Cancer Will Always Be Part of My Life

After five bouts of cancer over 39 years, I’ve learned not to squander any day.

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Colleen Sullivan

Despite all that has happened, I’m grateful for the wonderful life I’m still able to have. And I’m grateful to my family and health-care team, who inspire me and give me the courage to face the future.

—Colleen Sullivan

My first experience with cancer was when I was just 9 years old, and a lump the size of an egg popped out on the right side of my neck. A biopsy of the tumor found that it was Hodgkin lymphoma, and I was given huge doses of external-beam radiotherapy applied to my neck, chest, and underarm lymph nodes. That was 39 years ago, before the late effects of high-dose radiation were known, which, I’ve been told, may have resulted in the onset of two of my three other cancers (thyroid cancer and esophageal cancer) as well as heart disease.

Coping With Multiple Diagnoses

Although being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at such a young age was difficult to cope with, it was its recurrence 3 years later that had an even greater impact on my life and was more difficult to accept. At age 12, I was just reaching adolescence and becoming aware of boys. Losing my hair to chemotherapy, missing months of school, and living in isolation while I went through therapy were traumatic. In addition to the chemotherapy, I had surgery to spot any cancer progression and to remove my spleen. I was told that the chemotherapy and surgery left me unable to have children, which, fortunately, turned out not to be the case.

After 6 months of treatment, I was once again cancer-free and remained that way until 2001, when I was diagnosed and treated successfully for secondary thyroid cancer. Six years later, I noticed a lump in my left breast. While the discovery was alarming, it was not completely surprising.

Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers died of breast cancer, and my mother is a three-time breast cancer survivor, so when the biopsy came back positive, I decided to have a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy and reconstructive surgery and get tested for the BRCA gene mutation, which came back positive for BRCA2. My mother and sister have also tested positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation, and a few months ago, we learned that several members of my father’s family are also BRCA2 carriers—my father, who died of colon cancer a few years ago, most likely also carried the genetic mutation.

Living With the Aftermath

It was during my surgery and adjuvant chemotherapy for breast cancer that I learned my aortic heart valve, badly damaged from the radiation I had received decades before, would have to be replaced. Two years later, a severe blood infection sent me back into the operating room for additional heart surgery to replace the artificial aortic valve as well as two other heart valves.

For 7 years after my breast cancer diagnosis and heart surgeries, I remained in good health. I was able to raise my four children and see them grow into wonderful young adults. I also have a beautiful new granddaughter to spoil, so despite all my illnesses, life has been good to me.

It turned out, however, that cancer was not quite through with me. In the summer of 2014, I began feeling pressure in the back of my mouth when swallowing food, and a red flag went up. I’ve learned over the past 4 decades not to ignore any signal that cancer may be rearing its ugly head, and I immediately called my oncologist and told him about my symptoms.

Because I’ve been dealing with cancer for most of my life, I see my oncologist every 6 months, and we have a wonderful relationship. He not only takes my concerns seriously, he encourages me to tell him about any problem I’m having, no matter how insignificant it may sound, and I feel he is my partner in helping me stay alive. When I told him about my problem swallowing and that I thought I needed a PET scan, he readily agreed. The test showed a mass behind my heart, and a biopsy confirmed esophageal cancer.

Of all the cancers and related health problems I’ve had as a consequence of those cancers, this latest experience was perhaps the most difficult for me to overcome. I was prescribed neoaduvant chemotherapy to shrink the tumor and then had an esophagectomy, which included the removal of a small part of my stomach as well. A portion of my stomach was then pulled up into my chest and made into my new esophagus.

The surgery and its aftermath have been grueling to live with. A feeding tube was temporarily inserted directly into my stomach following the surgery so I could receive nourishment, and I had esophageal dilation to stretch my new esophagus and make it easier for me to swallow food. But the recovery has been slow and difficult, and I still have trouble eating solid food and maintaining a healthy weight.

Long-Term Prognosis

In conversations I’ve had over the years with my oncologist about my various cancers, I’ve asked him about my long-term prognosis. He says there is no definitive answer he can give me, so I’ve just learned to live with the uncertainty and not squander any day.

For as long as I can remember, cancer has been part of my life, but I don’t think it will kill me. The numerous treatments have caused permanent hair loss, ruined my teeth, and launched me into premature menopause. Yet, despite all that has happened, I’m grateful for the wonderful life I’m still able to have. And I’m grateful to my family and health-care team, who inspire me and give me the courage to face the future.

I’m hoping I don’t have to face cancer again, but if I do, I’m comforted by the fact that I will persevere. ■

Colleen Sullivan lives in Pittsburgh.


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