Anal cancer survivor: ‘Cancer doesn’t have to define you’
Some people get married. Some have children. Some get divorced. Some get cancer. Nelda Blair believes that while these are all life-changing moments, none of them should become a person’s entire identity. She’s felt this way ever since she found out she had HPV-related anal cancer in February 2011.
“I’m a take-charge person, and this diagnosis was not going to rule my life or alter my life for any period of time,” she says. “My attitude was: we’ll take care of this.”
Coming to MD Anderson for a second opinion
Nelda’s anal cancer was discovered during her first colonoscopy, which she’d put off until age 53. A local oncologist removed the tumor, but after researching her diagnosis some more, she came to MD Anderson to seek a second opinion from Cathy Eng, M.D.
“Dr. Eng came walking into the room and took charge,” she says. “She answered my questions, looked me in the eye and there was no messing around. She gave me the truth and nothing but the truth, and I very much appreciated that.”
Because Nelda was in otherwise great physical health, Eng wanted her to undergo three months of daily radiation and chemotherapy simultaneously. Nelda was OK with that plan, as long as she could do it at MD Anderson in The Woodlands, where she leads a busy life.
Balancing life and anal cancer treatment
A successful real estate lawyer, Nelda also operates a local education foundation, runs a private real estate investment company, served as chairwoman of The Woodlands Convention & Visitors Bureau, and is heavily involved in economic development and politics. And she didn’t want to give any of it up during her anal cancer treatment.
“Dr. Eng supported me in that. When I said, ‘This is not going to stop me from my law practice and the other things that I do,’ she was behind me. She wasn’t saying, ‘Oh, no, no, no. You have to go to bed and be sick,’” Nelda recalls.
So every weekday morning, Nelda drove just down the road to MD Anderson in The Woodlands for radiation therapy with Pamela Schlembach, M.D. On Mondays through Thursdays, she also received intravenous chemotherapy, which she stowed in custom-made fanny packs as she went about her day. On Fridays, she went to the clinic to have daylong infusions of a second chemotherapy drug.
“I didn’t miss a day of work, I didn’t lose my hair. I got fewer things done, but I still had good energy,” she says. The biggest changes were that she couldn’t do her regular exercise routine, and had to change her diet and eat very soft and bland foods that wouldn’t upset her stomach.
Looking at cancer through a different lens
Nelda finished her anal cancer treatment in April 2011 and has been in remission ever since then. She attributes the energy she had throughout treatment to her healthy lifestyle habits and positive outlook.
“I really think that the attitudes of the patient and the doctor make the difference,” she says. “If the patient is determined that cancer is not going to alter her lifestyle or be the main focus of life, then it won’t be.”
She’s had to adjust to post-treatment changes in her body, like menopause, a weakened sense of taste and a more sensitive colon. But just like any life-altering event, she’s learned to find a new normal and carry on.
“Cancer doesn’t have to define you. It’s just one of the many things that can happen to you, but it’s not your life,” she says.
A call to end HPV-related cancers
Though Nelda’s anal cancer may be a thing of the past to her, the threat it poses to others is still at the forefront of her mind. Before her diagnosis, she had no idea that HPV could cause cancer. Now she advocates for the HPV vaccine and encourages her family and friends to vaccinate their children.
“I try very hard to educate them. I use my own cancer as an example of how that can happen,” says Nelda, who makes a point of telling others that her cancer was caused by HPV and that a colonoscopy and early detection saved her life. “I just don’t want others to have to go through what I have.”