Uterine Cancer Survivor
Cancer. It’s a six-letter word that carries a semi truck load of baggage. It’s the memory of what family or friends have gone through before you. It’s an awareness of your own mortality. It’s dread for what might lie ahead. As the child of medical professionals, cancer was a semi-regular topic of dinner table conversation throughout my childhood. I became personally affected when my dad was diagnosed with cancer shortly after my 16th birthday. I spent my late teens watching him battle multiple forms of cancer with an unwavering faith and grace that awes me now, looking back on it nearly 3 decades later.
In 2010, I went to a (long overdue) doctor’s appointment for a physical and Well Woman check. Although I knew that I had some troubling symptoms, I had convinced myself that they weren’t a big deal. However, during my appointment, my answer to one of those questions gave my doctor pause: I was menstruating heavily for about a week each month and having a second cycle roughly two weeks later. What followed was a series of cycle tracking and medical tests, culminating in a minor surgical procedure during the last week of 2010. (Isn’t this how everyone wants to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s?). As I sat in the waiting room of my gynecologist’s office on January 11, 2011, an eerie calm settled over me and I thought, “These are my last moments before she tells me I have cancer.” I shook those thoughts off and walked into the exam room mentally laughing at myself, because I was only 38, and I was convinced that while someday I would be diagnosed cancer, that date was decades in the future.
Except it wasn’t. At 4:57 pm, my doctor said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you that you have uterine cancer.” What followed next was a several minute conversation where I understood most of what she was saying, but on delay. It was as though Charlie Brown’s teacher was talking to me. “Wah wah wah wah wah wah.” I could hear her talking, but it took time for my brain to process what she was saying. I drove home and started wading into the baggage. I set a timer and gave myself 15 minutes to have a pity party and sob it out, before I called my family. The next few days were tough. In addition to telling my family, I had to break the news to my compassionate coworkers. I work at a college, and I had to explain to my student workers why I would be disappearing for a few weeks, and why I would be breaking my own “no cell phone use at work” rule in order to be accessible to my doctors.
But here’s the thing. I didn’t anticipate that getting cancer would be as much of a gift as it was a curse.
When I sent the email to my coworkers, the one with whom I had the most challenging relationship was the first in my office to give me a hug, offer emotional support and food to nourish me during my recovery.
When I told the student workers, they took me at my word that I believe that laughter is good medicine and they shared funny stories, jokes, and hugs when I looked down.
When I went to church to teach 8th grade confirmation class, my parish priest asked if he could offer me the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, both as a blessing to me and as a reassurance to the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders who were being told by their family members that the sacrament used to be called Extreme Unction and only be offered on deathbeds. When my priest went to anoint me, he completely blanked on the prayers, which he had offered hundreds of times over the decades he’d been a priest. It took another volunteer Googling it and starting the prayer off for my priest to have it kick in to muscle memory – and by then, the students, volunteers, my priest and I were all full out laughing or giggling. I turned to the kids and said, “Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor!”
My mom was by my side for my appointments at a university-affiliated medical center an hour away (the local hospital is 8 minutes away from my home, so this was a trip!), stayed with me during my surgery, and then took me in to her home during my recovery and follow-up visits. Those weeks were painful, to be sure, but also filled with so much love and friendship between the two of us that they will be treasured memories for as long as I live.
When I quietly bemoaned my realization that I would never be able to have a child, my friends quietly offered me all of their children. If I’d taken them all up on it, I would be single parent to more than 2 dozen children! (I’m very happy just being a pet parent, thankyouverymuch!)
My toddler nephew ran to me the first time he saw me post-surgery and kissed my belly, trying to make sure that my owie healed right so that I could pick him up and hug him the way I usually did.
My friends and I hugged more frequently, talked, texted, and emailed more often, and reminded each other that life’s problems could have been so much worse.
It’s been 7.5 years since my surgery. If I had to get cancer, I got a good one. I joke that they unzipped me, pulled out a few organs, and zipped me back up, good as new. It’s not wholly accurate, but pretty close. I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation. Pap smears and pelvic exams aren’t a lot of fun, but even having one of those every 3-6 months for 5 years is a breeze compared to all of the other possible treatments I could have faced.
Life is filled with challenges, and even today, it’s a fight to stay positive. But I would rather count my blessings than my pains. So I’m going to take myself off to read a good book and cuddle with my dog, because life can be sweet if you let yourself focus on the positive.