I make my living with words. As a journalist and writer, I believe words have a density we don’t yet know how to measure. Most of us get this at some level. Retail has it down to a science. I mean, would you rather buy a nightgown or an “irresistibly romantic sweep of sheer ivory tulle”?
The point is words have weight. And among the heaviest is cancer. In February, 2012, that word was fired at me like a bullet when my gynecologist flatly said, “You have cancer.”
One surgery, a little chemo and a lot of radiation later, I am a survivor.
I read once, that we count what we love; endangered species, years married, etc. I counted my treatment in weeks. There were 21. I loved them all in my own skewed way. They represented higher odds that I’d attend my children’s weddings or see the births of their children. More time with my dogs. More words to write.
Early on, as I was getting tattooed for radiation therapy, a beautiful doctor came in and gave me some good advice. I had asked her to tell me something I could use in the days ahead. She also is a survivor. She told me, “Push yourself and push yourself and push yourself well.” And that’s what I did.
During those weeks, I chose to speak selectively. I told my sons, brother and a few friends that my doctor “diagnosed me with cancer.” I didn’t say I had it and refused to claim it. I referred to it as “the C-word”. For me, that took away a little of its power. I couldn’t control what it was doing to my body. But I made every effort to render it powerless over me, the person, the soul inside the now struggling body.
I didn’t tell my clients for fear I might lose them. I didn’t tell my parents for fear it would devastate them. Given their ages and old-school belief that one can’t recover from such an illness, I chose to keep them unaware. They rely on me and I didn’t want them to think they couldn’t. That became my mission. It was how I pushed myself. When my treatment made me too sick for visits, I told them I was on deadline. When I couldn’t hold down food, I passed it off as a bad hamburger. When I started losing weight I wore two sets of clothes. I did a lot of pretending. My doctor said I wouldn’t be able to keep it up, that you can’t hide being that sick. It was a claim he never should have made. It only bolstered my resolve to play my part with greater passion. And I was successful. I believe I deserve an Oscar.
Although I do struggle with some of the after affects of treatment, I am happier than I have ever been and also smarter. Those are among the gifts you can choose to receive from the C-word. It led me to some beautiful people and some painful experiences, both of which redefined for me, the meaning of grace. It frightened me and it strengthened me. It taught me. And it continues to do so.
There is no right or wrong way to get to the other side of the C-word. Every survivor does so at her own pace and in her own way. I’ve learned from survivors and doctors. And today, I know that the 90,000 women diagnosed with gynecologic cancer every year have fewer resources than they need and deserve. They have treatment complications that often go unaddressed and stories that go untold. There is a silence surrounding “below the belt” cancer, which is why I finally decided to break up with anonymity. I want to lend my voice to those of others working to raise awareness. I want further research and funding. I want women to get the help they need, from the moment of diagnosis to life after treatment. And, yes, I still want an Oscar.
- Tranette Ledford
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