Jennifer Humphrey, Iowa City, IA
In 2009, I heard the words that no 27 year old expects to hear, “We belive you may have cancer.” Cancer?!? Procedures, plans, and protocols were discussed, though the only aspect I could focus on was maintaining my fertility. The next week and a half until my first (of five) surgeries went quickly, though I was numb to most of the world continuing to move on around me. My CA-125 was 625 prior to the surgery; a surgery which would entail a complete hysterectomy, removal of my appendix and omentum, as well as the “un” fusion of the majority of my abdominal organs. I had never undergone surgery before and was shocked to awake to a 12-inch long incision right up the middle of me and the news that I would never be able to have children. It was official, I was diagnosed with Stage 3(c) Ovarian Cancer. There are no other words than devastating.
Up until that point, I never considered any other thought than that of never wearing a bikini again was the utmost torture, until what followed next. Over the course of a year and a half, I had 36 rounds of cisplatin and paclitaxel, followed by an additional 54 rounds of an experimental drug called Avastin. I experienced every side effect one expects with chemo: bone pain, nausea, neuropathy, dry mouth, bleeding from my nose and gums, chemo brain and hair loss. Some are always surprised to hear, but the one that hit me hardest was losing my hair. I had thick, auburn hair that flowed past my shoulders and no matter how much you think you are prepared, there is no feeling like waking up to clumps of hair on your pillow and being able to pull it out by the handful. To me, losing my hair (and then eventually my eyebrows and eyelashes) was my cancer calling card. No matter what havoc-wreaking the surgeries and chemo were doing to me internally, being bald meant I looked the part of a cancer patient. Not that I was (or am) ashamed of the journey I’ve been through, but I feared people would treat me or act differently around me. I hated being treated with kid gloves. In addition, I was 27, bald, and…wait for it….single. Dating during this phase brought on a heap of struggles and questions that no young person should ever have to face. When do I tell him I have cancer? When do we talk about children? What am I supposed to do with my wig? Will he break up with me if my cancer comes back?
Fortunately for me, I found amazing friends (fellow young cancer survivors) that walked me through each step and I was lucky enough to find truly the love of my life and my best friend, Tom. He has attended appointments with me, (im)patiently waits with me for test results, talks openly with me about our options for having children, all while accepting all of the emotional baggage that comes with the territory. I wish I had a “Tom” to give to each person going through their cancer journey.
Now, almost 4 years later, I am coming up on my 2.5 year mark in remission. I am thankful for each day, birthday, anniversary, holiday, etc I get, however, I’m not totally sure that the fear of recurrence ever goes away. Some days I forget what I have gone through and other days I am just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Cancer has taken a lot of things from me, but it has also given me a lot too. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to say that I’m glad I had cancer because of the person I turned out to be, becuase I simply don’t feel that way. What I am saying is that there are some positives to the whole ordeal: six months without having to shave my legs, never having PMS (which I firmly believe Tom is thankful for too), and developing life-long bonds with family and friends. Even greater, I think that my experience has given me an understanding of the importance of every day, every hour. I taste food with new zest, I travel and immerse myself in other cultures, and perhaps my greatest mission, my desire to matter and leave a legacy long after I am gone. I want people to think of me and say, “She was a great sister, daughter, (hopefully) mom, and friend,” “She was a fighter in all things that mattered,” “She was loved.”
To love and be loved will be my legacy.