Editor’s Note: This is an installment in correspondent Katya Lezin’s “Cancer Journey,” in which she chronicles her battle with ovarian cancer.
I was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer in May 2011.
In the four years since that call from my doctor that began with the words, “I don’t know how to tell you this,” I have endured seven surgeries and 10 hospitalizations.
My cancer recurred in November 2013, when I was just shy of making it to the two-year mark following the end of my chemotherapy.
The only thing worse than hearing you have cancer is hearing that diagnosis a second time, when you thought you had closed that chapter in your life.
I have been visiting my oncologist, Dr. Wendell Naumann, every three months since my 2011 diagnosis. Sometimes I have gone more frequently, when blood tests and symptoms warranted greater vigilance.
I have seen the Blumenthal Cancer Center become the Levine Cancer Institute. I have made the trip from my south Charlotte home to Carolinas Medical Center more times than I can count, visiting multiple doctors and specialty areas and enduring more needle pricks, procedures and indignities, such as hair loss, than I ever thought possible.
On my last visit, in early June, Naumann told me he doesn’t need to see me for another six months. This is the longest reprieve I have ever been given, and it is a significant step toward being cancer-free.
After my recurrence, I learned to think of my cancer as a chronic illness, with recurrences akin to flare-ups that needed to be tamped down and managed. But with my next appointment looming a half-year away, I may be able to start rethinking that paradigm.
There is always a great deal of trepidation accompanying any checkup, with the fear that the cancer has again reared its ugly head at its worst while I await my blood work, so the relief I felt to be told I am no longer in the immediate danger zone was tremendous.
But the news was bittersweet, because at that same appointment, I learned that Dr. Teresa Flippo, who performed my double mastectomy in 2011 and has treated so many other local women with breast cancer, had died the night before from Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
It is hard to convey how humbling it is to be healing and healthy when so many people I have encountered in my cancer journey have not fared as well. I have written about five cancer warriors who were not as lucky, leaving behind grieving friends and family. I have had the disconcerting thought that I could easily have been among them.
Sometimes it is a question of catching a cancer too late – as was the case with Flippo, who made it just 33 days from her diagnosis to her death – or a cancer that is so aggressive and tricky that medical intervention buys some extra time but can do nothing to change the outcome.
And sometimes, as in my case, fate and luck and aggressive medical care combine to beat the odds.
I have talked to other survivors who find themselves floundering once they reach this point. Our world was consumed with cancer, our thoughts, energy and finances were devoted to fighting it. When we are told the fight is over, that we are the victors and can return to our normal lives, we aren’t quite sure what that means.
Cancer created a new normal, so we now have to navigate lives that are inextricably linked with cancer. Being a cancer survivor, while not as daunting as being a cancer patient, is nonetheless challenging.
For me, my way of channeling my survivor guilt and my need to make sense of my journey and have it serve a purpose is to travel the country as a patient advocate and speaker, emphasizing the importance of genetic testing and of finding the moments of joy and levity in a cancer journey.
By sharing what I’ve learned, and giving others who are in the thick of the fight a way of seeing the silver linings or knowing that one can emerge from the Big C with more good than bad, I feel that I am honoring those who were not as fortunate.
And I try to appreciate every day – the small moments and the big milestones – because I am so lucky to still be here.
Katya Lezin is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Katya? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.