Survivor: Have anal cancer? Get some humor

I’m really blessed that I found out about my anal cancer diagnosis early on. That’s a big
part of the reason why I’m living without any evidence of disease today.

A friend of mine who’d been diagnosed with late-stage rectal cancer told me he experienced bleeding
for months before he finally went to a doctor. So when I started
exhibiting the same symptom in October 2015, I remembered his
cautionary tale and immediately scheduled an appointment with a
gastroenterologist. That led to the discovery of my tumor.

Even though I lived in Florida, I came to MD
Anderson
because all of my research — and even my doctors –
pointed me in that direction. As soon as I met my radiation oncologist
Dr. Cullen Taniguchi, I felt really safe. He has
an incredible way of explaining things. There’s lots of hugging
whenever my daughter and I go see him.

This has certainly been an interesting journey. Here’s my advice for
coping with anal cancer treatment.

Learn to laugh through awkwardness

If you get anal cancer, you better have a sense of humor. If you
can’t laugh, then you better learn how before treatment starts.

Radiation therapy for anal cancer is … awkward. Not only are you
usually sitting in an uncomfortable position, but female patients also
use a vaginal dilator to push away delicate tissue and protect their
cervix from radiation. The method, which is unique to MD Anderson, is actually a great idea because
it reduces scarring and prevents complications with future Pap tests.
But to get past the reality of the moment, I made light of the
situation. I asked the radiation therapists to play Elvis songs for me
and whenever something embarrassing happened, I’d quip, “Houston, we
have a problem!”

And the side effects were horrific — though Dr. Taniguchi says my
reaction to treatment was worse than any patient he’s ever had. I
developed nausea and diverticulosis, or inflammation of my
digestive track. I also suffered from severe diarrhea. I couldn’t go anywhere without several
changes of clothes and baby wipes. My daughter and I joked our way
through my many accidents because we knew that laughing through my
misery kept me in a fighting spirit. Thankfully, MD Anderson’s pelvic wall therapy eventually
helped me strengthen my sphincter and regain control of my bowel movements.

Ask many questions and bring someone with you

A lot of people hide from cancer and don’t really want to talk about
it. But learning more about your disease and knowing what to expect
during treatment is crucial to your overall health and safety.

Whenever my daughter Stacy and I met with Dr. Taniguchi and Dr.
Cathy Eng
, we brought a list of questions. Stacy jotted down
notes during our appointments, and we referred back to them regularly.

I also quickly learned that it doesn’t matter how strong you are,
you need an advocate with you to listen. When you’re diagnosed with a
potentially fatal disease, you get easily overwhelmed, and you’re just
not going to catch everything your doctor says. Having that second set
of ears can help you avoid unnecessary complications.

Make peace with your disease

Many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around my anal
cancer diagnosis. When I tell people I have anal cancer, they often
think I misspoke and meant colon or rectal cancer. Once I reiterate
that I have anal cancer, I hear, “Oh, I didn’t know you could get
cancer there,” or they think my cancer stemmed from promiscuity. But I
still openly talk about it because it’s up to us anal cancer survivors
to move others past that stigma. No one minds saying, “I have breast
cancer,” so we have to talk about it like it is breast cancer.

So, accept your diagnosis. Reach deep into your soul to make peace
with it. Look past your daily reality and imagine a future without
cancer. Soon enough, you’ll reach the light at the end of the tunnel.


Request an appointment at MD
Anderson
online
or by calling 1-877-632-6789.