Most 21 year olds are living their lives in celebration: graduating college, being able to drink, becoming a “real” adult. And when living an otherwise trauma-free life, the last thing you expect to hear is, “You have cancer.” And while those exact words were not spoken to me, those were the words I heard, echoing in my head: “You have cancer.”
Seven years ago, I injured myself in what I thought was a simple trip and fall. I landed backside-first on a hard concrete floor, resulting in excruciating pain. Big deal, right? Probably just a bruised or fractured tailbone… nothing that won’t heal in a few weeks. My life turned in that moment, and it initiated a year of physical pain and mental confusion. What I thought would heal in the course of several weeks grew into unbearable pain for over a year. I saw orthopedists and physical therapists – none of which were able to properly diagnose me or ease my suffering. It wasn’t until I started experiencing numbness in my legs that I decided to see a neurologist. And she was the one who found it: the tumor.
One week after she told me about the large mass I had in my back, I’d already had a biopsy scheduled. I was fortunate enough to be referred to some of the best doctors in the DC area. I went in for my outpatient procedure, telling my coworkers I would be back in the next 2 days. I ended up being out for 8 months. The doctors were able to tell almost immediately after the biopsy that the tumor was malignant, and they wanted to start me on treatment as soon as possible. I started with a week of inpatient chemotherapy: 6 days of chemicals being pumped into my body in hopes of shrinking the mass. I can’t remember when I’d felt so sick. My body swelled with fluids, and on the 5th day, my hair started to fall out. It happened really quite suddenly. And going into chemo, you know it’s going to happen. They tell you it will; it’s common knowledge that it will. But when it finally does? Well, you never really are ready for it. Seems like such a small thing: hair. But it’s such a normal part of most people’s lives, that to lose it is that much more traumatic… especially when you’re a girl. In my mind, though, I just kept thinking it would grow back, and that I shouldn’t worry about it. “I have a good-shaped head,” I’d tell people, “so it’s no big deal.”
After I was discharged from the hospital, an MRI was scheduled to evaluate the size of my tumor. If it had shrunk, we’d do another round of chemotherapy to get it as small as possible before trying to remove it. The tumor was located in/around/on my sacrum-coccyx. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s the base of your spine, where the majority of the body’s nerve roots are located. It being such a precarious part of the body, the doctor’s didn’t want to jump into surgery too quickly. Well, the subsequent MRI showed that my tumor had actually gotten bigger, prompting my doctors to want to do the surgery to remove it as soon as possible.
In the days prior to my surgery, I was not allowed any food, only clear liquids. I went in with the knowledge that the surgery would take over 15 hours to perform, and that I would be given enough anesthesia to keep me asleep until the following morning. At 7am on April 10, 2003, I went to sleep, wondering how the rest of my life would be. The next day, I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit. I was laying on my side, and couldn’t feel my right foot. Turns out that the tumor was so big that they had to completely remove the bone that it had overtaken, and cut several nerve roots that left me without the use of my right foot and several other major physical changes. “I’m okay,” I told the hospital psychologist, “they told me that these were the risks.” Was I really okay? Probably not. My reconstructive surgery was scheduled for 5 days later – my 22nd birthday. That surgery, because it involved neurosurgery, would be over 17 hours. They said they might be able to push it so that I didn’t miss my birthday, but I didn’t want to risk it, so we proceeded.
Waking up after that procedure was when the real work began. I spent 3 months in the hospital – healing, learning how to walk again, and regaining my strength. I was transferred in and out of the ICU every few days or so, as I kept spiking fevers and getting infections. I blacked out on more than one occasion for who knows what reasons. It was 6 weeks before I was allowed to lay on my back again, and 8 before I could sit up on my own. I left the hospital on crutches, and was in use of them for about a year before I could walk on my own again. And because of the type of cancer I had, I need to have MRIs and CT scans done every 6 to 9 months. Most of the time, when I look back on that year, it doesn’t seem that bad. I think to myself that I got through it, so it’s not that big a deal, and that people have been through worse. But occasionally, I’ll hear a song or smell an odor that reminds me of that time in my life, and it’s painful.
What is the point of me telling you all of this? The point is that CANCER SUCKS. People say it, and people know it, but until you’ve been through it or seen a loved one through it, you don’t really KNOW it. It takes from you so much more than people understand, changes your perception of the world and of yourself. It leaves scars, both physically and mentally, that run deep and that take years to heal. I was one of the lucky ones – someone who had a phenomenal support system of family and friends who loved me and kept me afloat. I had someone by my side 24 hours a day, keeping me strong and seeing me through. But not everyone has that. Not everyone is lucky. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Together, we can all help to find a cure so that no one has to endure such pain anymore. It’ll take time and effort, but it will happen. And in the meantime, we can come together to support those patients and survivors who need us, and let them know that we are all here for them. The American Cancer Society is the leader in that fight against cancer. The funds that it collects go towards cancer research and advocacy, as well as patient and survivor programs and support. Give to the American Cancer Society, and you can help ease someone’s pain and provide them with the hope that future generations can be spared. While the date of my birthday is now somewhat bittersweet to me, I can be thankful that I’m here to continue celebrating it year after year. Help countless others celebrate more birthdays, and support the American Cancer Society.