By Sinde Wickersham (Alpha Chi, Butler University)
Twenty years ago my sister was given a 12% chance of pushing her stage IV sarcoma into remission. She has climbed mountains on her cancer journey and is still enjoying life in the fifth year of her latest remission. Because of her experience, when I was diagnosed with stage IA uterine cancer, I thought my experience would be relatively easy.
After a hysterectomy and oophorectomy that showed clean margins and no infected lymph nodes, I didn’t worry at all about the 2% chance of recurrence I was given. I almost felt like a fraud saying I was a cancer survivor because my entire treatment was simply a surgery that about 600,000 women in the U.S. have each year. I even returned to start the school year with my students just 10 days after my surgery. My family and I did not reimagine life as we knew it, as I was sure that I was one of the luckiest cancer patients.
After five years with no signs of trouble, I asked my oncologist if I needed to keep seeing him. He joked that it sounded like we were breaking up, but he sent me back to my regular gynecologist with his blessing. A couple of months later, I called and told him I thought we needed to get back together, as I had started spotting blood and knew that to be a telltale sign of recurrence. Some CT scans and biopsies later, I learned that both of my lungs were full of tumors of my metastasized uterine cancer and that current science could not offer me a chance at remission.
My sister helped me navigate the hopeful world of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. I have participated in two clinical trials there, pre-pandemic, flying from Alabama every three weeks for treatments and doctor visits in an effort to manage the disease. The medical teams there know how to take you to the brink of death with treatment so that you can survive.
I can’t lie: it has been hard. Chemo infusions, oral chemo and travel to Houston. Loss of sick days, strength, stamina and consequently my treasured 35-year career as a high school Spanish teacher. Chemo side effects like neuropathy, diabetes, partially collapsed lungs and cirrhosis. Yes, I lost my hair, but the long-term effects of treatment have taken things that I had never imagined, like walking with my head up to make eye contact with passersby (to avoid hard falls) or planning my dream trip to Italy (my trimonthly scans might show tumor growth and necessitate a different treatment).
I am keeping it real. Some people want me to believe in a miracle that the cancer will just disappear, and while that could happen, I cannot lie to myself. My reality does not mean that I live hopelessly or despairingly. On the contrary, cancer has brought me abundant blessings! On my darkest days, when I lacked any quality of life and wondered what the point of continuing such debilitating treatment was, I thought about the hundreds of family, friends and former students who were sending me their love through cards and notes, prayers, gifts and helpful deeds. That is what sustained me. So many people have told me they admire my strength, but they have no idea that it actually comes from them.
As always, Alpha Chi Omega is part of my story. Forty years after living in the house together at Butler University, I watched in awe as a sister received a cancer diagnosis and died soon thereafter in such a loving and dignified way. Receiving regular care packages from one pledge sister and having another grow her hair an extra 12 inches to donate it in my honor gave me lasting fortitude. I am an Outlander fan, so the day I knew I needed to be tough, I started imagining swords lopping off cancer cells, and “slay” became my mantra. My pledge sister helped me come up with my hashtags #SindeSueSlays and #SlaySquad, and even sent a “slay sword” that accompanied me during my very first chemo infusion.
The oral chemo I take daily is currently managing the disease, and its side effects do not hinder me much. I can now appreciate being free from teaching responsibilities, even more so now that my husband is retired. I have the best support system ever. And even though I likely won’t see remission, I am sure that I am still one of the luckiest cancer patients.