Fatima, was 38 years old, finishing her degree as a medical assistant and trying to get pregnant when she got some disturbing news that changed her life completely.
One night, I started bleeding non-stop. The next day I called my gynecologist who requested I come into the office. After examining me, he said I should have a biopsy. Once he told me I needed a biopsy, I got a little scared. That put me on alert and made me think something was wrong. After that, the doctor said to call in two weeks. Two weeks is a long time, and I was full of fear and insecurities.
I went back to get results and went by myself. I thought I was going to be ok and could receive the news on my own. But when the doctor said you have first stage endometrial cancer, I was in shock and in denial. I questioned him, “Wait, are you telling me I have cancer?” “Yes,” he said, “you need to see gynecologic oncologist. You have cancer and this is what you have to do.” My husband and I were looking into getting pregnant, so all of a sudden, this changed my life completely. That was November of 2013, right before the holidays. In a period of hours, the diagnosis changed my sense of everything.
My gynecologist referred me to an oncologist and told me to do what I needed to do. I made an appointment with the doctor he recommended, and the oncologist confirmed the diagnosis. Stage 1 endometrial cancer. But there were options. If I wanted to have babies, they could leave my ovaries, but it would increase the chance of getting cancer again. Alternatively, they could remove everything, but then there would be no chance of ever being a mother. It was a hard decision that caused me a lot of anxiety. Either way, there would be a lot of changes.
After talking to my husband and family, we agreed that I had to do what was best to survive. So, I had surgery to remove my uterus and everything in my reproductive system. Once we decided to do that, which was right after Thanksgiving, there was so much to do with scans, blood work, etc. It was like a movie that just kept going forward. I didn’t have time to think about having cancer. But my whole life changed completely.
After surgery, I had 15 rounds of chemo, every two weeks, and then internal radiation, every two weeks. The surgery put me into instant menopause with hot flashes and all sorts of body changes. Then I started the chemo, so there were even more changes. It was a rough ride. I was used to being active and having friends and going to school. But, I was so worried about germs and getting sick that I had to stop my studies. I couldn’t be around other people. So, everything stopped, and I was stuck in a room so no one could get me sick.
So Many Changes
There were so many physical and emotional side effects from the chemo. The week I started chemo treatment, my first niece was born and I wasn’t able to be with the family and celebrating. That made me sad. And I was going through all the changes that I didn’t understand. That was hard. At times, my whole body was shaking. My bones felt like I was going through a washing machine. My eating habits changed too. I felt like throwing up, so I lost my taste for food. Why eat if it doesn’t taste good and I’m just going to throw up? And then the vaginal radiation. I was scared of that, and made me feel old, but after chemo, it was nothing.
Life before cancer and after cancer were two very separate things. It’s very different going through it compared to what you expect. Throughout the whole process of chemo, I wasn’t able to enjoy a walk in the park. There are so many emotions and changes that come with going through the process. For a whole year I wasn’t able to function normally. Now, I’m more down to earth and see things differently. I see life, not the rush of life. You manage your life differently when you go through cancer.
Lots of Support
Thank God for my family. At the time, my husband lived in the Dominican Republic. He gave me a lot of support, but from a distance, not physically beside me. When I lost my hair, I said, “You aren’t going to love me, I’m bald.” But he was there for me 100%. He said, “I didn’t marry you for your hair.” And when I was throwing up from the chemo, he would remind me to eat something, that I was going to keep something in that was going to help build my immune system. And we had conversations about kids. We really wanted children, but we have come to the conclusion that it wasn’t meant to be. That’s not going to stop us from going as a couple.
My family was also 100% supportive. I think anyone going through any type of illness without the support of family would be lost. And, I was really lucky to have had such a great medical team. I am blessed and grateful for them. I also had a mentor through a program at the hospital. It was so helpful to hear from other women who had been through it that I was going to survive, that I was going to go through this but going to be fine. That gave me strength and kept me going through the ups and downs.
I lost all my hair while going through chemo. Little by little it started falling out. I spoke to my mentor and told her I was getting scared. People kept telling me I wasn’t necessarily going to lose it, but it was falling out. My mentor suggested I cut it short so it wouldn’t be such a shock. I told my mom I was going to cut it so I could prepare for anything, and then later that day, when I showered, my hair just came out in my hands. I broke down and started crying. I didn’t see how I was going to be able to do this. I had an overwhelming sense of fear. But my mom said, “This is not the end of the world. You are going to be ok.”
I shaved my head, and that was a complete change—from having a lot of hair to being bald. Then I could wear hats and scarves and wigs, but it took an adjustment. Seeing yourself without hair is hard—hair is so much of your personality.
To help me feel better, my sister took me wig shopping. She said, “You always wanted to be blond. Now you can—buy a blood wig.” I bought a blond wig, and a short black one so I could feel more like myself. I could be blonde on some days and be myself on others. One day I went in for treatment with my blonde hair, and everyone was like, “Yeah, looking good.” But, when you are going through hot flashes wigs are so uncomfortable. I mostly used them for big dinners or family gatherings. The rest of the time, I always felt better being bald, or with a hat and a scarf.
But in addition to the loss of my hair, I’m not going to function as a woman, right? I’m empty there, so what’s going to happen now? At the hospital, they are always bringing in different people to speak to patients, and one came in to talk about being sexually active again. The doctor used to say, “You just have to give it a try, but for me it was hard. I felt so different.
When you first you get the diagnosis, you go through denial and ask, “Why me?” Then the process takes over, the surgery and chemo and all the changes emotionally, physically. Then comes the aftermath. You have to manage yourself back into society, regrow your hair—and it’s not normal when it comes back, which, in some ways, is so indicative of your life.
Emotionally, you go through another change after treatment and all that. Getting back to all your routines again, getting used to your new body, how your body and hair looks. There are different stages of anxiety and emotions. You can’t help but ask, am I going to be normal again? Ok, I don’t have cancer, but can I be normal? You need to reconnect to yourself again. You have to go back to the normal routines of life, but it’s different.
I still get anxious when going in for a test. You never know what it’s going to show, but I tell myself that everything is going to be ok. I used to be anxious about getting back to normal, getting a good job, having stable financials again. But now I feel like life is back to normal. I still have to go for checkups every 6 months, but I feel like myself again. I started working a year ago as a passenger assistant at the airport. People see me as normal, but when tell my story, they are in shock. You don’t look like you went through cancer, they say. But it never really leaves you. You always remember, oh yeah, I had cancer.
When you go through something like this, you learn that you are strong and that you will survive. I am proud of myself for getting through it. Every once in a while, I start thinking I have to care for myself more. My life has changed, so I have to be conscious about that too. I don’t let things go too long and am more aware of the need to take care of myself. I don’t want to go through it again. But I don’t go overboard either. I stop and enjoy the coffee, instead of just drinking it.