Menopause

My Cancer Story: Twenty Months

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As I wrote here, sometimes joy abounds in shocking ways. I never would have guessed that my two days spent in this place, UNC Hospital, would be two of the happiest of my life. On my way back for a checkup at twenty months, this thought hit me anew. And why so happy? A successful surgery, little pain, AND a best case pathology report. My cancer was early stage, and I needed no further treatments.

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That’s my reflection in the glass. I had about twenty minutes before my appointment, so I took a nostalgic stroll around the hospital. I walked past the desk where Cliff and I checked in at six AM on surgery morning. I recall feeling subdued but calm. In an article I wrote for Sixty and Me, I called it “Cancer Courage.” Shout out to reader Cheryl who is rocking Cancer Courage right now, as she prepares for her sixth chemo infusion for breast cancer.

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The Ladies Room Door Art Series had just begun. I was pleased at my pre-op visit to find this door with UNC’s symbol of the Old Well. Snapped it again!

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And what a happy ride I took in one of these slick carts when it was time to go home post-surgery.

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I’m a Duke grad, but I got my master’s in library science at UNC. In fact, I had my first gyno exam at the health facility there shortly before my wedding. Never would have guessed I’d return almost forty years later for exams of a more serious nature.

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Even though I’m twenty months post-surgery, it still takes me back to see this sign. Oncology. Think Cancer.

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The photos below no doubt call up a yuck reaction. Most women hate pelvic exams. I’ve become a pro, but more importantly, I don’t hate them anymore. Thus far, post-surgery, they’ve brought me good news. It sure puts a bounce in my step when the doctor announces that all looks well. (A bounce in my step, that is, after I get off the table).

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My oncologist, Paola Gerhig, confirmed that I am to see her once a year and my gynecologist six months later, for five years. At that point, if I’ve had no recurrence, Dr. Gerhig will release me to the care of my gynecologist.

But not before I say what I say each time I see her: “Thank you for saving my life.”

Endometrial Cancer:  Please don’t hesitate to contact me, as some of you have, with personal concerns. You can read my cancer story on Friend for the Ride’s Endometrial Cancer page.

 

Menopause

My Cancer Story: A Gulp and a Cookie Celebration

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When I went back to my oncologist and surgeon, Paola Gehrig, for my post-op check up a few weeks ago, she announced that all systems are go. I don’t need to return for six months.

I asked some practical questions and then said, “Now may I ask a more serious one?”

“Of course.”

“If I hadn’t had this surgery, what would have happened?”

“Your cancer was early stage, but it was definitely not just a pre-cancer. It was moving into the uterine wall. It would have metastasized in two years.”

Gulp.

After the appointment in oncology, I celebrated life with a cookie on the terrace of UNC Hospital. The day was gorgeous, cool and dry with a breeze that tossed the cookie wrapper into the air. Not your usual fare for late summer in North Carolina. I’m a frosting girl, and I ate that treat as slowly as I could.

If my cancer has a purpose, the interior one is (I think) to be more appreciative and to whoop it up more.

But the outward purpose is clear. I’m now using my writing to advocate for early detection of endometrial cancer. I’ve been healthy all my life, and I felt fine. Look how close to death I maybe was.

Please help me spread the word.

My Endometrial Cancer page is an archive of all of my posts. This post  includes an interview with my doctor, Paola Gehrig. Dr. Gehrig highlights those early and often quite subtle cancer symptoms.

For those of you on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus,and others, a simple way to help spread the word is to share my endometrial cancer page or individual posts. Thanks!

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Menopause

My Cancer Story: The Surgery


CokeCoke girl here!

Drinks are now permitted up to two hours prior to your scheduled arrival time at the hospital: water, apple juice, Gatorade, sodas, (Coke is one of the examples in the above pamphlet!) and black coffee with no milk or creamer. They’ve  found that hydrated patients usually have less trouble with nausea.

So when I awoke at four AM on surgery day, I took a few sips of  my beloved Coca-cola.

What’s NOT allowed is makeup. I put on a minuscule amount, but let’s keep that our secret.

As Cliff drove me to UNC Hospital an hour later, I had five predominant fears about the day ahead.

1. At the top of the list was the pathology report. The pathology would be done while I was under. I’d know right away.

2. Nausea upon waking. I hate to throw up, and my body does not handle it with grace.

3. The intubating tube being pulled from my throat. The nurse in Precare said they do this AFTER you’re awake, but you’re too groggy to notice. Yikes. Groggy or not, that sounded bad.

4. The catheter. This would be inserted while I was under, but the whole concept creeped me out.

5. A roommate. I’m a people person, but not a room-sharer. I kept telling myself this was nothing compared with Fear Number One (and the others). Buck up. Barbara. Your hospital stay is only one night.

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When we got to pre-op, I was whisked away to a large cubicle with a Carolina blue curtain. (This was UNC, after all.)

A resident and a medical student were the first to pop in. “Can you explain what you’re having done today?” the resident asked me.

“I’m having my uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and nearby lymph nodes removed because I have uterine cancer. While I’m out, pathology will be done. If the cancer is in the lymph nodes, they’ll take additional nodes to determine how far it has spread.”

“Excellent!” she said.

I felt pleased to pass the test. (Those of us who work with words take our praise in whatever form we can.)

We chatted about my illness, the surgery, and what the recovery should be like.

They left, and I met my pre-op nurse. Jeannie put me at ease and did an IV in my hand so painless I hardly knew it was happening.

An anesthesiologist introduced herself next. I noted to myself how good her hair looked for 6:40 in the morning (smooth and curled in a pageboy).

“I hate to throw up,” I told her.

“No worries. We’ve got great drugs we’ll put in that IV. How are your teeth? Do they chip?”

On no! My teeth love to chip, especially on important occasions.

She promised to be careful.  “And what about reflux?”

“I had a bout of reflux a few years ago,” I said.

“Tilt your head back. Let me look at your airway.”

What if my airway is bad? What happens then, I wondered, but didn’t ask.

“Good airway,” she said.

Phew!

Jeannie sent for Cliff.

He snapped this picture and filled me in on life in the waiting room, which sounded like it had soap opera potential. He’d have time to soak up plenty more during my three hour operation.
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Throughout this entire process, I kept my eye on the clock in front of me. I watched it move from 6:15 to 7:25, sort of like waiting for midnight on New Year’s Eve  but without any hope of champagne.*

With a word from Jeannie, Cliff kissed me goodbye and was off.

And so was I, to the operating room.

I’ve been told you don’t remember much about the operating room. I tried to pay attention.

I saw the fancy robotic instruments, and that’s all I had time to take in.

They had me scooch from the chair in the picture above to the operating table.

Someone put a mask over my face. “Breathe, Barbara. This is oxygen. The anesthesia is coming next in your IV line.”

Two weeks before the surgery, I asked my son-in-law Matt how he dealt with his surgery, a spinal fusion, at age twenty. “Were you scared?”

“Not really. I figured there’s no one more qualified to help you than the doctors,” Matt answered.

I love simple advice that is oh-so-smart. And in its simplicity, the best advice sticks with us.

I kept Matt’s words in my head and heart the weeks before surgery and especially that morning.

I couldn’t save my own life.

I needed the expertise of my surgeon and her team.

Take it way, Dr. Gehrig.

And thank you.

Dr. Gehrig

 

Click on the photo above to hear my surgeon, Paola Gehrig, talk about endometrial cancer.

* Actually, as it turned out, there is champagne in the story, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.