to be close to me and he put his hand on my knee and said, “We need to talk about all of the tumors”.
He’d told me, while recovering in the hospital the day after my surgery, that my uterus had been covered in tumors. He also told me that he had to cut out a great deal of growth from my left side, along my abdomen. He even told me that day after surgery that the pathologist had told him during surgery that in the 20 years he’d been practicing, he’d never seen someone with as much tumor growth as was found in my uterus. Even with all of that, I still didn’t consider the possibility that I’d be diagnosed with cancer at my first post-op appointment. At that point, I’d been managing a medical practice for 15 years. I should have known. I can only assume that my brain was somehow protecting itself and bracing me for the fight ahead.
When my oncologist patted my knee and told me I had cancer—an aggressive form—stage 3, that spread to my ovaries; I remember that I could hear my husband take a deep, sharp breath and he just held it. Me? I was sitting on that exam table, still with that stupid smile on my face that was now frozen in place. As my doctor talked to me about treatment options and what the next year would be like, I remember at one point thinking to myself, I’m still smiling! Why am I smiling?!? His words sounded like they were whispered down a long tunnel. I heard them, yet somehow didn’t.
The thing that finally jarred me out of it and to a clearer space was when he looked at my hair. It was super long then, past my waist and long enough I could sit on it. I remember him telling me that I’d lose all my long, beautiful hair. That, of all things, caught my attention the most. I heard him tell me about chemo and radiation and I heard me telling him, “Let’s do it!”. I remember him hugging me before I left and telling me that I was in for the fight of my life, but that he was optimistic that I could beat it.
When my husband and I returned home from that fateful appointment, I told him I needed a few minutes. He nodded and I could hear him breaking down as he headed toward our bedroom and shut the door. I went to our office room in our house and sat down in the recliner, not knowing that this would become my recovery room. Or, as I often later referred to it– and still do to this day—’Reclinerville’.
I allowed myself to finally HEAR the words the doctor told me. I allowed myself to think about chemo (which was terrifying) and radiation and even INTERNAL radiation (which was infinitely more terrifying to think about). I allowed myself to cry. For 10 minutes. I actually set the alarm on my phone. Ten minutes to let it out and then it was time to suck it up, buttercup. I just knew that if I allowed myself to fall into the despair of it all, that I would have a difficult time climbing back out of that. Not allowing myself to cry beyond those 10 minutes was paramount to my personal fight. I was scheduled for months of chemo. After chemo, I had 5 weeks of daily radiation. Then I was scheduled for brachytherapy (internal radiation). Following brachytherapy, I was scheduled for additional months of chemo. So, after that 10 minutes of crying, I took several long, deep breaths and I steeled my mind and entered what I’ve called my ‘Fight Like a Girl’ stance.
I had my chemo port surgery and was scheduled for chemo shortly after. I knew I was going to lose my hair, so I had it cut to my shoulders and donated it to Wigs for Kids. 11 days after my first chemo treatment, my hair began falling out in clumps while at work. I called my husband and told him that was the night I would shave it. I put my now shoulder length hair into 9 ponytails. My husband got out the clippers and let me shave his head first. Then, it was my turn. We shaved off those nine ponytails and I donated them to Children Without Hair. I had my first ever short buzz-cut. We laughed. Instead of crying and sobbing (which would have been OK), my husband and I laughed and shared that moment that neither of us will forget. Within a week’s time, I was bald like Mrs. Clean!
Treatment wasn’t easy, but I did it. I went to chemo with smiles for the nurses and the other patients. I watched game shows on the small tv with my husband and we’d laugh and try to outscore the tv competitors while a combination of steroids and anti-nausea meds, carbo and Taxol chemo was pumped into me for 7 hours. We kept it light. He did that for me, and I did that for him. Chemo brought on complications of upset stomach, aching muscles, and bone deep pain from the medication to replenish my white blood cell count. Chemo gave me neuropathy in my hands and feet that I have to this day. Radiation caused terrible digestive issues. Still, I drove 45 minutes each way to my appointments, every day. I didn’t miss or reschedule once.
There were times I laid on the table that put me inside a human microwave (how I looked at radiation) and I actually couldn’t believe where I was or how I was doing it— even if I’d already been going every day for weeks. Each chemo cycle took longer to recover from. The last took me months, but I finally reached NED status (No Evidence of Disease) in 2017. It wasn’t an easy journey, but I made it. There were days I thought I just couldn’t do it anymore. But I did. And so will YOU.
Through my entire the treatment, I kept my full-time job. I bought myself comfortable hats and colorful earrings. I put on makeup, even when it took all of my energy to lift a brush. I might have had cancer, but I was determined to not let it have me! It certainly doesn’t mean that there weren’t struggles or moments of fear. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have anxiety when the next appointment rolls around and I have to wait to hear if I’m all-clear or if the cancer has metastasized further. I do.
However, my cancer diagnosis also gave me a new perspective on life and relationships and how all of the small things truly mean the most. I would have never chosen to be a cancer patient, but at this point, I really don’t think that I’d change it. I now make showing random acts of kindness a daily challenge. Each day, I look at my family and I love them and appreciate them more than ever. I still have residuals from my treatment. I often drop things, and walking can be difficult (severe neuropathy keeps me unbalanced at times) and I now walk with a cane (but one that I ‘blinged out’ to be more representative of me). I’m so grateful and blessed to still be here; scars, new flaws and all.
If I had any advice to give someone starting out on their journey, it would be to just breathe and hang in there. You’ll do things and go through things and get to the other side of things that you couldn’t imagine that you could do. But you will. You WILL get through the days. Hair grows back. And cancer can only rob you of your joy if you let it. I kept a print-out on the wall in my office that I still keep to this day. It reads: “On particularly rough days, when I’m sure I can’t possibly endure, I like to remind myself that my track record for getting through bad days so far is 100%, and that is pretty good.”
This story is intended to convey a personal experience and, because every person’s experience is unique, should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional healthcare advice.