Categorized | Sex & Health

Life, Illuminated

[1]It was one of those major events in history when everyone remembers what they were doing when it happened. The OJ Simpson verdict – sixth grade computer class. September 11 – high school senior lounge. Remembering “where you were” is a good conversation topic and this time, my story was a little less mundane. In August 2003, during the biggest power outage in North American history, I was in the recovery room at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. Two hours before, an eight-ten pound tumor, along with one of my ovaries, was removed and 23 staples lined the seven-inch incision below my bellybutton.
While everyone else in the Northeast and Midwest was worried about how they were going to fill their cars with gas, I was worried about whether or not the cancer had spread and waiting for results that could change the rest of my life…
I remember painting houses that summer and constantly needing to go to the bathroom. My friends would tell me I “peed more than their grandmas” but I didn’t think anything of it. I was on a workout plan and trying to eat healthy, it was strange that I couldn’t stop gaining weight. I always felt bloated no matter what I ate. Although I wasn’t sexually active, I hadn’t had my period in four months. I wasn’t worried; that had happened before during high school swim season. It had to be because of the constant activity, working out and painting all day. These were the warning signs I should have seen, the warning signs I completely ignored.
***
[pull]August 4, 2003. Looking forward to my sophomore year at MSU, I went to the gynecologist expecting a prescription for a simple pill, maybe birth control, to help regulate my periods. I came out with an immediate appointment for an ultrasound and the diagnosis that they had “found something” in my pelvic region.
August 6, 2003. Staring up at the ceiling during my ultrasound, there was a photo of a waterfall. After drinking 64-ounces of water in preparation for the test, I wondered who the genius was that put that picture up. It was like someone making water sounds when you really had to go to the bathroom. Then again, the agonizing waterfall photo was easier to look at than the picture on the computer screen. It showed the inside of my pelvic region and consisted of a large red blob practically taking up the whole screen.
August 7, 2003. Measurements of “the mass:” 10 cm by 20 cm by 15 cm. Diagnosis: stage 1A micro-invasive mucinous tumor of the ovary. Translation: A tumor on my ovaries, possibly cancerous.
It wasn’t until I measured it out on a piece of paper that the reality of the situation hit me. A mini football-sized tumor was growing inside me. When I thought of cancer I thought of death. And I was 19 years old.
I thought about how two days before, I was worried whether the boys in my new apartment were going to be cute. Now I was worried about living to see another year. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen to people like me. I was a healthy, active and responsible college student. (Well, healthy and active, at least.) Cancer was a statistic, something we learned about in health class and had to memorize for the test. My life was just beginning; I wasn’t supposed to be a statistic.
[2]August 11, 2003. My surgeon, Dr. Sheldon Weiner, laid out the plan for the surgery I had to have immediately. “Exploratory laparotomy with removal of ovarian tumor. Possible removal of tube and possible hysterectomy, bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, and staging surgery for malignancy.” The medical words I didn’t understand helped cover up the reality of what could happen in two short days. IF the tumor was cancerous and IF it had spread to my uterus, the entire thing would have to be removed. In other words, maternal suicide. The surgery was a series of IFs, all being answered by pathologists and doctors, while I was unconscious on the operating table with no say in my own future. While these thoughts were running through my head, I looked over at my mom to see her crying in her hands. I put my arm around her, comforting the only person I knew more scared than me.
August 14th, 2003. 7:15am Arriving at Beaumont Hospital in my favorite MSU t-shirt, I couldn’t help but feel hungry. An entire 24 hours of no food and too many laxatives had successfully cleaned out my system. After saying my temporary goodbyes to my parents, I was escorted into the anesthesia room where I was told I would be receiving something that would feel like “two tequila shots and a martini.” Finally, something I understood! After being “drunk” for about 25 seconds, I blacked out…so to say.
***
The problem with cancer is that it literally can strike anyone. A person can smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and live to old age, while another loses a battle with lung cancer and the closest thing to a cigarette he’s ever come to is a second-hand cloud in the bar.
Eat healthy, wear sunscreen, stay away from cigarettes and alcohol and aspartame and carrots and this and that…cancer has left our society on our toes everything and anything we do. Unfortunately, religiously wearing SPF 30 at the beach doesn’t quite prevent a 10-pound ovarian tumor. I wanted to get at why. Why did this happen to me so young and why did it happen at all?
“That’s really the big kicker, why does ovarian cancer occur and why does one person get a full blown malignancy versus a borderline tumor? Nobody knows the answer to that. There are no risk factors known for borderline ovarian tumors,” said Dr. Douglas Pugmire, a gynecological oncologist in Lansing.
After having an intense medical terms-filled discussion about the difference between “full blown malignancy” and “borderline tumors” (my cancer culprit), I was finally more clear about my situation and about the disease in general. Basically, it comes down to if the tumor becomes invasive in the tissue, what kinds of cells are present and the discrepancy over whether “low malignant potential” actually meant cancer. In the technical sense, whether or not I actually had cancer, didn’t really matter. I was carrying an extremely large, possibly cancerous, tumor that had needed to come out. Fast.
August 14, 2006. 12:00 p.m. They told us the surgery would last one and a half to three hours if everything went well. My mom said she broke down right around the three hour mark and had to pull my dad, a cancer survivor himself, into the hallway. As the minutes ticked by, my parents and family waited.
[3]August 14, 2006. 1:00 p.m. Waking up out of surgery was like a dream. I remember a young boy screaming and three nurses telling jokes to lighten the mood in the recovery room. Dr. Weiner came in and told me the four-hour surgery went well. He had made a small seven-inch incision below my belly button and had taken out the low malignant potential tumor. With those findings, they had to explore lymph nodes around the area and the results would be ready in three to five days. However, Dr. Weiner said that if it had spread, the survival rate was excellent. They had taken out the one engulfed ovary, but my uterus and other ovary were intact, enabling me to still have children one day. I laughed at another corny nurse joke (must have been the drugs), and thought about how I could handle “low malignant potential” and sacrifice one almond-sized organ. There were plenty of patients out there whose cancer had long surpassed a diagnosis of “low.” My future was more reassuring in that I would not have to sacrifice motherhood, something I had thought about since playing house as a freckle-faced five-year-old girl.
August 14, 2006. Around 4:00 p.m. The power goes out on the entire East Coast and in parts of the Midwest, including Beaumont Hospital. After ruling out a terrorist attack, they tell us they have to reserve the electricity generators for only the necessities. “Necessities” apparently don’t include air conditioning on the 95-degree day, television, running water, toilets and visitors. I looked around at my bare hospital room, the blank television screen, my seven-inch stapled scar and my 80-year-old Chatty Cathy roommate. So many opportunities for complaints and all I could think about was how great it was to be alive.
***
I’ve always told friends and family that cancer is different when it happens to you. Watching loved ones battle this disease is like your car sliding on ice. All you can really do is hold on and wait for the car to stop. About two years before the tumor was discovered, I watched my dad fight and win a battle against stage IV melanoma skin cancer. Watching a man who has been the rock of our family become one of cancer’s vulnerable slaves is a feeling of total helplessness and loss of control. When it invades your own body, it’s different. I didn’t feel helpless or a loss of control because it was my own body and my own battle. There was nothing I could really do to prevent the mass from growing but there were things I could control.
“[A cancer patient] didn’t make that choice,” Pugmire said. “But the choice they can make is whether they are going to accept it and try to learn something from it. And those patients do very well.”
Well. That is what Dr. Weiner told my parents, that the surgery had gone “well.” A successful surgery probably has more to do with circumstances than attitude, but being positive was probably at least a little easier on the attending nurses. My mom said as my friends were leaving my house the day before surgery, I told them I would see them tomorrow. The positive outlook may have helped but their support is what pulled me through.
[4]Pugmire said he sees that in his patients. “We can measure things like your morbidity as related to a cancer…how much disease you have, your stage of your cancer, how much surgery you’ve had, the length of that surgery…all the things we can measure are pretty equal amongst patients,” he said. “This is my opinion and I have nothing to back this up, but it seems to me that those patients who have the best family support systems do the very best.”
Never in my life have I had a bigger outpouring of cards, flowers, candy and presents. The tangible things that brought a smile to my face. But the hope and love behind every card, every baked good and every pajama top, immeasurable as those may be, got me through the days when I felt scared, alone and in the dark.
April 26, 2006. 7:30 p.m. (two and a half years after surgery, present day). I walk into my first MSU Student Cancer Support Network meeting to get some perspective in order to write this story. I expected to listen to others and observe some of my fellow students who have had cancer in their lives. Not long into the meeting, I am telling my own story to these strangers who oddly don’t feel like strangers after the last half-hour. In that room, I feel a bond. Unlike those on the outside of cancer who can sympathize but never really know what it’s like, these “strangers” know and they understand. As the memories of that August come back to me, tears collect in my eyes. I am not sad, but grateful for what I have learned, how I have changed, and the support of people that comes from places I never knew existed.
My friends have often joked that I should one day write a book entitled “A Series of Unfortunate Events: An Autobiography by Erin Robinson.” August, 2003 would be it’s own chapter, complete with descriptions of the eight to ten pound tumor, the days spent in a powerless hospital, the pain that the drugs couldn’t take away, missing the first month of my sophomore year of college…etc, etc.
Then again, unfortunate things happen everyday to everyone. Sometimes, it’s a bad grade on a test and sometimes it’s more serious, like cancer. But, that’s life. Sometimes it’s not as easy as saying “I should have studied harder” because saying “I shouldn’t have gotten that low malignant potential tumor” isn’t an always an option. It’s more about finding a detour when the unfortunate events block the road. Detours can lead us away from what is comfortable, but they also lead us back to where we need to go in the end.
When the doctor called with the test results and told me that the micro-invasive cells had been contained in the tumor, I couldn’t help but think that meant I could go back to school sooner. The inconvenience and time lost on a detour help us to appreciate the usual way and the things we drive by so often that they sometimes go unnoticed.
Not too long ago, my life took a detour. It was bumpy and on that day in August, I was even in the dark, much like the rest of the Northeast. Cancer, like darkness, is uncertainty; the fear of not knowing what might happen and wondering what lies ahead. It’s something no one wishes to have to deal with because it sets us back and sends us on a detour. But, for those of us who are lucky, the lights eventually do come back on and we are eventually led back.
And despite the devastation it can bring, after cancer I can truly see why life is so precious. I appreciate the things and the people in life more than before, when everything was normal; those things that make our lives run smoothly and the people that make it all worthwhile.

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