It’s my cancerversary month. Five years ago I got the first inkling that something might be wrong—a call from my gynecologist on September 24th that I had flunked my pap smear. The diagnosis of endometrial cancer was confirmed on October 5th when the results of my biopsy came in. Surgery was October 15th, and eleven days later, I got the news that there was no evidence of lymph node involvement—the radical hysterectomy had removed all of the high-grade serous carcinoma. I was declared to be free of disease, I just had to get through six rounds of chemo to be considered done.
A lot has changed in five years. The world around me is almost unrecognizable as I struggle to restore a sense of self that was radically disrupted by the events of that month. Older, grayer, more easily fatigued and sometimes a little fuzzy-headed, it’s hard to say what can be attributed to cancer vs. aging vs. the dramatic reduction in estrogen thanks to my surgery. But the bigger changes have come deeper within.
I remember the terror that first weekend before my diagnosis was confirmed. I was certain my doctor’s suspicion was correct and that the too easily discovered mortality rates for my disease would apply. But I didn’t want to die, couldn’t imagine not sharing old age with my loving husband, not seeing my kids, already adults, settled with kids of their own. I couldn’t fathom not having a chance to do the things I had always said someday I would do, and couldn’t understand how my body had betrayed me this way.
That terror morphed into stress-induced efficiency as it became clear I needed to find a care team, make a plan, schedule tests, arrange for surgery, deal with the insurance company, tell family, and everything else that a cancer diagnosis entails. I’ve always been good at project management and was thankful for the distraction that allowed me to focus on something other than my impending death. And by happy coincidence, during the lull between decision-making and surgery, I had a long weekend of wine tasting with the family scheduled, a plan that had been long in the making. The wine was delicious and the family love so comforting, but photos from the trip show the barely suppressed terror in my glazed expression.
Surgery provided a new distraction as I waited to learn my fate—discomfort from the gas they had used to inflate my belly in the hopes of doing the surgery laparoscopically, pain from the hip-to-hip incision they had to make when they realized an open surgery was necessary, nausea and other side effects from the morphine offered for pain relief, a four day headache, and a general inability to move without cringing in pain. Everything inside me hurt.
While the grogginess of the first few days provided some relief from the nagging questions of what exactly the pathology report would show, my anxiety continued to build until I sat with the surgeon nearly two weeks later. “There are two types of cancer,” he said. “The kind of cancer we can cure, and the kind of cancer we can’t cure. Yours is a cancer we can cure.”
Questions and Answers
I think that was the first time in a month that my face relaxed and I could smile. There were still lots of unknowns, and treatment to get through, but my prognosis was good, and I could push aside my mortal fears to focus on more immediate ones. How sick will chemo make me? Will I lose my hair? How will we know if the cancer is really gone? If it’s gone, does that mean it won’t ever come back?
In time I learned the answers to each of those questions. Chemo was dreadful but I survived. I lost my hair, but hair grew back. (Not my hair, but someone’s hair—someone with old-lady, fine and limp hair, not vibrant-woman thick and curly hair!) Every time I went for a test or scan, I feared what they would discover, but they never indicated any signs of cancer. While there is no guarantee the cancer will stay gone, repeat negative tests and scans have helped reduce my anxiety and rebuild trust in a body that had served me well for the first 57 years. What’s a little lapse between long-term friends?
I also learned that recovery is slow but does happen. That the will to survive gives us strength and resilience we don’t always know we have. That crying is not a sign of weakness but rather a recognition of loss and pain. That anxiety is a normal response to uncertainty. That crap happens, to all of us, however oblivious we may be to someone else’s suffering. That helping to ease that suffering can bring growth and healing on both sides of the relationship. That cancer is not the only end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it experience we will face.
The Hard Way
So much has changed in five years. The pandemic, the tenor of politics in our country, global pessimism about the economy and the environment, fires, hurricanes. Reading a novel last night about refugees from the Spanish Civil War, I found myself wondering if I could survive the disruption and loss the characters experienced if my own country descended into civil war. (And there are days when I fear it might!) While I hope I will never be tested in such a way, I know that yes, I would survive. Like cancer, it would be hard, involve unspeakable loss, result in tears, anxiety, fatigue and depression. But also, as with cancer, I know I would find the strength and resilience to fight, to live with whatever comes and to restore a joyful life.
I wish I could have known all that without having to live through a diagnosis and all that it entailed. Perhaps some wise folks do. But it seems to me some lessons you just have to learn the hard way.