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How I Took Charge of My Own Stage 4 Cancer Cure

The diagnosis empowered me to be a pushy patient.

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illustration of female cancer patient standing behind boat steering wheel
Francesco Ciccolella
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I’m a 60-something ski bum living my dream life in the mountains I’d longed to return to for years. I’m a rock ’n’ roll radio DJ and a ski instructor. Back on Oct. 21, 2021, none of this looked possible.

I’d just been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Median survival rate? Four months. Sometimes what looks like the end is a new beginning.

That October day, I was a recently divorced empty nester poised to begin my next chapter. I was going to leave the city that had been my home for 30 years and move back to the mountains I loved.

My kids were starting their own lives. Even the dog was gone. There was nothing to keep me in New York anymore — except that I felt I should stay in the city so my kids had their mama’s home to which they could return. I’d been raised to put others first. That old limiting belief said, “Deny your dreams for your kids.” Who hadn’t asked me to stay.

Turning my back on my desires for the sake of others had become my MO. This, even though my teenage self vowed to escape the conformity of being the good girl I’d been raised to be.

For a while, I did escape it. I’d ski-bummed in Aspen. Then came grad school in New York City. I planned to stay just a few years and then head back West. But New York’s siren song captivated me.

And it wasn’t just the city. I met a guy. So, love, marriage, baby carriage. I poured myself and my energy into trying to be a good mother. I tried to be that perfect wife who could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and always, always, always make my husband feel like a man.

I failed. He dumped me. I blamed myself. Deep inside, I knew that divorce freed me. But, still, I waffled on leaving, chained to my past.

Then, the universe kicked me in the butt. Hard.

For years, doctors had biopsied suspicious nodules on my thyroid. When lumps abruptly blossomed in my neck, in June of 2021, I tried to see my endocrinologist. “She can see you in six months,” said the person at the appointment desk. I protested. No dice.

I did something new and different. I stood up for myself. I became that thing I was raised not to be: A pushy woman.

I bypassed that endocrinologist and found a doctor who could see me. He sent me to a surgeon. The surgeon proposed delaying what sounded like routine surgery.

“When is your first opening?” I said. “Let’s do it then.”

It was not routine.

It was anaplastic thyroid cancer, one of the most aggressive of all cancers. The average survival rate according to the Cleveland Clinic — five to six months.

“It was a hard diagnosis for the pathologist to make,” said the surgeon. “She’d never seen it before.” None of the doctors I dealt with at that New York hospital had ever seen it.

“Sayonara,” I said to that hospital. And to New York.

Because I had just gone on Medicare, I had the freedom to go to the hospital that not only had seen this cancer but also had a clinic specializing in treating — and curing — it!

I walked into the doors of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, five days after my diagnosis. My medical team and I worked together. They were the pros who knew anaplastic thyroid cancer. I was the pro who knew my body. My surgeon proposed a second surgery and explained the pros and cons. “Let’s do it,” I said. That meant I started radiation treatment two weeks later, disease-free.

I did every darn thing my doctors, nurses and nutritionists told me to do to mitigate the side effects of chemo, radiation, immunotherapy and Car T cell therapy. That included no alcohol (sigh), gaining weight, exercising, yoga, drinking 70 ounces of water daily, taking naps and eating the foods the nutritionist told me could combat cancer.

“You’re getting low-dose chemo,” my doctor told me, “You will keep all of your hair.” He was the chemo pro. I figured he would know, so I believed him. What my mind believed, my body somehow believed. I ignored friends who suggested I shave my head. And I kept all of my hair.

My doctors recommended alternative therapies to complement Western medicine. I did complementary treatment. I meditated. I did acupuncture. I found a Reiki healer. And I visualized my cells, laughing happily, running with radiation rays and chemo and immunotherapy drugs to destroy any cancer cells in my body.

I indulged in silliness and sentiment. I watched Ted Lasso, That '70s Show and standup comics on Instagram. I was unbelievably lucky in that I could stay with my big-hearted cousin who lived in Houston whenever I was there for treatment.

I did a blog about the funny stuff for friends and family, like being strapped down on the radiation table getting zapped and trying not to laugh when the pop rock band Imagine Dragons’ hit song Radioactive came on.

I wrote about partying with mocktails.

“I see so many patients who just give up,” one of my nurses told me. “I can count on one hand the number of patients I see like you.”

I’m not a doctor, but I do know this. We all have the power to stand up for ourselves, to be pushy, and to get second and third opinions. According to Kate Pickert’s 2023 op-ed published in The New York Times titled “Is a Revolution in Cancer Treatment Within Reach?”, for some patients, cancer treatment developments are “outpacing the growth of cancer cells inside their bodies. For these patients, cancer is more like a chronic disease than a one-time catastrophic event.”

I’m one of them. Immunotherapy, which transforms my form of disease into a chronic, eminently treatable and livable condition, was an option floated when I first went into M.D. Anderson. Five months later, I was getting it. Now, I’m getting Car T cell therapy, which has my endocrinologist using the word “cured." I’ve had zero side effects. One reason, I believe, is that I keep moving.

Since my diagnosis, I have remained as active as I ever was, running or power-walking (depending on the state of my knees) every morning. I’m doing things I never thought I’d do — I’m a ski instructor and a rock ’n’ roll radio DJ. My 16-year-old self would be so proud of me.

I go door to door for political causes I believe in fiercely. I’ve started learning how to be a high-altitude gardener. I’m surrounded by friends, some old, some new, all wonderful.

And I love the barely visible scar on my neck. It shows I am healing, inside and out.

 
Have any of you received a cancer diagnosis? How are you doing? Let us know in the comments below.

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