This November, I am celebrating my cancer anniversary. Five years is not a lot in a grand scheme of things. But for a cancer survivor, reaching any anniversary (or cancerversary) is huge. Actually, any milestone seems lightyears away at the beginning of the journey, be it a year or five years.
This month, I am reaching that magical number 5 (although the truly important one will be in May 2021, marking five years – fingers crossed – of complete remission). Why magical? At five year remission, some doctors will consider a cancer patient cured.
When a cancer anniversary rolls in, a survivor usually looks back at what happened in the years of long treatments, recovery, sometimes, relapses, and more treatments. It certainly was a trek! I’m reflecting on it so that maybe I can help someone who might find him or herself in a similar situation.
Especially for younger (under 50) cancer patients, the diagnosis comes as a tremendous shock. It is difficult to find your bearings at first, one has no clue where to even start searching for advice. I certainly wish I had had access to a health advocate or someone who has been there before. Talking to such a person would have been able to take a bit of the fear away.
By no means do I want to claim to have all the answers. My goodness, I wish somebody did and we could wipe this disease off of the face of Earth. What I can offer is some insight into how it went for me and where I looked for help on my path to reach this point of five-year cancerversary. In other posts, you can find more detailed information on:
- What I ate and keep eating, trying to ward off cancer relapse
- Which supplements I took during and after the treatments
- How additional modalities (meditation, exercise, Eastern medicine) have helped me
Shocking Cancer Diagnosis
I was 46, still under the recommended age for a colonoscopy. But I had some rectal bleeding on and off, which my doctors quickly deemed related to hemorrhoids following giving birth two years earlier. (Such misdiagnosis happens too often especially for females in child-bearing age, so please be vigilant!)
I had no family history of CRC, I was healthy, I exercised, I ate well. In fact, I felt the healthiest I’ve ever been. I quit smoking and drinking for good, I turned vegan, and I became an avid spinner. All seemed to be going really, really well. I had a great marriage, two wonderful kids, a job teaching college that I loved.
And then my life as I knew it came to a screeching halt. On November 13th, 2014, I woke up from a screening colonoscopy to the most devastating news. The doctor found a large tumor, which was almost blocking the middle rectum. It was later staged as II B colorectal cancer (CRC), and upgraded to III B following the surgery. This is the time from which I am counting the fifth cancer anniversary.
Initial Stages: Shock, Panic, Depression
The next few weeks are a blur. Lots and lots has happened, I was just walking through it all like a zombie:
- finding a host of doctors,
- scheduling further testing,
- awaiting additional pathology reports,
- seeking second and third opinions,
- deciding on the course of action,
- learning to deal with the fear, at times debilitating fear. I remember staring at my two kids, at that time barely 3 and 12, and not even realizing that tears are flowing down my cheeks, and being unable to control them no matter what.
- trying to keep working, at least until further course of action would be determined. I remember trying to teach my classes and catching myself not hearing what the students are saying because my mind what on my imminent death and leaving my family behind to fend for themselves.
- trying to figure out medical leave (crucial as my insurance to deal with this cancer was dependent on my job)
Never Ever Give Up Hope
My husband was a rock throughout all this. We cried together and we clung to every little drop of hope. Keeping up hope is one of the most important things a cancer patient can focus on. ( Later on, I fired one oncologist who was constantly reminding me of the grim odds I was facing with my staging of cancer).
My parents and my mother-in-law were great sources of unyielding hope and optimism. They never, ever, at least not to my face, doubted that I will ward off the worst. Thanks to all this support I never, ever gave up, and always kept up the glimmer of hope, even during the hardest treatments.
I was clinging to what I could be hopeful about:
- the fact that cancer has not spread anywhere else
- the fact that the tumor was accessible for surgery
- connecting with other patients and survivor and hearing their stories of hope and perseverance
- gradually focusing on trying to save my life rather than thinking about dying
Don’t Believe Everything You Read or Hear about Cancer
We all have met Dr. Google. That is often the triage for any ailment. But with cancer the stakes are so much higher: The horrifying statistics (for colorectal cancer stage III, 40% chance of survival beyond 5 years), the description of the course of treatments that were still ahead of me and that seemed way, way worse than the disease itself.
The worst is how contradictory the advice found online appears:
- eat this, don’t eat that on one website (vegan, only vegan), and totally opposite on another (paleo or keto)
- take this, don’t take that (on supplements, vitamins, minerals, and the like)
- go with mainstream medicine; forget the doctors, go with alternative only, etc.
I had been vegan for a few years prior to diagnosis, and now, all of a sudden I was hearing that I should go keto to starve the cancer. Asking doctors about lifestyle changes was leading nowhere. The answers regarding nutrition were usually: eat anything, just keep eating, so that you don’t weaken your body too much. It took me a long time to find an optimal diet (LINK) that seems best suited to my body’s needs.
What Helped Me Find My Strength
I am a researcher by profession, and so I immersed myself in research in reputable medical journals. I was trying to find out the best options to increase my chances of survival or at least, to be able to discuss my options with my doctors rather than be only a passive listener. The 40% odds were so ominous. I knew I had to actively try to do something or I would go crazy.
I realized pretty fast that I wanted to combine the best from both worlds – traditional medicine and complementary treatments. I found a local naturopathic doctor who specializes in cancer care, and I also made sure that my surgeon has been board-certified in colorectal surgery. As for my oncologist, I was lucky that he was open to my choice of combining allopathic and naturopathic approaches.
Going Through Cancer Treatments
The various treatments I underwent were hellish but effective:
- 30 sessions of pelvic radiation which threw me into immediate menopause, fried my bottom, and stiffened my pelvic joints until just recently
- Abdominal surgery which took one-third of my colon and majority of the rectum out
- Temporary ileostomy (a tube to the outside with a bag attached from the end of small intestines to bypass the colon so that it could heal after the radiation and surgery), reversed/removed four months later
- Two series of chemotherapy with their awful side effects – nausea, diarrhea, weight loss, insomnia, extreme fatigue – and the forever gift of peripheral neuropathy in my feet: pins and needles, numbness and pain (I’m lucky to live in Southern California so that I can literally live in my Birkenstocks in the summer and my Uggs during cooler months. All other pretty shoes are just collecting dust in the closet)
- Four emergency hospital stays due to abdominal blockages.
Because I went through it all only this way, I can’t compare it to what would have happened, had I done it any different way. But I am here, so whatever worked, worked well.
Finding Support in Cancer Groups
I also found a local cancer support center, which became my second home for a few months. I attended a variety of classes and workshops there with like-minded people, all in the same boat as me, either patients or survivors. The offerings of the center were great:
- Group counseling
- Individual counseling
- Reiki sessions
- Chi Gong
- Guided Imagery Therapy
Exercise to the Rescue
Last but not least, I quickly found my way back to exercise. Soon after I got a go-ahead from my doctor, I went back to my favorite form of exercise, indoor cycling. I am so fortunate to have found an amazing studio called Beatbike in Reseda, CA. Not only do I get to sweat and get my butt kicked during the amazing spinning classes, but I also get motivated and inspired by the remarkable instructors there (Thank you, Lisa, Julia, Abby, Nikkita, Paula, and Bailey <3).
Spinning, as I see it, is a perfect metaphor for life in general, but even more so for a “life-interrupted” like mine in the last few years. At times you turn up the bike’s tension so much, it seems you are climbing an insurmountable peak. And when you are almost at the point of giving up, your instructor is right there to encourage you to keep pushing ahead. The peak is almost there, you can make it!
And then you race downhill like crazy, the exhilaration of that wind you imagine pushing your back, you feel you could fly. Once you reach the bottom of that valley, you know what’s coming – another hill, another obstacle. But by now you are a little bit stronger, you can push a little more, you can reach that peak in a little better form, especially since you know the whole group has your back. Ups and downs, in life, in love, in sickness, and in health.
Get Your Colonoscopy to Avoid Cancer Anniversaries
I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through. I’d rather no one has to celebrate a cancer anniversary. I want people to celebrate birthdays, their own, and those of their kids and grandkids.
PLEASE be vigilant, get a colonoscopy as soon as you feel like something is off. Don’t wait till 50! Colorectal cancer is on the rise among 30- and 40-year olds, and it often found at a very advanced stage. And yet, if found early, it is completely curable! Listen to your body and pay attention to your poop, yes, that’s right! If your poop looks different in form, consistency, or frequency, observe and go get checked.
Drop me a line if you have questions, I’d love to help if I can.