Liz Nelson was just not feeling right. She knew that something strange was going on in her body. At her annual fall physical, her primary care physician found problems with her blood work. An ultrasound showed a large fibroid tumor in Liz’s uterus. After a few visits to elevating specialists and an MRI to take a closer look, her doctor told her that most fibroid tumors are not cancerous and could be taken care of by surgery. She scheduled the operation for April of 2014.
When Liz received a phone call from her doctor who was traveling abroad on vacation just a week after having the operation to remove the fibroid tumor, she knew it could not be good news. Cancer cells had been found in the fibroid tumor; it was leiomyosarcoma, a very rare and aggressive cancer of the smooth muscle cells. On June 2, 2014 Liz had a radical hysterectomy, removing her uterus, ovaries, and nearby lymph nodes.
“I then had four months of chemotherapy,” noted Liz. “From the first moment of my appointment at Smilow, all the doctors, fellows, and nurses reassured me that we were going to work together to beat my cancer.”
“I can’t say enough about Smilow Cancer Hospital. I loved being there. The environment is so warm. Everybody, the doctors, nurses, and support staff, all made me feel like I was part of a team. They gave me such special care, especially with side effects or when I had complications. They made sure I had preventive medication to lessen my nausea from the chemo. I had complementary massages and received hats from the boutique to cover my hair loss.”
“It also helped that I have a wonderful extended family and friends. So I always had someone who could come to my treatments with me. Someone to talk with if I wanted company. Or, if I didn’t feel like talking, someone who was just there with me, someone that I didn’t feel like I had to entertain.”
There was one very bright spot for Liz and her family, during a week when Liz didn’t have any treatment scheduled. “On a beautiful sunny day in September, with family and friends at our side, my fiancé and I had our dream wedding at Amarante’s in New Haven. I worried about having enough stamina but the doctors assured me I would be ok. As all brides say, the day flew by. I had all the energy I needed. It also was a great distraction to plan throughout chemo.”
It’s now two years later and Liz is nearly back to normal. “I have my checkups at Smilow every three months and I’m still cancer free. One thing that continues to linger, even more than a year after my treatments ended, is my fatigue. I need to think carefully about how to use my time. My body still needs more sleep than usual. I can’t function on just six hours of sleep like I used to before my diagnosis. I’ve learned a lot about myself during this whole experience. I have more empathy, especially for people who have long-term disabilities. I feel I’m more understanding, which shows in the way I interact with people. I have my own new normal. I was forced to slow down and to define myself as someone other than as my work self.”
Liz’s words of wisdom for other cancer patients: It’s ok to feel the whole range of emotions that come with your diagnosis and treatment. Lots of people say you need to be strong and positive. I believe you need to give yourself space to have your full set of emotions. It’s ok to feel sad. It’s ok to reach out for support. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you need to get through this difficult experience.