My Story | Judy M., California, USA
My name is Judy and this is my story:
I am 15 years old. My boyfriend's mother dies of breast cancer that has spread to her spine. All I know about cancer is that she was sick for a long time and had to make a lot of trips to San Francisco, and she died anyway. I hold my boyfriend while he cries.
I am 17 years old. My same boyfriend's father, who was always kind to me and treated me like his daughter, dies of colon cancer. He, too, made a lot of trips to San Francisco for treatment, but for no use. I saw this strapping, burly man shrink into a skinny shadow who didn't even recognize his own son, then die. I hold my boyfriend while he cries again.
I meet or hear of a variety of people who have had cancer. Except for one who had both her breasts removed to avoid getting cancer in both of them, all are now dead from it.
We had a series of disasters happen to our house, and my husband and I and our two children are living temporarily in a comfortable motel. My husband is staying over night at our house because we can't close the doors and windows. One morning I woke up after having a precognitive dream. The dream left me with this message: "You will have cancer. You will have no pain. You will have time to get your affairs in order." This disturbed me, but there was no more information. I go on with my life...
For the first time in my life, my periods go haywire. I contribute this to having had a cortisone shot during the middle of my cycle. Also my house is still torn up, we are all living with my mother, it is raining every day, and the sun hasn't shown for a month. And we are having major problems with the contractor who is working on our house, and my five-year-old daughter has to be rushed to the hospital with bronchiolitis. I have my period for a week. Then three days later, I bleed again. Then I stop. Then a week later, I start again. And so on for several weeks. I finally go to an OB-GYN, who does a pelvic ultrasound, and a Pap. Nothing but a minor ovarian cyst is found. She says, "If this keeps up, we will do a uterine biopsy." It sounds painful. They check me for AIDS. Nothing. I tell my regular doctor. She says, "There are some times in a woman's life we get off schedule like this." Finally, the problem stops on its own, and I become regular once again. (I wonder now, if the uterine biopsy had been done then, what they would have found). I go on with life...
I leave a job that was causing me a great deal of stress and get a new one where I am happier. I thank God on my knees for the job. Thank goodness it has great health insurance as I will soon need it.
I notice my hair is falling out rather rapidly. I go to my doctor. She takes blood tests only to check my thyroid. It's normal. I go on with my life. I also tell her I bleed sometimes when I ovulate. Just a little. "Not to worry," she said, "it's normal."
I notice my periods are getting closer together. Instead of every 28 days, I am having periods every 22 to 25 days. Hmm. I should mention this to the doc, but I am busy. Also, for some unknown reason, I have frequent diarrhea. I think it is just an irritable colon. I go on with my life. My periods are long and hard. I get huffy and puffy when I try to walk far. Well, I am fat and out of shape, I tell myself. Gotta do something about that. Sometime...
My husband and I go to southern California on a business trip. I can barely walk 15 feet without having to sit down. My heart has been racing and has scary palpitations. My husband says, "You used to be able to do this before." I tell him he's right, and I promise when I get home, I will check it out. Since my dad died of a heart attack, I suspect I am developing a bad heart. Shit...
late July 1999
My heart races for no reason. I cut out all caffeine, but it doesn't seem to help. I go to the doctor. She refers me to a heart doctor. I ask if I can go on one more business trip. The doc tells me, "Yes, I guess so, but watch how you feel."
August 1, 1999
It's the day of the trip and I don't feel well. My heart is racing, but I really want to go on this trip and I have to drive for several hours alone through the mountains. Heart is racing, I am tired and have to lie down. Just had my period, a heavy one, plus a week of diarrhea. My heart racing. Take some Tylenol. It doesn't slow down my heart. What is going on? I start off on my trip anyway, get about 20 miles, and my heart is really going.
Something is really wrong, I turn around and head for the hospital. I think I am having a heart attack. I get to the hospital, they do a thorough exam, including a chest x-ray and blood tests. The emergency room docs come back and say, "You seem to be just fine, but you are very anemic. Your red count is only seven, when it should be twelve or thirteen. Go see your doctor and tell her." They give me nothing, and send me home. I learned later that the hospital standard for giving a blood transfusion is ten hemoglobin, and the doc who saw me "just didn't like to bother with admitting people." Thank God it wasn't a heart attack. The doc explained that my heart was racing because it was trying hard to get enough thin blood to my brain and heart to keep me alive. People can die from heart failure after enough of this.
I go to the heart doctor. I tell him I feel like I am going to faint. He couldn't believe they didn't transfuse me at the hospital. I end up receiving four blood transfusions which helped the weakness, tiredness, nausea, and lightheadedness I felt. For awhile. My regular doc never suggested this.
end of August 1999
I still feel tired and sick, and I'm missing a lot of work. I tell my doc. They tell me there is nothing they can do. They do a pelvic exam and a Pap. "No problems," they say. They run no other tests. I am still feeling very ill. They look at me derisively, like I am making it up or enjoying the attention. I request a referral to a blood specialist. They refuse adamantly, saying, "You just have iron deficiency anemia, take your pills like a good patient." I tell them I am losing them with all this diarrhea, they aren't helping me. They won't give me any more blood transfusions. They tell me my health insurance won't cover a specialist. I find out later they have no idea what my insurance covers, and I don't need referrals from them. I say, "the Hell with them," and self-refer to a hematologist, who, luckily, is also an oncologist. As soon as I go to him, he orders an upper and lower gastro-intestinal (GI) series, and refers me to an OB-GYN. The upper and lower GI's are clear, and I go to the OB-GYN who does not do a physical exam, but wants to put me on progesterone. I am having problems with depression and anxiety now, in addition to feeling like crap, partly because no one seems to know what to do with me, and I don't want to take the progesterone because one of its side effects is depression. Like I need more of that. So I don't take the pills. The OB-GYN orders a pelvic ultrasound and compares it to the one I had in '95. It comes out normal.
I go on iron injections, twice a week, to build up my blood. My health and strength improve overnight. My arms are covered with bruises from the shots. I feel better and stronger all the time, but still strangely anxious and depressed. I go for three weeks without sleeping, partly because I think the iron shots cranked up my system, though the doctors say that is not a side effect. This feeling is miserable, and I try desperately to hold on to my job even though I am barely functioning, having anxiety attacks, and feeling terrible gloom. I can't plan my life, I am exhausted from not sleeping, so I start swimming to make myself tired enough to sleep to escape the depression. I am trying to avoid all the medications people are shoving on me so I swim every night. This helps me cope and I enjoy it. I also splurge for weekly massages. It is my only comfort during this terrible time.
My red count, which I have struggled so hard to raise, keeps dropping. I feel depressed. I start feeling lightheaded again, and weak. No one knows what is wrong with me. My blood doc (I have since dropped my regular doc in disgust) says, "Keep working with an OB-GYN, that is the only place you are losing blood." I go to an new OB-GYN, tell her of my anemia, and ask if she can help me. She tells me she will do a full work up, and does a Pap. Then, following a mix-up with my health insurance card, I never get the results of this Pap until the end of January.
End of January 2000
The doctor's office called, and I tell them I ALREADY sent the health insurance card. I really did. But they say, "No, this isn't about that. Your Pap is abnormal. It is probably nothing, you are approaching menopause, but we want to do a uterine biopsy just to be sure." It is the first abnormal Pap smear I have had in my life. And it is only four months after my last normal one in September 1999. Unless, of course, my former doc messed up.
I have the biopsy. Two weeks later, I am sitting at my desk at work when I get a call. It's February 22, two days before my 46th birthday. It's cancer. First, I am so shocked I can't think. Then I cry. I call my husband, I have to come home. I talk to him, to my children, my mother and sisters. All this means to me is that I am going to die. Everyone else I have ever known that has had cancer, has died. Somehow I kept living through the day.
I have a D and C (dilation and curettage) and a conization. The doc thinks it is a very localized cervical cancer. She ends up being wrong. She schedules me for surgery at a local hospital at the end of March. A week before the surgery, she calls me and says, "Your cell type is very aggressive, you will need lymph node biopsies, and I am not that qualified. I am referring you to a major cancer center in San Francisco." I am glad, but scared. You don't get to go to this hospital if you have a simple case. I flash back to my former boyfriend's parents, all their trips, and they died anyway. I am feeling pretty sure life is coming to an end for me. Spring is wasted on me. I have a pelvic CT (computed tomography) scan to look for more tumors. They can't find any. So far so good. I keep swimming and drinking carrot juice. It is all I can do.
I am waiting for a surgery date. My boss wants to know my plans. My case has to be reviewed by the tumor board. I wait and wait. My mom has to take medication for the anxiety. I keep swimming. I am up to 12 laps a night. I visualize my tumor as being held in by the concrete walls of my uterus. I go on vacation with my family. I meet the surgeon. I wonder if I will live another year, if I will have other vacations. I am depressed and scared to death and facing major surgery.
May 15, the day after Mother's Day 2000
I go to San Francisco for my surgery. I am scared to death. I walk around numb, chanting the 23rd Psalm to myself, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for Thou art with me." Oh God help me, I feel like I am jumping off the edge of the world. My surgery was successful, my lymph nodes were clear, the surgeon is thankful and amazed, Stage 2a only. I leave the hospital after five days, textbook case, smooth sailing.
Nine days later
The staples are removed, but I had a hidden infection. I split open in a surge of blood, the ambulance came, I was sewn up, and should have been left open. I developed a severe infection, two different types of bacteria, treated with intravenous antibiotics for five days, rushed back to the hospital for more antibiotics, treated with a drain tube, developed C-dif (an intestinal infection) and had to be treated for that, the drain tube plugged up and I developed another infection, was weak, tired, feverish, and hot.
May - August 2000
I was home for almost four months recovering when it should have only taken me six weeks. I was hospitalized three times over the summer. The doctor said no chemo was effective on my kind of cancer, and wanted to radiate me instead. But due to the infection and healing incision (which had to be cut back open in August to let me heal right), I couldn't have radiation. Then, since it had been so long, the docs said, "Look it has either spread, or it hasn't. We will do another CT when you can get out of bed."
Went back to work part time.
Went back to work full time. Had a clear CT scan at the end of the month.
Had a clear pap.
Had another clear CT scan.
Hanging in there.
The road I walked this year was a difficult one, but since then, I have learned that some have had it even harder than I did, and that my sufferings are little compared to theirs. I have learned that the bravest hearts are not on any battlefield, but in the cancer ward, where we have to turn and fight, sometimes more than once, and sometimes to the death. And in the cancer ward there is no running away.
Those battling cancer are the world's most valiant souls. To those reading this who are newly diagnosed, welcome to the club! I want to tell you to have hope and to believe that cancer isn't a death sentence. When we have to fight for our lives, we will find the strength to do so. I believe that when we die is according to God's will, but it is our choice daily how we want to live. When it comes my time to go, I will shape my death the way I have tried to shape my life, meeting it head-on, without flinching, and embracing the next step of my spiritual growth as a graduation, not an annihilation.
Hugs to all,
Post script to my story
I never would have known I had cancer except for the anemia. Uterine cancer hides well premenopause, it is seldom detected on a Pap, and causes no pain at all. I felt so healthy after the transfusions and iron, it was hard to believe there was anything wrong with me. I have yet to feel that way again, and I cannot make 12 laps in the pool again. I hope to do it again someday.
Despite my battle with cancer and the infections, I never had any pain, except for immediately after my surgery and right after I got home. The cancer itself never caused me any pain. And the infected wound, since all the nerves had been severed, never hurt me, even when I was cut back open and had to endure daily deep dressing changes.
There was never any pain then or now. Interesting how my dream was right. And the third thing from my dream, that I would have time to get my affairs in order. Well, that could take years...and I didn't have the message I was going to die from the cancer...interesting.