July 2009 was the start of the worst 5-year period of my life, and I’m just grateful I am still here to tell you about it. I was preparing for brain surgery to remove an acoustic neuroma on the right side of my brain when I noticed a lump on my left thigh. Thinking I had pulled a muscle while exercising, I saw my doctor to make sure the problem wouldn’t interfere with my surgery. When an ultrasound of my upper thigh and groin showed the mass was actually an enlarged lymph node, and there were other suspicious lesions in the surrounding tissues, he recommended I see a gynecologist for further tests.
After a cervical examination, my gynecologist said he had found a tumor on my cervix and was fairly certain it was malignant, which was later confirmed by a tissue biopsy. I was then sent for a cold knife cone biopsy for a more extensive excision of the tumor. While I was under anesthesia, my doctor decided to aspirate the enlarged lymph node and biopsy that tissue, too. She called me 2 days later to tell me not only did I have cervical cancer but non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) as well.
The Lost Years
The news was so shocking and upsetting, I didn’t ask the stage of my cervical cancer. My only concern was that I get both cancers treated as soon as possible. I later learned my cervical cancer was stage IIB. Although my oncologist planned on treating both cancers simultaneously—the cervical cancer with external-beam radiation therapy and then brachytherapy and my NHL with the common chemotherapy regimen R-CHOP (rituximab [Rituxan], cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine, and prednisone)—an infection I got after my first R-CHOP infusion delayed my radiation treatment for several weeks.
None of us know what the future will bring, and like many cancer survivors, the thought of cancer is never far from my mind. But it doesn’t frighten me.— Karen Merlino
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After completion of radiation treatment for my cervical cancer and months of R-CHOP, followed by 2 years of rituximab maintenance therapy for my NHL, I am cancer-free. A year and a half after completing my cancer therapy, I underwent Gamma Knife radiosurgery to treat my acoustic neuroma, finally closing the chapter on the most tumultuous years of my life.
Those years were difficult not solely because of my personal bouts with serious illnesses. During that time, I also lost my brother to liver cancer and my father to dementia, so I was grieving not just the thought of my own mortality, but for the deaths of my brother and father as well.
Living One Day at a Time
I know I couldn’t have gotten through that difficult time without the help of my husband, Don, who accompanied me to every treatment and doctor’s appointment and never let me consider the possibility I could die. We decided rather than think too far into the future, we would tackle every day as it came. It’s a philosophy I still try to adhere to. My children were also great sources of comfort and kept me laughing and the specter of death at bay.
I consider the oncologists who treated me also to be members of my family. I truly couldn’t have survived without their knowledge, experience, and unending kindness. From the start, my oncologists included me in the treatment decision-making process and made me feel I was an integral part of the team working to cure my cancers and not a powerless, scared patient. The feeling of empowerment they instilled in me was as crucial to my survival as the treatments for my cancer and sustains me to this day.
Although I still try to live in the moment and not think too far into the future, age and the ramifications of all the side effects from my illnesses and their treatments—neuropathy in my feet, chronic fatigue, and cognition issues from the chemotherapy and partial facial paralysis and deafness in my right ear from the acoustic neuroma and Gamma Knife radiosurgery—have caused me to start preparing for retirement and planning for this next stage of my life.
Starting the Next Phase of Life
While undergoing treatment for my cancers, I kept a gratitude journal and made entries each day on what I was thankful for that day. The exercise kept me grounded and committed to completing the journey I was on. Now, I’m excited to start on my next journey, whatever that might be.
None of us know what the future will bring, and like many cancer survivors, the thought of cancer is never far from my mind. But it doesn’t frighten me. Despite those horrific 5 years of my life, I can say unequivocally I am the luckiest person in the world. ■
Ms. Merlino lives in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.