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I became a cancer survivor on April 18, 2002 when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It’s been a roller coaster ride, but lots of good, not all bad. I think my life changed more mentally and spiritually than it did physically.
Physically, the worst part was losing my hair during treatment. That was the hardest part, because then your secret is out. Everyone pretty much knows you’re facing some kind of cancer. I wanted to keep it a secret because I was deathly afraid of a lot of pity. Pity pisses me off. Because I feel my life is great, I don’t want anyone thinking that my life is less than what it was because of cancer.
If you’re gonna feel pity for me, number one, pick another reason. Number two, keep it to yourself anyway. You want to toss me something, toss me some encouragement, some love, some kindness, TLC. But pity? Move it along. I got no time for that. If you’re gonna cry, go find a support group. Whatever you need, because I can’t have it. I just want to be treated the same as before the diagnosis.
The bad part, mentally, is you’re facing your own death, which I wasn’t ready to do at 45 years old. We all know we’re going, but this makes you face the reality right then, and you don’t know how quick that’s gonna become real. It can turn to anger. It can turn to, “Woe is me.” I’ve gone through all of those, but I’ve gotten out of them, too. On the good end, it makes you live more for this minute, and not think about things years from now.
Uncertainty for me is not always a good issue. I look at the expiration date on my credit card, and I wonder if I’m gonna expire before it. That still causes a little bit of anger that I might miss out on some time here. I’m trying to cope with it, and an anti-depressant has helped. I’d like to say I did it all on my own, but it’s hard to deal with. I get jealous of people that still have their illusion that we’re gonna live forever. Those of us with cancer know for sure that we’re not.
The stats for ovarian are not very friendly, and worry crawls in there about how long I’m gonna be here, but not for too long. I’m gonna enjoy what I got right now and not worry about down the line. I’ll be happy to be here to get a long-term effect. It took me a long time to get used to the word “chronic,” but the doctor said it’s a good thing. Chronic means you’re gonna be here a while to get tortured, which is A-okay. Bring it on.
I consider myself a very hopeful cancer survivor, because I look to the future as if I’m gonna be around for a while. I’m hopeful that I’m here long enough that they keep coming out with new stuff that could keep me here even longer with less agony, less physical changes. Like the drug I’m on now, I still have my hair. Ten years ago, that drug wasn’t there. In maybe a year, you’ll swallow it down in pill form instead of sitting there for a half hour watching it drip in. There’s always something new out there.
If a doctor says something that scares you or throws you, don’t be afraid to ask about it. You’re totally intelligent for doing it, because you’re going to be more educated and able to fight for yourself. Some doctors will just want five minutes and you’re out the door. I would actually hold their arm and go, “I am not done yet. This is my life. I got a few questions. Please don’t leave.” A couple of times I followed them up the hall as they’re walking to get to the next patient. So please, always advocate for yourself. Don’t ever be afraid. They’re just people like you. So don’t have them up on that high of a pedestal that you’re afraid to ask questions about your own life.
I joined a support group as soon as my surgery was over. It’s a room full of people that are just like you, that are facing death and the realities of maybe not being here as long as they thought they were gonna be. People in my support group have died. I feel very sad for their families. I feel guilty because I get sad, and then I get mad about it, which is one of the reasons I think I’m getting ready to graduate support group. It’s been almost two years and now I want to do more with my story than sit in a room with just five people. I want to get out there and advocate and try to show people that life can still be great, even on a bad day.
I did some one-on-one counseling for a while. This is gonna sound bad. She got on my nerves so bad that it was worse than what I was there for. I went, I think, three visits, and went, “I don’t need this.” It was just the fact that she sat and nodded for an hour. So I got a book on anger management. Maybe it was just a bad match, but I didn’t try again. I just thought I could do it on my own.
I had to have a full hysterectomy. I was worried about saving my life, so I didn’t really care. Childbearing wasn’t as big a deal as it would be for someone 35 or 25 in the same situation. After the surgery was done, my self-esteem didn’t go down, but boy, my body image was different. Everything looked a little bit out of whack, because they cut you down the middle and staple you back together. I thought I was going to lose my belly button, that kind of thing. But my surgeon did a wonderful job. Today, you can hardly know I even had surgery. It was all out of shape, but as it all goes back to normal, so did my head.
Premature menopause hit me more emotionally, because you’re not supposed to hit it at 45, and it started making me feel a little bit older. That was a little more upsetting than the actual surgery. But it’s okay. The hot flashes have subsided. Not going through the monthly curse is actually okay with me. I asked about estrogen treatment right away, because I was sweating every day, two to three times a day, but I’m not allowed to take it. The doctor gave me some homeopathic things, and I haven’t had a flash in a long time. It helps not to stand under a burning hot shower right before you go to bed. I try to stay calmer because when I would get stressed and have one of my hissy fits, I’d start to sweat.
I feel like my spirituality has gotten deeper, because I am willing to think of bigger things than here. I go to church once in a while, even though organized religion is not my thing. I never used to really think much about any of it. Now I’ll read about it, and I do try to really pay attention to what the pastor or the priest is saying, and I’m open to all kinds of new experiences as far as that goes. I like to believe there’s something greater out there; that it doesn’t all end right here. I believe there’s something, whether it’s God or some kind of supreme being overseeing all of us. I like the whole thought that people that went before us, we might see them again. It just makes me feel better.
Nothing has changed with all my finances, because I was very nutty about it before the cancer. It is a hit on your wallet, because every time you go to the chemo doctor, the regular doctor, the surgeon, it’s another co-pay. But I’m still here, so I don’t think about it. I do look at my checking account sometimes and go, “Ooh, it’s a little tinier than it was three years ago.” But I get over that, too, because all that has to be put out or I’m not gonna stick around. I already had a will, and I had my 401K all set up, and all my accounts are in order. I just go along with the plan. When I go in to get my will updated, I better get somebody in there to be my power of attorney. I hadn’t thought about all that yet. But I will.
Survivorship, to me, means having enough strength to go on when things aren’t that good, wanting to fight to keep your life when the situation is dire, and getting stronger each day with your thoughts that you can keep going. Even if you hear things you don’t want to hear, like chronic and relapse, you are strong enough to go on and just keep loving life. I will not give in until the last breath is out of me. Don’t ever feel sorry for me, because I don’t. Don’t feel bad for me, because I don’t. If you get up each day and keep on fighting, you’re a survivor in my book.
My name is Suzette Gelle, I’m 45 years old, and I’m a one and a half year ovarian cancer survivor.
Suzette Gelle passed away on March 23, 2005. The Lance Armstrong Foundation thanks Suzette and her family and friends for sharing her story and providing inspiration for other cancer survivors.