I’m Done With Treatment, But Treatment Isn’t Done With Me

I recently celebrated my 31st birthday. Around this time last year, I was a brand new 30-year-old enjoying summer with my awesome husband and 3 amazing kids. I never suspected that two months after I celebrated that milestone birthday, cancer would invade my life.

On the day my OBGYN found my tumor, I left her office sobbing. I walked the long way through the parking lot, sobbing. I didn’t care who saw me. The diagnosis was so hard to cope with. I couldn’t align myself with my new reality. I searched every part of my soul to come to grips with what I felt was the end of my life.

“I can’t have cancer. I’m young! My kids are so young! My husband’s going to be a widower, he doesn’t deserve this! My kids are going to grow up without me! They won’t remember me. I have so much left to do here,” I thought, my brain in overdrive. I felt betrayed by my body. 

Treatment was the longest, weirdest dream I’ve ever had

I began treatment. The plan was 6 rounds of chemotherapy, 30+ rounds of external radiation, and 5 internal radiations (brachytherapy). I now call treatment the longest, weirdest dream I’ve ever had because I felt like I was in a fog the entire time. My body was so weak. I barely ate. I slept all the time, but not deeply or comfortably. I felt restless. Thank goodness for my husband, my sister and my dad. They helped me daily. I remember trying to vacuum one day and nearly collapsing. It was so hard to take a back seat to everything. From not working or doing basic chores to watching as others took care of my children daily. That wasn’t me. Everyone who knows me knows that I am fiercely independent.

At the beginning of treatment, I had hand-drawn a calendar to count down to when I’d be done. With each day that passed, no matter how weak I felt, I always remembered to make another “X” on the calendar. It was a long 9 weeks. Treatment ended for me on December 13th, 2019. It was a Friday, and I joked that this nightmare was ending on Friday the 13th. To live up to its name, on that day – my last round of external radiation – the radiation machine that worked so faithfully all those weeks was broken. I stood there with my family (who all came for my last day) and waited around with a full bladder – which was the requirement before receiving radiation – for over an hour. I remember thinking, “Can’t I just get this over with?! I’m so ready!” Right at my breaking point, I heard my name over the intercom and 10 minutes later, I was done. I said goodbye to the amazing doctors and nurses who took care of me all those weeks.

I did it! I’m done!  I can move on forever. Or so I thought…
How naive I was to think that! I’ve learned over the past months that even though I’m done with treatment, treatment is not done with me. I’ve dealt with a plethora of side effects:

For a whole month after treatment, I had what felt like a never-ending UTI.

My bowels are a mess.

What I thought was an upset stomach one late February night has proven to be another side effect from radiation.

My joints ache.

My body doesn’t feel like a 31-year-old. I’m going through menopause! The physical symptoms are many, but the mental stuff is particularly hard. There are highs and lows. I’ve lost two friends over the past few months to cervical cancer. It does something to you to see other women with the same disease pass away. My heart breaks daily for their families.

NED (but there is still the physical and mental evidence of my cancer)

I had my first post-treatment PET scan in March and received the wonderful news that I had “No Evidence of Disease.” In the cancer world, “NED” is a term everyone wants to hear.

NED brings people to their knees.

We rejoice. We celebrate. We still worry, of course. I think I always will, and the aftereffects of treatment continue to bring challenges. But having cancer has given me the gift of perspective. I gladly accept each day that comes. I am thankful for my family and friends. I am thankful for all of the small things that bring me joy.

Even with everything I’ve been through – all the procedures, side effects, and pain – I’d do it all again to be here with my husband and children. I’d do it a thousand times over.

My body: How can I not love something that has fought so hard for me to be here?

I am most thankful for my body. I’m proud of it for everything it has been through and how it still keeps going. All of my physical insecurities have been put to rest.

How can I not love something that has fought so hard for me to be here? That’s what I am. I’m here.  I’m still here! 

About Natasha:

Natasha is full time work-from-home/homeschooling mom of three who enjoys taking photos of anything and everything, traveling, reading multiple books at the same time, and finding new places to show her kids. Read Natasha’s Cervivor Story here.

Getting Real with Feelings

Since having cancer I have joined many support groups, both online and in person.  I have read and subscribed to many blogs.  One of the things that is great about reading people’s blogs on cancer and survivorship is how positive and inspirational people are.  However, this can be a blessing and curse. Sometimes the positivity lifts me up, gives me hope and strength.  And sometimes, it just makes me feel badly.  I feel angry at myself for not being as positive as these other cancer patients or survivors.  I feel like I should be more grateful, more positive, more fill-in-the-blank-with your own-happy-word.  And then, I get into this crazy cycle of feeling badly, and then feeling badly that I feel badly.  It’s tons of fun for everyone involved.

Going through cancer treatment and then being a survivor or living with cancer is a roller coaster.  For me, going through my initial treatment was rough.  I had laparoscopic surgery, then 6 rounds of chemo, 30 rounds of external radiation and 3 rounds of internal radiation.  I did my best to stay positive through it, but it was not easy.  And to be honest, most of the time I wasn’t very positive about what I was going through.  I felt sorry for myself.  I felt like it wasn’t fair, why me, what did I do to deserve this?  Then I would go to support groups or read blogs where people would talk about how having cancer had given them a greater appreciation for their life, their families, their friends.  Don’t get me wrong, I felt all of these things, but more often than not I just felt pissed off and exhausted.  I wanted to feel changed and inspired to advocate and see the blessings in the little things, and sometimes I did.  But quite often I didn’t.

It is hard to feel grateful when you are nauseous, exhausted, depleted, and in pain.  That is ok.  When I would go in to my cycle of feeling depressed and angry and then get mad at myself for not being more thankful that I would make it out of this alive, when I would start telling myself that I should be more grateful or more positive, my boyfriend would constantly tell me, “You are should-ing on yourself again.”  Going through cancer is hard enough, and the side effects both during and after treatment are draining (to put it mildly).  We should at least be able to give ourselves a break. 

I also felt like many people had it worse than I did.  I was lucky to have a supportive family that was close by and could help me at a moments notice.  I have friends and a boyfriend who have supported my unconditionally.  My cancer was treatable and I am expected to live a long and happy life.  Others that I know are not as fortunate.  So I should be more grateful (see, there I go again, “should-ing all over myself”).  But grief, sadness and anger isn’t reserved for only some.  If we took everyone who had a tragedy or illness in their life, and lined them up based on some ranking system of “who has it worst,” would only the last person in line be allowed to feel sorry for themselves and their plight in life?  That’s ridiculous.  Just because someone else has it worse than you do, doesn’t mean that your struggles are any less valid.  You can feel empathy and sympathy for those in other situations while still recognizing that your situation may be pretty crappy as well. (As a I write this, I am giving myself this advice, because I don’t always recognize this!).

Another fellow cervical cancer survivor told me recently that one of her mantras is “It’s ok to not be ok.”  This was amazing for me to hear and resonates so much with me, especially recently.  Whatever you are feeling, good or bad, it’s ok.  Allow yourself to cry, to yell, to be pissed or depressed.  Let those feelings come and allow yourself to truly feel them.  That is the only way to let them go and move on.  (Again, as I write this, I am thinking….wow, you should do this more often!).

People write inspirational and positive blogs to give others strength and hope, and to advocate for change, and all of that is useful and wonderful.  But sometimes it is nice to hear that people are struggling with the same crappy emotions that you are.  I have learned to look at blogs differently now.  I read them like Facebook posts.  Many of them are glimpses into the best of people’s lives and the best of their moments throughout the day.  Most people don’t post pictures of themselves in pain or crying in the fetal position on the floor.  They wait until those moments have passed and write about getting up and moving on and counting their blessings, and that is important.  But it is also important for us to know that we all have those moments of sheer frustration and anger and complete debilitating sadness over the hand we have been dealt, and that is ok too.  I want you to know that in those moments you are not alone.  There are, unfortunately, many others who are feeling the same way.  And maybe in some way that can bring you comfort.  You don’t always have to be positive.  It’s ok to not be ok.

Check out more about Ana’s story here:  https://cervivor.org/stories/ana/