I was diagnosed with cancer just about a full year after my husband Larry’s remains were recovered from Laos. I had waited more than 30 years to finally lay him to rest after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam War. For the past 10 years I have been managing chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
In July of 2006, I was informed that Larry’s remains had been found and recovered. Laura and I traveled to Hawaii that November to accompany them home. On November 13th, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
The following fall, September of 2007, I was still exhausted. It seemed all the grief over the years, not being able to fulfill a promise to Larry, came to a head after his burial.
I was still teaching graduate students in school administration at Dominican University, drained and haunted by a sense that something was wrong. I’d set my alarm for 4:00am, dress for work, rest for two more hours and then drive the few miles to River Forest for morning office hours.
In those same months, I complained during an appointment with my internist. I was constantly feeling weak, like there was something wrong with me, in my gut. He completed a routine examination and determined I was just fine.
Nothing changed over the next few weeks. I didn’t feel better and called my doctor’s office again. My fatigue was worse than before and it wasn’t easy to get to work on time. At the end of my second appointment, he told me he couldn’t find anything wrong with me. I told him then I wanted a colonoscopy. He was firm, “There just isn’t any physical indication a colonoscopy is in order.”
I wanted him to be correct and left determined to buck up and do my best. In my mind’s eye, I still worried about it. I owed my students my best work, but I was exhausted and struggling.
One Sunday afternoon, Laura and my nephew, visiting from New York state, were in my kitchen preparing Sunday lunch for me. It was a beautiful day. I walked outside to admire my newly manicured yard and heard my own grateful voice, “Thank you God for these wonderful children cooking lunch for me.” The inner voice responded, “Too bad you’re not going to live long enough to enjoy it.”
Through the years, I have learned to listen to that inner voice.
I immediately called my internist at home. This time I insisted with conviction, “I want a colonoscopy and I want it now.” “Okay,” he said, “If you want one, you can have one.”
The doctor who performed the colonoscopy explained that there was something in my colon, but he didn’t think it was cancer. “I’ve done many of these and I feel confident it’s probably not cancer. I’ll call you by the end of the week,” he assured me. He didn’t call by that Friday.
On Monday, when he finally called, he said, “Tyra, I am so sorry. You do have cancer.”
My internist made appointments for me with a great surgeon and cancer physician and a dear friend went with me for all my appointments. In some ways, I was relieved. I knew something was wrong and my ongoing denial had been destroyed. My surgery at Northwestern went well thanks to my physicians. Some of my colon had to be removed and I began chemotherapy. After moving to Texas to accept a position with Sul Ross University in Alpine, I continued my treatment at M.D. Anderson in Houston.
I am forever grateful that I listened to my inner voice. I trust that voice was God, as I understand God. Had I ignored it, who knows how things would have turned out. I’m often asked, “But how did you know to follow through?” I knew because I didn’t feel well and I intuitively knew that my inner voice was a gift.
During National Cancer Prevention Month, this is my most important piece of advice:
Listen to your inner voice and know you’re not alone. When you ask for help from professionals, follow their advice if it feels right. If you don’t agree, don’t give up. Be persistent and get help elsewhere. You are your best advocate.
M.D. Anderson is a great resource for patients or just individuals who want to learn more and take active healthy steps to be well. I am grateful to have landed at such a caring and informed hospital with a wonderful staff.
For more information about colon screenings and possible symptoms that may indicate it is time to review your colon health click here.
Although cancer is not something totally preventable, MD Anderson lists 5 categories and various ways to help reduce your risk. I have found that diet and exercise are the easiest of these to begin.
- Avoid smoking & tobacco
- According to MD Anderson, tobacco use is accountable for more than 30% of all cancer deaths, and smoking causes nearly 90% of all lung cancers. By avoiding cigarettes, along with other nicotine products such as cigars, pipes, hookahs, smokeless tobacco and E-cigarettes, you greatly decrease your risk to several types of cancer.
- Have a healthy, well-balanced diet
- By eating a variety of healthy foods, which includes plant-based foods, whole grains and legumes, your body has the vitamins and minerals it needs to stay healthy. To also help reduce your risk, avoid sugary and high-calorie foods and keep consumption of red meats, alcohol and processed foods to a minimum.
- Physical activity
- Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. Moderate exercise is lighter on the body and includes activities such as walking or yoga. Vigorous activities, such as running, bicycling or swimming, consume more energy and temporarily increase your heart rate.
- Protect your skin
- To help prevent one of the most common cancers, limit your sun exposure and avoid tanning beds. If you plan on spending a lot of time in the sun, make sure you remember your sunscreen!
- Get an HPV vaccination
- Many HPV strains are linked to different types of cancer. By getting an HPV vaccination, you can easily help reduce your risk.
Next week I’ll shed light on another valuable organization helping individuals achieve wellness: NEDA, the National Eating Disorder Association.