When I got my cancer diagnosis, I was very surprised and freakin' terrified. Surprised because three doctors had assured me that my one symptom, rectal bleeding, was caused by hemorrhoids, and just two weeks before, my new primary care physician declared that I was extraordinarily healthy. Terrified because I grew up in the era when having cancer was a death sentence only to be evaded by dying of something else before the cancer got you. That, and I had no personal experience of anyone close to me having cancer. All I knew about anal cancer was that Farrah Fawcett died of it, and in addition to the indignity of it, she had the bad luck to die on the same day as Michael Jackson, thereby missing her last big moment. There was no way I wanted any part of anal cancer.
Luckily, I was referred to the UCSF Anal Neoplasm Clinic, Research and Education (ANCRE) Center and introduced to the Anal Cancer Foundation's peer-to-peer counseling program within 48 hours of my diagnosis. I desperately wanted and needed this kind of help. Judy, my assigned butt-buddy (as I like to call her) was everything I dreamed of and more. While our experiences weren't identical, there was plenty of overlap and she “normalized” what my body and mind were grappling with. I was ashamed of getting any kind of cancer and mortified by developing a sexually transmitted one in my butt. She helped me work through that; gave practical advice to avoid some of the side effects of treatment and suggestions on how to soothe the ones I didn't dodge. We bonded. We'll be friends for the rest of our lives.
Now that I'm more than two years post-treatment, I know a lot more about this rare disease that's unfortunately becoming less rare and want to give back. The treatment is hard, but so much easier with a confidant who knows what he or she's talking about and has survived, even prospered. I feel I owe the ACF and this community the incredible gift I was given. But honestly, I love it. Doing this work feeds my heart. Don't get me wrong, it's not always easy. It's an incredibly intimate relationship from the get-go. First conversations often cover cancer, poop, pee, genitalia and sex. But it's a wonderful experience. Honest, it is. It's deeply human. Sharing openly and honestly with someone who needs to know what might happen and how to deal with it has been one of the best experiences of my life.
If you're early in your anal cancer journey, do yourself a favor and request a peer-to-peer match. You'll be glad you did. Having someone you can talk to about any aspect of anal cancer is a precious gift. If it's been six months or more since you completed treatment you can help others. You have valuable first-hand knowledge that more and more people are going to need. If you'd like to give back but aren't sure if you can do the work, I'd recommend you give it a try. The ACF does a good job of matching compatible people, or at least has with me. They will support you and work to find answers to whatever questions you may have as a counselor. If it turns out this isn't for you, another volunteer can step in. So, no harm, no foul. I wasn't sure about my ability to help when I talked to my first match, but just as with Judy, we clicked. I've now helped eight women get through treatment and beyond. All are different, all needed different amounts of help with different things, and I've loved getting to know each of them. I'm now awaiting my next match and looking forward to being there for another woman starting her own unique anal cancer journey.
Read about the differences between anal cancer and hemorrhoids.