While I don’t hide the fact that I am a three-time cancer survivor, it’s also not something I usually talk about too much. I sometimes try to analyze why that is, and I think there are several reasons, really.
- I don’t want it to define me. While there can be no doubt that who I am today is a direct result of the health issues I’ve dealt with, I know that i am also a product of my upbringing, and the friends I’ve made, and my life-long obsessions with the Kennedys, Beatles, Scott Bakula, and Dirty Dancing.
- I don’t like to think about it. I don’t live in denial, but I choose not to dwell on it. When I think about this aspect of the past, I worry about the future.
- I feel guilty that I had it so easy. When you tell someone you are a cancer survivor, their mind immediately goes to chemotherapy and hair loss. You know it’s true. That’s where all of our minds go. But I never once had chemotherapy or radiation. I never once had to go through the agony of hearing the words “You have cancer.” Ihad cancer. Past tense. And that’s completely different.
The summer before my senior year in high school I started putting on weight, which made no sense at all because it was marching season. And my marching band was hardcore. You had to be in shape and you worked your rear end off.
So anyway, I was putting on weight, but doctors weren’t coming up with anything. Then one night we were watching the live action movie of The Jungle Book at home and I felt like something tore. Simple as that. We went to the emergency room and before long they’d opened me up to find a ruptured tumor the size of a volleyball, which had filled my abdomen with fluid, and a completely destroyed ovary. At 17 years old I was a cancer survivor whose odds of ever having children had been cut in half, if not more. Doctors told me that when the time came to have children, it was possible, but I would probably need to work with fertility specialists. Okay, so what? I was 17. I was alive, I wasn’t thinking about kids anyway, and I had a marching season to prepare for.
I had to be homeschooled by a tutor for the entire first semester of my senior year and honestly all I remember doing that entire semester was reading Beowulf. I was the girl recovering from cancer surgery, so I passed AP English, AP Music Theory, AP US History, and other top classes without ever cracking a book. (Needless to say, I was in for a rude awakening second semester when I returned to school and couldn’t function in any of those classes.) But I competed in marching band. Boom! How’s that for hardcore?
Flash forward to 2006. I was about to deliver my second baby which had required no fertility treatments at all, and in fact was unplanned – at least by my husband Kelly and me, though God clearly had a plan – and the baby was breech and they couldn’t get him to turn. I had to have an emergency C-section, and it was discovered that Noah had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck twice. They got him out and he was perfectly healthy. I, however, was not. Kelly escorted Noah to the neonatal unit while the doctors worked on sewing me up. But they found a tumor on my remaining ovary. They suspected it was benign, but I decided they should go ahead and remove the ovary, just in case. They did, I finally got to go see my baby, and then the next day pathology came back. Ovarian cancer. Again. But once again, that was it. I didn’t know I had cancer until I didn’t. Just to be safe, it was decided I should have a total hysterectomy, which I did two months later.
While in surgery, the doctor noticed my appendix looked a little “off” and decided to remove it. When pathology came back, we learned that there had been a tiny tumor growing inside my appendix. It was malignant, and I was told that it would have been fast-moving if we hadn’t caught it in the early stages. I’d have been dead in two years. Once again, I’d had cancer.
When you are a cancerous freak of nature like I apparently am, everything is taken seriously. Throw into the mix the family history… I’m the girl with no thyroid and whose tonsils, when removed at age 28, were sent to pathology. Tonsil cancer? Well, itseems unlikely, but if anyone is going to have it… I’m the girl who, when eye exams had some weird results, was sent in for an MRI, because it could be a brain tumor. That’s my life.
This past Sunday I found a lump in my breast area. I’d had some discomfort for a while. Too long. Too long without checking. When you know your body well enough to recognize when a foreign body in your abdomen is tearing, you can’t be stupid and ignore the warning signs. But I did. For a couple of months, I did. I didn’t want to feel for a lump, because I knew I would find one. That, my friends, is denial. Finally I couldn’t avoid it any longer and I forced my hand to go right to the spot where, internally, I knew things didn’t feel right. And immediately I felt it. It was Father’s Day morning, and I couldn’t stand the thought of springing it on Kelly, so I decided to wait. I made it until that evening, and then I couldn’t control the emotions any longer.
I went to the doctor on Monday, and had tests yesterday, and it is not cancer. It’s a benign tumor called a lipoma, and I may eventually need to have it removed because it’s a little bit painful, but not because of the health risks. There are no health risks. It may grow, but it can not turn cancerous.
I feel grateful and blessed, once again, but I also feel like a ticking time bomb. All the time. And that, I think, is the number one reason I don’t talk about it. I don’t want to dwell on the way that makes me feel. I want to be the person who follows their dreams and lives their life knowing that life is uncertain, but doesn’t let that define who they are. Sometimes I succeed at that more that others. When a health scare comes along, as it inevitably does every few years, my mind goes down the cancer path. Always. This time the health concerns were equal to the financial concerns. Don’t forget – at the end of April I left a job with pretty nice benefits after 13 years to try to make it as an author, with no benefits whatsoever. (Well, apart from happiness and fulfillment, but that won’t pay for the radiology I had done yesterday…) My mind went down this horrible path and I was picturing Kelly alone, raising our miracle babies (who are now 11 and 8), and losing our house because of my medical bills.
I have faith. I know that God has kept me around for a reason thus far, and I know that my future is secure. When it’s my time, it’s my time. But honestly, I don’t want it to be my time yet. I can’t deny the presence of cancer in my history and I can’t deny it has shaped me. But I can’t dwell on it either.
So I just keep on feeling like a ticking time bomb, living my life and following my dreams.