In any word association exercise, the word cancer is most often linked with death. Maybe two percent of outliers would say “tumor” or “sick”, but 98% of the time, when people hear the word “cancer,” they think “death.” I sure did when I heard the words “You have cancer” in 2014. I was a few days shy of turning 44, working at my dream job, had a husband I adored, and two sons who were my whole world. I was enjoying the prime of my life. Additionally, I had already lived through one devastating diagnosis: the rare disease of my younger son, Emmett. Could I really be hit with another one? Until you hear the words, “You have cancer” (and I hope you never do), you have no idea how terrifying it actually is.
I was having symptoms of abdominal pain, blood in my stool, and fatigue when my PCP sent me for a colonoscopy to “rule out anything bad.” I was a lifelong athlete, non-smoker, and healthy eater. I was the picture of vitality. I distinctly remember telling the nurse who was prepping me for anesthesia, “I just want to get this over with. We are leaving for Bermuda next week for our 15-year anniversary trip and these symptoms have been annoying.”
I questioned in utter disbelief
The next thing I remember was 10 people standing around me with sad looks on their faces and the gastroenterologist telling me he had found a large tumor and, most likely, “You have cancer.” “Cancer???” I questioned in utter disbelief. “How does that even happen? I do everything right.” He replied with sadness, “I know. It just happens.” I felt punched in the gut. There was no way in a thousand years I thought I would associate myself with the word cancer at that point in my life when I was so young and healthy. It didn’t seem possible.
Like everyone reading this, I had known someone with cancer. My grandmother passed away from pancreatic cancer when I was 14, and I recalled the heartbreak of my mother caring for her. My mother-in-law who lives 4 hours away survived lymphoma. But I really didn’t have the tiniest clue of what would lie ahead of me. I hadn’t witnessed the day-to-day patient experience of someone battling cancer. I didn’t know anything about ports, or staging, or chemotherapy (other than it was poison). I knew from the look on the GI’s face that my situation was very bad. It was a large tumor completely obstructing my colon – so large he had to abort the procedure because he couldn’t get the scope around it. I also figured if it wasn’t bad, he would’ve said something encouraging like, “But we can do surgery, cut it out, and you’ll be good to go.” There was none of that talk.
“I have cancer.”
My husband brought me home and I drank a cup of coffee, my go to comfort beverage. I was in shock. I kept retracing my life steps. What did I do wrong to cause this? I never did drugs. I took my vitamins. I was pretty much a goody two-shoes in the health department. I called my parents. My husband called his parents. I spoke to my PCP. With each phone call, it became more real. “I have cancer.” And each time I said those words, I sobbed harder and felt myself suffocating under the weight of a scary possibility: “I’m going to die.” I immediately thought of all the milestones I would miss. Turning 50. My son graduating from high school. A research breakthrough to help my disabled son. Would my husband just pick up with another woman? I thought of choosing my proxy for him. A woman who could be a loving mom to my kids. But every time I thought of someone suitable, I realized no one was suitable. That I was the one who needed to be here to do all the things. Failure was not an option. I desperately needed to find a way out of this nightmare.
The GI called me with the official pathology results. “You have cancer.” Then he added, “I know you have a big trip next week. You can still go. We’ll start your treatment plan afterwards.” I told him somberly, “I’m not going on my trip. I will get there one day, but not next week. I want to get this cancer crap out of me ASAP.” Anyone who has first-hand familiarity with the healthcare system knows ASAP is a relative term at best.
After my cup of coffee, I was whisked to our community hospital and transformed from Stacy: athlete, former class clown, loyal friend, corporate executive, and hot 40-something mom to human pin cushion, gown wearing, “date of birth please” wristband bound cancer patient. I was crying non-stop. Nurses were choking back tears as they hooked me up to various machines for imaging and testing. A few of them even prayed with me and handed me rosaries when they read my Roman Catholic faith affiliation on my history intake form. I became hysterical when my mom walked in crying. I asked for a valium. It was an absolute horror filled shitshow in every sense of the word. It’s safe to say that at that point, everyone thought this young, seemingly vibrant woman was going to die.
“I am going to live.”
I went home and after a few days (which included a PET scan), I decided I couldn’t live every day thinking I was going to die. So, I started researching ways to reframe this plight in a way that would help me cope. I read a lot about thought replacement therapy which is what the name suggests: every time a thought creeped in of “I am going to die,” I actively pushed it out and affirmed verbally, “I am going to live.” It changed everything for how I approached my illness from then on. So much so, that when I met with the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center oncologist for my PET results, and his face was grim, and he wouldn’t answer me when I asked him what my chances were (translation: not good at all), I told him that I was intent on kicking cancer’s ass. Fortunately, and miraculously, the rest is history and I did. I turned fifty, in 2 months I will watch my older son graduate from high school, and in the life yet ahead of me, I believe that a research breakthrough will be developed for Emmett.
I don’t want anyone to have to stare into the face of death as I did if they don’t have to. If you’re not already taking charge of your health, I want you to take steps to actively do so. It’s colorectal cancer awareness month, so I want you to have a conversation with your physician about your options for getting screened, choose one, and do it. And finally, I want you to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. For example, “I WILL get to Bermuda one day soon.”