On October 28, 2010, I received a diagnosis of stage IIIB anal cancer. This diagnosis was the farthest thing from what I expected, especially at this point in my life. I am a recently divorced 45-year-old female who regularly exercises, eats well, has never had a major illness and goes to the doctor regularly.
Looking back, there were signs such as the swollen groin lymph node that I discovered in 2009, but was told after a sonogram that it was not a concern. Or the slight rectal bleeding that was occasional and attributed to hemorrhoids. Of course, with hindsight, these symptoms were due to the cancer in my body but given my healthy way of life, a diagnosis of cancer wasn’t a thought in my mind. Add in the fact that I have always had normal PAP smears and there was never an indication I had HPV. Honestly, I didn’t know what HPV was until I was diagnosed with anal cancer and researched the causes.
I started a six-week regimen of chemo and radiation on December 6, 2010 at a major New York cancer center. Every day, Monday through Friday, I drove to the hospital from my home in Westchester and laid on a table for 15 minutes while a machine attacked my cancer with radiation, which eventually caused severe burns on my body that prohibited me from wearing anything but loose skirts. The chemotherapy was administered in week one and week six in a constant five day drip. The drip was attached to my body through a canister that hung from my waist and entered my body through the port in my chest. Getting through treatment is a day-to-day battle and sometimes hour to hour. I was committed to beating cancer and not allowing it to define me at a time in my life when I should be raising my beautiful daughter and enjoying my life to the fullest.
I have the utmost confidence in my team of doctors. They are cutting edge in their treatment of cancers and especially rare cancers. For me that included a surgery that moved my ovaries to under my rib cage so that they would be out of the radiation field. This relocation gave me a 60% chance of not going through menopause due to the radiation. My doctors pointed out that ovary transposition is typically done in cervical and ovarian cancer patients who are under 40. My team also said that since anal cancer typically strikes women who are post-menopausal, this surgery was rare for my cancer. I am happy to report that it strongly looks like the surgery was a success, which feels pretty amazing!
I am several months post-treatment and feeling stronger every day. I have learned a tremendous amount about myself and my family and friends. I have slowed down and enjoy my life each and every day. Yes, it is important to plan for the future but grab and embrace today – it is what we have right now! Also, my family and friends are the most precious thing in my life. I appreciate them every day. I will not let cancer define me – yes it is part of me but I control who I am and I am determined to take only the valuable lessons I learned from having cancer and leave the bad behind.
Lastly, I urge every parent who has a pre-teen/teen to seriously consider speaking to your pediatrician about the HPV vaccine. If we can give our children the means to potentially prevent them from suffering through this disease then I am an enormous advocate of every child receiving this vaccination. I watched my daughter get her first dose last week and the emotion I felt at knowing I was protecting her the best that I can from experiencing the physical and mental pain of this disease was overwhelming and extremely satisfying as a parent.
Looking for someone to talk to about your anal cancer diagnosis? We are here to help. The Peer to Peer Support Program is a free service provided by the Anal Cancer Foundation that matches anal cancer thrivers (our word for survivors) and caregivers with thriver volunteers and caregiver volunteers.