Once Linda, 61, found the strength to overcome her addiction to crack cocaine, the challenges of incurable ovarian cancer seemed manageable by comparison.
I had a rough start in life and took a long time to get it together. My father was a heroin addict, my mom suffered from depression but never did anything about it. I was bitter and angry a lot. Growing up in the South Bronx, which looked like a WW2 bombing zone, I got into a lot of mischief. I never listened in school and was disobedient to my mom. And when she remarried, I didn’t care my stepfather. He was verbally abusive to her, and I never understood why she accepted it. I just wanted out of all that, and my escape was drugs at a young age. I did crack cocaine out of curiosity and didn’t understand why people got hooked. It was such an epidemic back then and using helped me fit in. I didn’t think I would get addicted. It caught me by surprise.
At one point in Jr. High, I had a teacher who recognized some ability in me and put me in a college-bound program for high school. But I wasn’t prepared for the challenges that presented and dropped out before I had even completed 9th grade. I didn’t have the discipline or the understanding of what it meant. And I was using pretty regularly by then.
When I was 16 or 17, I started thinking about my life and what I wanted to do with it. I saw an ad in the paper for Job Corps and thought that might give me a second chance. They sent me to Texas and put me to work. I was really enjoying it and got my GED and started feeling pretty good about myself. When I finished the program, I moved back to New York to be closer to family, and enrolled in community college. Things were going well for a while, but I started using again, stopped paying attention in school and dropped out.
For the next 10 years or so, in New York and in North Carolina where my mom had moved, life was all downhill. Every now and then I tried to get off drugs on my own, but it didn’t work. As soon as I tried to do better, I hit a brick wall. It just tore me apart. I thought nothing good was ever going to happen for me—I had a real pity party for myself.
At one point, in 2006, I was between jobs just hanging out and drugging, staying in abandoned houses, when I got violently sick and didn’t understand what was going on. I couldn’t hold anything down and was in severe pain. I stayed in bed all weekend. People came around and were using, but I didn’t want to use that night. Something was really wrong.
Finally, I went to the ER where they told me I had a stomach virus. I had this incredible burning sensation and knew it wasn’t a virus, but they insisted and sent me home with antibiotics. Two days later, I was back in the ER, bent over in pain and they were asking all these questions I couldn’t answer.
This time they brought in a specialist who did a CT scan and said, “It appears you have a tumor.” They admitted me and called an oncologist who looked at the scan and said I had to have immediate surgery—the tumor was the size of a cantaloupe. He said that most likely it was cancer and had been growing for several years. I was angry because I had repeatedly complained about abdominal pain and kept being told it was just viral.
They couldn’t operate that night because my blood pressure was high, and I had a bit of fever. But they called my whole family in and told them they weren’t sure I was going to survive because of the pressure the tumor was creating on my other organs. That was surreal—to go from being told you have a virus to being told you are going to die if you don’t have surgery right away.
Staples and Stitches and Disbelief
They operated the next day and I remember waking up and having an out of body experience. It was wild. Things were going on around me, but I wasn’t really there. I’m not sure if I had died and come back to life or what was going on, but it was very trippy. They were surprised that I made it through, and I was too. I was full of staples and stitches and in a lot of pain.
When the tumor analysis came back from the lab, they told me it was stage 2 ovarian cancer. I had no idea what that meant or why it had occurred. I just wasn’t hearing it. I was in disbelief and paid it no mind. They told me to come back for a 6-week check-up, but I never did. I started using again and my comfort to take away the pain was crack cocaine. I was an addict. In my mind, though, the cocaine saved me, it had frozen the tumor and I didn’t want to believe that it was cancer. So, I just went on with my life believing that I was doing fine, and never even had a physical or gynecologic exam.
Clean But Not in the Clear
About 6 years later, I decided to leave South Carolina and come back to NY. I also decided it was time to get clean. I went into treatment at a residential treatment center, stayed for about a year and did great. Since then, I have never relapsed and am now 10 years clean. I started feeling good about myself for the first time and was in training to become a substance abuse counselor. I also started working in a treatment facility, and ended up living in a recovery house for almost 4 years.
I started noticing different signs that the cancer might be coming back, but I ignored them. Then, one day in 2013, I was screening a new person coming into the recovery house and feeling all these strange things, dizziness and just weirdness, and just kept working to get my mind off it. But the folks at work knew something was wrong and called an ambulance that took me to the local hospital. They took some tests but said there was nothing they could do for me and sent me to a better hospital. There I saw gynecologic oncologist who said the tumor came back and sent me to see a specialist.
Specialist and Savior
The specialist was Dr. Seth Cohen. He ran all sorts of tests and imaging, and discovered that I multiple tumors, one on my liver and one in the pelvis. Unfortunately, he said, it was too risky to operate. So, he started me on chemo and I have pretty much been on some type of treatment ever since.
There was a year when I didn’t have chemo infusions, and was taking some oral medication instead, but I started having abdominal pains again, so I went back on chemo and haven’t been off treatment since then. They’ve tried a variety of different things, including some clinical trials, and nothing is going to cure it. The good news is, at least for now, the cancer is stable. Unfortunately though, Dr. Cohen left. It just broke my heart. He was my savior. I have a good doctor now, but it’s not the same as having a savior.
Physically, I’m doing okay. Sometimes, I have a lot of aches and pains, and that scares me. And sometimes my energy level is really low, but mostly I’m okay. The tumor on my liver is really big, but my tumor marker levels have come down and are stable, so they think I’m okay.
Here I Am
Getting cancer was a real mind-blower for me. I was fighting addiction as well as the cancer and that was a lot. I started going to meetings regularly to try to stay strong and keep my head clear. There was one point when I was saying to myself that I might as well go back to using because this thing is going to kill me anyway. There’s no hope. But I’m glad I didn’t. Now I see that there are new treatments all the time and there is so much that I don’t understand. But, here I am.
When I made the decision to get clean, I was just tired of the drug life. I wanted a break. I needed a chance to collect my thoughts. I had no idea I was going to stay clean this long. But I went through intensive counseling and liked who I became. The counseling helped me free myself from a lot of my past. I was able to forgive my stepfather, understand what my mother was going through and understand myself as a person. That was the freedom for me. And that’s what I needed to be able to function in this world.
I didn’t like the counselor at first, but she was good. And so was the treatment center. It was run by recovering addicts and they stayed on me because they knew I was fighting for a better way of living. I worked there too and really enjoyed it. I felt that I had found my purpose. It was just after I had graduated from the treatment program that the second diagnosis came. I’m glad I had the strength from recovery to deal with it the second time, but I had to stop working after my second diagnosis. It was too intense, too stressful and may have been aggravating my cancer.
Now my strength comes from knowing that I’m not where I want to be, that I’m not done yet. I haven’t served my purpose yet. And the strength comes from what I have been through in my life. I’ve fought a lot of battles. But this battle with the cancer is the hardest. You just don’t know what to expect. When I was on drugs, I knew I would either OD or get clean. But with cancer, it’s hard to know if you can control it and not let cancer control you. Now I’ve made the determination not to let it take control of me. I still live in fear of it, but I’m getting better at it.
Every now and then I smoke cigarettes, even though I know it’s bad for me. It provides a bit of relief and seems to help. I’m not chain smoking—a pack will last me at least 3 days. And I know I need to stop, but I’m afraid to. And it’s far better than my other addictions, so maybe it’s okay.
I’m still just coming to terms with the fact that I’m going to be living with this for the rest of my life. Some days, I don’t know what’s going to happen and if I’m going to survive. When I feel really overwhelmed by the cancer I just stay in bed. I get into a slight depression and don’t want to do anything, mope around for a while and isolate. Then I get tired of being mopey and remember that there is more to life than this. I can’t sleep the day away or watch Netflix all day. Besides, all the TV commercials are for cancer, so there is always something there to remind me. I take baby steps, take a breather, but then get up and do things. One step at a time.
Striving and Surviving
I don’t regret what I lived through—the pain—because it helped me learn a lot of stuff. It taught me how to strive for what I want in life, how to survive. I appreciate that all the more now that I am dealing with cancer.
And mostly I am dealing with it alone. Given how I grew up, I’m always cautious of letting people in and hesitant to trust people. Once I got into addiction treatment, I met some people like me there and got comfortable sharing. I also came to understand that if I didn’t talk about my problems, they would lead me back to where I didn’t want to go. There is one friend that I talk to about my cancer, and if I don’t feel well enough to go out, she will come by on her way to work or come stay overnight to keep me company. And sometimes I get together with friends from recovery, but there are only three that haven’t relapsed. I miss my old friends but don’t want to be a part of the drug lifestyle, so I don’t see them.
COVID really put an added strain on things. In addition to the addiction and the cancer, suddenly I had to worry about the pandemic, knowing that if I caught it, I might die. I was so afraid of picking up a germ or something. I got vaccinated and boosted right away, but still it was tricky. It was impossible to know who to be afraid of. I felt enslaved by the virus and don’t like to be locked down.
From Denial to Acceptance and Growth
I didn’t believe it when they first told me it was cancer. They had said multiple times that it was just a stomach virus, so why should I accept this as the truth? Besides, I was still using, and all I wanted to do was go home and get high. My disbelief and denial were high. I just blocked it all out. Life was hard enough without cancer. But, it started to sink in when they did a major operation without me having insurance or any way to pay for it. It really hit home when I asked how long I had to live. They said it was hard to determine, but that the cancer was stage 2, and I was lucky to survive the operation.
Things might have gone better if I had monitored my health and had follow-up visits. So long as I felt ok, I didn’t’ go back. It’s a shame I didn’t see a gynecologist, especially as I got older. I just didn’t want to know what was going on. I think I was afraid the cancer was my own fault. When I was 18, I had an abortion, and I always blamed my cancer on that. I do feel guilty about the abortion, but how was I doing to take care of a baby when I couldn’t even take care of myself?
Now, I really want to open a center for lost women. Given what I have been through, I know there are so many women that don’t know how to take care of themselves. They don’t even know if they might have cancer. I want to encourage them to see the gynecologist and understand what’s going on with their bodies. I just want to put my story out there. I know you can’t save the world, but you can touch somebody.