Lora-Beth Barnett has been my (Mary’s) friend longer than I have known my husband. We are honored that she chose to share her story with us and our blog readers.
A few months ago I went to the doctor to get some prescriptions renewed. I happened to mention that even though I was well past menopause I was having some period-like bleeding. Before I knew it I was having a pelvic ultrasound that revealed extra tissue where a woman of my age should not have extra tissue.
The gynecologist did a D and C and when I went to his office for the results he said that he had good news and bad news for me. The bad news was that he had found cancer cells in the lining of my uterus. The good news was that it was in the early stages and a hysterectomy would take care of it. It seems to me that only cancer can make the need for a hysterectomy the good news. Within a month I was in and out of the hospital. New procedures in robotic surgery make hysterectomies less invasive and one night short of out-patient surgery. Two weeks later I was back to work with only a small row of incision scars to remind me of the last three months.
Yes, just three months start to finish. Cancer Lite. No pain, no chemo, no nausea, no hair loss, no t-shirt proclaiming survivor, no golf tournaments to raise money for my treatment. It was a no muss no fuss cancer to be sure. As someone told me, it was the cancer to get if you are going to get cancer. So why write about this seemly boring cancer experience that really has none of the drama most cancer stories feature? Because there are still lessons to be learned.
The most important lesson is that this is not the cancer to get if you get cancer. It is a dangerous cancer because it has virtually no symptoms. If I hadn’t already had a doctor’s appointment I would never have told her about the bleeding which by the time of my appointment had not recurred for several weeks. My experience was fuss free because the cancer was caught early. If it hadn’t been caught things would not have gone so smoothly. I might have died as did the wife of one of my friends. She had the same cancer but it was not caught until it was too late. Get those screenings. They may save your life.
Since I was past menopause children were no longer an option. When I told people that I was to have a hysterectomy the most common comment was “Well, you weren’t using your uterus or ovaries anyway.” No, I wasn’t and I laughed along with them. I even suggested that maybe I could sell the good parts on the black market to pay for the operation. But the truth is that the surgery took away part of what it means to be a woman and part of what it meant to be me. The loss may not have been as visible as the loss of a breast but it was still a loss that was not only physical but emotional as well. It is also a loss that may have other physical consequences down the road. We have to keep our sense of humor in these kinds of situations but we should always realize that sometimes real emotion pain is hiding behind that humor and needs to be addressed.
Just because I didn’t look sick didn’t mean I didn’t need to be babied now and again. Now I didn’t tell a lot of people the reason for my surgery because cancer will sometimes make people uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say or do. Neither did I. We don’t like to believe that we are self-centered people but there are just times in our life we want and need it to be about “me.” At those times a card, or balloon, or really big cookie can go a long way. Or a hug just to let someone know that they are not alone. The Cancer Society or the Heart Society or any other society may not notice us, but it doesn’t matter as long as our friends and co-workers do.
Even going to the doctor’s office with a sick friend goes a long way in helping them face a serious illness. Yes, they may be able to drive themselves, but it can be a lonely, lonely feeling entering that office by yourself especially when the sign on the door says Cancer Center. I am thankful I had my husband for all my visits except one. I know someone else who also had a supportive husband but he was not able to attend the office visits due to work. She said it was hard to go alone even though she knew he was at work thinking and praying for her.
After the surgery it was assumed that because there were no casts or bandages visible that everything was ok. People forgot that internally I had had major surgery and needed time to mend. This meant that I occasionally needed help with the small things of life like cooking and laundry. I had to remind myself that I was not superwoman and could not do what I normally did. If I did I would risk making my recovery time just that much longer. We need to look beneath the surface when someone we know has been sick or had surgery. Appearances do not always give the whole story. For the first week I was back at work, people could see me standing and talking but didn’t know how much effort it took to stand long enough to say hello. They probably never notice how closely I hugged the wall and for the first time ever took the elevator rather than the stairs. Notice the small things that tell us what our friends will never say out loud.
Yes, everything went well, there is little chance that the cancer will return, and I am back to work. I am still left with the aftermath to deal with. There are the bills. Maybe not as many as those folks who have to do the chemo and years of treatment but for someone in my economic bracket the bills are no less daunting. So maybe no one needs to do a charity golf tournament for those of us with less advanced cancers but that doesn’t mean we don’t need a little help too. Insurance is great but doesn’t cover everything. Each bill that comes is a reminder of what might have been. Some are small but when you have many of them they mount up. My credit score has plunged in the last three months. Consider the needs of your friends. Sometimes a surprise tank of gas or trip to the grocery store just may help them pay at least one of these “little” bills and ease some of their stress.
Intellectually I know that there is little chance that the cancer will reappear. Still for weeks after the surgery every pain, weakness, or sneeze put me on the edge of panic. The occasional emails that let me know my friends were still out there went a long way to keep me grounded. At least until someone just had to tell me in detail about their aunt or uncle or cousin that had also cancer. Maybe those stories are best left for another time.
So I have now told my cancer story. I fought no battles. Endured no chemo. Enjoyed no medical marijana. Gave no interviews. I doubt that I will ever wear an “I am a cancer survivor” t-shirt but I am a survivor nonetheless. The people in my life who were with me are survivors too. For it was an emotional time for them as well.
It is not easy to face the possible loss of a spouse or friend. It doesn’t matter how “treatable” the doctor says it is, our minds inevitably go to that worst case scenario. I take two lessons from this experience. Don’t skip the screenings and pay attention to the needs of those around us. Just because the disease isn’t newsworthy doesn’t mean the need isn’t great.