You never expect to get a diagnosis of cancer, but what about when it comes back?
Sherry Hanson has published hundreds of articles, essays and poems. In 2013 she won a MORE Award for excellence in reporting on musculoskeletal issues from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS). She also won the 2014 Paumanok Award for Poetry from Farmingdale State College, Farmingdale, NY.
Sherry is a three-time survivor of ovarian cancer and volunteers in the “Survivors Teaching Students” program for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance of Oregon and Southwest Washington. She is also a volunteer Scientific Research Advocate for the Knight Cancer Institute, affiliated with Oregon Health Science University in Portland, Oregon.
“We think we got it all.” I clung to those words after ovarian cancer surgery in May of 2009. After the treatment, my toes went numb and my hands were fairly useless. I stumbled over my feet and walked into walls. But my hair and eyebrows came back, along with my energy and my appetite, that daily cup of coffee… even a glass of wine! I worked out as best I could and took up running after a hiatus of almost twenty years. At this point, my odds of survival were 60%.
But on January 28, 2011 a CT scan revealed an enlarged lymph node high up in my abdomen. The CA-125 blood test showed that my numbers had begun to rise sometime after April of 2010. I hit forty in February 2011, had the scan, and there it was. One lymph node and two “suspicious areas” lower down, where we had expected a relapse if loose cancer cells settled and bored into an internal organ. But there did not appear to be any organ involvement. “We could no nothing,” said my oncologist. “Or we could do surgery or chemotherapy, or both.”
I got lucky; during surgery on March 1 of that year, the node was found to be indeed cancerous, but the other area was scar tissue from my original operation. Cutting through the old thirteen-inch scar raised hell with nerve endings, and while I healed quickly enough, the pain was close to unbearable. I walked around the house for a month holding my shirt out in front of me. Meanwhile, one of my sisters was diagnosed with a head/neck cancer.
“Of course, we could do nothing,” my oncologist again stated at my post-op visit when we discussed the cancerous lymph node. “You have no active disease at this time,” but my disease was now considered chronic, so on March 29, I began chemotherapy with carboplatin again, and the standard second line drug, gemcitabine. Pretty much from the outset, my life became a matter of trying to have a life around cancer.
Thanks to chemotherapy hell, there was no skiing that winter. My beautiful, thick hair began falling out on my shoulders, my chair, my pillow and all over the house again. I lost most of it, so I had it cut off.
After session one of chemotherapy, “recovery” never really happened. With sessions three and four I lost my appetite pretty much for the duration. With number five went my energy and stamina; all I could do was some calisthenics and work out on the recumbent exercise bike. I felt awful for days on end with no appetite, no focus, and hours of insomnia at night. Sometimes I could read or do Sudoku; I watched movies on the worst days.
But after a clean CT scan, I was feeling good, back to running, biking and kayaking. I went away to the beach for two days and had my first cup of coffee and first glass of wine in quite a while. I ran and walked on the beach, watched the tide from my deck, listened to the action of the surf 24/7.
My odds are not good, but the fact that I had the surgery and went through seven more rounds of chemotherapy gave me at least the outside chance. And that is the best I can do.