Today marks 4 years for me of being cancer free. For those of you who don’t know me or my story, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of uterine cancer shortly after turning 29 years old. Up until this day, I felt invincible. I had a brand-new apartment, a really good job, and was just starting to figure out my life and who I was.
In February of 2016, I started having some pain and very strange symptoms. I knew something wasn’t right, and so I went into my local doctor. After a few tests, I learned that I had a uterine polyp that needed to be removed. It was a fairly easy procedure. I was told that they would be sending it to pathology because that was protocol, but not to worry, polyps like this had a .001% chance of being cancerous.
My doctor called me a day or so later to tell me that pathology found pre-cancerous cells within this polyp, and that they were going to do another surgery to make sure that there were no other pre-cancerous cells now that the polyp was gone. I was concerned, but it sounded like an easy fix. Once the second procedure was done, I was told that these cells were not pre-cancerous but cancer. They informed me that although cancer, it wasn’t aggressive, and that I would simply need to start a new treatment plan to see if it would go away on its own. Things sounded wishy-washy, and I went to get a second opinion at UW Madison. Had I not, I wouldn’t be here today.
UW Madison did additional testing and called me in on August 4th, 2016 after a CT scan. I’ll never forget that day. My new doctor, an amazing woman, walked into the room, sat down, and said “Amanda, this is bad.” She explained to me that I had something called uterine carcinosarcoma, an extremely rare, very aggressive cancer that I didn’t fit the profile for.
The good news? The cancer was caught in stage 1, which rarely to never happens with this kind of cancer. I had been living with this for around 5 months, and somehow it hadn’t spread. They were very surprised.
The bad news? I needed an immediate, complete hysterectomy. They couldn’t take the chance of simply removing the uterus, in case cancer cells had spread to my ovaries. And it was too risky of a procedure to try to preserve fertility. I went into shock. My whole future was ripped away from me, and I was CRUSHED. I always wanted to have a family of my own one day, and this was the point where I knew that would never happen. But I didn’t have time to think about it, as I had to go into surgery right away.
After my surgery was over, I was told that they successfully removed the cancer, but there wasn’t enough research for stage 1 uterine carcinosarcoma patients to do any other kind of treatment than what they would do for those in stage 4. I immediately started chemotherapy and radiation. My body went haywire. Not only was I in the middle of severe menopause because it was surgically induced, but the chemotherapy and radiation make me very sick. I would have chemo for 8 hours a day, 3 days a week, every other week for almost 5 months. I worked from my chemo chair, trying my best to do a new position at my job that I started a week prior to my official diagnosis. I wound up gaining almost 30 pounds due to steroids and other toxic chemicals in the chemo.
Here’s where my favorite part of the story starts…..
During a routine checkup when I was almost done with treatment, I had a different oncologist that came in to see me because mine was on vacation. She looked at me and said, “are you exercising?” I explained to her that I was very active before all this, but because of the mix of chemo, radiation, and menopause, I literally couldn’t. Working 40 hours a week during all of this sucked up all my energy, and when chemo was over all I could do was sleep. I was also on medication that made my bones so sore that I could barely walk. My dad had to carry me into my room one night because I had collapsed from the pain. She looked at me and nonchalantly said “unfortunately because you didn’t exercise during chemo, your body is going to age 40 years.” I didn’t know what to say. I don’t think I said anything to her. I was beyond angry, but there was something else there besides anger: a challenge. Who was she to tell me what would happen to me?! She didn’t know me. I vowed then and there to prove her wrong.
I ended treatment on December 31st, 2016. I was so excited that 2016 was over, and I planned to make 2017 a year when I not only overcame what I was told wouldn’t be possible for me to do, but to go one step above and become stronger than I was before any of this started. I joined the LiveStrong program at the YMCA, which was a great first step for me, but it wasn’t enough. I needed more of a challenge, and I didn’t know where to turn. I was embarrassed by what I looked like: no hair, still very out of shape, with scars from my neck (from chemo ports) all the way down to my lower stomach (from my surgery). I went out and bought one-piece swimsuits thinking “I can’t show my body again! I’m all hacked up! I need to hide this.” For 2 years I had poor body image, was self-conscious, and didn’t know where to turn. I compared myself to everyone else, and hated being “different.” This is where Aerial Dance comes in.
My work friend and fellow aerialist Molly and I started talking about exercise, and different things we could do that would be fun yet a great workout. I did some quick online browsing and came across Aerial Dance. My first thought was “sounds cool, but a huge group of women all together in a room? There is going to be so much drama….” Boy was I wrong. Aerial Dance is unlike anything else I’ve experienced in my life. You walk in the door and feel overwhelmed with good vibes, friendship, and determination. Women lifting each other up, encouraging each other–complete positivity. Women of all ages, backgrounds, shapes and sizes, all looking FIERCE! No judgements. I couldn’t believe it. I knew I had to have this in my life.
I immediately fell in love with Aerial Dance. I started gaining physical strength unlike ever before, but even more importantly, for the first time in my life (even before cancer) I started to realize how amazing of an experience it is to be different. Aerial Dance is what made me realize that being different than the norm is special and should be celebrated! Pole dancing is still often viewed as “different,”, but look at all the amazing experiences we get from it. We perform, we build strength, gain courage, and expand our personalities. Not only did I find physical strength, I found the emotional strength I had been lacking for years. I realized that what I was afraid of, being looked at as being different, was unique! My story didn’t have to be like everyone else’s. I was meant to go down a different path than 90% of the people on this planet, and I finally realized that doing so wasn’t a bad thing.
It may sound cliché, but never give up. I’ve had setbacks and exercise doesn’t always come easy to me, but with determination and patience, I can’t believe how far I’ve come, and I can’t wait to see all the things I’ll be able to do in the future. Little by little, you can mold yourself into what you want to be.
As I end, I have to say I don’t know what my “official” path in life is yet, but I now have the courage and fight to go at what it is full force. And more importantly, I’m no longer afraid of not knowing. What I do know though, and what I am certain of, is that my strength and determination that I’ve gained from Aerial Dance will guide me in the direction of what I am truly meant to do and who I’m meant to be. As for the doctor who told me I’d age 40 years? I bet she wouldn’t believe me if I called her up and told her that not only did I prove her wrong, but now I can fly!