Cancer with no Regrets

My essay won First place in the Wyoming state DAR writing competition on Women’s Issues. Posted here for your enjoyment.

1st Place Winner in DAR State Writing Competition

Many things in life influence and inspire us: historical figures, parents, friends, educators. But we forget sometimes that negative experiences influence us just as much as the positive. For me, that negative experience was cancer. It was a wonderful time in my life. I was planning my wedding, I had a great job, and lived in a wonderful place. But it came to a screeching halt six weeks before my wedding when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Breast Cancer.

“Cancer” is a difficult diagnosis to hear, and it was for me. But now, nearly seven years later, I can see the positive effects it had on my life. Of course, I had to get through the chemo treatments, the radiation treatments, and the surgeries. I had to get through the nausea, the skin rashes, the infections, the strange looks when trying a new wig or hat on a balding head. But I did get through those, and in the process, I discovered strength I never knew I had. I discovered true friends, and I discovered the real priorities in life.

When I was diagnosed, I was teaching more than full time at a community college. I loved my job, but I hadn’t realized what I was giving up while working 10-12 hours a day. It wasn’t the TV shows I missed or a social life, but I was giving up my health. Cancer shook me back to reality and put my health front and center. While battling cancer, I had to learn to say “no.” NO to 12-hour days; NO to teaching when I was sick; NO to giving up sleep; NO to taking on extra duties. Instead, I said “Yes” to my health.

Not only did it mean getting enough sleep or staying home when I was sick, but it also meant finding creative ways to do my job online and accepting help from my colleagues. It meant spending more downtime with my husband and more time focusing on what was important: my family and my health.

I spent a year battling cancer, and in that year, there are so many little stories I could tell you about the people who supported me and lifted me up when I couldn’t do it on my own. So many stories of my husband holding my hand while I fought through pain and fear of the future. So many stories of loved ones praying for me, and bringing me meals and flowers. But it’s what happened after cancer that opened my eyes.

Many people think that cancer patients lose weight, and although that may be the case with some people, it wasn’t the case with me. I lost my appetite, and I rarely ate junk food, but still, my weight ballooned up to 315 pounds. Granted, at my diagnosis, I was 280 pounds, but I was appalled at my weight gain. The doctors and nurses weren’t. They assured me that the weight was a good thing. For once in my life I was told to eat what I wanted and to not worry about my weight. Ironically, I couldn’t enjoy it. Food made me sick, and eating was no longer pleasurable. What a cruel joke, I thought! But still, my weight climbed up. It was because of the medication, not because of my diet that caused the weight gain.

In 2011 when I finally finished radiation treatments, I decided it was time to lose weight. Again, my doctors told me not to focus on it…not to diet. Can you imagine a 315-pound woman being told not to diet!?

It took nearly a year to get my appetite back, and in the meantime, I transitioned into being a vegetarian—not for some political or ethical reason, but because fruits and vegetables were all I could stand to eat. Other food just did not appeal to me, so I ate what I wanted and lost a few pounds. I got down to 290, but that’s as far as I went.

In 2012, my doctors finally approved a weight loss program for me. They emphasized that losing weight would lower my risks of cancer reoccurring. They focused on the negative effects of sugar and simple carbohydrates, and I struggled to stick to their plan of high protein and low carbs. I still wasn’t eating meat; it made me ill. And I exercised like my life depended on it. Still, the scale never moved. Perhaps it was the sugar and carbs in the fruits and vegetables I ate. Perhaps it was the milk I drank. Who knows why I couldn’t lose weight. My body had just been through a trauma and was completely out of whack.

Finally, after months of struggling and crying over the scale, I decided to take the drastic step of bariatric surgery. In October of 2012, I had 85% of my stomach removed.

Many people think that weight loss surgery is an “easy” way to lose weight. It is not. In my lifetime, I have had several surgeries, but bariatric surgery was the worst surgery I have had to endure.

Before any surgery, people have to go without food and water for at least 12 hours before. This was true for bariatric surgery. But when the surgery was done, I was still not allowed to eat or drink. I chewed on ice and could only drink tiny drops of water. I vomited blood and had the worst pain in my life. It took hours to find relief—all of this during a power outage at the Cheyenne hospital! Once I recovered from the initial shock to my system, I drank my food for weeks as my stomach healed, and the liquid diet continued as my body reset from years of yo-yo dieting and the damage of the surgery and the cancer treatments.

Today, over four years later, I have lost over 125 pounds. I have done thousands of sit ups, rode countless miles on a stationary bike, and walked tens of thousands of steps up mountains and around my neighborhood, but still, my body is not where I want it. I abhor the lose skin around my middle, the “wings” of my triceps, and the thickness of my thighs. No matter how much I exercise or how much weight I lose, I will never have the body I’ve always wanted. I will never weigh what the charts say I should weigh. According to those charts, I will always be overweight. I could go through more surgeries and have my skin altered and the stretch marks erased. I could get my scars removed and have plastic surgery to alter my body to fit the mental images that linger in my brain, but I won’t. This is the body that I have—the body given to me by God. I have fought hard for these scars and stretch marks. They have become a kind of badge of honor…a demonstration of all of my battles—evidence of my strength. So, although I may give up the fight for a perfect body, I won’t give up my fight for good health.

Although my body is still large, and I’ll always be measured as overweight, I know the battles I have fought, and I know that I am healthy, and it’s my health I will no longer sacrifice for career or even for my own selfish needs. And it’s cancer I thank for this fierce determination.

Another Scare

This room is familiar…the couch, table, the comfortable seating—an attempt at making the waiting room look like a living room. It is nice, and it is comfortable. Even the lighting is soft…the fluorescent lighting replaced with tall lamps with soft lighting. Magazines dot every surface, and the TV murmurs. I play Words with Friends on my phone…anything to try to distract myself from the terrifying prospect of a cancer recurrence.

As a six-year survivor, I know the fear…the pain of surgery, chemo, radiation. I do not look forward to another bout. I do not want this, especially now with my insurance on the brink of termination…starting my own business…working only part time. The timing sucks. And yet, is there ever a good time for cancer?

The thoughts race in my mind: what if I die this time? What if it’s spread? What if they have to remove my breasts? What if… and the list starts over. A few days after my sister’s anniversary of her death, and I’m faced once again with the prospect of cancer.

I think of the mistakes I’ve made…the lapses in judgement and the bad choices: eating sugar, gaining weight, not exercising. This time, I will do it right. I’ll go back to my dietician. I’ll stop eating sugar. I’ll stop drinking. I’ll exercise. I’ll remember that this is a consequence. I’ll remember that my health is my top priority. I’ll remember to stop and think each time I put something in my mouth.

Then I recognize the stages of grief: I must be bargaining. Anger comes next: I don’t have time for this! Cancer again? It isn’t fair!

The nurse comes in and calls me into a private room… shit, shit, shit…but I remain calm and smile. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” she says. “No problem.” I smile. I’m kind, respectful. It’s not her fault I might have cancer again.

“The doctor is pretty confident he’s just seeing scar tissue, and we’d like to schedule a check-up in 6 months.”

“Sure. That works.”

“Sorry you had to wait so long.”

“It’s OK. No problem. I didn’t have much planned for today anyway.” Again, I smile. I feel the relief, but I ignore it, block it from surfacing.

I get dressed, glad to be going home, but feeling the burn of tears just behind my eyes. “Keep it together,” I whisper to myself.

The nurse meets me outside the dressing room and gives me two passes to the movies. Touched, I want to give her a hug, but don’t dare for fear of releasing the tears just beyond the surface.

“Thank you so much!” I say, and I go out to my car, bury my face in my hands and cry in relief and fear. Six months…it’s not that far away, and yet, there may be something evil growing in my tissue…something that can once again change my life.

I need to take a beat…take time to let things wash over me…let myself feel the fear, the relief, deal with the “what ifs,” and then I can move on. I will move on…at least for another six months when once again I’ll be in that tiny room, trying to be comfortable as my breasts are examined for cancer.