It took me nearly two years and 20 doctors to learn that I had liver cancer at the age of 28. With no risk factors, nothing could have been further from my mind – or my doctor’s – when I went for a medical workup prior to having a liposuction procedure. Who would have thought that being vain would save my life? My blood tests indicated anemia, but since I had no other symptoms, there appeared no serious cause for concern. Subsequent checks by more doctors, however, led to red flags on tumor markers, more tests and then discovery of two tumors on my liver, the largest the size of a small melon.
I was living in my home country of Brazil at the time. Once the masses were detected with an ultrasound, my doctors pressed quickly for surgery. During the operation, I lost a tremendous amount of blood and nearly died. It wasn’t until my follow up visit, weeks after the surgery, that I learned that one of the masses was malignant. I received two rounds of chemoembolization, my enormous scar healed, and then, after five years of clear scans, I was declared “cured.”
With a new lease on life, I married in March 2007 and moved to Maryland. On a visit home to Brazil for the holidays that year, I had another scan and this time, another tumor was visible. So much for being cured. After many conversations with my family, we determined that the best course of action for treatment was for me to stay with the doctors who knew me and my history best—the doctors in Brazil. Remaining there for the surgery and recovery meant that my husband had to take a two-month leave of absence from his job in Maryland so that he could stay by my side and fill the role as chief advocate. That was no small task, especially since he did not speak Portuguese. My second operation was not nearly as debilitating as my first and, thankfully, recovery was a lot quicker. I returned to the U.S. and for the past year and a half have had my follow up scans performed at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
When I first learned I had cancer back in 2002, I missed having other cancer survivors my age to talk to about my illness. My family and friends were terrific, but I wanted to speak with others who could relate to life with cancer. I also wanted to find a way to use my experience to help others, so when I was diagnosed a second time, I took it as a sign to reach out. I became active at the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults in the patient navigation program and, a few times a week, I visit patients while they are in the hospital waiting for or recovering from transplants or chemotherapy. I am constantly inspired by my new friends and their families, many of whom have taught me that there is dignity in suffering and beauty in death. I truly believe that I get more out of the program than I give.
I also reach out to others by blogging in my native Portuguese. I started a few months after I was diagnosed a second time and it has given me a chance to wrestle with my fears while encouraging survivors to remain hopeful and other readers to donate money or blood and offer prayers. The outpouring of support I have received has wrapped me in a cloak of love and hope and, again, I have benefitted while trying to help others.
While I appreciate everything I have learned from a very painful but incredibly rewarding and life-changing experience, I am also determined not to let cancer or the fear of it rule my life.