Where I Thought I Failed Myself

In 1993 I was 16 years old when my mother died from metastatic breast cancer. I was unbearably sad and angry on so many levels and for a variety of reasons. One reason that had always stood out for me, and was a sticking point was how could a woman who ate healthy, worked out 5 days a week, didn’t smoke or abuse her body could get cancer not just once, but twice, with it ultimately taking her life? I looked at is as a “why bother to take care of myself, it didn’t do my mom any good”.

While I didn’t completely abuse my body, I sure did not treat it like any temple. When I started experiencing symptoms related to my colon cancer, (which in hindsight began about two years prior to my diagnosis) I was able to easily explain it away to bad diet, stress, lack of sleep, no exercise, and so on.

When I began seeing my oncologist and the colorectal surgeon we would review my medical history, my lab work, etc. My standard answer was always “I am perfectly healthy except for this cancer thing”. Nothing was ever out of whack or out of the ordinary enough that if you were to look at my medical file to indicate I had anything wrong with me.

In the first round of chemo, people would comment with surprise on how good I looked, as well as surprise that I was still up and working, living my life as normal. I, however, was very hung up on having an ileostomy – feeling gross, defective, embarrassed, in addition to the new scars on my midsection from surgery and the quarter size port protruding from underneath my skin. I told my husband I felt like I looked like a science experiment. After my ileostomy reversal surgery, we joked about the appearance of that scar, along with the scarred skin worn away from where my “poop bag” (as my littles liked to call it) has rubbed against my skin for the better part of 9 months.

But I was in an upswing – my body cleaning itself out from the 6 months of chemo, hair regrowth, getting back my energy, slowly getting my pre-cancer personality back. So going for my quarterly CT scans were not a big deal to me. But thanks to technology, I saw my results on the healthcare app. I sent a screenshot to a friend who is a nurse and another friend who is a doctor. I knew the words “evidence of metastatic disease” were not good. That Monday I spoke to my oncologist by telephone and by Friday I was in for a biopsy. Ten days later diagnosis confirmed, seven days later 5 rounds of the most wretched chemotherapy began (which was about the time “lock down” for quarantining from Covid began in Florida).

I though going into this I was an old pro. Boy was I wrong, the stress, anxiety, depression when I walked into the “chemo room” coupled with the medical smells and then getting a new chemo regimen that knocked me straight on my ass took me by surprise. Then came the weight loss, then the hair loss, then the other physical side effects. There were days I would just feel defeated and cry and days I would be pissed and then days I was “okay”. I kept asking myself what did I do to deserve this. Is this what my life was going to always look like? Every few months being terrified to get my scans done….waiting to see cancer pop up again somewhere else…afraid to plan, hope, dream.

When surgery happened in June, my recovery went well, really well, despite the doc doing a couple of quick “extra” procedures while he was removing my tumors. But the word from him was that the chemo shrunk my tumors down so much they were hard to locate and there was no evidence from what he was able to see of any residual disease in my liver.

I met with my oncologist at the end of June. Thinking I was going to get the “all clear” blessing I was thrown for a loop when he wanted to discuss a “plan of action”. Huh? The cancer is gone. I don’t get it. Basically, he wants to continue chemo treatment for me as a preventative measure. Pill form. For a least 6 months, or a year, or longer. He cannot make guarantees it won’t come back but with these preventative measures, it will help my chances.

So I went out to the waiting room and when my husband and I got out to his car I started to cry. The “why me” and “why can’t this be over” running through my head and out of my mouth.

It was a few days later that I had a realization. When my mom was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, it was terminal, but the doctor gave her months. She actually lived a year and a half. The way that she had taken care of herself over the years gave her that extra time….her body didn’t betray her, it helped prolong her. It is just something that I wasn’t able to see or comprehend in the depths of my grief. And then I took a look at myself – my joke of “I am perfectly healthy except for cancer” actually means something. It helped me heal quickly from my surgeries, it helped me get through both bouts of chemotherapy, it helped me to physically fight what was happening inside of me. My body didn’t fail itself, I did not fail me.

Now as I get ready to resume chemotherapy, while I am not excited about it, I do not feel defeated, I do not feel scared. I know there will be an adjustment period. My husband and I started approaching our eating habits a little differently to focus on optimal nutrition, I have switched primary care physicians to someone who works in Western and Eastern medicine and treats cancer patients. I am doing more reading, and slowly more self care, trying to stress less and be more mindful and more present (baby steps). And I am still on the path to run my first 5k with my brother and sister in law in November.

I know it is okay to cry, to be sad, to be angry, to be frustrated, to feel bad for myself. We should not deprive ourselves of the ability and the need to feels the feels and express our emotions. We all need that. But that is not where we should remain, we shouldn’t allow that to take over and extinguish the joy, dreams, wants, desires, laughs and love that lives inside us. We have the power to change, even if it is one tiny thing, just one small change a day, and when we master that, we add on another, then another. No one other than ourselves is responsible for those changes, no one other than ourselves is responsible for our healing or our happiness. But we can enlist others to join us on our journey, to walk beside us and help hold us accountable if we need it, or to just have a listening ear, or someone to sit with us in the silence of our sadness. The choice is ours, how to we want to live, what can we do to start today.

It is never too late to learn from our mistakes and do it different. I didn’t fail myself. I am finally starting to understand myself.

Remembering mom – before we lived in Florida. We took this trip from Long Island to Disney in August 1992, 7 months before she passed. This was our last family trip.

Entitlement

Every few days or so I get “ill” – for sake of not providing TMI, that is what I will call it. This results in lower body pain, chills, and exhaustion among other things. While I am down and out and resting I go on Instagram and Twitter. Over the course of the last year I have met and come to know many people, via social media, on their own cancer journey. There are those who are terminal, those in their 2nd (or 3rd of more) battle with cancer, those who are sick all the time and can’t work or perform basic functions. These people have amazing strength, amazing honesty and the best senses of humor I have ever come across. They have been my inspiration and my teachers. So as I sit back with my “ill” moments, I look at my cancer community and think to myself – what I am feeling now will pass, I have no evidence of disease, what do I have to b*tch about, what do I have to be down about? These people have shown me what battling real life threatening and life altering (and sometimes life ending) cancer is about. Am I doing my Fellow patients and survivors a disservice by being a “baby” (in my eyes at least) about how I am feeling? Am I doing them a disservice by not living my life to the fullest? Am I doing them a disservice by not advocating enough? Am I doing them a disservice by not taking care of myself better with this second change I got? I have gotten off “easy” compared to others that I have seen and those I have come to know. So am I entitled to b*itch, and moan, and whine, and complain, and take a sick day? Or do I put on my big girl panties and honor those who I have seen and those that I have come to know and take care of myself, life my life to the fullest – pursuing my dreams, and advocate for those who can’t? Perspective is everything and as I become further removed from my last day of chemo and my last surgery and I start to heal internally, the fog slowly lifting from my brain, my purpose becomes clearer. At the end of the day I am grateful for the journey 2019 had me on and the role it is playing in my unknown future and the road ahead.

What’s the Deal with “Cancer”versaries anyway?

Tomorrow, January 21, 2020, will mark one year from when I was officially diagnosed with cancer by an oncologist.

In the year or so following up to my diagnosis I had experienced random symptoms here and there that I attributed to poor diet, lack of sleep, massive stress, no exercise and so on. Beginning around mid September of 2018 my symptoms began to change and become bothersome with the worst of it manifesting in November. I had seen my primary care physician and since she knows I only go see her when it is my annual exam she knew something was up. I read her my list of symptoms I kept track of. She didn’t appear overly concerned but since there were a few symptoms that she didn’t feel comfortable with she thought it best for me to see a specialist and get a colonoscopy and endoscopy done.

When I saw the specialist, he said my symptoms sounded like pelvic floor disorder but wanted to proceed with the colonoscopy and endoscopy anyway just to cover all bases.

On New Year’s Eve 2018 my husband and I went in to have my procedure done. Coming out of anesthesia and getting myself put back together to go home the doctor came in and said I had what looked like a bleeding festering mass in the rectosigmoid junction that appeared to be malignant. I was sent on my way with a referral to a colorectal surgeon and an oncologist. On the way home I looked at my husband and said “hey I know I am still coming out of anesthesia but did the doctor say I had cancer?” and my husband said yes.

So began the surreal experience that was my 2019. My first CT scan was January 3rd. My first colorectal surgeon appointment was January 10th. My first appointment with the oncologist was on January 21st at which time I received my official cancer diagnosis and course of treatment options and outcomes. My second appointment with the colorectal surgeon was the afternoon of that same day. And then an MRI on January 27th and another one on January 29th.

My preop appointment with my surgeon was February 4th. A follow up with my oncologist was February 11th to confirm the surgery was good to go and the best option to start with. I had preadmission testing on February 25th and surgery on the 26th followed by a 5 day hospital stay.

I came out of surgery with a 6 week temporary ileostomy due to the size and location of my tumor. It turned into a 9 month temporary ileostomy on March 11th when I saw my oncologist and he told me that the cancer started to metastasize to my lymph nodes and as a precaution we were going to do 6 months of clean-up chemotherapy starting on April 1st. So on March 19th I went in for an outpatient “port placement” procedure which will be in the next 5 years as long as I remain cancer free.

I picked up some cooties on a cruise I was on in July (that whole compromised immune system thing cancer patients have) and wound up in the hospital again 4 more days. Which was then accompanied by follow up visits with an infectious disease doctor.

However, I passed this whole cancer thing with flying colors. Completed chemo on September 19, 2019. Follow up CT scans on October 30, 2019. Had my ileostomy reversal surgery on November 5, 2019. I was declared N.E.D. (No evidence of disease) on November 12, 2019.

I say all of that to say this…..my journey is not over. The recovery process from an ileostomy reversal has its own set of specialness with an undetermined amount of time for those symptoms and side effects to subside. Yes there is no evidence of cancer in my body. As preventative care I have to go every 4 months for CT scans and to follow up with my oncologist/have my port flushed – this is for two years. Every February I have to get a colonoscopy done – this is for five years. Every August I have to get a sigmoidoscopy done – time for this is undetermined.

All of this stuff I recognize is for my health and well being but in all honesty every piece of it shares the sh*t out of me. I laugh and joke and blow it off but it shakes me down to my core. A friend and I were texting today – she having had her own cancer journey last year – and she asked “I wonder if I’ll always have this little nagging feeling wondering when/if it will come back.” And that is where I am at……cancer can come back at any time in any form or not come back at all. I follow the doctors’ orders on my follow ups and the rest is up to me – diet, hydration, exercise, stress management, adequate sleep, self care. This is what my life is now. The cancer may be gone but my journey is still in the starting phases.

So I beg you – when you have a family, friend, acquaintance that you know is battling or is in remission from cancer – learn what you can about the disease and their diagnosis and treatment- ask the patient flat out “what does that all mean” or “how can I help you or your family”. You don’t have to know what to say or know all the answers. Sometime just knowing people are there if they need it is just enough. Also, remember their caregivers and their kids. They are going through it too in their own way and need just as much support as the patient.

This never ending cancer journey takes a village.