Flashback to Fall 2015, my mother, Monica Wray, was 57 years old and I was about to turn 26. I am an only child and as such my relationship with my mother reflected that. We were thick as thieves after successfully making it through my dramatic teenage years. On a seemingly routine trip to Target she told me that she had ben experiencing what felt like to her some rather embarrassing issues. Specifically, going to the bathroom. I reassured her that she was going to be okay. I didn't know what else to say, what else was there to say? She explained she had scheduled a colonoscopy, something she also did religiously due to a history of anal and colon cancer in our family. Many tests later she was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma stage IIIB anal origin. Years before her diagnosis her older sister was also diagnosed with anal cancer and would not only survive but thrive. The difference for my mom? HPV. I sit here wondering what she would like me to share with you about her journey. Perhaps you're on your own journey through cancer treatment, or are a caregiver yourself. I hope I am doing both her and you justice.
No one expects to have to take care of their parent while in their twenties. This certainly wasn't how we intended of our lives to be. I remember frantically and daily, googling anything and everything about this diagnosis. There were no “what to do when you have anal cancer” pamphlets, no “save the booty” support groups. No one was selling support bracelets and there certainly weren't commercials breaking up the evening news informing us, educating us. We were feeling around in the dark for information and understanding. Information we were getting from doctors treating her seemed vague and always left us with more questions. We were told to be thankful it wasn't cervical because that prognosis was worse. Thankful? I wouldn't use that word to describe how any of us felt. Her treatment was hard, an insurmountable number of setbacks.
Chemotherapy and radiation failed and the next resort was surgery. Memorial Sloan Kettering surgeons were tasked with removing her grapefruit sized tumor which would end up taking more than 15 hours. I recall sitting in the cavernous lobby trying to read a book to take my mind off of what was happening to my best friend. My mom's truest fear during all of this was to go through the surgery and have it be unsuccessful. Its true the saying, "I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy". I wouldn’t. I watched as my mother's worst fear came true when were were told the cancer metastasized in her liver and lung. An immense chasm of loss welled up inside of me. I'm only 26 and I'm supposed to have so many more years with her. I was ready to help her clean her stoma and shop around for bathing suits that accommodated ostomy bags. I was ready to take care of her as she had taken care of me. There was supposed to be so much more time to learn about gardening, how to make perfect sausage soup, and watching B-rated horror movies. Cancer had a much different expectation and in September 2016 my mother passed away in my childhood home. My Aunt Catherine and I clung together and I can still feel the comforting hand from my Uncle George on my shoulder. My father played Frank Sinatra—I'm sure not just for her but also for us.
In the 4 years after her passing, of course so many things happened. I lost over 100 pounds knowing I needed to do everything in my power to put myself in a better place health-wise. I made new career choices and changed the way I thought about life as a whole. A week before my mother passed she told me she had regretted the amount of time she had dedicated to her career versus spending time with her family. She told me “do it, just do it all.” So I have been.
In early 2020 I really started hyper focusing on my frustration with the lack of information readily available to those diagnosed with HPV-related anal cancer. I know if we felt this way, we weren't the only ones. So how do I help? Somewhere in 2018 I started hiking much more frequently. I find that being out in nature I could get my thoughts straight and calm my racing mind. This was how I could help. I decided I was going to dedicate hikes alongside a fundraiser for The HPV and Anal Cancer Foundation which was one of the beacons of information we found during my mothers treatment. My final push to start was my best-friend Anitas mother, Mary, also being diagnosed. So I have dedicated 58 hikes for my mother's 58 years to raise funds to support those newly diagnosed, those still on their journey, thrivers, and their caregivers. I truly hope that every dollar we offer in support can go to eradicating HPV related cancers.
If you wish to, you can make a donation to support Sarah's campaign.
Are you planning a fundraising event on behalf of the Foundation or thinking of how you could help #kickcancersass? We'd love to hear from you.