Several years ago I took my son to play a round of golf. We had parked the car and were heading to the course when I bumped into a woman I had known through my son’s school. We talked about the beautiful weather, how nice it was that we were playing golf and then parted ways. A fairly common type of interaction, however, I didn’t realize at the time how this story would stay with me forever.
Several days later an article appeared on the front page of the Health and Science section of the Boston Globe highlighting my story as a two-time cancer survivor. I have never been secretive about my illnesses, however,the reality was that there were pockets of people who knew of my challenges, primarily close friends and co-workers. Many others I had come in contact with in my community and various activities I participated in did not know my story. It is not something I typically bring up unless there is a specific reason. My doctor had asked me if I would be willing to help him out and answer a few questions for a reporter doing a story on the new Adult Survivorship Clinic at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. The few questions turned into a larger feature and before I knew it, my story was public.
Fast-forward about 3 weeks. The same woman I talked about at the beginning of this blog approached me at a restaurant one night. She told me that she had seen the article in the newspaper and was blown away. She said “I keep thinking back to that day I saw you in the parking lot with your son. I was feeling sorry for myself because believe it or not, I had just been told I might have cancer. It all hit me when I saw you. I did not know anything of your history. To me, you were the picture of health, so carefree and happy. I was feeling resentful and sorry for myself for having to deal with a potentially life-threatening illness. I was so scared and there you were, not a care in the world. Not fair. Then I saw that article in the paper and it has been hard to wrap my head around not only how I misjudged the situation and that you had been through all of that.”
The significance of our encounter was not lost on either of us.
How often have we made judgments about people not really knowing what challenges they have encountered in their lives? Understanding these challenges actually, connects us in ways we would not expect.
Recently, I was able to spend some quality time with two high school friends. We became reacquainted after years of not seeing each other. As we talked I realized, in both cases, how little I knew about them when I was growing up. Now after 30+ years, I learned that I was oblivious to their individual struggles. I only saw what was on the surface. My appreciation and respect for them grew and grew.
Everyone has a story. Most of us are unaware of the specifics though we tend to make judgments that often miss the mark. Life throws us many curveballs, some easier to deal with than others but in the end, we all have our share of challenges that make up chapters of our stories.
There are a lot of chapters to my story. It always strikes me how shocked people are when they learn of some of my challenges. I guess on the surface I don’t look the part.
Today I give a glimpse of a few of my chapters that typically surprise people.
I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on August 2, 1989. Anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer can tell you the specifics of the day they were diagnosed with cancer. It is one of those events that permanently makes its’ mark in your brain. Your life changes forever. The way you think changes forever. And it happens so fast.
I was 25 and had returned from my honeymoon three days earlier. Newly married, with a new job, a new apartment, a new life. How does that happen to someone who is a health nut and an exercise fanatic and just starting off on her life as an adult? Everything I believed to be true about my life had seemingly changed in a blink of an eye. Life was now all about doctor’s visits, CAT scans, chemotherapy, radiation, blood counts, fevers, hair loss, fatigue, nausea and too many other side effects to list. Six months of treatments passed and it took several years to begin to feel better, my new normal. I was unsure what the future would hold.
Follow-up tests every 6 months ensured a roller coaster of emotions for five years. Each year that passed I felt a little more confident that maybe this would one day be thought of as a “bad dream” and I could move on with life.
No one is prepared for a cancer diagnosis. I think it is especially challenging for those who are young and facing cancer. As people age, they assume that they will face medical issues. A young person has a different set of beliefs. When those beliefs are challenged it can be difficult to handle because the young people around you don’t understand, cannot relate and it can be a very lonely place inside your own thoughts and fears.
When I was five years out from treatment, I was finally ready emotionally to move forward and start a family. After the birth of my first and then second son the idea of “it will all seem like a bad dream” seemed closer to the truth. We had a nice little family, two successful careers, and a home in a nice community. Finally, we were getting the life we imagined.
And then the other shoe dropped.
On my way out to dinner, I had an itch under my arm and scratched it. And that is when I felt the lump. Just like that. The room started spinning. The diagnosis is breast cancer and I am thrown back into the medical world of doctor visits, tests and scans, surgical procedures, and months of chemotherapy. I have been through this before but not with two toddlers in tow.
I was told my breast cancer was most likely a result of the radiation treatment I received for my Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The cure caused the cancer.
It is hard to describe what it is like to be diagnosed a second time. Just when I started to let go of the fear, after trying to protect myself for so long, it came back with a devastating blow. My body let me down, not once, but twice. This must be it.
Today as I write I remind myself how fortunate I am living an extremely fulfilling life. Believe it or not, sometimes I forget, the busier and more routine my life is. I am now eighteen years out from my last cancer. I survived the invasive procedures, the countless doctor visits, and blood tests, the poisonous compounds they infused into my body. I joke that I have had so much radiation I am probably radioactive. The fear and anxiety are still lurking in the background but I have learned how to handle as well as I can. There are some residual side effects and a few challenges but basically, I am able to do most of the things that make my life normal.
I regularly remind myself and promise myself never to take life for granted and to savor each moment. Sometimes everyday life gets in the way and I am guilty of getting stressed by the most common things.
I am reminded when I visit my surgeon after eighteen years and he says how happy he is to see me, implying this day could very well not have happened. “You are fortunate,” he says. “Someone is clearly watching over you.”
There is much more to my story and I will share in future blogs. Sharing my story helps give a context in which I write and see the world. Taking the time to learn about other people’s stories gives me a better perspective on them and life in general.
Today I remind myself of my own story, to take in the good. And I remind myself that I am not unique. We all have something that tests us and threatens us in life. The beauty is in the strength we find, sometimes unexpectedly, to move on. It connects us in ways we would have never imagined.