How my story begins: It all began with a 'booty itch' in August of 2020. We are all home working in our new 'home environment workstations' due to Covid and I just recall my butt itching often, especially at night. I thought maybe it was from wearing my bathing suit too long in the day hours as I juggled professional work as well as backyard fun with grandkids in the pool during the early months of the pandemic.
I'd just had my yearly girly check-up. I had a clean/clear HPV and pap test and I've never had a bad one. My doctor also performed a digital rectal exam every year and I've never had an issue there. Then in late November, 2020 after going the bathroom and wiping, I saw a small amount of blood. It concerned me as I still had this booty itch. I returned to my OBGYN and told him what was going on, I assume it was a hemorrhoid though I'd never had one. He checked and said it was a small fissure from a bowl movement. He prescribed me an ointment and I was on my way. The ointment never worked and then in January of 2021, I had a show of blood again but this time I looked for a more specific fissure type doctor and I came across Dr. Parrish out of Los Gatos, CA. He was a proctologist and I had no idea what that was or meant but scheduled an appointment with him.
At my visit he very quickly told me that what I had was not a fissure but at best was an abnormal fissure. He tested me for many STD's; I thought that was odd when he asked me when my last rectum pap smear was for the HPV virus? HPV in my butt, pap smear in my butt, I'd never heard of such thing I told him. He ran that test and did a small biopsy that day in the office and five days later on March 18th 2021, I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the anal region from the HPV virus (P16 strain) - Anal Cancer. That evening, that phone call and the words from Dr. Parrish confirming the biopsy to me by far was the worst moment in my life. My mind went blank, my ears closed and I melted down the wall and sunk into the earth. Life stopped. Everything stopped.
Life before my diagnosis: I'm a devoted wife, mother of three and a grandmother. I'm a published author, The Dream Lived and former professional cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders (Raiderette) during the 2011/2012 season. I hit major media attention the year I cheered for the Raiders for my age, 38 and the fact that our daughter had just had a child so I was the 'grandmother' cheerleader on the sidelines. With such press interest and exposure from that season, I later went out to tell my inspirational story and share my journey. My memoir, The Dream Lived, was published in February 2014. Professionally, I've been an Executive Assistant for over 20 years at large and small software firms, marketing centers and at a news station.
How I felt after diagnosis: The moment and days after the diagnosis were filled with appointments, scans, pokes and discussion with SOOO many people. Telling all your friends, family, the company you work for plus co-workers. I didn't really have time to get sad, mad or scared - there was too much to do and get done.
Then I researched on the Anal Cancer Foundation website the treatment plan I was about to undergo about a week or so after finding out I had cancer. That's when I began to coil up, get scared/terrified, plan for caregivers/help and put on the super hero cape, army gear and go to war against this cancer beast. On the outside, I stayed somewhat calm, collected for others; you never want to see others sad or concerned so I stayed strong facing them - yet inside especially at night/early morning hours, I would lay in bed absolutely terrified.
Telling my family and friends: Telling friends and family became such an ordeal and exhausting. I finally shared in much detail about anal cancer, HPV, the HPV vaccine, etc. during a Facebook Live.
My treatment: My treatment plan began on Monday, May 17th and ended on Thursday, June 24th. It was six weeks of radiation therapy with concurrent chemo treatment of Xeloda (pill form of 5-FU) + Mitomycin C. It was the worst six weeks/28 days of my life. But in the end, I won - I beat cancer!
How I felt after treatment: Recovering for anal cancer is so tough. Treatment plan for anal cancer for most is six weeks (28 days) however the following two weeks are so intense, painful, and exhausting. Your body is completely flattened to zero. My energy was absolutely gone, the wounds/burns are so painful, raw and sensitive and you're completely just done with the entire experience. We had a family vacation planned in mid-July which fell at week three post treatment for me and I was cleared by my doctor to be able to go so I did.
New walls for recovery and sound of laughter of family and grandbabies helped heal week three to week four for me. I was taken around the airport and resort by wheelchair because I had no physical strength to walk those type of distances this early in the recovery stage. I shared my anal cancer story on the back of my wheelchair. I pray many of those youngsters swimming in the pool or at the ocean front that week returned home to be vaccinated with the HPV vaccine from the message I provided on the back of my wheelchair. This disease/cancer is SOOOOOOOOO preventative and can be eradicated if we vaccinate our youth with the HPV vaccine.
What was most difficult for me: Everything was difficult. The word cancer and everything associated with it is such a mind Fxxx. But somehow in the those early weeks, I was able to put on that army gear and mentally go to war. I'd say the daily and hourly bathroom runs that an anal cancer patient goes through is so intense. Like eating or drinking, you have to do it to stay alive but you also have to exit everything via the urethra and anal area everyday, all the time and those areas are sooo damaged, inflamed, burned for an anal cancer patient -- it was just AWFUL!
I found slight comfort with the pain medication and mental routines to distract those moments in the bathroom. I'd tap my right foot/toes, hold my ears, sing or scream the abc's over and over again and some of the times asked my husband or sister to come in and just hold me in an intense side hug as I went to the bathroom number 1 or 2. ... just imagine that for weeks on end, day by day, hour by hour -- complete torture really.
What I did to help myself: I relied heavily on a vape pen that contain small amounts of THC for the dizziness, nausea and anxiety. I was on oral chemo for my anal cancer treatment so I was taking chemo pills (2500 mg) a day for 28 days - only getting Saturday and Sunday's off. So I was dizzy and nauseous every day. My blood counts (wbc, rbc and platelets counts were just sooo low all the time). I took pain medication towards the end of treatment around week five - not a high dose but just a mild amount of Tramadol. I relied faithfully on tapping my right foot/toes, holding my ears, singing or screaming the abc's over and over again when going the bathroom and sometimes asking my husband or sister to come in and just hold me while in the bathroom. This ritual so to speak helped me and was a huge distraction to the pain. My faith in God was by far the biggest power and foundation in getting me through this entire experience from beginning to end. Every radiation session that I had, I'd lay there during those 15 minutes or so sessions I'd visually/mentally walking with Jesus on water to get through the anxiety of the sounds and experience.
My life after cancer: I'm 13 weeks post treatment. Life after cancer, this is a new place for me. I just received that first call and results from my first MRI showing no cancer was detected and I'm in remission. I'm coming to a new place in this entire cancer journey which is now what I call processing. I'm just now waking up and looking back/reflecting on what just happened to me. You had no time for this at the beginning, during treatment or even soon after during recovery but I'm beginning to be in this place now. I don't like it much, but I realize I need to feel all these emotions: anger, sadness, confusion, etc. Accepting the feelings then letting them go. And the chemo brain/chemo fog -- it's a real thing and I'm still dealing with that too.
What I want other women to know: You are not alone. I don't want another living soul to go through what I went through but sadly I know this won't be a reality. But when someone enters this dark storm and cloud of anal cancer they need to know there's an incredible group of supporting warriors/survivors out here willing to help, guide and listen during the duration of treatment and recovery. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
How I will try to help others: I already have been given this huge platform from when I was a Raiderette back in 2011. Nationally/Internationally my name was known, Susie Sanchez - the 'grandmother' cheerleader for the Raiders. I need to gain that attention again with a new ending that I just won my war against anal cancer! I want to reach out to TV shows, media outlets, all the sources that ran my story about the granny on the sidelines then with now the great news that I just beat and won anal cancer - a rare cancer that can be prevented with a simple vaccine that wasn't around or available for me when I was growing up.
To save lives of future generations with my story - that's the hidden message/sliver lining in all of this. I want to be a motivational speaker at any level to any group about the subject, anal cancer, HPV related cancers, HPV in general and the vaccine.
Any additional information you'd like to share: Susie's website: www.susiesanchez.com
Another helpful resource and one of Cervivor, Inc.'s partners is The Anal Cancer Foundation: https://www.analcancerfoundation.org