My cancer ordeal started on a beautiful, blue-sky September day. My daughter and I were headed to a neighborhood salon.for manicures. When my cell phone rang, I was surprised to see my gynecologist’s name on the display. Having been in the week before for a regular checkup, I assumed it was some- one in the office calling about a billing issue, and answered as we continued walking. But I stopped short when I heard my doctor say I had flunked my Pap smear—it had detected “atypical glandular cells.” Probably it was nothing, she said, but I needed to come back in for more tests. She was at the hospital in the middle of a delivery, so she signed off quickly with assurances and instructions to call the office. It went by so fast I didn’t quite know what to make of her call. My daughter and I were on a mission with a deadline—we were going out in two hours and our nails were not yet red—so I carried on without giving it much thought. Moments later, sitting in the salon, I called to schedule the follow-up procedures, but the office had already closed for the day.
There are times when it might be better not to be such an insatiable internet researcher. I had just a few minutes to use my phone before succumbing to the manicurist, and quickly learned that “atypical glandular cells” were the warning signs of a particular type of uterine carcinoma that had grim sur- vival statistics. I went from unconcerned to terrorized in an instant. Cancer already had a grip on my emotions, and it would be a long weekend of grappling with the possibility that I had a life-threatening disease.
“Everything is going to be fine,” my husband assured me, feeding me the same line I had taught him to say years before, when he had tried to solve a problem that needed only solace. But this problem needed more than a comforting arm around the shoulder. What if I did have cancer? At fifty-seven years old, I was too young to think about sickness and death, but it seemed unlikely that the Pap smear was a false positive. I wanted to talk to someone who would understand my fears, but my best friend, the one who would have known exactly what to say to acknowledge the intensity of my feelings and be with me in the moment of foreboding, had passed away only nine months earlier from the very disease that threatened me now. I felt isolated and alone.
The endometrial biopsy the following week was excruciating, but not so bad as the wait for results. It was a week of suppressed terror—putting up a brave front and a false smile while inwardly on the verge of tears or frozen with panic. I was home alone when my doctor called with the news. “I am very sorry to tell you this, Cynthia,” she said, “but the biopsy results confirm that you have cancer.” The news hit with the force of a tornado, depriving me of air and upending my life. Instantly, my head ached and my heart raced. I had cancer. And not just any old cancer, but uterine papillary serous carcinoma, an aggressive, fast-growing cancer. The nightmare I had kept under wraps for two weeks was real.
I was in shock but needed to act quickly. I needed scans. I needed to find a surgeon and schedule pre-op testing. Most of all, I needed my husband, who at that moment had a mouth full of cotton in the dentist’s chair. It all happened so fast, I barely had a chance to think, let alone cry. Phone calls and emails, recommendations and confirmations. By the end of the day, I was scheduled for a morning with the radiology team for scans of my entire torso and had appointments with two surgeon candidates. The scans would give us further insight into the depth and breadth of my cancer, but not until a surgeon had probed my inner organs and removed many of them would we know the stage of my disease, a prognosis, and a treatment plan—more waiting and uncertainty, and more dread.
I was lucky, destined to join the ranks of the survivors. Although uterine papillary serous carcinoma historically carries a survival rate of less than 40 percent,8 my cancer was caught early; after surgery, and another anxious week waiting for the pathology report, I received the good news from my doctor that it was stage 1, consisting of a small, single tumor, confined to the uterus and barely dug in, which significantly increased my odds. It helped, too, that I was in New York with a top-notch care team, expert in my type of cancer. Also, I was healthy going into the ordeal and had a loving support net- work, all of which eased the process. Surgery and six chemo treatments later, I was cancer free. Five years after the diagnosis, the terror is as faded as my surgical scar.