I digressed from my mini-autobiography in my previous two posts to address the turmoil that’s going on in our country since the inauguration and the public response to it. I felt I also needed to add an additonal post about the ongoing thread that has affected me deeply throughout my adult life: my daughter’s heart condition. Today’s post is a continuation of my life story; it is about something that happened to me that changed my life forever.
During my final year (2013-2014) of teaching I was often exhausted. Sometimes I would come home from a day of teaching and collapse onto the livingroom couch where I remained until I had to get up to prepare dinner. The thought did cross my mind a couple of times that perhaps I might have cancer, but I convinced myself that my fatigue was due to wrapping up unfinished business and getting my classroom ready for my retirement.
I was also gaining weight, but I told myself that most cancer-awareness articles say that losing weight is a warning signal…not gaining it. Again, I attributed the problem to my lethargy and probably less than stellar eating habits during my final year of teaching.
I finally made it to the finish line and retired from teaching English as a Second Language in late June 2014. To celebrate, I signed up for a moderate senior aerobics class at a nearby gym that started a week after my retirement. I went to my first class full of hope and a desire to shed those extra pounds.
About a day or two later, I began to have an intense throbbing spot in my right groin. Nothing I did eased the pain. Several days later, I went to see a doctor who told me it might be an inguinal hernia. “Take advil and wait a couple of weeks to see if the pain goes away. If it doesn’t go to see our medical group’s surgeon to talk to him about the hernia.”
Fortunately I did not wait several weeks because the pain was consistently intense. Instead, I made an appointment to see the recommended surgeon. After his examination he told me it was definitely not a hernia and I needed to have a CT Scan to determine the nature of the mass in my groin. I spent the next two months and a half having endless medical appointments with about a dozen specialists, none of whom could agree on either my diagnosis or my treatment. I even spent a week in the hospital on IV antibiotics on the theory I might have an unusual infection causing the mass. It didn’t help.
Meanwhile a tumor was growing in my groin that was palpable and visible and nasty looking. My inner thighs were being to become discolored because the tumor was “bleeding” into my lymph system. Needless to say, I became terrified and several times the thought crossed my mind that I was going to die.
In mid-September my gynecologist sent to see an oncologist-gynecologist in NYC whom I credit for saving my life. She examined me thoroughly, did not seem perplexed at my condition, told me that I needed immediate treatment, and suggested an oncologist and radiologist who practice near near my home on LI.
My eventual diagnosis was “metastasized squamous cell cancer in the lymph nodes of my groin…of unknown origin.” The theory was that a rogue squamous cancer cell had broken away from somewhere in my body and settled in my lymph nodes in my groin. The oncologist treating me, frustrated by the result of several biopsies I had which all turned out to be negative, decided to begin treating me as though I had cervical cancer.
I began my treatment in a state of exhaustion after two and a half months of being passed around the medical community like a hot potato. I was scheduled to do three to four rounds of intensive chemo with a week off between each treatment, and 28 straight days of radiation therapy simultaneously. Surgery was not possible due to the size and placement of my largest tumor.
I never made it to the fourth round of chemo because I was hospitalized following the third round. The chemo treatments caused my magnesium level to plummet to a dangerously low point causing me to collapse in the bathroom one day. I was carried out on a stretcher and brought to the ER of our nearby hospital shaking from head to foot. Apparently, magnesium controls muscles and I no longer had any control mechanism in place.
The oncologist felt I had fulfilled the quota of necessary rounds of chemo (the fourth round was to be “extra”) and because I was having so much difficulty, he ended my treatment. I had to wait two months more to be given a followup PET Scan which would reveal how effective (or not) the treatments had been. I was so relieved to have the treatments over and so exhausted by my ordeal, I went into a state of numbness for the next two months. I was just waiting….
In mid-January, following my PET Scan, my radiologist called to tell me I needn’t come in for my visit that day because the PET Scan showed I was completely cancer-free! She was ecstatic and I was in a state of shock. I think I mumbled something like, “that’s wonderful,” but mostly I felt numb. Seven months after my ordeal began, I was incredulous that I no longer had cancer. Nothing seemed real.
Now, two years later, I am still “cancer free.” The NYC gyn-onc specialist told me that “we’d all breathe more easily after the two-year marker has passed.” I have tried to enjoy every minute of every day I have lived since my “cancer free” pronouncement two years ago and have even felt euphoric at times. But I have entered a new stage which just began recently. I am less euphoric, more cautious and sometimes a bit depressed that this is my life and the shadow of cancer is always present. “After all, if they could never figure out where my cancer started, it could still reemerge couldn’t it?” pretty much sums up how I feel when I allow myself to think about it.
But mostly I keep myself very busy, I work at being healthy, I try to mostly do things I enjoy, and I live every day to the fullest. Cancer has changed me, as it does everyone. I am not as physically strong or agile as I once was, my stamina is more limited, and I have a cluster of aches and pains that I never had before. But my outlook is good. I have enough energy to accomplish what I need to do and often enough extra energy to pursue my dreams. I just turned 70 which, for me, is a miracle. I have a whole new decade ahead of me and I intend to live the best life I can.
Next week: My Life Since Recovery from Cancer