September is gynecologic cancer awareness month. Gynecologic cancer refers to cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, vaginal cancer, and vulvar cancer. As we close out the month, I want to share my mother's story about her battle with uterine cancer.
Today, I wear purple.
...until next time, IrishDoc07
My Cancer Journey
By: Marian V. Kajfez
August 22, 2014 began my cancer journey. After spending a few weeks in Florida and enjoying a relaxing massage, I returned home and discovered I was bleeding, a little (I had been in menopause for about 4 years, no more periods!). I dismissed it in my mind as a possible ovarian cyst (though I never had one) and went on my merry way. A month later, September 22, 2014, I had my annual ob/gyn check-up.
As I spoke with Dr. Erin, she asked if there was anything I was concerned about? I mentioned the episode following my massage a month earlier in Florida and I “discounted” it as nothing. She immediately said, “Oh, it is something!” We need to do a biopsy and an ultrasound. I was stunned. I asked what she thought it could be? She said it could just be a cyst but we needed to check. I had an ultrasound, in her office, that day. I returned 2 days later to her office for a biopsy.
I continued my regular routine, trying to silence the worry and fear in my mind. 2 days later I was driving to a consulting appointment with a school 2 hours away from home. My school leadership work would keep me there for 2 days. Driving along, my phone rang, I answered and it was Dr. Erin’s office. Her scheduler said that Dr. Erin wanted me to come into the office. She asked what time that day I could be there. I explained that I was driving to a consulting job and would be “out of town” for 2 days. I asked if there was a time I could call and speak with Dr. Erin later in the day? She said she would call me back.
I proceeded to my school work site, blocked my thoughts, and worked with the teachers doing school improvement activities at their school. I returned to my hotel later in the afternoon. It was a Monday. I planned to find a salon to get a mani/pedi after checking in and changing my clothes. As I pulled into the Hampton parking lot, my phone rang! It was Dr. Erin. She said she did not like to go over results on the phone but she understood my situation. I said, “Dr. Erin, I know it is cancer or your office would have just told me the results. I could barely talk…the reality had started to sink in…Her response was, “Yes, but I already have your treatment plan in place and we will take care of this.”
She told me about a colleague of hers, from her residency in Morgantown, Dr. William McBee. A very skilled gynecological oncologist she had already set an appointment with a few days later. I spent that night crying…no salons were open for a mani/pedi so I went to my room and thought of all the terrible things I could be facing and just cried. The next day working at the school is a blur…thankfully, I was well prepared and able to lead them through their work. I was numb.
The following week, my husband, Marc, went with me to see Dr. McBee. Mon General hospital is a little over an hour’s drive from our home. We pulled up to the Zelda Stein Weiss Cancer Center, a large wing of Mon General Hospital. My insides were shaking! We parked and walked in. The waiting room was surreal…many people, many with head coverings, very little conversation going on…a very scary setting. We waited about 20 minutes, very slow minutes. We went to an exam room. Dr. McBee and a nurse came into the room. He introduced himself, a young doctor, very kind with a friendly bedside manner. He explained what the biopsy showed…endometrial cancer that he hoped was contained in my uterus.
Dr. McBee explained he would do a complete hysterectomy. He explained he would make 3 punctures and remove the parts laparoscopically. I asked if he could do liposuction to remove my ab fat, too!! He laughed and said,” No, that is a different procedure and you don’t need it anyway!” What a nice thing to say…I was grasping at anything positive that day. He said he would do the surgery, I would stay overnight at the hospital and then hopefully that would take care of things.
We had a granddaughter at the time, Ryan. She lived in Texas with her Mom and Dad and Jax, the puppy! Both of my daughters were pregnant. My younger daughter was due to deliver her second child in October. I asked if we could schedule the surgery after the baby was born. I wanted to be in Texas for the birth. Marc immediately spoke up and said, “NO, you need to have this done right away.” I looked at Dr. McBee with tears in my eyes…he said…”You go to Texas and welcome that baby. I wouldn’t be able to schedule you for surgery till early November.” I was so relieved to know I could go to Texas, be with Ryan while the new baby was being born then return to Ohio and deal with this disease. (I lost my Mother to liver cancer 29 years earlier...always feared I would get cancer some day). We returned home, I booked my flight to Texas and went on with my life (blocking this scary future).
Andrew Taylor was born October 29, 2014 at Darnell Army Base in Texas. Born as a healthy, beautiful bundle of joy! Ryan, she was 17 months old, was tickled to meet her new baby brother!
I flew home and continued to work until surgery on November 11, Veteran’s Day. We arrived early to the hospital and my journey continued removing the endometrial cancer. I awoke from surgery, spent the night at Mon General…was quite sore and took all the pain meds offered! Dr. McBee came to talk to me before being discharged. The nurse removed my IV and as I prepared to stand to dress, saw my IV wound had begun to bleed quite profusely…blood all over the sheets! The nurse wiped my arm and placed a very tight bandage on the IV site to stop the bleeding. I dressed and was discharged. That weekend, Dr. McBee called. He said that once they biopsied the removed uterus and dissected it…they found 95% of the cancer he had assumed and 5% of a very aggressive form of cancer. Consequently, I would have to endure 6 cycles of chemotherapy and radiation.
Dr. McBee told us all about the chemo regime. In Morgantown, 6 sessions, spread out every three weeks. After he explained all the chemicals and procedures I asked if I would lose my hair? He said, “Yes!” His nurse told me about a wig shop down the hill from the office that everyone loved.
We stopped at the wig shop and I was so fortunate they could talk and were so reassuring. I ordered a wig then we drove home. My hair has always been a very important part of me! My mother was a licensed hair dresser and she instilled pride in looking your best, always! My hair was below my shoulders, layered and I really liked how it looked! The wig shop owner, John, said I would lose my hair 2 weeks after the first chemo. I had my hair cut into a short style by my stylist who I have had for 25 years. She came to my house and cut my hair. Marri, Ryan and new baby Andrew were there as she cut my hair. Controlled tears cause I tried to be brave!
Dr. McBee surgically implanted a port put into my chest and then the first round of chemo happened. 8 hours sitting in a chair in a very comfortably furnished room. A TV but I couldn’t watch it. The nurses in the infusion lab were wonderful. They gently attached the tubes for the chemicals to flow through and made sure I was as comfortable as possible. They said their goal was that I would not experience any nausea. Several drugs to prevent nausea were part of the IV routine. They also gave me Benedryl which I reacted to immediately and they stopped it.
It was a very thoughtful time as the chemicals flowed. I was wrapped in an ND blanket from Ryan and Andrew to keep me warm. Marc brought lunch, Chic-fil-A, and stayed and watched TV. At the end of the 8 hours, Marc and I left, went to the car and drove the hour and a half home. I slept most of the drive. Mentally exhausted. A week later, my dear friend, Lisa, went with me to the stylist in Morgantown to have my head shaved and pick up my wig.
I could not watch as they shaved my head. I didn’t look until my wig was in place. Lisa was a breast cancer survivor herself and she “had my back” through this hair loss day.
I was working as the Director of Programs at a state agency. The week of chemo I stayed home. Chemo on Mondays, Wednesday to the local hospital for a Nulasta Shot, more drugs to ease the painful side effects of chemo. Week two and three I worked daily 7am to 11am. I was pretty good in the morning but by 11am I was dragging. I drove home and napped most days. Week four began the cycle again.
One Monday my older daughter Maran and her husband Rob drove from VA and sat with me during chemo. She was pregnant and had to get permission from her doctor to be there. Making sure there could be no danger to her unborn baby. That was the shortest chemo day since they kept my mind distracted from the scary thoughts I typically sat there with.
The 6th chemo session was completed a few days after Maran’s baby shower in VA. Each chemo week was just a bit harder than the last. The cumulative effects of the drugs were very evident to me. Friday, March 6, 2015 was the 5th day of my last week of chemo. Maran went into labor in VA. She was only 32 weeks pregnant. She went to her hospital and was transferred by the Pegasus Team to UVA hospital. Her beautiful baby girl, Clare Elise, was born late that afternoon. Marc and I drove to see the new baby. She was in the nicu for several weeks but today is a healthy, intelligent, beautiful little girl.
So how LUCKY was I? A baby boy born as this journey began and a baby girl born as chemo ended!
I still faced radiation but only 3 sessions. These treatments were set up after noon. I worked then went to the hospital just minutes away for the radiation treatments. Very embarrassing to experience but my radiologist, Dr. Pollock, was as discrete as possible. Had 7 minute radiation twice and 3 minute session to complete treatment. All treatments completed April 30, 2015. A very long 5.5 months. I saw a Dr McBee every three months for 2 years then every 6 months for 3 years.
In my mind, I had beat cancer and planned to enjoy a long life with 3 beautiful grandbabies. I continued to work as Director of Programs and also began my own consulting business working with low performing schools.
I saw Dr McBee for my 3 year cancer free appointment…all was well. We had moved a few months before to NC to help with grandchild care. I had a regular mammogram scheduled the next week. The bottom fell out of my positive attitude! I was called back for a follow-up mammogram and unfortunately, my cancer journey continued! I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in my left breast. The call about the positive diagnosis came to me from my primary care doctor the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 2017. We happened to be going to a SC beach for the week and I cried every day of that week! I was convinced I would soon be dead.
I am very much still alive and thankful for every day! I will continue the story of this part of my cancer journey later.