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Dear Cancer, I Knew I Had to Survive

by Bethany RossPatient, Neuroendocrine CancerJune 1, 2022View more posts from Bethany Ross

Dear Cancer, 

I hate you. You took more from me than you will ever know. There I was, newly married, thirty years old, running half marathons, when you decided to invade my body and life. I had been sick for nine months, vomiting every day and seeing doctor after doctor, and no one could figure out what was wrong with me. I had doctors tell me it was all in my head, that I was making myself vomit, when really it was you, cancer. You decided to take over my “healthy” body in ways I never thought possible for someone my age. You forced me to learn words like “neuroendocrine,” “metastatic,” and “peripancreatic.” You glared back at me from a bright phone screen while I Googled “survival rate for metastatic neuroendocrine cancer of the pancreas” and saw “27% five-year survival rate” and no 10-year rate to be found. I sat on the floor of my bedroom, tears streaming down my face, feeling like the world was ripped out from under me because of you. I had just taken a new job, started living my life, and now here I was questioning if I would even make it to 35.

You were not something new to my family. My grandfather had died from lung cancer when I was in first grade and my grandmother had thyroid and later breast cancer, complications of which were responsible for her death. I remember you, cancer, being this scary thing that took away people in my life, but when they were older and retired, not when they were thirty and just starting to live the life they had worked so hard to get. A house, a spouse, maybe children on the way, but instead you appeared on scan after scan and told me no, that’s not your life anymore. That “before cancer” Bethany, she’s dead, I killed her. Now you get to deal with the complete mess I have made of your now shorter life.

At first, I didn’t know how to deal with you, but I knew I had to survive. Survival was the goal, right? I was going to be the best, most informed stage 4 neuroendocrine cancer patient there ever was. The scientific part of my brain kicked in; I was after all a chemistry major in college. I looked up studies and went to oncology appointments with a notebook full of questions. I was ready to take you on scientifically, cancer. But the thing I wasn’t prepared for was how to take you on mentally. No one prepared me for what you would do to my anxiety, my future, my marriage, and my life outside of just surviving. For a while there I was just in survival mode, living from one Gallium PET scan to the next, sometimes in three-month intervals, sometimes if I was lucky six, hoping that you wouldn’t appear again, even though I was told you were not out of my life. Like a glitter spill, you were coming back even if we thought you were gone.

Then in October 2020, months into the pandemic, which was already testing my mental health, you killed my friend Alex, the one person I knew before my cancer diagnosis that had the same kind of cancer as me. A month prior to that, you—cancer—crushed any outstanding dreams my spouse and I had to have children. My body could not sustain a pregnancy and I am unable to adopt with you around, cancer.

You made me look at my life and question all the things that I thought I “needed” to be successful. Instead, you made me focus on what I actually wanted, rather than what everyone else or society thought a 32-year-old woman should be/have. You made me realize I didn’t want a future where I was married with children and was living to work. You made me realize I wanted adventure in my life. I wanted to be surrounded by people who understood what I was going through on a daily basis, both mentally and physically. You made me realize it is OK to not fit into these boxes that society tells you to fit into. You made me realize it was OK for me to come out publicly as bisexual and not care if that meant I lost friends or extended family because they didn’t think it was morally right. You made me realize I was happier alone, being true to myself. You made me a cancer badass (I don’t use the term survivor) I am today. I have gone skydiving in Maine, rock climbing in The Gunks, New York, with First Descents, where I earned the nickname “Captain,” and I recently joined my local roller derby team and snowboarded in Lake Tahoe with Send It Foundation this past March.

You made me want to make a difference by telling my story to anyone who would listen and use my voice to advocate for people who were not ready to tell their own story yet. You made it so when you Google my name, you come up too, cancer. You may be stuck with me for life, but I am going to have you in my life how I want you. Every scan you still make your presence known by lighting up a tiny spot on my pancreas, but the doctors tell me that I am stable and will continue to be monitored. When I get dressed and see the foot-long scar down my stomach, I am reminded of your presence, even if I happened to somehow forget about you for a few hours. I have never been done with you, even now almost four years later.

Cancer, I still hate you, but buckle up. You are only along for the ride. This is my life now.


Bethany a.k.a. Captain (First Descents) a.k.a. Roxy Lestrange (NH Roller Derby)

This article was featured in the 2022 Dear Cancer issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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