June 3rd is National Cancer Survivor’s Day. I am proud to say I’m a Cancer Survivor. September 2005, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, June 2006 my doctors told me that I was cancer free.
In August 2005, I was rubbing my neck and noticed that my lymph nodes were swollen. I didn’t feel sick. I wasn’t having any aggressive allergy issues at that particular time. I had no idea why they were swollen. I am not a hypochondriac, so I decided to wait a week and see what happened. After the week was up, I was still feeling fine and the swelling did not go down. Luckily my primary doctor at the time was able to see me. She started me on some antibiotics just as a precaution, but also sent me for some tests.
End of August all tests my primary doctor ordered came back as normal, I was done with the antibiotics and still had swollen lymph nodes in my neck. She recommended I see an Ears, Nose, Throat specialist to see if they could determine what was going on with me. She was able to get me an appointment rather quickly with one of the best in the area and I went to see him.
While in his exam room he tried to do a needle biopsy but could not get any fluid. He suggested either an operation to remove it and biopsy it or wait it out. I thought about it for a couple minutes, confirmed with my ex and we decided to remove it. The not knowing would have weighed heavily on me. Looking back had I not made that decision, I would not be here today.
Just in the short time of tests and the surgery to remove the lymph node it had grown aggressively. I went in for the outpatient surgery. My ex and parents waited anxiously for the doctor to talk to them. When I was waking up, I looked at my mom’s face and it told me all I needed to know, it was Cancer! We didn’t know to what extent until the results from the biopsy testing came back.
My Ears, Nose, and Throat doctor set up an appointment with some wonderful Oncologists who would be devising my treatment. The day of the appointment came and I was so nervous and scared. When you hear the word Cancer your thoughts immediately go to it being a death sentence. As we (my ex and me) are sitting in the exam room, the doctor comes in and explains things. It was fast growing without an aggressive plan I’d have a 50/50 shot, so the doctors came up with an aggressive game plan that I would go through over the next 8-9 months.
They were going to hit me with several chemotherapy drugs that I would receive once every 2 weeks in their facility via IV bags. I would have to have a port implanted in my chest area because the drugs were too strong to be given to me in the veins in my arms/wrists. Then once I was done with chemotherapy, I would have to go through aggressive radiation on my neck area. That same day of the appointment I also had to have a bone marrow biopsy done (in the exam room).
If you have never had a bone marrow biopsy with a needle done, let me tell you it is very painful. They try to numb the area they are going in (around your hip), but you can still feel it and the pain was so bad I almost threw up on them. I was crying the whole time and I can take a lot of pain.
I also had to make appointments with an eye doctor and a dentist because what all I was going through could affect my teeth/mouth and my eyes. They actually had to treat my teeth that helped protect them prior to the radiation part of the treatment.
The surgery for the port placement happened early October. I remember the day after I got it put in I thought I could go to work, nope I almost passed out taking a shower. That was only 1 of 2 days throughout the treatments that I actually called off work.
During this whole time of testing and treatment, I worked a full-time job. The company I worked for at the time was wonderful. They worked around my treatment schedule. I did not miss any deadlines or pass my work on to anyone else. The Oncologist facility where I got my treatments were kind enough to let me schedule the chemotherapy on Friday afternoons. That way I would have the weekend to somewhat recover enough that I could work on Monday’s.
I started losing my hair after the first treatment and it got to the point where we just ended up shaving it all off. The shaving it all off was less emotional than washing your hair in the shower and clumps coming out in your hand. The doctors had warned me about losing my hair. I made sure to have some wigs to wear out in public and to work. Side note – a few years ago I gave them to my hairdresser friend who had a client who was going to lose her hair through cancer treatments.
Every two weeks from October 2005 through February 2006 I would go in for chemotherapy treatments. I tried to stay positive during this whole process. I worked because it kept my mind busy thinking about numbers, analysis, deadlines, and projects (I was an Assistant Controller at the time) instead of letting my head go to the bad place. Don’t get me wrong the weekends after I received chemotherapy, I went to the bad places. I was so sick and depressed. I kept a lot of what I was feeling bottled up inside because I had no one I felt I could tell what was going through my mind.
Smells started bothering me, especially foods. Yet I still went to family dinners around the holidays because that’s what you do. When I would go home from them, I was so sick and had tough time sleeping because of the sickness.
February 2006 came and I finished up my last chemotherapy session. I had a PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography – test done to detect cancer) done about a month later, but because of the chemotherapy drugs in me I had to wait until May to get the radiation treatments.
Between February 2006 and May 2006, I made several trips to the radiologist lab for them to create a special mask for me to wear during the radiation treatments. It was a very tedious process. The mask had to keep me from moving my head during the treatments. I also had my teeth treated to protect them since the radiation would be hitting close to my mouth. They marked 26 areas in my neck region that they wanted to target with each treatment.
When May 2006 came around, I was ready to start the radiation treatments. I went every day Monday through Friday. I was still working, I would go into work early to make sure to get my work done and then the radiation place was kind enough to schedule me as their last or next to last appointment every day.
I would lay down on an x-ray type table, they would put the fitted mask over top my head, and then fasten it to the table. I was able to pick out music that they put on in the background to help soothe me. Then the treatments would begin. The laser radiation would hit each of the 26 spots a couple times. Each treatment session would last about 45 minutes. The actual radiation treatment was about 25-30 minutes.
I lost my sense of taste for about a year. The chemotherapy and radiation affected my thyroid which I was already on medicine for prior to all this, but it threw it further out of whack, it took about 3 years to get it regulated again. The treatments caused me some other issues that I had to have medical procedures to fix. Currently, I still have some nerve damage in my fingers and toes that cause them to lose feeling at random times. I will take whatever side effects I still have just to be alive.
I have been cancer free for 12 years now. Something that I don’t talk about much is that I often think about the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma coming back and what really weighs on my mind is the potential for other cancers. My Oncologists told me that I am now predispositioned for other cancers.
Being a survivor, I don’t take life for granted. I know my friends, family and acquaintances look at decisions I’ve made over the past 12 years (and especially the past 6 years) and think I’ve gone crazy or that I’m not thinking rationally. Some of them have not had life or death experiences. Others are judgmental, then there are those that are scared to go outside their comfort zone. That’s ok, there is nothing wrong with that, but I’m not like that anymore.
Trust me there were times in my life where I did not deviate from what was maybe considered normal or comfortable. I did what I was expected, listened to others, and went on with my life. But it wasn’t really my life. I was living the life others thought I should live.
Those of you who read my blog regularly know I feel everything happens for a reason. I feel that God wanted me to start living the life I wanted and this was his way of giving me a “wake up” call. I didn’t listen to it right away. Let’s face it the first year or two I was still recovering from all the side effects and issues the chemotherapy and radiation left in me.
Just look at my past 6 years to know I’m on a mission to be happy with life. I left my ex after 20 years of marriage because we just were like oil and water. I moved from an area in Western Pennsylvania that I grew up in and lived in my whole life to Charlotte, North Carolina to go on a journey of self-discovery. I left a successful job to take on that journey without a job waiting for me in Charlotte. I then left a great paying job in Charlotte to try to live out a childhood dream of owning a candy store. I opened my candy store in York, South Carolina, a historical district town. I then did everything possible to keep it running but became controversial with my blog postings and the location lost a lot of foot traffic with the closing of other retailers. I swallowed my pride and moved back to Western Pennsylvania to live with family to start over.
That was just the past 6 years summarized. I dealt with a lot of lemons throughout those years and still do, but I’m just making a lot of lemonade and moving on. God is constantly throwing things at me to teach me a lesson and I’m actually grateful to learn.
There are a few messages I want to convey today with this post. The first one is, life is precious. Do not take it for granted. You never know when your last breath will be nor do you know for those you care about.
Second, if you get the Cancer diagnoses, utilize resources to help you through it. I did not utilize things that may have helped me mentally prepare for everything. Make sure your loved ones know what you are going through and know that they are also struggling and worried they are going to lose you. But fight it the whole time, show it you want to live.
The third thing I want you all to do is stop judging people. We are not all the same and that was done on purpose. I judge people on how they treat me. You may be surprised to know I do not wish awful things on those who were not nice to me. I know that they have to answer to a higher power than me some day and that Karma will always rear its ugly head to those who treated others badly.
Forth, don’t feel sorry for me for everything I’ve gone through in life so far. I write about my experiences to help others and to let them know that it will be ok even if you can’t see it now. Many people have told me to get over things that happened in the past and move on with my life. I have moved on with my life, but the past is what made me the person I am today. My actions today will make me who I am tomorrow. You shouldn’t forget your past, instead use your past to help yourself and others with the future. As you read this and if you check out prior blog postings, know I have moved on, I have learned the lessons that I was supposed to, but I am writing these things to help others who may be going through similar things in their lives and feel no one understands. The worst feeling in the world is feeling alone when going through a lemon. I have felt that way a lot, but I know I don’t have to go through lemons alone anymore and it makes the sourness of them turn sweeter.
On this day, June 3rd, celebrate with those who have survived cancer because it truly is a blessing and each one of the survivors are here for a reason.