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Cancer is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Whether you are newly diagnosed, in remission, or considered “cured”, it is something that will truly change your life forever.  It will change it in ways that you cannot even imagine if you tried and cannot understand unless you have been sat down and told that you have it.

My cancer diagnosis was way back in 2002. So, technically, I have been cancer free since I had my cancer surgeries that same summer. Unfortunately, though, your cancer journey doesn’t end when the cancer is cut out. As most of you know, for me, it caused the need for over twenty surgeries due to a failed reconstruction, to have to have poison in the form of chemotherapy coursed through my veins, to have radiation shot at my body and to be on a hormone blocking therapy in the form of a pill every day.  Yes, every day I still take a pill to prevent the cancer from returning and cutting my life short. Each and every day, when I raise that pill to my lips, I have to think of my cancer.

Now I’m faced with the problem of the medication finally starting to cause side effects in my body in the form of problems in my uterus.  The medicine I am on, Tamoxifen, can cause a slight increase in the chances of getting uterine cancer. It is just a slight increase, however, and you always have to weigh the benefits with the risks. For me, it was worth it to take the risk in order to stave off the cancer. The standard of care, however, is only ten years.

Because it is the only medication that can be taken when you are pre-menopausal, and my body refuses to go to that menopausal place, I was in a conundrum when I reached the ten year mark. It was unchartered territory. Do I stay on the med and take my chances? Do I have surgery to put me into surgical menopause? At the time (three years ago), the best option seemed to be to stay on the medicine and just monitor the uterus to ensure that no changes were taking place. So, that is what I did.  It made sense for me. Tamoxifen can cause many side effects and I was lucky that the only one that seemed to affect me was a fifteen pound weight gain. No big deal in the grand scheme of things. I know some women who refused tamoxafin because of the side effect of weight gain, and am so sorry to report that more than one of them are no longer here.

So, I continued to swallow that pill each and every day (along with a baby aspirin, to ensure no blood clots). The first two years the uterine sonogram was uneventful. This year, however, was a different story. I had a thickening of the uterine lining, along with polyps and fibroids. I’ve had two procedures to clean all of this out and, as I sit here typing, I can still feel the cramping and pain from the surgery on Monday.

I will have another surgery in January. A big one. A total hysterectomy, along with two hernia repairs from the prior reconstruction surgery. The surgery will last hours and the recovery time will be ten to twelve weeks.  The hernias are painful and don’t look nice although, I don’t think I would have had them repaired if not for the fact that they can actually damage internal organs as they get worse.  I have to have the total hysterectomy so that I can go on another medication to prevent the cancer from coming back (there are about twenty different meds that one can take if they are POST-menopausal). Technically, I don’t need to be on any medication as, being so far out from the original cancer with no recurrence, I am considered “cured” but, how would I ever look at my husband, my kids, my family, my friends if I stopped taking the medication and the cancer returned? I couldn’t live with myself. I am also interested in living as long a life as possible.

So, as much as we like to think that people who have finished their chemotherapy and their radiation, people who are ten or fifteen years out from their initial diagnosis, are “cured”, please remember that even if they are not still facing “treatment”, they are facing mental and emotional challenges for the rest of their lives.

Once you are diagnosed with cancer, you are never the same. You have stared into the abyss and have faced your mortality. Your heart breaks when you hear of someone else being diagnosed because you know that they will never be the same. It’s difficult for you to watch television shows where cancer becomes a story line (Parenthood did it to me and now Ray Donovan is doing the same, just to name a couple).

Every doctor visit is scary, whether it is logical or not. You are never of the mindset that “all will be ok” again. That ignorant bliss has been taken away from you. Waiting for any biopsy is an exercise in fear and angst. Your mind plays funny tricks on you. Any lump or bump on any of your family members, friends and even animals is, until you are told differently, cancerous.

There are some good points, though. When I do get those biopsy results and they are negative, I don’t take it for granted. I dance, I yell, I am happy for a week! When little things that used to really bother me happen, I don’t care as much. No big deal. When I go out with friends, I am so grateful to be there that I always have a good time. I enjoy the little things in life, like a rain shower, the soft licks of my dog on my face and my fireplace glowing . I love fiercely and with my whole heart. I treasure my friends and my family because I know that they can be gone in a heartbeat. I have learned that I have no control over most things – which is huge for me because I have always been a control freak. It is much more relaxing this way.

I am a work in progress. I no longer feel  like every cold is the beginning of the end of my life and I’m pretty confident that I will be here to see my grandchildren but, I don’t take it for granted.

I also think I am a better friend than I would ever have been had I not had cancer. I remember how much I needed people to really listen, to really hear my fears when I was sick and, I definitely listen and am there for people when they need me. I would do just about anything for the people I love, and am rewarded with family and friends that have my back, all the time, no matter what.

I asked for prayers this Sunday for my surgery on Monday and got over two hundred responses. It is truly heartwarming. It makes me feel safe. It makes me feel loved. After the surgery, it took me over four hours to return all of the phone calls, texts, messages, etc. that I received to check on me. Priceless. It was just a small procedure and yet, I was surprised with gifts sent to the house to cheer me up. I am loved.

So, please remember, for those going through cancer now or who have survived cancer in the past. It is never far away from us. We need the constant support and love of those who are around us. It makes a world of difference in our spirits and in our recovery and ability to stay well. When someone with cancer talks to you, feel honored that they trust you with their deepest fears and really listen. Remember when they have a test and make it a point to ask how they made out. Same with doctor visits. Trust me, it will mean the world to them.

We are still people but, we are changed. And, although we would never want our cancer to define us, we do need people to understand that it is a part of us now, ingrained in our DNA, for better or for worse.

Thank you, friends.