The Washington Post
I survived cancer, and that’s enough to help others
I got another call today. The fourth this week. First, I spent 30 minutes on the phone with a friend’s friend whose husband has brain cancer. Next, another friend: breast cancer. Earlier today, I got a text from a woman I spoke with last year. Turns out, she’s chemo-resistant.
Today’s call was from Laura. She has cancer — some nasty stomach or intestinal thing. I get these calls because I had cancer and I’m still alive. That makes me the reigning cancer expert.
Three years and five months ago, at age 51, I was diagnosed with Stage 3C ovarian cancer.
I went to the gynecologist because I felt a sharp pain near my pelvis. Food was a disaster. After one bite, I felt stuffed and crampy. When my daughter and I were visiting New York, I couldn’t go two blocks without the urge to pee. I snuck into a Mcdonald’s, then a Starbucks, then Zara, then another Starbucks. “Mom, what is your problem?”
I’d started taking estrogen and progesterone to avoid the saggy skin, weight gain and all-around wretchedness of getting old. I’d heard the chatter about hormone replacement therapy and the increased risk of ovarian cancer. My internist said it was safe, and I trusted my doctor. “It’s a very low dose. You have nothing to worry about.”
According to a report from 2015 I later saw in the Lancet, women who used hormone therapy showed a small increased risk of ovarian cancer. I don’t know if that’s what caused my cancer, but I wish I’d seen this research earlier.
CANCER FROM E1
Every morning, I had squirted a dime-size glob of hormone cream onto my inner arm and rubbed it in. Eight months later, I had cancer. Turns out, my tumor was estrogen receptor positive, which means, it’s likely estrogen fed some teeny irregular cells hanging around my ovaries. The pain I felt was a chubby hunk of cancer that had spread.
After a full hysterectomy, I told my kids I’d be starting chemo.
My 9-year-old son asked, “Are you going to die?”
Jackson, 14, said, “Shut up, Sloan.”
Blake, 11, said nothing. Blake knew loss. She’d already lost her identical twin sister to a congenital heart defect at 16 months. I stared at her face. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I could tell Blake wasn’t buying it. She went to her room.
By the time I get the call, most people have already discussed treatment options with their family. The kids are in shock and afraid they will lose their parent. The parent is afraid she’ll miss graduations, weddings, grandbabies. I was.
I’ve spoken to Laura several times since she was diagnosed four months ago. Like with everyone who calls about cancer, I listened to her symptoms, diagnoses and what her family thinks she should do. Laura wanted to hear what worked for me — the secret to staying alive.
I don’t have a secret.
“I have a list,” I said. “Things I watched, listened to, read, swallowed, injected, followed and ate.”
I didn’t tell Laura I nearly went broke and crazy trying everything suggested to me: massage, acupuncture, energy healing, plant medicine, meditation, oils, pills, retreats. I hired a psychic and a functional dietitian, did a juice cleanse, fasted every Monday and went vegan. I cut gluten, sugar and caffeine. I ate sprouts, mushrooms and sea moss.
Do I recommend this to the newly diagnosed? Nope. My regimen is not what you want to hear when you’re looking at 16 rounds of poison. Cancer takes getting used to. It’s a shocker. A challenge. A life-changer. It’s obnoxious, horrific, exhausting and humbling. By the time you’re bald and hating life, you’re willing to try anything not to suffer like this again, so you start looking for secrets. That’s when I send my list.
After our first call, I drove to Laura’s house and dropped off weed gummies with a note: “You’ve got this. These will help.”
During today’s call, Laura said, “The latest chemo knocked me on my butt. I want to quit, but my doctor said if I quit, there’s an 80 percent chance the cancer will come back.” She said her daughter is scared and pushing her to finish treatment.
Chemo can cause all types of problems. The steroids kept me up all night. The smell of everything made me nauseous, and inside my legs and arms, it felt like a red ant dance party. Thinking about an upcoming infusion made me anxious and sad.
I wanted to tell Laura she would be okay, but I have no idea if Laura will be okay. I have no idea if I’ ll be okay.
I hate being the expert on cancer. Not only because I’m busy and each person who calls needs a lot of time or because each call brings me back to the day I told my family, or because I feel the pain for everyone involved or because I don’t have any secrets.
I hate being the cancer expert because I’m afraid the joke will be on me — that cancer will see me giving advice and laugh me all the way back into the chemo chair. Or worse, I’ ll be chemo-resistant.
I told Laura to listen to her heart, not to her daughter.
When the tumor was still stuck to my colon after chemo, I said no to another surgery, especially one that could leave me with a colostomy bag.
I took a trip to Hawaii and swallowed Letrozole, which lowered my estrogen, hoping that would make my cancer vanish.
That’s when I went all in with nutrition and meditation. I stopped worrying about what other people wanted for me.
Three months later, I was cancer free.
My hair is finally below my shoulders. I have eyebrows again. I like not being everyone’s concern. But with survival comes responsibility. Like it or not.
This is the thing, people facing chemo, a bald head and a shortened life need to believe in an expert, someone who slew the beast. I glommed onto a friend who survived triple negative breast cancer. She brought me weed gummies and talked me through my first chemo. She was my gold medalist.
Now, I’m on the podium until further notice, and we all know what that notice is.
So, today, and hopefully forever, I’m your expert.