Eight years ago, I moved from Cleveland to the Twin Cities. My husband, at that time, stayed behind for three months to close up his private psychology practice and sell our house. I brought our kids and dog to live in temporary housing while I looked for a house. Everything was new to me here. Within a month, I found myself in abdominal surgery to remove what they thought was a huge ovarian cyst only to wake up and be told it was a 7 lb malignant tumor. Ovarian cancer. The surgeon wasn’t equipped or qualified to proceed, so she just removed the tumor/ovary and sewed me back up. It would be three months until I could know how far it had spread and take any next steps. I had to wait for the adhesions to heal.
I remember the first week after the first surgery….not having any idea of what my life would be now. I had been told that most ovarian cancer isn’t diagnosed until a person is in Stage 3 (meaning it had moved outside of the ovaries, beyond the pelvis, into the abdomen). A Stage 3 diagnosis has a prognosis of a 15-20% five year survival rate. So, all the odds said that I probably had an 80% chance of dying within the next five years. I sat there with that “sentence” hanging over my head and was trying to figure out how to weave it into my brain. What should it mean? I just started a brand new job. Should I keep looking for a house? Should I move back to Ohio and try to get my old job back? Were my kids going to be motherless within 5 years?
life isn't happening TO you
There were three gynecological oncologists in the Twin Cities area and I immediately called them. I wanted information and action ASAP. To my horror, their first appointments were at least three months out. I couldn’t wait that long. I needed to know what to do with my life and I needed information to help me figure out a plan. I pressed, told my story and asked if there was ANY possibility of getting in sooner, in the next week. I ended up persuading them to fit me in. And in the next week, I listened to them give me the same advice. Wait 3 months. Get a complete hysterectomy. Do the cancer staging to see how far it has spread and create a plan based on that.
My husband returned to Ohio. I returned to work and lived the only way I could. Until the data says otherwise, I lived life with what I knew. I would not allow my reality to change yet. I based the plan on the latest information and right then, I could only assume I no longer had cancer. I don’t remember a lot about those 3 months. Being a single parent in a new city with a new job provided me with plenty of things to keep the dark thoughts at a distance. I think I turned my brain off as much as possible. I remember walks with my kids. I remember baths in my condo reading a wonderful book called “The Anatomy of Hope”. I remember standing on the deck with the realtor and talking about what a great yard the house that we were going to buy had. Great for kids, parties. (But would I be there for them?) I remember going to the house closing and wondering whether I should be buying a house. But it was the only thing to do. Life could not stop based on maybes. I kept it at a distance, at bay. I refused to deal with it until there was something certain to deal with. But there were moments that eased their way in, usually with the help of a song, that would wake me to possible realities and the profound sadness associated with them – motherless children being the most difficult one. Lifehouse’s song “Hanging By a Moment” was my song that summer. It was a plea, a promise, an anthem all at the same time. It was my negotiation with life, with the Universe, with cancer, with myself. I just needed this one thing – to not die. Just give me this one thing and I’d make it worth it. I wouldn’t waste it.
So, three months later, as I pulled up to Abbot Northwestern, listening to Cities97, “Hanging By A Moment” began to play – the Universe with its grin – and I walked in not knowing that when I walked out, I would be one of the lucky ones. Stage 1A. The cancer was only inside one ovary – and even though it was 7 lbs, it remained completely encapsulated. No chemo, no radiation. Nothing further to do except watch. 95% survival rate.
I returned for my follow up appointments and as I glimpsed each time into the eyes of what could have been, I was reminded of my secret negotiations with the Universe. A poke in the side to recognize time was passing and it could be taken away at any time. The Universe wasn’t blinking and it wasn’t going to allow me to hide. So, I had no other choice but to allow cancer to become one of my gifts and slowly face the life I was living.
Or better yet, the life I wasn't living.
Or better yet, the life I wasn't living.