I had the dream. That’s when I got sort of concerned. I had only dreamt about my body twice in my life, the two times I was pregnant, and having a dream that I had cancer was unsettling at best. I decided it was probably time to schedule my annual and talk with my Ob-Gyn about the strange cramping, bleeding and fatigue I’d been suffering for the past few months. She referred me to a gastroenterologist, assuring me that it was unlikely it would turn out to be anything too horrible. I was, after all, a very healthy 39-year old woman.
When I woke up from the sedative following my colonoscopy, I learned that I had a “large polyp,” too large for removal through the colonoscope. The doctor told me she was leaving the film for a surgeon she works with regularly to look at the next day and to schedule an appointment for the following week to go over the pathology report. When she called me at 8:15 the next morning and said that Dr. Shelton wanted to see me the next day; I knew it was not good news. I knew he was going to tell me that I had cancer.
Dr. Shelton breezed in right on time and within about two minutes told me that I had rectal cancer. There would be one more diagnostic study to stage the tumor, appointments with the team of oncologists to discuss my treatment plan and a few more scans to get me ready for radiation therapy. All of a sudden I was a cancer patient. I learned the next week that my tumor was locally advanced (Stage IIIB). There would be radiation/chemotherapy, surgery and more chemotherapy.
I had an extremely difficult time with treatment and suffered complications too numerous to mention. I had five abdominal surgeries to repair damage to my small intestine and spent months in the hospital, not including the surgery to remove the tumor. The tumor that was originally to be removed in late April 2007 didn’t come out until the end of July, along with two active lymph nodes. I had a new boyfriend. His name is NED (No Evidence of Disease). My other boyfriend, the man of my dreams, didn’t mind sharing me with NED. In fact, he couldn’t have been happier.
A year into our relationship, NED started to get bored with me. I always knew he was a fickle guy and he is kind of a slut, not a one-woman-man. I knew I would have to work to keep his attention. You know, take care of myself, eat right, embrace life…but I also really wanted to believe that I was special, the kind of girl he’d want to stay with for a long time. I had several nodules in my lungs, two of which started to grow and by October 2008 they were large enough to remove, along with the lower lobe and a wedge of the medial lobe of my right lung. I had metastatic rectal cancer. Crap. I told NED it was fine if that’s how he wanted to play it. I knew he’d come crawling back, begging me to forgive him (which of course I did because I’m a softie that way). We opted for no chemo given my history. We decided to keep it in the arsenal for the next go round should there be one. There is a nodule in the right lung we keep watching and well, you just never know. Rectal cancer is slow growing and generally less aggressive than other cancers which is great. You have to watch closely though, because those tumors could just be hanging out in their hiding places, slowly getting bigger and just when you think you’re out of the woods…aha! So I’m scanned twice a year, have quarterly blood tests and I run. The one thing I can affirmatively do for myself is to be in the best possible shape should the grim cancer reaper come calling again. Just like when I knew the diagnosis was coming, I’m still realistic about the odds but optimistic about my chances. I know I can do this.
I spent a lot of time in the aftermath of my recurrence thinking about everything that cancer has taken from me. I’ve been carved up six ways to Sunday, my guts have been rerouted, I have half a lung, I live in fear of the scans, knowing just how stacked against me are the odds. I am afraid of missing out on the wonder of knowing who my beautiful girls will grow up to be and having more time with the love of my life, moments that I treasure. But I also thought a lot about what cancer has given me. I know now that I am strong and I can face difficult news without falling apart, at least not immediately. I can focus more clearly on the things that matter and I try to do the things that are important to me, hopefully not out of fear of a missed opportunity but for the beauty of doing them, for the memory and the experience, and because I want to. The silver lining in the cloud of cancer is all of these moments of such stunning beauty that I would never have experienced had I not gotten sick. I am grateful for the strength it brought to my life that makes me a better mom, friend, employee…a better me. I’m profoundly grateful for the wonderful people that surround me and who are always here to help me through the rough spots, hold my hand when things are scary and the news is coming or difficult. I’m blessed in countless ways and if the price I have to pay is a screwed up disease that ravages my physical being, then so be it. It’s small in comparison to the riches that have been bestowed upon me through this journey. The beauty is always there. Sometimes you just have to look a little bit harder for it.