Life can hand you surprises and many can claim the badge called Survivor. Generally it’s an indicator of a great, hard fought and won battle to overcome a challenge to health, wellbeing or personal circumstance. Not many people in my life know that I am a Cancer Survivor because I can be a very private person and I often don’t know how to react to sympathetic gestures. And I don’t want to wear a label. This week one year ago I had a complete hysterectomy, which determined the extent of my endometrial (uterine) cancer and cured it. I don’t wear the Cancer Survivor badge on the outside because I feel so incredibly lucky that my battle was so much easier than most. And short. More like a skirmish.
I can say I’m lucky because the chain of events and circumstances of my illness led to an early diagnosis and successful surgery. My only symptom was some very slight vaginal bleeding. You know when you notice something a bit off about your body that maybe you want to ignore for fear of hearing something scary? Don’t ignore it. Don’t ignore it so that your biggest regret becomes that you didn’t act on it sooner. I had a friend who died from undetected cervical cancer, diagnosed at stage 3. And I have a daughter, so avoiding a big regret was a huge motivator for me to investigate the problem. What if I ignored it and later found out it was a fatal mistake? That fear was greater than the fear of the diagnosis.
I told my doctor, who didn’t say let’s just wait and see. He said you always have to rule out cancer. I already knew this from searching the internet for information on my symptoms, but his advice compelled me to act. The gynecologist I was able to see right away because of his referral did the biopsy and made the diagnosis right before Halloween. She recommended the surgeon who would do a robotic hysterectomy, a procedure that greatly reduced my recovery time. All this happened within a six-week period. Once you know you have cancer, you just want it out. Fear of what they will find is with you every day. And after surgery the best thing you can hear is that it was grade 1, isolated, and completely removed. One night in the hospital. No chemo. No radiation. Bing. Bang. Boom. That was last year’s Thanksgiving blessing.
The American Cancer Society website is a great resource for learning about all types of cancer and the source of the following information and statistics for the United States in 2011:
• New cases of uterine cancers to be diagnosed: over 46,000
• Most cases are found in women age 50 and over
• Number of women that will die from it: 8,000
• Average change of diagnosis in a woman’s lifetime: 1 in 40
Regular pelvic exams and Pap smears are not effective in finding early endometrial cancers. All women should be told about the risks and symptoms of endometrial cancer at the time of menopause and strongly encouraged to report any vaginal bleeding, discharge or spotting to their doctor.
Another reason I can say I’m lucky is that through all this I had the knowledge that I had medical insurance through my employment. I could see the doctors, and have the surgery and not trigger a financial hardship or crisis. I wasn’t going to lose my job for missing work for medical leave. Dealing with illness is bad enough without having to worry about that as well. When you don’t have that security I’m sure the decision to act right away and see a doctor is much more complicated and stressful. When I read about all the politicians calling for cuts in basic medical benefits – rights to receive decent health care – it saddens me. Because I know this doesn’t just mean people suffer in silence from common illnesses, aches and pains. It means that serious illnesses – illnesses that can be treated – go undiagnosed past the point where a cure is available. It means pain, suffering and death.
So, yes, I am grateful this Thanksgiving for many things. Lucky I’ve had another year with my daughter, who did not need to hear scary things or experience her mom going through treatments. Fortunate to say I’m one year cancer-free. Able to feel fear when I feel a twinge that makes me apprehensive of a recurrence of cancer, but most days to be worry free. Glad I can live without regret for not taking an action, at least this one time. Lucky to afford regular follow up exams. Grateful to have friends that are supportive and have jumped in to help out when I need it. I have more work to be done to be healthier, but I’m trying.
My Thanksgiving message to you is this: Always trust your intuition. Don’t let fear hold you back from seeking answers to medical questions (or other things that concern you). Get that mammogram, pelvic exam, colonoscopy or prostate exam, even if you have to hunt down a no cost or more affordable health resource in the community. Lobby for basic health care for all. And love the ones you hold dear.
Please share what you are grateful for this Thanksgiving. How do you avoid regrets?
All my best,