I really truly hate cancer. I hate it because it has not only altered my life (and my body) as a result of four bouts with the disease, but because it has deprived me…and by extension, the world…of the wisdom, enthusiasm, talents and love of those I have lost to cancer. I have even lost a couple of pets to leukemia.
My first encounter with cancer was when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time I didn’t know that my father had also had cancer, colon cancer. Fortunately his was diagnosed early enough that he was in full remission, so we never really knew about it. My mother had a radical mastectomy and had to deal with the scarring, both physical and emotional. We thought she had gone into remission as well, but she started having pain in her lower abdomen. Her doctor told her it was just “female problems” and gave her pain killers. She finally went to her surgeon who did a full physical, discovering that the cancer had metastasized into her uterus and lymph nodes. From there, it went into her brain, despite more surgery and chemotherapy. She was killed instantly in an automobile accident about 3 months after she had been given six months to live. She was a very courageous woman who never complained once about the pain she was suffering. In fact, we never knew of the final tumor in her brain until my father consulted the doctor who diagnosed her. She is the source of any courage or resilience I have shown for the disease.
My father lived out a very full life after his colon cancer, dying at age 84 of a malignant tumor in the stint between the liver and pancreas. My stepmother died of scarring caused by radiation when she was treated for cancer of the arteries leading into her heart. And my sister has survived uterine cancer. At least she has survived.
I was first diagnosed with colon cancer at age 38 back in 1985. It was caught quite early because I went to the doctor because I just didn’t feel “right.” I’m not a hypochondriac…I just know when something isn’t right. Then, a year later, a second tumor was found. It was a polyp found with a colonoscopy. But, because it was flat against the colon wall, it couldn’t be snipped off. So a second hemi-colectomy was performed. I hoped I was finished with cancer. But I faithfully had my checkups. And I had begun having mammograms every year.
Five years after my colon surgeries, I was declared in full remission. But cancer wasn’t finished with me. When I had my mammogram that year, the radiologist called me into his office and pointed out this little star-shaped area on the film. The decision was to biopsy it, even though it was only .05 of a centimeter. Normally I would have been told to come back for a follow-up in four months, but because of my history and that of my family, they ran a silver wire into the area so the surgeon could biopsy it. It was found to be cancer. Again because of my history, I was advised to have a modified radical mastectomy. Surgery, chemo, surgery again to do reconstruction. By that time I had lost enough time from work that I lost my job. The good news is that my insurance coverage was extended due to the severance package I was given…and by the time it ran out I already had another job. However, I had to wait for six months before it covered anything having to do with cancer.
I am, admittedly, one of the very lucky ones. I did have a lot of pain and my body is a mish-mash of surgical alterations. In fact, just before the second colon surgery, I suggested to my doctors that they should install a zipper to make it easier to rearrange my innards! I was told by a supervisor who overheard me that I should take my disease more seriously. To which I responded that I could…but that that would only bore my friends and make me feel worse. Or I could continue to laugh about it, making me feel a lot better as well as my friends.
My fourth diagnosis really scared me, though it was the least of the different types of cancer…basal cell carcinoma. This was this past June, after 19 years of being free from cancer. My doctor said not to worry, that it wasn’t all that serious. But by now, just the word “cancer” is scary!
What really upsets me now is the number of people I know who are waging war against cancer, trying to survive it. Even more disturbing are those who are dying of cancer. We’ve lost so many wonderful people over the past few months…Ted Kennedy, Mary Travers, Patrick Swayze, William Sapphire and many others…and those are just the well-known people. At the beginning of the summer, we lost a lovely, caring lady in her thirties who had fought breast cancer for ten years. She had a full life ahead of her, a husband who loved her so very much and friends and family who had learned from her what courage really means.
When I look at these people and the fight they waged to survive and to share their experiences, I am truly humbled. It is because of them that I must share my story because, if nothing else, it illustrates the importance of early detection…and the importance of every person having access to the tools that facilitate early detection.
Currently I am a volunteer with the American Cancer Society, where I do Relay for Life as well as serving as a volunteer stakeholder in their peer review process. This is the mechanism that the ACS uses to determine who will receive research grants. I also am an advocacy volunteer with ACS Cancer Action Network, where we advocate on behalf of cancer patients, their families and caregivers, and survivors to state and Federal legislators. It is my small way of giving back and saying “thanks” for the technology and treatments that have enabled me to be a four-time cancer survivor.