Editor’s note: As we celebrate National Survivors Month, we celebrate amazing people like Cindy Small who are brave enough to share their journeys. Unconditionally Her applauds them for putting their stories out there so that they may inspire others.
There is one important set of numbers ingrained in my hippocampus for life, my patient ID number assigned to me from M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston, Texas. That set of digits have become my way of constantly shadowing my health.
I personally celebrate my cancer diagnosis every day of my life, however, the month of June has a colossal impact on me. I covered a lot of territory in June going from an initial, shocking diagnosis (that came without warning), to a speedy surgery, to a month in a small hotel room near MD Anderson. God forbid anyone say to me “Cindy, how’s it going?” during that month. For me, it was going like riding the bullet train in China without brakes.
Keep in mind I was one who ate copious amounts of kale before it was a buzzword, cooked only lean proteins, and eschewed sugar (well, except King Cake) before my diagnosis. Every single day at work, I walked the track at our Health Center. I always observed my annual wellness visits! How did this happen, I asked? How the hell did this happen?!
In June, my head kept spinning with questions, and certain memories of this uncertain time remain forever. I know I was: Grateful. I was blessed to be admitted to one of the best hospitals in cancer care, though I remained panicked and shocked at my new daily itinerary. Upon arrival at the hospital, I found myself in the center of what felt like a big city, only it was a hospital for cancer patients from around the world. Similar to being lost in Grand Central Station in NYC – though somewhat less promising and understandably less fashionable – I was surrounded by a population of cancer survivors experiencing every stage of cancer imaginable shuffling to and fro. Plus, the mission-minded doctors and urgently-moving nurses pole vaulting from one wing of the hospital to another, made me feel like my legs may not be able to deliver me to each exam room. I would like to say I fought cancer from the day of my diagnosis, but in reality, I was emotionally numb and in shock.
I remember checking into a hospital this size, long lines became the vehicle in which to wait in hopes of saving my life. Patience, please.
Once admitted, emotions still stunted, I looked at patients, curious surmising who was lucky enough to be on discharge day. I longed to be them, at that point in the journey, but with hospital gown tied around me, I marched to surgery. I remember just before that fateful moment, something special occurred outside the surgery door. An Asian woman arrived with a prayer shawl and stood next to the stretcher. She explained in broken English that she would like to pray for me and asked my spouse to hold the other end of the textile shawl as they both draped it in mid-air above me. I thought, “Wow, this is becoming really serious.” Normally not one to interact on a spiritual level with strangers, I sat grateful as this lovely lady held one end of the shawl above me and asked God that I have courage, wisdom and peace. While certainly reassuring, I wanted to get the show on the road. You know they call the surgery room a theater? The show must go on, indeed.
Just before they put the mask up to my face, I reflected on my life and let go of any and all control on this passage about to happen. Suddenly, I heard a loud clinking and clanging of possibly knives … and forks … being washed…then darkness.
I can tell you I celebrated the nurse who pushed my stretcher to my room after surgery. “OK, so I’m alive so far, what’s up next?” The next few days were spent in and out of la-la-land on drugs to stop pain, so I just went with the flow. Thankful for good drugs, I didn’t know to fear what awaited me: pain, uncertainty, difficulty walking, no appetite, depression, and well, looking in the mirror. My complexion quickly gave away to me how sick I was.
These few days of misery are not to say that anyone facing a diagnosis should not have hope. You must cling to hope against any and all odds. But as I reflect, I do stress mental preparation, practicing acceptance, and allowing patience with yourself. You will psyche yourself up for each new procedure, talk yourself through each visit, and pat yourself on the back a million times. Those necessary steps have a counterpart, though, and while those dark emotions are less welcome, they too will pass. You will lose and re-find your strength as many as ten times a day. That is okay. It is normal. It is a part of the fight (or dance) of cancer. Understand the journey and submit to the good and the bad.
Fast forward, I remember spending the rest of the month of June recuperating in Texas. I truly enjoyed the time with my beloved surgeon who saved my life and helped me cope with my new existence. I remember feeling a new, deep gratitude that I had never before understood for my spouse, who spent every second with me, holding my hand, telling me all would be right with the world. I remember opening my eyes to beauty that surrounded me like never before – yes, even in downtown Houston! I remember that each day felt like a rebirth, and I laughed at all the times my older, cynical self would have rebuffed that concept.
At this point, upon my 3rd anniversary of ovarian cancer, I am lucky, yet always fearful of dying. I am so happy to hear birds chirp in my backyard. I relish in petting my Bella, my mini-schnauzer that I missed so much it hurt when I was away. It is a jambalaya of emotions but I’m delirious to be alive.
Managing emotions after cancer is terribly hard. I’m not out of the danger zone yet, with 2 more years of follow-up tests every 4 months. But I’m here, dancing to the second line of life, savoring each bite – the spicy, the sweet, the bitter, and the salty. My wish for you, dear readers, is to behold this richness of life with me.