Cancer in my thirties was not my master plan. When I was young, I assumed I would live forever, or at least until I was old and ready to say goodbye. I would relax into retirement bliss with my husband at my side, enjoying the bounty of the nest egg that we dutifully saved. We would travel the world until we grew tired, and then gently pass away from old age surrounded by our children and grandchildren.
At 32, these plans didn’t seem out of reach. Well on our way to the American dream, we lived in a lovely, established neighborhood and had two beautiful children – Noah 4 and Abby 14 months. I stayed home with the kids, and my husband had a successful consulting business. Life was good.
In the summer of 1999, we traveled to Washington D.C. to attend a friend’s wedding with kids in tow. It was a lovely affair on the shore of the Potomac River at George Washington’s River Farm in Alexandria, Virginia. Noah had to stand in as ring bearer at the last minute due to a spontaneous tantrum by the original job holder. We danced our hearts out in the heat and humidity of Washington in July. The day was memorable.
On that trip, I developed a sore throat and went to an urgent care provider, fearing I had strep. The doctor took a throat swab, prescribed antibiotics, and I was on my way.
We returned home to Sacramento, but the antibiotics did not seem to quell the sharp pain in my throat. So, I saw the nurse practitioner at my doctor’s family practice. She took a quick peek, prescribed allergy medication, and sent me home.
The Journey to Diagnosis
After a few months, my throat began to feel like a blister. It burned when I drank wine and orange juice. And the pain kept me from raising my voice. This was a good thing for my husband and kids, but it was a sign that something was not right.
I returned to the nurse practitioner who again dismissed my throat pain, suggesting it was due to postnasal drip. The thought of anything more serious did not occur to anyone in my doctor’s office, as I was a 32-year-old nonsmoker who didn’t drink much. Again, I returned home with no resolution.
A few months later blood appeared in the sink when I brushed my teeth. So, my husband looked in my throat and saw a bloody lump the size of a peanut. Eight months after my first visit to the urgent care facility, I again made an appointment with my doctor’s office, this time to see the doctor, rather than a nurse practitioner.
When the doctor entered the examination room, I described the lump and explained that my sore throat had been lingering for some time. He looked in my throat for about one second (no exaggeration) and said he didn’t see anything. But I knew it was there and asked him to look again. He did, and the concern on his face was apparent.
Finally, someone believed me!
My doctor referred me to a specialist, and by the following week, I had a diagnosis – Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the tongue and tonsil. It was cancer.
The doctor called me the morning after my biopsy to break the news. When he told me I had cancer, I was shocked. My aunt died of throat cancer just a few months earlier. Would I share her fate? The doctor told me my prognosis was 50/50. What? I was 32, worked out regularly, didn’t smoke cigarettes, and hardly drank!
The specialist referred me to an ear, nose, and throat surgeon at the University of California, Davis where the news only got worse. They would have to remove part of my tongue and I could lose my voice box too. Only after my surgery would I know whether I could keep these essential body parts. Surgery would involve slicing my neck open from my Adam’s apple to my ear and cutting a hole in my throat so I could breathe properly in the event of post-operative swelling. I faced possible disfigurement or even death.
This didn’t happen to 32-year-olds! In fact, the statistics showed that this disease was most prevalent in men over 65 who smoked, drank heavily, or both. Why me?!
I had small children and had no idea whether I would get to see them grow up, graduate, or have children of their own! The world I knew was no longer available to me. The surgery was inevitable if I wanted to live.
All the cancer patients I’d ever seen were stoic and brave, but I was neither. In fact, Xanax and Valium were essential to functioning. I wasn’t emotionally equipped to deal with this hard left turn my life was taking.
I always had a plan, and now I was twisting in the wind, unable to accept the challenge.
The surgery went well; my voice box was intact, and the tumor was smaller than anticipated. I did lose a third of my tongue, which made eating solid food again an aspiration rather than a certainty. But I managed to relearn swallowing and lose the feeding tube just in time for nine weeks of radiation every day – the longest nine weeks of my life.
Radiation knocked me flat. Between mouth blisters, nausea, a complete loss of taste and salivary function, and the inability to swallow solid food, I was a wreck emotionally and physically. The cancer patients who endure chemotherapy and its accompanying side effects for months or even years while remaining positive were a mystery to me. I basically checked out of life, suffering from depression and feeling like a coward, when I should have been celebrating my survival.
Although feeling grateful I survived, the sudden sense that life could end at anytime and anywhere rocked me to the core. The assumption that tomorrow will come and today’s blessings will endure forms the foundation of youthful thinking. When that assumption suddenly cracks, it is both shocking and devastating.
I began worrying about me or my family dying in a car accident or being hit by a car when crossing the street. In fact, I was so worried that I would feel anxious when my husband left the house to run an errand or when I rode in a car. If cancer struck me in my thirties, no one was safe from early mortality.
Early Midlife Crisis
Out of this thinking arose a sense that I hadn’t lived enough life. I was always so careful, getting a job right out of college, marrying and going to law school. We had Noah in my third year of law school and Abby not long after that.
Under normal circumstances, my life would have seemed rich and fulfilling, and it was until I had cancer in my thirties. Cancer made me question whether my life was reaching its full potential. I thought about whether I should have dated more and taken more risks. My focus became what I needed to do to make up for lost time – time I may or may not have ahead of me.
Cancer in my thirties triggered a midlife crisis of epic proportions. I arrived at a crossroads: do I keep living what now seemed like a mediocre existence, or grab life by the cahonas and act like a 50-year-old man who leaves his wife for his 20-year old assistant in a red corvette? Unfortunately, I chose the latter.
All About Me
This myopic view of life after cancer led to many mistakes, and the pain I caused my family reverberates today. Some people respond to a life-threatening illness by drawing closer to their loved ones. But my newfound realization that life could end tomorrow heightened my impulsivity. Needing to feel alive at all costs, I had an affair and left my once-idyllic life without regard for the people it hurt.
Before undergoing treatment, my medical team explained to me the worst-case risks and side effects. However, they didn’t address the lasting emotional impact; this selfish and impulsive neediness was a dark side-effect that I discovered on my own. Like other side effects, this left scars that I came to deeply regret and am still working to heal.
Yet, I appreciate how cancer in my thirties transformed my life in positive ways too. Before I had cancer in my thirties, I was riddled with anxiety about measuring up to my own expectations and the expectations of those around me, always asking myself whether I was enough. But when you’re sick with a life-threatening illness, everything else in your life falls away except the desire to live. After cancer, I was no longer obsessed with competing with other parents or whether my boss was upset with me. Waiting in long lines, sitting in traffic, or dealing with bad drivers doesn’t bother me. Whether I get a promotion or take a pay cut is inconsequential compared to the prospect of leaving this Earth. I now view all of life’s problems through this lens of life or death.
Cancer also has given me strength despite feeling emotionally and physically weak at the time of my illness. Enduring the disease and its aftermath was like emotional weight training, preparing me for other challenges that lie ahead. Most people don’t gain this perspective until they reach midlife, or never at all. But I was fortunate enough to discover it in my thirties.
This perspective was cancer’s parting gift. Although at times the day-to-day bogs me down, I reflect on whether my current life would feel well-lived and complete if it were cut short. This mindset motivates me to do and be all that I can right now. I’m grateful to be writing this post 20 years later and for the scars and bruises that form the person I am. Given the option for a do-over, I wouldn’t choose to have cancer again, but that experience forever changed me for the better.
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