Two Years Cancer Free
Today marks two years since I had the surgery to remove a cancerous blob from my body. This stupid blob, who was ultimately the size of a small cantaloupe, had troubled my life for a while before it was actually properly diagnosed and handled. I wanted to share my little story in the hopes that it will inspire all the “no, I’ll be fine”-ers out there, and maybe some others too. As I look at my surgery scars today and every day, I’m reminded that taking care of yourself and your body is the most important thing you can do.
Buckle up, folks. It’s a ride to remember…
For a few months, I’d been having stomach pains that rendered me almost useless – and I feel like I have a pretty high pain tolerance. These pain episodes, which never happened at the same time of day or after the same type of food or had any consistency at all, were causing me to double over and invest in heating pads for every room of our house. Initially, it was diagnosed as “stress” (which, let’s be honest, could definitely be part of it, considering the pressure we all put on ourselves) but then after a few months was updated to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Apparently almost everyone has IBS and 2 of 3 sufferers are women, so it didn’t shock anyone that I was having these pains. I was put on some medications, but nothing got better. And, because I am the way I am, I tried to power through it. Because that’s what society has taught us for so long, right? It’s selfish to think about taking care of ourselves, if we do, we should feel guilty and weak…Be tough. Be strong. So many people have this struggle and they can handle it, why can’t you…
So I went on, having semi-consistent horrible episodes where I’d have to lay down or go home – which unfortunately didn’t even help, I’d just lay there and cry. Days at work were cut short or I smiled through the pain. More than one special trip was tainted – including my bachelorette, where my amazingly supportive girlfriends went back to our room to sit and try to distract me before any dancing could even commence.
At some point, I couldn’t take it anymore. These pains would come on fast and hard, and there was no preparation or soothing that could do anything about it. I felt truly helpless. So I asked my doctor for another name to get a second opinion – she seemed shocked (again with the guilt trip). After some persuading that it was important (to myself and to her), I got the name of another gastroenterologist. He recommended a CT scan to see what was going on, to see if anything unrelated to my IBS was happening. THANK GOODNESS HE DID…
He called with the results and told me calmly, while not in my GI tract “you have some sort of mass in there you should probably get checked out.” From that moment, I was on a mission. Multiple tests followed – in to see my OBGYN, local doctors did ultrasounds and MRIs, then I ultimately ended up with the gynecologic oncology team at Johns Hopkins*. Somehow, I got paired with the brilliant and kind Dr. Amanda Nickles Fader. As the director of the team, she was acutely aware of how intense this “mass” could be for me.
After tests were complete, it was determined that it was officially cancer. It’s awful, but in today’s world, you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who has cancer – this terrible disease does not discriminate and hits families all over the world. But do you ever think it’s going to happen to you…? No. As I shared my diagnosis with people around me, I was surprised at how many women confided in me that they had gone through the same/similar things – women close to me that I had no idea had suffered similar issues. It was both heartbreaking and comforting to have these women and others supporting me. And terribly difficult to embrace the vulnerability I was facing head on.
Surgery was set up for June 6th. Of course, this day/week was one of the most important of the year at work – we were making a huge announcement on a major project my team had been spearheading for over a year. But my team was strong and supportive and basically told me to shut the F up when I expressed my disappointment in leaving them for this. Even when I didn’t want to accept it, they reminded me that I needed help.
I went in before dawn, put on my no-slip socks and gown and got ready. You sign a million forms basically saying ‘you might die’ but that’s all part of it. I just wanted to keep moving forward. As the anesthesiologist started talking, I remember looking at the TV above me thinking “oooh I wonder if they’ll show what they’re doing up there so I can see it” and then….I woke up.
Thankfully, my surgery was successful and the cancer had not spread. They were able to remove the infected ovary and fallopian tube laparoscopically – which meant minimal scarring and hopefully less pain. As I mentioned, the mass ended up being large…way larger than reported. The MRI showed a plum, what came out was a cantaloupe. No wonder my insides were all messed up – they were being pushed around by this giant cancerous jerk!
My immediate recovery was tough. Docile and restricted from movement are NOT my style. I’m literally moving all the time at a million different places in a million different ways. It hurt my body and my heart to be away from everything – my friends, my work, my teaching – I just wanted to get back to “normal.”
Until I got there…
It felt great to get back to my life – I had regular checkups, but everything could go back to the way it was before the blob. But then, one day, I had an experience that I assume many people go through after trauma…a moment where I stepped out of my “normal” and realized it wasn’t who I was anymore. I love my coworkers and my old job, but it wasn’t for me anymore. Some relationships I had no longer served me (and I finally knew what that jargon meant!) so I let them go. It was like my body got finally finished the reboot it had been uploading for the few months after surgery… and now I was recognizing an updated system.
Long story short, here I am today…I left my job to start a new business. I go to therapy and acupuncture and focus on taking care of my body and my mind every day. I try to see both side of every story (sometimes to a fault), knowing that someone could be suffering on the other end of frustration. I’m still the same driven, dedicated person I was but I’ve grown to embrace vulnerability, change and mindfulness.
Don’t let that fool you – it hasn’t been all been amazingness and enlightenment over the past two years – it’s been a hell of a lot of work. Growth is hard – on you, on your loved ones, on everything around you. But it’s good. Cancer sucks – but my cancer served as a stepping stone in the growth I’ve had and I’ll be forever grateful for this experience.
Speaking of, I couldn’t share this story without saying how unbelievably grateful this all turned out the way it did. I am blessed in the ability for me to look back on this in my life instead of continuing to live through it. There are people out there who go through unbelievably traumatic experiences, people who struggle for weeks and months and years, and often it doesn’t work out. My heart goes out to them. And I try to keep that in mind every day, remembering that those small irritations of work and life are just that – small.
So, take your own lesson from this (what ended up being a longer than planned) story.
- It’s of the upmost importance to take care of yourself and your body – if you’ve ever met me, you’ve probably heard me say “you can’t pour from an empty cup”
- Listen to your body & don’t ignore it to prove how “tough” you are – More than 20,000 American women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer EVERY YEAR! Get your regular check ups and make sure you’re paying attention to your body. It doesn’t help anyone for you to skip the doctor and self-diagnose.
- Embrace your support system – you know you’d be there for others in their time of need, so try to let people support you in yours
- You never know what people are going through or have been through – even those close to you – so be thoughtful and show care at every chance you get
- Let yourself rest (I’m still learning this one…)
- Let yourself grieve – no matter how small or intense you feel in comparison to anyone else (again, still struggling with this one, but sharing this helps)
- And finally…Embrace life and the intentionality in which you live it. Don’t just show up and expect to receive good, actively go out and create the good – for yourself and the people around you. If it helps, set a reminder for yourself every few days, weeks, months, whatever – be thoughtful about how you spend your time and who you spend it with.
We’re only here for a moment – make yours a good one. ♡
*Side note: I cannot stress enough how helpful and supportive the Hopkins Oncology team was for me. To this day, they continue to show care and compassion – asking about my dogs at every appointment, making sure I’m comfortable and understand what’s happening. It makes a difference. If you ever want to talk to me about the team or care that I’ve experienced with Hopkins, please feel free to reach out!