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Published on February 11, 2020

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Sometimes "Cancer" Doesn’t Equal "Chemo"

By Sonja Hegman, Avera writer/editor

Sometimes I feel guilty because I didn’t have enough cancer.

I’ve never felt like a cancer survivor, even though I undoubtedly am. I have the scar to prove it.

When one hears the word “cancer,” the mind tends to automatically envision someone who’s lost their hair to chemo, someone thin with, perhaps, little hope of survival, like the guy from that Julia Roberts movie “Dying Young.” Maybe that’s just me. I certainly don’t look in the mirror and see a cancer survivor. I see a survivor, but not someone who’s survived cancer.

I didn’t need radiation. I didn’t need chemo. I did have three surgeries, one major, to rid my body of the cancer on my cervix before it spread to my lymphatic system, metastasized to other areas of my body and killed me.

Typically, when people learn that I’m a cancer survivor, I get one of several questions, most times a combination of them:

  • “What kind did you have?”
  • “What was it like to lose your hair?” or “Was it scary when you went bald?”
  • “Did chemo make you sick?”
  • “What kind of treatment did you have?
  • “Are you worried it will come back?”

Yes, when asked about hair loss and chemo, things get awkward, though they shouldn’t.

 “I didn’t have enough cancer for chemo or radiation,” I say and wait for the confused looks that follow.

One time at a party a person said to me, “But, you had cancer right? It was really cancer?”

I stare blankly for a minute thinking, “Nope, it was fake cancer.” Then fight off an exaggerated eye roll.

“Yep, I had an oncologist and everything. Sometimes cancer doesn’t require treatment beyond surgery. Weird, right? Is that onion dip?”

And then I move to the corner of the room hoping people forget about me and my cancer.

I don’t like thinking about cancer, so I don’t, but then someone will ask, “Are you worried it will come back?”

Of course.

I mean, obviously, my cervix is gone — and my uterus, and several lymph nodes in my pelvic region — but I do worry that rogue cells are still living in my body waiting for me to fully have my guard down before they reappear somewhere else: my lungs, my breasts, my brain. And while I’m currently five years out and have only a 1-5% chance of the cancer coming back, it’s that small chance that sometimes keeps me up at night. Well, that and night sweats because my body has launched itself head-on into menopause, but that’s a story for another day.

From the moment I left the hospital after my hysterectomy, knowing I would be fine and need no further treatment, I never felt like a cancer survivor. While I was so grateful to the universe for seeing fit to let me live, I feel guilty about it. We survivors who “only need surgery” often have those feelings. And it makes us feel even smaller when others put us under a magnifier pointing out that, in fact, we didn’t have enough cancer.

At roughly my two-year “cancerversary,” I was asked about doing an interview about my experiences for a documentary.

The producer began by asking me questions about my treatment and follow-up care on the phone.

“Well, I was lucky and they caught my cancer just before I would have needed chemo or radiation and my follow-up care consists of having a checkup once a year.”

She was quiet for a moment.

“So, you only had a hysterectomy?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t say ‘only,’ but yeah, it was serious enough to warrant major surgery. I was as close to the edge of lucky as one can be with cancer.”

More quiet.

“OK, I think I have everything I need.”

Her way of saying, “This chick barely had cancer. I’m not wasting more time with her.”

I felt bad for not having enough cancer. And, because of interactions like these, I often “forget” that I had cancer. I suppose it is part coping mechanism and part not wanting the awkward conversations that follow. However, your story is your story. It makes you who you are and no one should ever feel like they aren’t or weren’t “enough.”

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