It’s time to tell my cancer story, which began sometime last year. In doing so, I hope to encourage others to ask questions and be assertive. I had worried about strokes and heart attacks, but never cancer. After all, I had escaped the dreaded “C” so far, so what’s to worry about. My husband had bladder cancer and was treated for years, and he told me once that the word changes your life.
The first six months in 2018 was a time of managing increasing pain and symptoms monitored by my gastroenterologist. In May, my symptoms became more pronounced. I contacted both him and my internist in Little Rock, and the gastroenterologist responded by saying he would order a CT scan. His office called to tell me it was normal. I learned later that a CT scan will not detect endometrial cancer. About a month after the scan, I was experiencing frightening symptoms including increased abdominal pain. I called both the internist and the gastroenterologist and asked that I be referred to a gynecologist. Both told me the other would have to arrange the referral.
I became so frustrated that I told a dear friend what was going on and that I felt I might have to go to an ER to get a referral. That Sunday, she sat by a gynecologist in church, and she said she prayed during church about whether she should tell this physician about my case. After church, she did tell her, and she texted me to call this doctor early the next morning for an appointment.
I called and was told I could see the physician later in the day but if I wanted to come in early, I could see her nurse practitioner. After an examination, I was sent immediately for an ultrasound. During the ultrasound, the technician asked if I had already had a biopsy, so I knew that I was in trouble. A day later, I had an appointment with the gynecologist, who told me I most likely had endometrial cancer. She scheduled a biopsy to be done in the hospital under anesthesia as she suspected cancer and needed to take many biopsies. My daughter booked a flight to Little Rock from California. Her trip was delayed in Dallas because of the weather, so she spent the night in Dallas and I picked her up at the airport as we headed to the hospital. She was determined to be there because I had a problem with waking up after a colonoscopy the August before. She had never told me how frightened she and the nurses had been, and wanted reassurance from the anesthesiologist who would be taking care of me for this procedure.
After this and the confirmation of the diagnosis, I decided to have the surgery at UCSF (University of California at San Francisco, a medical school in the California system that dates back to the middle of the 19th century) to make it more convenient for my daughter and son. We made many phone calls and were referred to the gynecologic/oncology surgery department there.
At the time, I had reservations for a flight to North Carolina to spend a week with two friends. The timing was perfect, as it was just before the appointment in San Francisco. I had a wonderful week with them, feeling such love and support. Instead of returning to Little Rock, I flew directly from Charlotte to San Francisco for my initial appointment with the surgeon. After seeing her and having a workup by the anesthesiology department, I was scheduled for surgery on August 23.
I had a complete hysterectomy and lymph node removal and was awake very soon and without pain. I was given a prescription for oxycodone but I never took one, only needing Tylenol. I was back at my son’s by the middle of the afternoon. When I returned to the surgeon for the pathology report, I celebrated on hearing I would not need chemotherapy.
I was referred to my radiologist/oncologist and was scheduled for 25 radiation treatments. However, when I arrived for my “marking” my treatment was delayed by a few days. The doctor had received more pathology reports and was concerned about the involved lymph node, which could not be completely removed because of its location. The radiation was strengthened in the area of the lymph node, so I do have some side effects.
After spending three weeks with my son and the next three weeks with my daughter, I decided I wanted to move to be near them. I rented an apartment in Corte Madera with a gorgeous view of the bay. They worried that I had made the decision to move so far away from friends too hastily. But most of my Arkansas friends are computer savvy, and we stay in close touch. Facebook has helped me keep up with Jonesboro and Little Rock happenings. I feel I am exactly where I need to be at this time in my life, though I miss our face to face chats. One friend in Little Rock and I Facetime, which I enjoy. And I have had lots of company, which has been wonderful.
At this writing, my health is good. I will continue to be checked every three months because of the aggressiveness of my cancer, rotating between the surgeon and the oncologist. I have been totally at peace during this whole process and feel no matter what happens, I have my faith to lean on. I will be 83 in September, and though I have health issues I continue to enjoy and embrace life, very thankful to have lived this long. Gratitude for just being grows each day. The flowers seem prettier, the music more soulful, the brightness of the sun more comforting, and the support of family and friends more important. Mother’s Day is Sunday and will be celebrated with my awesome children, my son and his husband and my daughter, plus two longtime friends from Jonesboro. Life is fulfilling and joyful.
I am writing this for two particular reasons. My doctors here have not dismissed health concerns as “it’s your age.” They strive to keep me as healthy as I can be at my age and as active and involved as I wish to be.
The other reason is that I want to pass along a warning. The highest risk of endometrial cancer is among women over 80 who have never been checked because doctors assume we have all had hysterectomies. I was never once asked if I still had my female organs. It was just a blanket comment that after a certain age, pelvic examinations are not needed or suggested. I assumed that all was fine until I began having symptoms. It was thought that I had a class 2 very aggressive cancer which turned out to be nearer a class 3. I am so fortunate that my angel friend took the advocacy position needed for me to be seen.
So: Stand up for yourself when that gnawing feeling is present. Be your own advocate and find a doctor that listens and observes. A while back I went to an endocrinologist while in Little Rock and on a first visit he commented that I needed to take care of a place on my hand. I told him I had just seen a dermatologist and he told me it was nothing to worry about. As I left, the endocrinologist said, “go see about that hand.” I did, telling the dermatologist why I had come, and he said he would biopsy it if it would make me feel better. The pathology report showed an aggressive squamous cell carcinoma. That was an observant and caring endocrinologist. He was sitting across the room from me, and noticed the red and rough spot on my hand.
A nurse friend told me once to listen to my body and the story it is telling.
My thought? Once you feel that nudge, find a doctor with “ears on.”