I became a survivor when I was diagnosed in the fall of 2001 with uterine cancer.
I’d been having regular pap smears. I’ve always gone to doctors regularly and had routine exams. I had been having a little bit of bleeding in between my periods, so it was a little worrisome. We thought it was probably the onset of menopause; although, I wasn’t getting any other kind of symptoms. On a pap smear, they picked it up. I guess it’s not common that you catch uterine cancer that way. It isn’t always through a pap smear, but they did catch mine that way. Within four or five days, I had a hysterectomy. Basically, everything was cleaned out. It was a rapid-growing cell, so she diagnosed it as a Stage 3 uterine cancer, which ordinarily would metastasize, but for whatever reason, my body had contained it. It was such a large tumor, so they decided I better have chemotherapy, too. I had chemotherapy for the next half-year or so and then a little teeny bit of radiation at the end.
The downside has been my body hormonally went through this phenomenal transition. I’d be going through a couple of t-shirts a night because my body was trying to adjust chemically. Of course, they took my ovaries out, and they took all the lymph nodes out of my stomach. She was a very aggressive surgeon, because she was nervous about it having spread, and she wanted to look at everything. That was a radical physical change for my body to adjust to, so that was part of it. Of course, the chemotherapy was difficult, because all the usual stuff. You lose your hair and you get progressively sicker. I was determined to get all the way through it. I’d done a lot of athletics all my life, taken care of myself generally, and watched my weight. My body tolerated the chemotherapy relatively well. I was able to finish it out. The upside of all that is after the treatment and coming out of it, you have such a thankfulness that your body is capable of tolerating this storm of interference that happens with it. It became much more precious. I’m much more tuned into it now, much more aware of the changes of it.
Some of this, you can’t always tell if it’s aging, or because the chemical change in my body’s been so radical. I don’t know what the source of it is, but I have a lot of muscle cramping and a little bit of bone pain. I’ve upped my athletic routine so much that it could also be that I’m pressing the edge of my body’s stamina, my body’s endurance, all the time now. I don’t know exactly what the cause of it is, but I’ve had some of that and it’s continuous.
I’ve got some thrush, interestingly enough, which they don’t know the source of. Ordinarily, it would be the result of later stages of cancer or chemotherapy. They’re not sure if I picked it up then. Apparently, it turns out it’s one of these funguses that they think the body has all the time. Most of the time, the body keeps bacteria in the stomach in check. It’s a chronic condition that I’ve been unable to completely get rid of.
This group of women that I belong to, Team Survivor Northwest, I’m part of a couple of their teams. One of them is a dragon boat team that’s been like group therapy. Only instead of sitting around a room talking, you’re out paddling. We do speak to each other periodically, but it’s in between other things. The purpose of us being there is to use our bodies, to make friends with your body again. I went through tremendous anger at my body when I got the diagnosis, because I felt betrayed by it. I thought, “How could this body do this to me?” I’ve always been very lucky with my body. I’ve always been healthy. I never got sick. So it was very difficult for me to accept the fact. Now, the physical exercise is a way of making friends again. A lot of that’s been really a positive group interaction for me that way. Otherwise, I bike all the time. As part of fundraising for Team Survivor, we’ve got what they called STP here, which is basically a marathon. It’s a Seattle to Portland bike ride, a couple hundred miles. I did that two years ago to raise money for TSNW and fell in love again with biking. I grew up riding horses, but don’t have them in my life now. Something about being on the bike is like riding again for me. You’re outside. You’ve got a lot of speed going. So I do that a lot. I work out at the gym in order to strengthen my muscles to protect my joints. I snow-shoe and cross-country ski in the winter. But the exercise program is biking, weight lifting, paddling on a weekly basis, and yoga.
The yoga that I do is not strenuous yoga. It’s very much a meditative yoga. This woman is very focused on emotional and psychological integration of spirit and body. I also worked with a Native-American woman healer. She’s a placer on of hands and did things like sweat lodges, still do to this day. There’s a definite integration, for me. I did acupuncture. I was really open to everything. I would take in people’s advice, then I would try it for a while and see if it had an application for me.
How did I no longer be angry anymore? You’re always wondering why, so you’re always looking for reasons why. Why you gave yourself this disease, or why the environmental factors plus the substance of what your body is. You can’t help but think there are some other factors that might be contributing. So what can I do to change those factors? The ones that I have jurisdiction over. I won’t use the word control. I started to think I wasn’t being tuned in enough, sympathetic enough with my body. Maybe I was being demanding with it. So I have more of a conversation with it now. For me, the physical exercise is more of a conversation with my body. I go out, and it feels good to move. When you risk losing your physical form, it really makes you appreciate the physical form later.
I’m married, so my sexuality is confined to my husband. That’s still very unfolding. It’s interesting with your partner, because they go through this all with you. They’re not the primary person it’s happening to. I get all the sympathy. Most of that is on the table between us. We talk about it a lot. But it’s also hard to progress constantly on every front and be responsible for his evolution as well as my own. At some point, he’s responsible for his evolution. He hangs in there the best he can. It’s just something that’s unfolding for me. There are no answers yet. It’s different.
I have my son, and he’s 19. I was busy trying to protect him initially, which was a mistake. There are just three of us, so we have a very close family. He knew this was all going on. My trying to keep the emotional intensity from him was a mistake, because he was going through his own emotional intensity about it and his own fear of losing me. Because everyone was so worried about getting me through it, I think he put his own feelings on hold for a while. About a year-and-a-half into it, he had his collapse. Both he and my husband had steadfastness and certainty that I was going to survive, make it. In moments of great doubt on my part, their steadfastness has been tremendous. It’s helped me. Sometimes you hang onto whatever you have there to hang on, to believe that you’re gonna make it through this thing, and it’s not gonna consume you. It’s not gonna be a sad story or the end of your story. You’re gonna make it through. I think he and my husband learned a lot about that through this experience, so that’s been a gift to them.
I really believe you can get the best health care in the world here, but you have to pay for it. I had a good health plan, but now we pay a lot of money for this health plan, because I’m a self-employed person. I’m out there on my own, and we pay a phenomenal amount of money every month. It’s not because I had cancer. It’s what we pay as our age group out there in the general pool. I also think it’s sinful how much it costs. If I didn’t have the background and the resources that I have, I might not have had this kind of care, and I might not be here. I am an advocate for the whole country sitting down at a table and trying to figure out this whole health care issue: how to access it for the majority of people, and also how to make it so it’s not unreasonable how much it costs.
Live strong means it takes a lot of strength to live. It’s a way out of feeling like a victim. It’s empowering because it means that your body is your friend. Your body is able and capable, and emotionally, you’re capable. You can live strong. You can be strong in your life.
I personally live strong by taking care of my body, making it as strong as it can be, considering its age, and what I’ve done to it and what’s been done to it. Emotionally, I try to maintain a very clear light forward. Life is not an easy thing. You have to have a lot of strength to live, to survive.
My name is Annie Grosshans, and I’m a three-year uterine cancer survivor.