I’m really blessed that I found out about my anal cancer diagnosis early on. That’s a big part of the reason why I’m living without any evidence of disease today.
A friend of mine who’d been diagnosed with late-stage rectal cancer told me he experienced bleeding for months before he finally went to a doctor. So when I started exhibiting the same symptom in October 2015, I remembered his cautionary tale and immediately scheduled an appointment with a gastroenterologist. That led to the discovery of my tumor.
Even though I lived in Florida, I came to MD Anderson because all of my research -- and even my doctors – pointed me in that direction. As soon as I met my radiation oncologist Dr. Cullen Taniguchi, I felt really safe. He has an incredible way of explaining things. There’s lots of hugging whenever my daughter and I go see him.
This has certainly been an interesting journey. Here’s my advice for coping with anal cancer treatment.
Learn to laugh through awkwardness
If you get anal cancer, you better have a sense of humor. If you can’t laugh, then you better learn how before treatment starts.
Radiation therapy for anal cancer is … awkward. Not only are you usually sitting in an uncomfortable position, but female patients also use a vaginal dilator to push away delicate tissue and protect their cervix from radiation. The method, which is unique to MD Anderson, is actually a great idea because it reduces scarring and prevents complications with future Pap tests. But to get past the reality of the moment, I made light of the situation. I asked the radiation therapists to play Elvis songs for me and whenever something embarrassing happened, I’d quip, “Houston, we have a problem!”
And the side effects were horrific -- though Dr. Taniguchi says my reaction to treatment was worse than any patient he’s ever had. I developed nausea and diverticulosis, or inflammation of my digestive track. I also suffered from severe diarrhea. I couldn’t go anywhere without several changes of clothes and baby wipes. My daughter and I joked our way through my many accidents because we knew that laughing through my misery kept me in a fighting spirit. Thankfully, MD Anderson’s pelvic wall therapy eventually helped me strengthen my sphincter and regain control of my bowel movements.
Ask many questions and bring someone with you
A lot of people hide from cancer and don’t really want to talk about it. But learning more about your disease and knowing what to expect during treatment is crucial to your overall health and safety.
Whenever my daughter Stacy and I met with Dr. Taniguchi and Dr. Cathy Eng, we brought a list of questions. Stacy jotted down notes during our appointments, and we referred back to them regularly.
I also quickly learned that it doesn’t matter how strong you are, you need an advocate with you to listen. When you’re diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, you get easily overwhelmed, and you’re just not going to catch everything your doctor says. Having that second set of ears can help you avoid unnecessary complications.
Make peace with your disease
Many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around my anal cancer diagnosis. When I tell people I have anal cancer, they often think I misspoke and meant colon or rectal cancer. Once I reiterate that I have anal cancer, I hear, “Oh, I didn’t know you could get cancer there,” or they think my cancer stemmed from promiscuity. But I still openly talk about it because it’s up to us anal cancer survivors to move others past that stigma. No one minds saying, “I have breast cancer,” so we have to talk about it like it is breast cancer.
So, accept your diagnosis. Reach deep into your soul to make peace with it. Look past your daily reality and imagine a future without cancer. Soon enough, you’ll reach the light at the end of the tunnel.