The Asco Post

Nothing Prepared Me for Cancer
My first diagnosis of cancer came at age 29. After the second diagnosis 7 years later, I thought, this time I could die.

By Suzann Vera, as told to Jo Cavallo
February 15, 2014, Volume 5, Issue 3

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Suzann Vera

My oncologists have taught me the value of staying positive. They have given me hope and the courage to presevere when I wanted to give in to despair, and I'm grateful.
—Suzann Vera

Fourteen years ago, when I was just 29, I was feeling weak and fatigued and had severe pain in my abdomen. I’d had these symptoms for about a year, but none of the several doctors I saw or any of the tests they performed could find the source of my problems. I even had one nurse practitioner tell me that I was the cause of my stomach pain because I have a type A personality and that I just needed to relax.

Finally, a gastroenterologist suggested that I have a colonoscopy, and he discovered a large stage III malignant tumor. I was given the diagnosis as soon as I awoke from the anesthesia and told that I would need surgery the next day. I never even got the chance to go home first and think things over, and was admitted to the hospital that night.

The news couldn’t have been more shocking. I was so young to have a diagnosis of colon cancer, and, at the time, there was very little evidence of a history of cancer in my family—only a great uncle who had had colon cancer at midlife and died years later of old age—so the possibility that I might have such a serious disease never occurred to me. Plus, I had just started a new position in education and was planning my wedding, so I was excited about a future filled with great possibilities.

Facing Cancer Twice

Although the surgery went well and the whole tumor was removed, because the pathology report showed that 7 of the 14 lymph nodes excised contained cancer cells, my oncologist recommended that I have adjuvant chemotherapy for “insurance.” His assurances—and those of my family’s—that my cancer wasn’t a death sentence were so encouraging, I believed I would be okay and consented to the regimen of fluorouracil and irinotecan my oncologist prescribed. My treatments ended 3 weeks before my wedding day, and I was once again looking forward to a great future and starting a family.

Four years later, everything I had hoped for was coming true: My health was good, my career was going well, and I was pregnant with my first child. But in the spring of 2004, my mother was diagnosed with stage II endometrial cancer, and once again we rallied together to beat cancer, and once again, we won.

After my mother’s diagnosis, my oncologist suggested that I be genetically tested for Lynch syndrome, an inherited disorder. The results were positive, which explained my bout with colon cancer at such an early age and now put me at an 80% increased risk for endometrial and ovarian cancer. I felt the clock ticking. I was advised by my oncologist and genetic counseling team to have a radical hysterectomy, but I wanted a second child and decided to wait.

While trying to get pregnant again, I noticed heavier than usual menstrual bleeding and knew something was wrong. An endometrial biopsy my gynecologist performed tested positive for malignant cells, and in 2007, with no more time to lose, I had a radical hysterectomy.

Surviving Cancer

This second cancer diagnosis scared me much more than the first one. I was 36 then and had a 3-year-old son, so the stakes were much higher. I wasn’t as confident that I could beat cancer as I had been the first time, and this time, I thought I could die.

Although I’ve been healthy for the last 7 years, with no signs of a cancer recurrence or the development of a new one, I don’t take anything for granted. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I really try to live every day to its fullest and enjoy every moment.

The year after my endometrial cancer diagnosis, my son Robert was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis type 1, a genetic disorder caused by a mutation in the NF1 gene, which may also be linked to Lynch syndrome. Now I have even more reason to stay healthy, so I can make sure that he gets the best care should the disease progress.

Lessons Learned

Today, my biggest challenge is keeping fear at bay and not overreacting when a shadow shows up on a mammogram, or a headache lasts too long—issues that people who have never experienced cancer would dismiss as normal occurrences. Even though I’ve been cancer-free for 7 years, I remain vigilant and see my oncologist every 6 months. This year he recommended that I have annual colonoscopies, and I will follow his advice.

My oncologists have taught me the value of staying positive. They have given me hope and the courage to persevere when I wanted to give in to despair, and I’m grateful.

I don’t know what lies ahead, but once again, I’m looking forward to a future filled with great possibilities.

Suzann Vera is an educator in Austin, Texas.

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