Staying vigilant in survivorship

Next week I celebrate my two-year cancer-free anniversary. I count it from the day of my mastectomy, when the last bit of that invasive ductal carcinoma was removed, and I got something of a “Mommy Makeover” in the process (which, by the way, hurt like a mother).

Don’t let anybody tell you that a DIEP flap reconstruction is an easy surgery or recovery. And if you have it, Lawdy mercy you will never ever take for granted how nice it is to stand fully erect, after living more or less hunched over for eight awkward weeks.

Anywho, back to the two year mark. I have also already been celebrating the end of a certain monthly misery all women can relate to, as I went a full 23 months without so much as a trace. Huzzah!

Not that chemo-induced menopause is free of its own unpleasantries. But I figured, on this side of it all, I’d gotten through the hot flashes, the restless sleep, and the moodiness (let’s not ask my husband about that last one, mmkay?), and that it would be easy-ish street from here on out.

Cue screeching brake noises here. At which point I am reminded to follow my own advice of being one’s own health advocate. Was it real menopause? Or a temporary chemo-pause? Is what’s happening right now totally normal – or not?

I’m down to the last few weeks of the two-year window – the timeframe that’s considered ‘normal’ as far as if your cycles will come back or if it’s a sign of something worrisome.

So basically I’m in that head space of um, okay, what the heck is even going on with this crazy bod that’s been to hell and back already?

Exploring the answer to that question takes more than consulting Dr. Google (an unwise idea – yes we all know it – but we just can’t help ourselves, right?) And it means doing more than asking our closest girlfriends (even though we know every body is different and that what they tell us might make us worry even more).

It looks like this actually:

You take the initiative to consult the oncologist, who may want to consult the gynecologic oncologist, who may want to do an endometrial biopsy (are we having fun yet?!) and/or a sonogram, which may lead to a decision to say buh-bye ovaries! Or a full on hysterectomy, because at this point, why not? It’s an uncomfortable fact that having breast cancer puts you at increased risk for other cancers, especially those related to reproductive organs. And I’m sooo done procreating :).

Ovarian cancer hits a little too close to home, as I’ve already lost one friend to it. So many happy Supper Club evenings spent with the one and only Ginny Gammill Bourland, my husband’s first middle school girlfriend, who surprised us all at a Valentine’s themed Supper Club when she gifted me the el cheapo gold necklace that Rett had given her for the Pizitz Winter Dance, just before she dumped him.

This girl was freaking awesome. Crazy smart actuary, equally handy wielding a wet saw, whip smart about sports, faithful without being a holy roller type, hilarious (once showed up to Wine Club wearing a hat that said ‘Just Dolls, No Balls’), and the kind of woman who would hold your newborn baby and sing Itsy Bitsy Spider to lull her to sleep while she popped a delicious home-cooked meal in your oven.

I can’t not think about her every time I catch Wedding Crashers on TV, because we would all quote our favorite one-liners from it at random, always leading to peels of laughter throughout this fun-loving group, usually too loudly, not that it mattered – we were having too much fun to care.

Losing those you love when they are quite literally in the prime of their lives changes you. So does being diagnosed with a serious illness yourself.

I wasn’t the least bit worried about general health before cancer. Sure, I’d go every year for my annual well woman check, but other than that, and maybe asking the primary care doc to call in a Z-pack from time to time, I really didn’t give the odd little feeling here or there much thought at all.

Cancer changed that, as did hormone therapy. Before you start taking it, you are educated about the fact that Tamoxifen (what I take) can lead to endometrial cancer, though the chances are very low and the benefits of the medicine (again, at least in my patient case) far outweigh any associated risks.

If I were a betting woman, I’d bet that any tests we decide to perform will come back super boring and benign (which would be dandy). On the off chance that they don’t, I’ll be glad I learned from the mammogram that started me down this path two summers ago.

Advocate for your health always. And if something seems off, speak up. Much as these procedures stink (and good golly they do), I’d sure rather endure a few moments of discomfort than to bite it from a disease I ignored until it progressed to the point of no return.

That, my sisters, is what it means to be vigilant in survivorship.

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