23 years ago today, at age 14, I was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma of the right humerus.
It is strange that now I have to refer to that as "the first time I had cancer."
I recall driving to the biopsy early that October morning, when the first fingers of Minnesota winter were really starting to grip the state, covering everything with frost and making the air harsh and brisk. I looked out the window and thought to myself, quite dramatically, "thus begins the winter of my life."
The doctors very strongly suspected that the biopsy would come back positive for cancer, and told me they would be able to tell by looking at the specimen for just a moment under a microscope, so the plan was to keep me under anesthetic and put in my port once they confirmed it was positive. I remember waking up after surgery and feeling for my new port. It was there, so I knew my answer. "Here we go." I fell back into my groggy slumber.
What followed were 11 of the hardest months of my life. I seemed to get every rare complication from the chemo drugs, so much so that at the end of my treatment, one of my oncologists remarked, "When I told you all of the possible side effects, that wasn't meant to be a challenge!" My chemo was all inpatient, with five days in a row of infusion. After every cycle, without fail, my counts would drop dramatically and I would come down with an infection which would keep my in the hospital until it was time for the next chemo cycle. I was so violently ill from the chemo that I was fed via IV for months, and still lost 30 pounds. I spent virtually a whole year in the hospital, a building that was less than two blocks from my home.
I remember arguing passionately on Christmas eve day, begging them to let me go home so that I could wake up in my own bed on Christmas morning. First, they said, I had to prove I could eat and drink. I set to that task with great resolve, and later that afternoon proudly told them that I had kept down half a glass of water and one and a half saltines. At that time, it was a huge accomplishment, and somehow they agreed to let me go home. I spent a lovely 24 hours with my family, opening presents, and having a fairly normal Christmas before checking back into the hospital that night.
Not surprisingly, my second dance with cancer has led me to reflect on that time a lot, and I keep wondering if there are others like me out there who won the battle the first time, then got reenlisted into a whole new fight. At my follow up appointments when I had finished treatment, I used to ask about the other young cancer patients I knew, until one day I was told that two of them had their cancer recur, and one had passed away. I stopped asking after that.
I have only kept in Christmas-card-contact with one of my old cancer buddies, and while I would love to talk to her, I think it would be kind of cruel to call her up and say, "Hey, remember when we went through hell together, then got cured and went on with our lives? Well, it can come back in a whole new form!"
In some ways, I am thankful that I have my first experience to think back on, because I know just how much I can handle (a lot). So far, at least, this hasn't been nearly as terrible as that was. Side effect management has improved by leaps and bounds, and I am currently on a fairly tolerable chemo triplet. I know that things will get a lot harder. But I am also older now and have a lot more life experience. Most importantly, thought, I have three little ones who keep me very grounded in the real world of day-to-day life. They are three small people for whom I would do anything.