It was March, 1987.
The doctor’s mouth was moving but I’d stopped hearing the moment he said the word cancer. I was sitting on the edge of the hospital bed trying to listen to a doctor who couldn’t meet my gaze as he explained how the needle biopsy results indicated the tumour in the ball of my femur was cancer. How could a simple pain in my hip be cancer? My husband and I had only been married five years; we had a beautiful three year old son and were looking forward to adding to our family soon. That was what had brought me to the doctor in the first place. I wanted to get pregnant and wanted a clean bill of health before we took the plunge into parenthood again. The pain in my hip was annoying but I never dreamed it was life-threatening. I couldn’t believe that my life was about to change forever. I was 31 years old.
Then came the surgery to remove my hip bone and transplant a section of my pelvic bone on the right side. It would be a long recovery but I was sure the surgery would be a complete success. My husband, Rick, held my hand as they wheeled my bed down the brightly lit hall. With a final squeeze he let me go. When I woke up, my husband was holding my hand and stroking it gently. I looked groggily into his eyes and managed a smile.
“How did it go?” I murmured.
With a worried smile, he said, “Well, the good news is you’ve still got all your own body parts but the bad news is they discovered more tumour than the biopsy and CT scan revealed. It was scattered through your pelvic girdle and the doctor said it looked like grains of rice. They’ve never seen anything like it before so they sent it to the pathologist. He couldn’t decide if it was malignant or benign. Honey, they cleaned out the entire tumour and are sending it off for further testing.”
I didn’t know if I should be happy, worried, or sad but I knew for sure that I was scared.
Benign! We couldn’t believe what we were hearing! It wasn’t cancer! Samples of the strange rice-like tumour had been sent to labs around the world. The overwhelming consensus was that it was benign. Now we could get on with strengthening the weakened leg through physiotherapy and get our family plans back on track as soon as my hip joint had regenerated. Life was good…for awhile.
The lump started small at the site of the original needle biopsy. Just scar tissue the experts assured me. Still, a little fear niggled at the back of my mind but I tried hard to push it away. The lump grew to the size of a marble then to the size of an egg and I knew it wasn’t scar tissue anymore. My son was just months away from his fourth birthday and I felt my biological clock ticking faster each day. We needed to resolve this soon. My doctor scheduled another biopsy. I was now 32 years old.
On December 22, 1987, my family and I sat in the surgeon’s office waiting to hear the diagnosis. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes as he slowly sat down across from me. He reached out and gently placed his hand on my knee.
“May I speak to you as if you were my wife?”
Well, he was young and attractive – I certainly wasn’t going to object to that! I smiled and said, “Of course!”
Gently, he squeezed my knee and quietly said, “Honey, if you don’t have this operation, you’ll die.”
I remember the look of surprise on his face when I said, “Okay. When do you want to do it?”
He was sure I hadn’t heard him correctly so he went on to explain that by ‘operation’ he meant ‘amputation’ – I would lose my entire right leg, including my hip and pelvis. I nodded and assured him I understood and again I asked him, “When do you want to do it?”
I could feel my husband’s grip tighten on my shoulders as he stood behind me, swallowing hard to keep the lump in his throat from rising.
The doctor gently explained that this type of cancer, wouldn’t respond to chemotherapy or radiation; it would move very quickly to my lungs; I needed to have the surgery immediately. It didn’t sound like he was giving me much hope for seeing another Christmas so I explained to him that I wanted to celebrate Christmas and New Years with my family; I also had a baby shower to host for my friend; my husband and I had a wedding to attend the first weekend in January and I really wanted just one last night of dancing on two legs. I told the doctor my schedule was cleared for January 6.
“Would that work for you?” I asked calmly.
The doctor was expecting shock, anger, tears, or denial – anything but calm acceptance. He thought I had lost my mind or taken one pain pill too many but what he didn’t know was that a month earlier, before my biopsy, I had a dream that I wasn’t yet prepared to share with anyone. I was afraid if I did they would think that I was giving up.
I’d gone to bed as usual but what followed was the most miraculous event in my life aside from giving birth. I dreamed I was 83 years of age and was watching a movie of my life. It was a lovely life. I had two handsome, successful sons – which was odd because at the time I only had one son; I had a good, long marriage to my wonderful husband, Rick; it was a very nice life. I remember that the word “fluffy” came to mind. I remember feeling oddly disappointed at the end. I said, “What? That’s it? That’s all there was?”
A voice answered, “Now I’ll show you your life on one leg.”
Again, the movie unfolded but this time I saw a life filled with accomplishments. Again I saw my two wonderful sons and my loving husband by my side but this time I saw myself speaking to children at schools; helping cancer patients and amputees; writing stories; TV appearances and speaking on the radio; I saw myself falling down but there were always strong arms there to pick me up; I saw a life filled with challenges and triumphs and when the ‘movie’ ended I remember sighing as I exclaimed, “Now that was a life that mattered!”
The voice spoke once more. Slowly. Clearly. Deliberately. Five small words that would change my life forever - “This choice I give you.”
When I woke up the first thing I did was reach for my journal and I wrote these words: After the dream I had last night I know I am going to lose my leg and it’s going to be okay.
So, a month later, when the doctor gently told us what needed to be done I had already come to terms with the reality of losing my leg. I had already embraced my fate.
On January 6, 1988, I lost my entire right leg including my hip and pelvis to cancer but my life has been so much more than just “Okay” – it has been an amazing journey. Everything and more that I dreamed has come to pass. So much more! After the amputation, my surgeon suggested I wait 10 years before trying to have a baby just to make sure I was cancer free. I told him that 42 was too old for me to have a baby. He smiled and compromised to five years. I smiled, remembering my dream, and told him I’d wait two years. Immediately after my two year ‘all-clear’ examination my husband and I ‘celebrated’ the good news and thirty-seven weeks later our second son, Andrew, was born on November 8, 1990. A healthy, beautiful 7 pound 14 ounce bundle of love – our little miracle arrived just as the dream foretold. We documented the pregnancy and birth to help other amputees like me so they could see that it could be done. I was 35 years old.
In 1990, I won two silver medals in the BC Winter Games for slalom and giant slalom – I didn’t know that I was already pregnant with Andrew; in 1991 the remarkable story of my pregnancy was published in a book called, “You’re Not Alone” - a collection of stories written by 38 amputees and published by Sabolich Prosthetics in Oklahoma City; in 2003 I was awarded the honour of being Woman of the Year for Chilliwack, BC, my hometown; in 2003 I also received the prestigious Rotary Club Paul Harris Fellows Award; in 2005 I received Canada’s Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award; in 2007 I became the Regional President of the Canadian Cancer Society; in 2008 I launched my professional speaking career; in 2009 I am busy writing children’s books and working on a true story of survivorship and friendship with three of my closest friends. I am living a truly remarkable life. I’m not just a 20+ year cancer survivor but, as my friend says (the one whose baby shower I hosted 21 years ago); I’m a 20+ year cancer thriver!
For more information visit www.glendastandeven.com