• Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself: A Self Exam Saved My Life

    A self exam saved my life. 

    For those who don't know, I'm a cancer survivor. 

    It still feels weird to use the word "survivor," as I finished chemo December 2020. I've been in treatment since September 2019. It's been a looong slog. 

    It has NOT been a journey.

    Some folks use that word to describe going through cancer treatment, which is fine. But I don't identify with that word when it comes to MY cancer treatment. 

    NOT a journey.

    I think of journeys being where you go on a road trip with a loose itinerary, stopping at places that pique your interest. Or it's a band that wrote one of the best karaoke songs ever. 

    My cancer experience has been more like being a happy-go-lucky hobbit who ends up on an unexpected quest to overcome incredible odds and destroying ultimate evil by hocking a gold ring into an erupting volcano. 

    via GIPHY

    Image description: Gif of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, flipping the bird. That's how I felt during my cancer treatment. 

    That's why I nicknamed this experience The Fellowship of the Crud. 

    And now a HUGE chapter of this not-so-great book is being completed: my port is being removed this Wednesday!

    For those who don't know, a port (or PICC line) is a device that is inserted into the body surgically and offers a way to receive substances intravenously - chemo, fluids, etc. It's helpful for patients undergoing chemotherapy because chemo can do hellish things to your veins, making it harder and harder to get an IV with each subsequent treatment.

    I've had mine in since September 2019, and I'm READY for it to be outta my body. 

    Especially when I woke up after the surgery and realized the port did not give me powers like Iron Man. 

    But that port has been such a helper through this- it made a few things easier, and when it comes to cancer treatment, things that make other things easier are wonderful. 

    While I'm not going to be one to keep the device that was inside my body for nearly 18 months as a souvenir (some folks have, and that's okay!), I am grateful for science, research, and modern day medicine. 

    One big life lesson I learned through this was to advocate for myself. I remember being in the car with Rob after yet another overwhelming and information-filled medical appointment, and Rob asked me if there was someone who was like the Project Manager for my treatment. 

    "Um, I think that I am going to have to be that person," I said.

    I'm glad I realized it at that moment, as my natural tendency is to not speak up, especially when it comes to standing up for myself and being my own advocate. 

    There weren't many occasions where I found myself in opposition with my treatment team- far from it! They have been phenomenal and each person at the Cancer Center has helped make a very shitty thing a little more bearable. 

    But there were times where had I not advocated for myself, it would have made things tougher. I'm not the only patient being treated by the folks on my treatment team; it's unfair to expect them to remember everything about everyone they are treating. 

    Especially during a pandemic.

    Things started to shut down while I was nearly finished with radiation, which I was receiving every weekday for about a month. Going to the Cancer Center every day got weirder and weirder- typically it's bustling with smiling, gentle volunteers, family, friends, and support people for patients. When the pandemic hit, visitors were not allowed, there were no volunteers, and while the staff remained gentle and helpful, there was a vibe of worry, among all of us. My daily radiation treatments went from less than a 30-minute appointment to an hour- the radiology nurses went from two nurses during a shift to one. It made their tasks take longer, as they were the only ones to clean, reset the radiation machine, lead the patients, etc. It made them weary- the extra work, and the unknowns of the virus. It made all of us weary. 

    There were so many unknowns at the beginning, and being a cancer patient during that time was scary as hell. 

    But that didn't scare me enough to stop treatment or screenings. 

    And it shouldn't scare you, either.

    Like I said earlier, a self exam saved my life. I'm not even old enough to be considered the "right" age for annual mammograms. I felt a lump in August 2019, which either didn't exist or couldn't be detected at my annual gyno apopintment I had in March 2019.

    Check yourself.

    Set a reminder in your calendar. Or get a sticker sheet and put them at regular intervals in your planner. Here's tips on a breast self-exam. It's a good idea to try to get into the habit to check monthly. 

    Image Description: Hand holding a Check yo Self sticker sheet with 12 stickers with the phrase "Check Yer Bewbs" on a grey background

    And if something feels off, I encourage you to be brave and do something about it. You can do it. If your current provider brushes you off, it's ok to get a second opinion and/or find a new provider. 

    I came across this ProPublica article and while it made my heart shatter into pieces for Teresa and her family from the article, I know she's not the only one who put off a screening. Hell, my entire family skipped dental cleanings for six months last year. It happens.

    But it's time to make sure you've got your own self checks on your schedule. It's time to make sure you've got a regular screening on the books with your provider. It's time to call your provider about that thing you just noticed, or the thing that's been around longer than you'd like to admit but have kept putting it off. 

    My email/DMs are always open if you need a listening ear. I've had a few women reach out when they've had scares, and while some folks are hesitant to reach out, I truly love helping them, even if it ends up not being cancerous (I seriously jump for joy when they get that news). 

    I had a connection and open door to a very very wonderful woman who had gone through the same cancer I did (triple positive invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 2B), and not only was she a wealth of knowledge, she was so so supportive and had been through it. She was such a pillar of strength, and I didn't realize until I was nearing the end of my own treatment, that she was helping me and answering my insane DMs during one of the worst times of being a cancer patient: post-treatment. 

    I'm in that bizarre post-treatment purgatory now, where the first year is the hardest and weirdest, and while others have moved on and you don't need as much help as before, you're still dealing with shit- emotionally, mentally, physically (fuck yooou, lingering pneumonitis!!). 

    But I'm working through it. And I will be ok.

    Looking back, I'm really glad my Past Self did a brave thing and made the call when she was scared shitless upon finding the lump. Sometimes being brave and facing something super super scary ends up being an ultimate act of self love. 

    tl;dr: Check Yourself. You are worth it. 

    Holly Marsh
    Holly Marsh

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