4-time cancer survivor: ‘Don’t delay the checks’

Between 1995 and 2009, I was diagnosed with four different types of
cancer. The first diagnosis didn’t really bother me. The second one
hit me like a ton of bricks. The third one made me angry. And the
fourth one was overwhelming.

For a long time, I wondered what was wrong with me that this kept
happening. And I still haven’t found a satisfying explanation. But I’m
kind of shocked by how comfortable I feel discussing it now. So, maybe
that’s my mission: to talk about it.

How I learned I had cancer, four separate times

My first cancer diagnosis came about when I was living in
Los Angeles. I’d noticed a slightly discolored area on my right cheek,
but ignored it for several months. It got bumpy and I could actually
feel it, so I saw a doctor. A biopsy revealed it was skin cancer, and I had a few rounds of radiation to treat it. That left me with what
looks like an oddly shaped dimple on that cheek, but caused me no
problems otherwise.

The second diagnosis came in 2003, when I developed a lump on the
side of my neck. It grew to the size of a golf ball over about six
months, but I blew it off, too, at first. My younger brother had had a
marble-sized growth removed from his hand years prior, which ended up
being a cyst. I figured mine was, too. But it turned out to be Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Luckily, chemotherapy put me into remission.

My third diagnosis came in 2005, when severe back pains made it hard
for me to sleep. When I finally went to the doctor, the diagnosis was
non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which can sometimes be a
side effect of treatment for Hodgkin’s. Tumors were sprinkled all over
my abdominal cavity. Some were pressing against the nerves in my
spine. Amazingly, after going through chemo again, I was cancer-free.

My fourth —and hopefully, last — diagnosis came in 2009, when I went
to the doctor with what I thought was a hemorrhoid. The doctor could
tell it was something more serious just by examining me. And when the
biopsy revealed I had anal cancer, I just fell apart. If it wasn’t for
the support of my MD Anderson colleagues
and my partner, Kenneth Holder, I honestly don’t think I would’ve survived.

Why I chose MD Anderson for my
anal cancer treatment

Since I was working at MD Anderson by
that time, coming here for my anal cancer treatment wasn’t even a question. Robert Wolff, M.D. laid out my choices: I could
have radiation therapy, which is what he recommended,
or I could go for the bag (a colostomy, which collects stool outside
the body) by having surgery.

I couldn’t stand the idea of being tied to something 24/7 that would
serve as a constant reminder of my cancer. So I chose radiation, and
received a 28-day regime.

Borrowing strength from my family during anal cancer treatment

I knew that radiation was going to be hard, but it was brutal. The
first couple of weeks, I thought, “Oh, this is a breeze.” But the
effects are actually cumulative, and by the end of it, I was literally
sleeping next to the toilet.

There are times when you can’t find the words to describe your
feelings. That’s how I feel about my partner, Ken. I know that I would
not be here if it wasn’t for him. I very clearly remember the day I
looked up at him and said, “I just don’t want to do this anymore.”  He
said to me, “I didn’t wait my entire life to meet you to have you give
up on me — I’m not fighting this by myself.”  It felt like I was at
the end of my rope, but something in his face and his words gave me
strength to keep going, even though it seemed unbearable.

Looking ahead and lingering side effects

Because it’s now been almost 10 years since my last cancer
diagnosis, my doctors believe my risk of a recurrence is very low. But
I’ve heard that before, so I still get regular scans and quarterly or
semi-annual exams.

My only lingering side effects are occasional bloating and diarrhea. My understanding is that
my body is reacting as if it were currently receiving radiation, in a
kind of muscle memory. But I’ve learned to live with it. I now know
where every clean restroom is between here and Dallas.

It gets better

Today, I try to spend more time “smelling the roses,” by traveling
and experiencing the world. As an MD
employee, I also have a new drive and determination to
help others obtain the same type of care that I received.

If there’s one thing that my experience has taught me, it’s don’t
put off the “checks.” If something concerns or worries you, don’t
delay looking into it. And if you are diagnosed with cancer, fight
through the treatment, accept all of the love and care that you’re
given, and greet each day wearing the rose-colored glasses. It does
get better! And in the end, the fight is so worth it.

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