I write today with such a mix of emotions. It’s hard to explain. Happiness and sadness too. You might think it doesn’t make sense that I want to cry.
My oncologist Dr. John Glick and I will no longer meet twice a year and yes, I feel something I can’t explain. Gratitude, relief and can I say weirdly, nostalgia? It has been such a frightening, gut wrenching, uplifting, triumphant journey all wrapped into 29 years.
Last week, during my last cancer checkup, Dr. Glick said, “You are done. You are cured. You no longer need to see an oncologist.”
This amazing man who has saved so many lives, taught so many fellow oncologists, changed the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, built the state of the art Abramson Cancer Center at Penn Medicine, is retiring.
I remember very clearly the day we met in 1991. He told me he could not guarantee I would survive an aggressive breast cancer at the age of 35 but that I had a very good chance. Look at us. We were so young then.
I’d been to a (former) doctor who told me the lump I was feeling was nothing and I had a negative mammogram. It took me 6 months before I found out it was, in fact, breast cancer and I was fortunate enough to get to John Glick for treatment.
At the time, there were many young women dying of breast cancer. We just didn’t know much about it then. My story was not unlike so many. I was lucky to find mine relatively early, but too many caught it too late.
Not only was Dr. Glick my oncologist, he agreed to do something that was unheard of at the time. He allowed cameras in to document everything that happened to me, my treatment. We both knew that other young women needed to know they couldn’t ignore lumps, and a negative mammogram back then, did not mean it wasn’t cancer.
Channel 10 agreed to run the story, a series and a documentary. Imagine this before the internet; before all the breast cancer organizations and pink ribbons. I have a suitcase full of handwritten letters from viewers who wrote to say they found their breast cancer early because we told the story. I’m so proud of that work still today.
After chemotherapy and a mastectomy, I asked my oncologist when I would be considered cured. He said “20 years”. He might as well have said “never” to me back then. My daughter was just 4 years old. The worst fear was, I might not see her grow up and my husband would be left to raise her alone.
When our daughter was 13, when I felt some distance from breast cancer in year 9 of survivorship, I was diagnosed with a new cancer; in my right kidney. I was terrified my body was turning against me again. After the tumor and part of my right kidney was removed, I asked again “When will I be considered cured?”
Dr. Glick explained, the clock starts over now: “20 years”.
This past August 8th, I watched my daughter Alexa marry a man she loves so much, a man who absolutely adores and loves her to the moon and back. I didn’t say it that day, but I was thinking it; how lucky I was to witness it; her high school graduation, her college graduation and now to see this day when it was never promised to me.
So many young women I knew in the early years of treatment did not get to see their children grow up. And here I was, mother of the bride. Again a mix of pride, joy, gratitude even in the midst of a pandemic, grateful to be alive and see this day.
I was not prepared when, the following week, Dr. Glick told me I had survived two cancers and was now concerned cured after 29 years AND that he was retiring.
I was not prepared for what I felt; kind of stunned and an appreciation for the journey we had been on together. (You see I wasn’t prepared. No hair done, no makeup, but had to take a picture). We had come to know so much about each other over the years. Those check ups were also check-ins on life events. We caught up. I’m sure he did that with everyone, but 29 years….it’s a long time. I’m now almost 64 years old. It’s hard for me to think about not seeing him anymore.
Cancer patients will tell you, they feel a little fearful when their treatment is over.
Even though it’s hard, you feel like someone is doing something, making sure you are okay and the cancer hasn’t come back. It’s disorienting when that ends. “What do you mean I’m done? What now? Just checkups? Bloodwork? Mammograms? Xrays?”
You lose sleep over checkups…“what if they find something”?
And now, no more check ups from my beloved oncologist.
I’m done. I’m cured.
I’ve survived what seemed an eternity when we started, but turned out to be this, dare I say, an amazing journey.
My daughter says, I am who I am today because of what I have been through.
True. It is part of who I am. It has shaped me and what I value in life. Moments. All the incredible highs and lows of existence. Never taking a day for granted.
One of the things that got me through, especially in the early years as a survivor, was hearing from other survivors; longtime survivors. Their stories were what I held onto for hope.
Someone else had survived. I could too. It was possible.
It is why I still tell my story today.
I remember back when I was first diagnosed thinking, I wanted to snap my fingers and be 20 years in the future. Thank god that is not possible. I would have missed so many rich incredible experiences and adventures and life. I would do it all again. All of it. The good and the bad. Everything. No regrets.
At some point during this cancer journey, I forgot about the “20 years” and just started living again.
If you are in the midst of treatment, that is what you need to do. LIVE!
Live today. Dare today. No regrets.
And thank god for this man who shepherded and watched over my health to help bring me here today… John Glick. I’m forever grateful.