Cancer sucks. We all know that. We’ve seen it in the movies, and some of us have experienced it with a loved one. For me, I had only ever heard about it in health class and seen it on TV screens. No one in my life had it. As far as I know, there is no history of cancer in my family anywhere. Although I’ll admit, I’m not very knowledgeable about my family’s medical history.
This is my story about getting cancer twice in my 20’s, and what it did to me.
I was first diagnosed with cervical cancer when I was 26. I remember it was October 30th 2014. The recurrence happened in December when I was 28. To back track a bit, I originally went to the doctor about six months prior (the first time) because of one symptom: bleeding during sex. Ick. I thought I had all sorts of STDs and it really freaked me out. There was a smell I wasn’t used to, and the bleeding!! Ugh it was horrible. I also had never had an exam “down there” before. I hadn’t had health insurance since I was a teenager, and just never went to the doctor. It was a very uncomfortable time in my life. Fast forward six months and many tests and attempted treatments later, they find cervical cancer. I need to go see a specialist in a city an hour and a half away. That’s fine, that’s where my family is anyway.
Cancer was caught super early, all I needed was surgery to remove my cervix. Awesome, everything was going to be fine and I’d just have surgery and miss three weeks of work and life would go on. I’ve had surgery before (appendix removed at age 12) so this will be easy. And it was. I had the surgery, they got all the cancer, I recovered, everything went back to normal.
For a year and a half, anyway.
I started getting symptoms again. Bleeding and discomfort during sex mainly. I’ve seen this before and of course I begin to worry. I just started dating a new guy and he knows my history so he worries too. Once again, it took a few visits to my oncologist before they found out it was cancer again. I’m not sure what it is with these guys that make them always think it isn’t cancer!
I always seem to get really bad news when I’m at work or on my way to work. I was in the building at work, about 10 seconds from clocking in for the day, and I get the call from my doctor. The cancer is back.
I quickly release all my frustration and move on so I can work my shift. No one knows. No one can tell that I just got some of the worst news of my life. I’m extremely emotionally strong and handle things very well, so I’m not surprised no one notices.
Anyway, long story short (haha! too late for that now!!) I eventually go through all the testing and scans and meet all sorts of new doctors. At this time I have about 5 specialists working on my treatment plan.
Okay now this is where I’m going to go into more detail. This is, after all, a story about what I went through during treatment. While I was going through all of this, every single step was me learning something new. I didn’t know anything about any of this; all I knew was what I had seen in movies, in which they never really cover the details.
The first thing I had to go through was a minor surgery to place a stint in one of my ureters. I had developed issues with my right kidney. My ureter was blocked from the growth, so my kidney wasn’t functioning properly. A stint is just a small plastic tube thing that keeps the canal open for functionality. Super quick and easy procedure, I was back to work the next day.
My second procedure was to place my port-a-cath (commonly just called port). This was a small catheter placed just below the surface of my skin, directly below my right collarbone. Its purpose is to deliver the chemotherapy meds (which apparently is just a liquid medicine, who knew! The movies just tell you that chemo sucks, I had no idea how it was delivered). They put the port under your skin and connect it to a vein to deliver the medicine. That way, all they do is stick a needle in your skin so they aren’t doing an IV every time you’re treated, and your veins aren’t destroyed. Now this port, it kinda sucks. Once you heal from the procedure (which you’re awake for by the way), you can’t really feel it under your skin but you can see it. Mine was a large bump about the size of a quarter. Very noticeable, at least to me.
Now the fun begins!!
My treatment plan was five and a half weeks of radiation treatments, five days a week, for a total of 25 treatments. Every. Single. Weekday. Then, every Thursday would be my chemo day. At least I only had to do that once a week. I only needed a small dose of chemo every week, I couldn’t imagine more. I feel so bad for those with much more aggressive treatment plans.
Radiation is easy. It takes five minutes each day and you don’t feel a thing. The radiation techs put you on the table and line you up properly, the machine goes around your body for a couple minutes (which for me of course it went around my abdomen) and you were done.
Chemo was a little different. Each of my doses took about four hours. You get kind of a room, or at least that’s how it was at my cancer center. It was a private little area that was separated from my neighbor by a wall, but the back of the little room didn’t have a wall, that was open. SO anyway. They sit you in a chair after taking your vitals, they take your blood because it is very important to keep track of your platelets and blood counts during treatment. I always had the same nurse, the only male nurse who worked there from what I could tell. He was awesome!! His name was Roger and I’m super glad he was my nurse for all of my treatments. He always gave my tips for all things cancer related, he asked me about my life, he was funny, and made my experience a lot more bearable. During your chemo treatments, you can have visitors, you can eat and drink whatever, bring books or games or other activities, watch TV, or even nap. It was actually not nearly as horrible as I was expecting. When I had all my appointments with my doctors to prepare me for my treatment, it scared the crap outta me!! But the actual experience, was a walk in the park.
Okay, so most normal people, or other cancer survivors might call me crazy for saying it was an easy experience. I don’t mean that they symptoms from cancer or the treatments were easy. That’s different. I’m just saying that the experience itself wasn’t bad at all. I didn’t enjoy getting up really early to get to radiation before work, and I absolutely hated what all this crap was doing to my body.
My radiation oncologist was amazing. She was super thorough, more so than any doctor I have ever met. She could see the changes in my face if I made a minor smirk or gesture, and could tell if I had a question about something she was saying, then would answer it before I could even ask!! Amazing woman 🙂
She told me to stop using toilet paper, and to buy some sensitive wipes and carry them with me in a bag at all times. I did not expect this. Since the radiation was over my abdomen, my hips, bladder, rectum, and all the surrounding skin would be affected. The radiation causes skin irritation, redness, dryness, all sorts of fun! She didn’t want me to use toilet paper because it would add to the irritation and make everything worse. They also gave me this butt bath thing with a recipe for a salt water soak. Ha! I was to use it as often as I could, to help soothe the irritated skin. None of this was in the movies, what the heck Hollywood?!?! Anyway, I never did the butt baths cause it was weird and I actually never really felt any real bad skin irritation, so that’s good.
The radiation also causes fatigue and weakness. And I mean, holy crap I’ve never felt this weak and tired in my life kind of fatigue. You constantly feel tired, and any type of physical activity sends your heart racing so fast that it causes actual pain against your chest. I’ve worked out before, and ran and rode bikes and been out of breath, but this was a completely different feeling. I couldn’t go up ONE SINGLE flight of stairs without my heart going absolutely nuts. And I was 28 and naturally thin and have always been active. No one could have ever prepared me for how weak and pathetic and useless I felt. I was still working part time through all of this, but boy it was rough. I literally went to treatments, worked about 20 hours a week, and did nothing else. I took naps on a daily basis, which is something I have never done unless sick in bed.
Chemo causes nausea. Even though I only had one treatment per week, it stayed in my system at all times. At one time, I had six or seven different prescriptions just for nausea. I took them every day, around the clock. I think it helped, but I still felt nauseous every minute of every day for at least two months. Once again, no one can ever prepare you for that. I had actually forgotten what it was like to NOT feel sick. They really warn you not to lose any weight, because you can lose your appetite and vomit from chemo, but I had to consistently eat all throughout the day to help me from feeling any sicker. If I didn’t eat snacks constantly, or drink lots of water (which I am typically the worst at doing) then I’d feel just absolutely miserable. Luckily, I never actually got sick from any of it, but it was awful. I actually gained 15 pounds from the lack of activity and constant snacking. My doctor was happy about that. Me… not so much.
I think the worst part about having cancer is that no one understands what you’re going through and you feel very alone. I’m very strong minded, independent, and stoic. I hate getting sympathy from people, and I hate it when people are always asking how I’m doing and if there’s anything they can do to help. I know they mean well, but I just freaking can’t stand it. I didn’t want to always talk about what I was going through and how I was feeling, I just wanted someone who understood and was just simply there. Don’t get me wrong, I had fantastic support from my loved ones, but no one got it. None of my family, or friends, or even coworkers knew what it was like. Some of them had witnessed it with a family member, but no one I know has had to go through what I was going through. Okay I take that back. I had one friend who was a cancer survivor, and he was honestly one of the best people to talk to because I could talk about what was going on, just without the lengthy explanations. It was refreshing.
Oh my gosh. I haven’t even begun to explain the actual worst thing I had to endure!! After all of my external radiation and chemo, I had to have internal radiation, formally called Brachytherapy. Five treatments over about a two week period. This especially was never in the movies. My cancer buddy didn’t even know what the heck that was. So this might get a little personal and detailed, but I’m going to explain internal radiation in the lady bits.
You have to have someone drive you because they give you pain killers and mild sedation. Because it freaking hurts!! There’s this contraption that is widest on the end that first inserts into your vagina, which really sucks ass. It’s maybe an inch and a half to two inches in diameter. The doctor inserts it, and keep in mind this is right after finishing external radiation that has made all your parts sensitive and kinda closed up also. So this device gets pushed all the way to the end of the vagina, and then he TWISTS it, as if it weren’t uncomfortable enough! He attaches some more equipment to this piece, which puts a small tube into the center of the device previously inserted (this is at least my understanding of the procedure and what I felt). That tube goes further inside you, as far as they need it to go to deliver the radiation. They get everything in place and secured so it won’t move, then you’re wheeled into another room for a quick scan to make sure it’s lined up exactly where it needs to be. So you’re on this table/bed, with a long device sticking out from your vagina, just being wheeled around like no big deal. Once you’re back in your room, everyone leaves the room so the radiation can be inserted by a machine. The machine just sends it into the small tube and it releases little by little, all the way down that tube. When finished, the doctors come back in and take everything out and you’re done. But then you get sick from the sedation you were given. You just can’t win.
The recovery process for cancer treatment isn’t easy. Chemo doesn’t fully leave your system for a couple of months, so even though you’re done with treatment, you’ll still feel like crap for awhile. I tried to go back to working full time right away because it was our busy season, but it was tough! I managed decently well as long as I asked for help when needed. It took a few months for me to feel normal again, and to be able to walk up stairs with a normal heart rate. My red blood cell counts and other blood work also took awhile to get back to normal.
I sometimes wish I could impart my cancer wisdom on others; help women get through what I went through and give them advice on what it’s really like, the things no one ever tells you or quite knows how to explain. I am not afraid to go into personal, gory detail with people if I think it would help. I didn’t always tell my loved ones all the details because it was exhausting to talk about, and it was very personal stuff that was happening to me. But another cancer patient… they’d get it. There are still countless details that I haven’t touched in this entry at all.
It has been about 9 months since I’ve finished treatment, and I still have a hard time sometimes. I went on a hike last week for the first time in a few months, and my heart was having a difficult time keeping up. It will forever be a struggle for me to stay healthy and fit. And no one will fully understand. But that’s okay, they don’t have to. I am strong and can do anything.
I beat cancer, twice, and I will never let it get me for good.