It all started with irregular bowel movements. I was experiencing loose stools and thought I had caught a bug. Eventually, the pain and blood made me go to the doctor. I thought I had a bad hemorrhoid. Turns out that pain was related to a tumor and abscess in my anus area.
I was diagnosed with Stage 3 squamous cell carcinoma in my anal canal in April 2017 – a rare form of cancer. In Canada, there are only about 600 people diagnosed each year. I estimated only 25 per year in the city I live in. I was treated with chemoradiation and the experience was very difficult for me. I was hospitalized for febrile neutropenia (low white blood cells and a fever) and I was able to complete my treatment. In November 2017 the doctor declared no evidence of disease (NED).
Soon after my treatment I became depressed. I was treated for this and I was back to my usual self in a few months. As a clinical social worker, I learned a lot about depression and how it can make a person feel empty and very alone.
Part of my recovery journey included writing about my experience. I wanted to share my story in order to help others – and to help end the stigma associated with anal cancer. As a clinical social worker, and author, I decided to compile a book that included the voices of others who were touched by anal cancer and had a story to tell. I recruited 24 other writers to create a collection of stories, information, resources, hope, and inspiration, called “Cancer Up the Wazoo.” This book is also a fundraiser – one Canadian dollar for every paperback sold goes to The HPV and Anal Cancer Foundation.
Another part of my recovery journey included joining an online support group. I ended up becoming an administrator for the closed Facebook group called “Anal Cancer Support” and we have hundreds of members who have been touched by anal cancer in some way. Newly diagnosed, loved ones, and those who are in treatment or post-treatment are welcomed to join. We even have some survivors of anal cancer, aka “Thrivers,” who were diagnosed and treated decades ago! We are a very diverse, loving, and friendly group, and no question is too big or small. We affectionately call this group – the one no one wants to belong to – “Club Wazoo.”
I am back to working full-time, and working on some medical issues post-treatment. I am not letting anything stop me, though. Each day is a gift, and I am determined to enjoy each and every day I have been given. And if I can help someone else along the way, I feel even better.
Angela G. Gentile, MSW, RSW
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada