As an adventurer, I am always seeking new challenges and to push myself out of my comfort zone. From adrenaline fueled adventures such as solo skydiving, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and even diving with sharks – to say I live my life to fullest would be an understatement! Whilst in the midst of planning my next mountaineering expedition and commencing a new demanding role at work (a Captain in the Australian Army), my life presented me with the toughest battle of my life. I was diagnosed with cervical adenocarcinoma (a rare type of cervical cancer). I was told it was aggressive and I would require immediate surgical intervention.
Like many women, I had experienced little to no signs and had regular pap tests with no sign of any abnormalities. When I spoke with my GP regarding irregular bleeding, she conducted a Pap test and I was referred to a gynaecologist due to the excessive bleeding during the examination. At the time, my doctor thought I had a cervical ectropion (a wound on my cervix), which is minor in nature and could be easily fixed. I lead a fit and active lifestyle, am a non-smoker, rarely drink alcohol and never have taken drugs. I thought I was a healthy, strong woman. As it turned out, the latter was correct. I went to my specialist appointment thinking everything was fine and in my wildest dreams I never thought I would be diagnosed with cancer. That day changed my life forever, but I will NOT let it define me.
Dealing with my diagnosis was extremely difficult and took some time to comprehend that this was happening to me. But what a lot of people may not think about when it comes to cervical cancer is the prospect of not being able to carry your own children, conceive naturally, and have ongoing fertility issues and complications. As a young, single woman with no children, I suddenly had to process if my future even involved having my own family and what that would mean to me if I couldn’t. At times, I found this harder to cope with than the cancer itself. I was told at minimum that I would need a radical trachelectomy. However,I was also told that I may need a radical hysterectomy. I would not know this until I awoke from surgery; as my oncologist needed to see how progressed the cancer was. Having surgery to not only remove the cancer, but also not knowing if I needed a hysterectomy was terrifying. Ultimately – saving my life was the number one priority.
My story is not about all my medical tests, scans, surgeries and specialist visits. Throughout my journey, I have been seeking a different perspective not often told: advice or tips on how to deal emotionally when diagnosed with cancer. I have found personally a few things which really helped me throughout this turbulent time –
1. Vulnerability equals strength. Going inwards and giving yourself permission to grieve, cry, feel anger and sadness is part of the journey. It is OK to not be OK. This is the time for you to be gentle on yourself. Being diagnosed with cancer is utterly devastating and by far the most excruciating experience I have ever endured. However, this is your foundation to move onward and upward. Even the strong fall, but it is how we get back up and handle ourselves at the most difficult times which truly define us.
2. Ask for support. Seeking support from a psychologist, GP, chaplain, workplace, friends, family and other external agencies such as the Australian Cervical Cancer Council Foundation (ACCF), Cancer Council etc. This gives you empowerment and asking for help assists others in knowing how to help you in return.
3. Set short-term goals. When going through an incredibly stressful time, setting small goals provides clarity and helps you to focus taking one step at a time. It allows you to concentrate on the here and now and provides you a certain extent of control, in such a turbulent time.
4. Set the pace. Some people may find keeping busy at work is best, or perhaps stepping away temporarily to gather your thoughts. You need to voice what works for you, what doesn’t work for you, what you need and how long you need. Only you can decide what is best for you and communicate this to others.
5. Track progress. This can be in the form of a list or journal, but I found having something tangible written down assists with establishing a plan and helps clear your thoughts. It also enables you to see how far you have come.
6. Trust your Specialists. There will be prolonged periods waiting for test results. But rest assured that your Specialists will deal with your case in a timely and swift manner. Although it is difficult being in limbo, when the results are processed the Specialists will be in contact as soon as possible to discuss the next step. Your welfare is paramount and they understand that it is distressing. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. I found writing the questions down and taking your list with you to the Oncologist really useful. There is so much new information to absorb and it can be very surreal. I used a question checklist found on the Cancer Council website to help prompt me with medical questions I needed to be thinking about. Also, trust their expertise – they are specialists after all!
7. Reliable sources. Source only medical information from an accredited organisations, such as the ACCF and the Cancer Council. Many people will have their own experiences and stories; albeit good intentions, however it is important not to get weighed down by this. Additionally, some blogs may convey negative outcomes or terrible experiences so avoid where possible (or only immerse yourself in inspirational stories).
8. Detach from the outcome: Let Go. This was one of the hardest things to do. It is natural to think about the worst case scenario, especially since we commonly associate the word ‘cancer’ with the word ‘death’. Yes, it is serious. But you control the narrative of your life and you have two choices. You can either go into a self-destructive mentality and think the worst possible outcome; or you can rise strong. Don’t get we wrong, I was still scared and fearful about what may lay ahead. But at the end of the day, I knew that I was in excellent hands and my team of specialists would do whatever it took to save my life.
9. Resilience. I’m sure you have heard the phrase, ‘nothing will ever prepare you for cancer.’ Well, partially. I don’t think hearing the words, “I’m sorry, but you have cancer” will ever be easy to digest. But, drawing from our previous experiences, hardships, skills, training, positive mindset and relying on your inner strength will most definitely assist you in the journey ahead.
10. Believe. Believe. Believe. Everything happens for a reason (even the ugly) but you can beat this and kick some cancer butt.