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In Awe of Me

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DEBBIE FINK
Debbie Fink

There are many common phrases a cancer patient tends to hear throughout their journey: Cancer is a battle; they're in the fight of their life; they're curable, treatable or even -- gasp! -- headed towards remission. I've heard them all.

There is one comment, however, that is repeated over and over which still feels strange: "I am in awe of your strength."

Let me put a pin in that for a moment, and give some context as to how I came to be this awe-worthy strength-haver. Over Memorial Day weekend in 2011, I married Dave at the summer camp we both went to growing up. We rented out the camp for the entire weekend and our families and friends shared in the happily-ever-after we both had been looking for. It was the happiest I had ever been, and felt so fortunate to have him and his two precious daughters from his previous marriage in my life. It was a wonderful summer when I felt everything in my life was coming together.

That August, my gynecologist decided to do a laparoscopic procedure to determine why, after six months of monitoring, my right ovary continued to be enlarged. "No big deal," we were told. "Worst case scenario," he assured us, "you can still have a baby with one ovary."

What was supposed to be a routine 45-minute procedure turned into a two-hour operation with me losing my right ovary and my appendix; both had questionable masses on them.

A few (very long) days later, I received the devastating news: I had stage four appendiceal cancer with poorly differentiated signet ring cells. Six days before my 38th birthday, my life was irrevocably changed. This was the worst day of my life.

(If you're wondering why you've never heard of appendiceal cancer, it's because only about 1,000 people a year are diagnosed. Audrey Hepburn died from it.)

I was told by several oncologists my cancer was treatable but not curable, that chemo was needed, and -- most devastating -- making it five years would be "a gift."

To tackle my cancer, I decided to have an aggressive and controversial surgery called HIPEC (Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy) in January of 2012. I was on the operating table for almost 10 hours. I had a full hysterectomy and minor resections of my bladder, rectum and vagina. My surgery was deemed a success, and it was determined that I was cancer-free. My medical oncologist even dared to throw out the word "cured." I was elated. Per protocol, I was scanned every three months. Walking into the "results show" (as Dave called it) was harrowing, and we would hold our collective breath until the oncologist told us everything looked good.

Until he didn't.

This past summer, a mere 18 months after HIPEC, multiple scans and a biopsy revealed that my cancer had reared its ugly head again. And like the first time, it was aggressive, in a bad place and not curable. I was told my best chance for the longest possible life would be a full pelvic exenteration, which would leave me with no bladder, rectum or vagina. At least, the doctor rationalized, it will buy me a few years before the cancer returns again. A few years with two ostomies and a reconstructed vagina that would have neither sensation nor natural lubrication.

Surgery is scheduled for January 6th at MD Anderson in Houston.

So you could say that I've been through a lot in the past two-and-a-half years. I've shared my journey with my friends and family in a Caringbridge blog, which has been both therapeutic and informative. Each blog post results in a litany of comments, which bring me back to where I started this post: Being told that someone is in awe of my strength.

At first, this compliment was welcome. I felt like a warrior and appreciated the validation. Hell yes I was strong. After all, I was getting chemo and surgeries, all while working full-time and holding up my family responsibilities (except for cleaning the house). I wasn't lying in bed crying the days away. I was in fight mode.

But over time, I began to feel a weird pressure mounting on my shoulders: I didn't want to be different from non-cancer patients. There was too much responsibility that accompanied "being strong."

I sometimes felt guilty for wanting to cry my eyes out for hours at a time and feel sorry for myself. I didn't like being the benchmark against which "strong" was measured. Rather, I just wanted to be "Debbie": normal, cancer-free and worrying about which pre-natal vitamins to take, not what chemo won't make me vomit, thoughts of my mortality at the age of 40 and, worst, not being able to have kids of my own.

I still take this compliment graciously, but I don't want to be seen as some superwoman; I just want to be me. So, before you tell someone you are in awe of their strength, think about your own strength. We all have it. We're all strong when we have to be.

I look forward to sharing my journey with you.