Three years ago today I announced to my Facebook world, filled with family and friends, that I had been told I had cervical cancer. I had gone through a difficult appointment with my gynecologist just a few days before and was in the process of scheduling an appointment with an oncologist. I made a quick decision (too quick and I apologize to family who read it on Facebook first) to post the information to Facebook because I am a writer, and words are easier when they’re written instead of spoken face to face.
Three years ago today I started a life altering journey I never expected to go on. It started with a biopsy, moved on to a radical hysterectomy, and concluded with chemotherapy and external radiation. But the conclusion of cancer treatment does not end ones cancer journey, it simply begins it.
Here are a few of the life changes my experience with cancer caused…
- Anxiety/Fear – Cancer easily can cause a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. When you learn you have cancer, your world is often turned upside down. I was faced with my own mortality. I knew I wouldn’t live forever, but learning I had cancer reminded me that no one knows how long they have on this Earth. Though I am currently healthy and cancer-free, thoughts of recurrence weave into my subconscious and cause anxiety to come out of nowhere. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I can too easily have an anxiety attack that stops me in my tracks. And to those who think that anxiety is something you can just “get over”, feel free to sit down and talk to me about how anxiety works.
- New Normal – After going through a hysterectomy at the age of 33, followed by chemo and radiation, my body went through many changes within a four month span. I consider myself lucky that I’ve avoided some of the more severe side effects that treatment can cause, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had to deal with changes. My “new normal” has included:
- Having to carry Immodium everywhere I go because I never know when something might irritate my digestive tract (external radiation can cause some damage the intestines).
- Wearing a hormone patch because, even though my ovaries were left during my hysterectomy, the external radiation fried them and they no longer work. I am 36 years old and in menopause.
- Rediscovering my sexuality. During a hysterectomy for cervical cancer, not only are your cervix, uterus, and fallopian tubes removed (and sometimes your ovaries), but approximately one inch, or more, of the top of your vagina are removed. That, and some of the effects of radiation as well as early menopause, create changes to you sexually. To put it plainly, this means relearning what works and doesn’t work (and sometimes hurts). It’s not an easy thing to deal with physically or mentally.
- Losing my ability to have a child. I am so very lucky to have my daughter. I had always considered the thought of having more children, before I learned of my diagnosis. Having the option completely removed surgically from my body leaves a lot of grief to deal with. I’m no longer not having children because the time isn’t right or because money is too tight. I’m not having children because I physically cannot. And for many women, like myself, that can be very difficult to come to terms with. But, at the same time, it reminds me to hug my daughter even tighter every day.
- Learning to like my new body. This is something I still struggle with. I’ve always been fairly thin, but during treatment I lost quite a bit of weight that I’ve struggled to gain back (without any luck). There are times when I actually hate when people say to me, “You’re so lucky, you’re so skinny.” My response is often, “You don’t want to lose weight the way I did.” It’s not to be mean, but instead to be honest. We live in a society that centers itself too much on size. You may be unhappy with an extra few pounds, but I’ve realized through this that some may be struggling with being underweight too. And then there are the scars. I was lucky to have robotic assisted laparoscopic surgery, but there are still five small scars on my abdomen. Five scars that act as another reminder of my cancer. Five scars that stare at me from my reflection in the mirror as I dress in the morning and get undressed before bed. And though these five scars helped save my life, that does not make them any easier to see.
It’s weird to look back and remember that my cancer journey started three years ago. It doesn’t seem like that long ago. In some ways I’ve become a better, stronger person. I don’t take anyone’s shit anymore. I don’t let little things bother me as much. And I don’t take time with my daughter for granted, even if it’s a half hour of snuggling while watching TV or an hour of talking smack to one another while playing Minecraft. But there are days when I’m also a more fearful me, afraid of a sudden ache or discomfort, anxious at the drop of a hat, terrified of my own mortality. But I’m alive and I’m smiling (most of the time) as the redefined me.