“Your life can change overnight.” I would have to agree with that.Earlier this year, cancer started growing in my body, taking a “0 to 60 in 60 seconds” approach, and before I knew it, I had Stage IV cervical cancer with multiple tumors in my pelvis and small metastases to my pubic bone and lungs.How could this possibly happen to an otherwise healthy 32-year-old woman who six months earlier had a normal pap smear and tested negative for HPV? The absurd unlikelihood of my diagnosis explains why, over the course of four weeks, all the doctors that I saw for my symptoms of vaginal bleeding and severe abdominal pain told me I had a ruptured cyst and to take Advil. It was my therapist who saved my life by referring me to a doctor at Cedars Sinai who attentively listened to my story and arranged for me to have an MRI that same day, revealing the unusually aggressive spread of cancer in my body.But even the doctor at the cancer hospital in New York where I was eventually diagnosed looked at the MRI report and thought it would be too unusual for the growths to be cancer and told me it was probably just endometriosis. Three days later, a few hours before I was to attend the rehearsal dinner for my brother’s wedding, the doctor called to tell me that he wanted to do his own imaging because his radiologist couldn’t refute the cancerous claims of the MRI. The diagnostic experience put me on an emotional roller coaster ride—one that I hope I’ll never have to ride again.When I got sick I had been living in Los Angeles but it made sense for me to get treatment in New York so that I could live with my parents. The only treatment option available to me was chemotherapy, which theoretically would work globally in my body. But chemo is not considered a cure for most metastatic cancers. Instead, the cancer is considered a chronic disease that you have to manage by going on and off treatment. The doctors explained that most cervical cancer usually grows very slowly. With the use of pap smears, advanced cervical cancer is rare in the U.S. with only between 1,500 and 3,000 cases reported annually. It is considered a third-world cancer, where early detection screenings are not available.My life was not exactly where I wanted it to be when this all happened. In 2011, I finished my MFA in Graphic Design at Yale and hit the road for a new life in California. As much as I loved the city, I struggled to find steady work and moved to a new apartment in a different neighborhood every six months. But I believe that life often balances the good with the bad and six weeks before my symptoms arrived, I started dating my unbelievably amazing and supportive boyfriend without whom I don’t know how I would survive emotionally. We joke that he is my positivity drill sergeant and one day we came up with names and personalities for my chemotherapy drugs. For example, “Avi,” short for Avastin, is an Ethiopian marathon runner who speeds through my body knocking out cancer cells in his path.
I have also been the beneficiary of the hilarious creativity of my friends in LA who hand-made a plush doll based on one of my illustrations, photographed the doll in my favorite places in LA and bound the photographs into a hardcover book through Blurb. Friends like these come along once in a lifetime and they sure chose the right time to show up in mine.
Back in April, as I was lying in the MRI machine that found the tumors, a mysterious thought popped into my head: “When this is all over, you will be a healer.” Confused by what this meant initially, I’ve come to realize that it means several things. First, I have the opportunity to heal myself. Based on my most recent scan at the end of September, my healing process is going quite well. Everything is shrinking significantly and my doctors say I am having a full response to the chemo, which doesn’t always happen. In addition, I take excellent care of myself with good nutrition, acupuncture, massage, arts and crafts, daily walks in Central Park with my mom, Kundalini yoga and meditation. I also believe it’s my mission to heal others by sharing my story on my blog, and I’m studying to be a health coach at Integrative Nutrition, which is an online certificate program. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far is that the body wants to heal itself and all you have to do is tune in and support it as best as you can.Coming to terms with the unknown and facing my own mortality has been the hardest part of having cancer. The new direction in cancer treatment is gene-targeted therapies and my cancer has a genetic mutation for which there are several drug trials that I could join down the road.But for now, I am focusing on enjoying my life—eating healthy, spending time with my friends, FaceTiming with my boyfriend, and working on creative projects, both personal and professional.After a dark period where I encountered crippling fear, anger, jealousy and plain old grief, I found the way of acceptance. It’s a much easier state to be in. It allows me to have hope that I will miraculously survive this crazy disease.