“My Voice” by Alma Nelly

Alma Nelly - 'Survivor'

I am a survivor… that I know for sure. When did I become one? I haven’t a clue. It could have been that dreadful day when I was diagnosed with cancer; it could have been 9 months later when I was declared cancer free; or, it could have been when I reached the celebrated five years post treatment. No, perhaps, it was the day I celebrated my first decade cancer free. I do not know!  What I do know is that the journey to the day I am living today is one that I could never forget…one that I would never want to forget.

It can be said that my “journey” began in October of 1997, when on the eve of my 19th birthday I was not only diagnosed with a cancerous bone tumor, but also with ovarian cancer. With the uncertainty of what lay ahead, my initial reaction was to leave school and quit my job. After all, it was not easy getting around in crutches with a cast covering 90% of my right leg. My next response was “ok, I have cancer and I have a birthday coming up…let’s have a party!”  Yes, I wanted to party, you have no idea how much I wanted to party!  Unlike any party I had thrown before, this one was marred by the incertitude of not knowing whether I’d get to see another year. And so, I partied into my 19th year of life in a black dress and very short ‘do. It was a great night with family and friends. At the end of that night somewhere deep inside me I said good bye the person I’d been and the life I’d had.

The life that started shortly thereafter revolved around MD Anderson and whatever the countless doctors dictated. A poke here, a prod there, a CT of this, an MRI of that, just one more tube of blood… Miss Faz we’re going to have to insert a central line… Miss Faz you’re going to have to have chemotherapy…Miss Faz we’re going to have to operate…Miss Faz you might lose one of your ovaries…Miss Faz if your tumor doesn’t respond your leg might have to go…Miss Faz…Miss Faz…Miss Faz….AAAAGH!!!  How am I supposed to handle this? I am 19 years old!! I have a life I want to live!  As the teams of doctors did their planning I did mine. Their conclusion: operate to remove the ovarian masses in the abdomen; follow with six rounds of chemotherapy for both cancers simultaneously; asses bone tumor treatment response after third round. Mine: LET’S DO THIS, I have a life to live so let’s get this over with!

The assault began with a search and destroy mission. Boy did they find something to destroy! The casualties of battle #1:  two ovaries, both the size of tennis balls, a cancerous mass the size of a 5 month fetus, several bad lymph nodes around my abdominal aorta, spending Thanksgiving in the hospital…most painfully, my divine right to bear children.  The lymph nodes that decided to go bad were too risky to operate so we’d have to torture them slowly with chemo. The thought of torturing them slowly almost made it all worthwhile, almost.   Battle #2: Chemotherapy. Ah, the unimaginable joy chemo brings! Chemo was like “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, it started on December 12th and brought me a wonderful gift each and every day leading up to Christmas Day. Amongst the many gifts were a little red cylinder attached to my central line for 3 days; an extended stay at the five star MD Anderson Inn beginning with an arterial line down my leg with chemo so powerful I’d lose days. Lucky for me I had my siblings to remind me of the craziness I’d say in my chemo-drunken stupor. To this day I pray I didn’t share too much, if I did I’m sure I’ll never know. I got a bout of viral pneumonia; got to spend Christmas Eve in the hospital followed by the greatest gift of all: going bald on Christmas Day!  Much to my liking I got to ring in the New Year (1999) at home. Shortly thereafter it was time to go back to the MDA Inn for next round of chemo. Round 2 and 3 came and went with lost days, countless nights of puking, anxiety attacks, visits to the emergency room, and blood transfusions.  The next major battle came when my small bowel decided that, like me, it was tired of not having any real food to munch on so it decided to adhere onto itself. An operation later, followed a nice little stint in the ICU, brought me the news that there was so much bowel adhesion (and resulting ascites) which had made it very difficult for the doctors to fix me up, stuff me back in and stitch me shut.  “I’m glad to see you smile my angel. I knew you were sick the moment I saw you and you weren’t smiling at me. You almost didn’t make it”, I was told on the last day of my lengthy stay. WOW!  Those words I will never forget. This meant war! Cancer had stepped it up a notch without knowing I, most definitely, could rise up to the challenge and fight back.  The war further escalated two weeks later when after all my follow up exams and treatment assessments it was determined that the treatment for my leg tumor was not working. The dirty little punk kept trying to make us guess, this time deciding that it would feed off the chemo to grow stronger. Yes punk you grew stronger but guess what? SO DID I! This last battle was, perhaps, the costliest battle of the war. At the end of February 1999 there was nothing else that could be done to kill this tumor; my leg would have to be amputated. As the family gathered to hear the news I cried, kicked and yelled. For a couple of hours I let my all my anger out never asking why…why me? The only question I had was whether or not my friends would still love me after it was all said and done. Once the two hours were gone so were the anger and the feelings of defeat. My new reality was that I would be an amputee for the rest of my life. I had to lose my leg to keep my life. On March 5th, 1999, I presented to the MD Anderson to have my cast removed. Bidding farewell to my now atrophied bumpy lower leg I went off into battle. I woke up from the amputation surgery with a big smile on my face. I smiled at the first person I saw. I smiled even bigger when I saw my family. I smiled because I knew the last of the cancer was gone. I smiled because I knew it was not coming back. I smiled because I was alive. I had won the war!

To this day I have not quit smiling. I refuse to stop smiling. I have a million reasons to smile. I am alive and living the happiest, most fulfilling life anyone could ever wish for…why shouldn’t I smile? Looking back through the years I have come to realize how lucky I am. How much I love being a survivor.  It is through retrospect that I have come to know that survivorship is not just about preserving your life, no; it is much more than that. Survivorship is knowing that the new person who has emerged did so victoriously from a battle well fought. Survivorship is knowing the new person you have become; it is loving that person. Most importantly, survivorship is accepting that person. It is very difficult to face the wounds and scars cancer left behind. It is even more difficult to love & accept them, but why shouldn’t I love and accept them if, at the end of the day, those scars are the evidence of a fight fought with courage and determination? They are evidence that cancer was real. They are the evidence that cancer did everything in its power to beat me. They are the evidence that I am bigger, better, and stronger than cancer. They are my badge of honor. They are the evidence that I fought and I WON!