The Big C by Emily Chen

I knew it was bad news before I even answered the call. It was a Tuesday afternoon in June and BTS had just announced that they would be going on a “hiatus” - or were they breaking up? Either way, the morning had been filled with random texts and DMs from friends checking on me - was I okay after hearing my favorite K-Pop boy band was breaking up?

“Hello?” I said into the phone, as I sat at my desk in our open plan office.

“Hi, Emily. This is Dr. P.”

“Oh, hello.” I responded, even though the Caller ID had already alerted me that it was by OB-GYN calling.

“I wanted to share your test results with you. We found that 5% of the cells from your biopsy show signs of cancer.” My worst fear, other than dying of a heart attack while on an airplane over a body of water, where the plane couldn’t land, was coming through. The “big C” - what would Mom have thought if she were still alive to support me? Is this something that could have been prevented if I knew my birth family’s medical history?

Dr. P was still talking. Recommendations for an oncologist. Signs that it was early and could be treated easily. The tears started coming and I walked to the empty conference room in our office in search of privacy. Passing our office manager, who looked concerned - “Are you okay?” He said with concern in his eyes. All I could muster was “it’s cancer,” as I opened the door to the conference room and sat down on the scratchy blue gray wool couch. I absorbed about 30% of what my doctor was saying and finally hung up. What should I do next?

I started calling family members - a blur of my dad, my brother, my Aunt Mary, a few of my closest friends. Other co-workers started to come down for their next meeting, wanting to use the conference room. By this time, everyone on the fourth floor had seen me crying. I was encouraged to go home, but what was I going to do? Nothing could happen immediately.

The next few weeks were a blur. I had my first meeting with my oncologist, Dr. C, and she explained what was found from the biopsy and what my options were. Having just turned 40, with no significant current relationship and no desire to have children of my own, the full hysterectomy seemed like the best option for me. (Bring on the early menopause!) This gave me the best course of action if the cancer hadn’t spread outside of my uterus, but just to be safe, Dr. C would take samples from my pelvic lymph nodes. I was thankful to have a doctor that was a woman of color, as she explained that my type of endometrial cancer was usually found in white women in their 60’s, but she had experience with a handful of Asian women in the 30’s-40’s with the same diagnosis.

Dr. C suggested July 14th for my hysterectomy with about a six to eight week recovery time. She may have thought I was joking, but I kindly asked for another date, as I already had tickets to see the New Kids on the Block on the night of the 14th. I wanted to think of it as my last “hurrah” before surgery. And so, it was set, the morning of July 22nd, would be my surgery to remove the cancer from my body. My planning mode kicked into high gear, as I applied for a leave from work for about six to eight weeks, coordinating with friends to help me get to the hospital for the surgery, getting me back home, and then staying with me for the first night of recovery.

Thankfully, a friend had used a MealTrain sign up for their surgery a year or so before and it was the best resource to keep friends and family updated on what was going on, along with providing a platform for them to make donations or to sign up to help me with chores or getting food while I was recovering.

The morning of the surgery came faster than I anticipated, and I was super anxious. I was introduced to my anesthesiologist and given my pre-surgery medication. Dr. C came in and marked the area for my surgery (I was amused that her initials were also EC, so it looked like I just wrote on myself). They took my glasses before heading into the OR (and I'm very nearsighted), so I could hardly tell where I was headed. All I remember was lying down on the operating table around 11AM, and then waking up at almost 7:30PM in the recovery room. The nurse notified my friend to come and pick me up, and then I was headed back home to begin my recovery process.

Luckily, being unemployed for 18 months during the COVID-19 pandemic helped me learn how to slow down and appreciate my days when not working. I expected my body to bounce back quickly and be back to work in a month or so. However, at my post-surgery follow-up with Dr. C, I learned that hormone replacement therapy was not the course for me. One of my best friends from college came with me to the appointment and I was very thankful to have him, as he works in pharmaceutical marketing for cancer drugs. Although he was a bit “intense” with his questions, he helped ask the difficult things that I didn’t understand or couldn’t comprehend at the time. Dr. C explained that “microscopic levels” of cancer were found in my pelvic lymph nodes, so the next course was a two-treatment plan of radiation and chemotherapy followed by four cycles of more aggressive chemotherapy, every three weeks. There was a 67% chance that the cancer wouldn’t come back with the first treatment, but that increased to 80% with the cycles of more aggressive chemo. There was only one decision - I would do both treatment plans.

The next few weeks were tough. I had to face a bit of my own mortality, the fact that my family was far away, that my dad didn’t understand what was going on with me - he thought I would just have the hysterectomy and be “cancer free!” I tried my best to cope, while feeling very isolated and lonely.

I started 28 rounds of radiation and two rounds of chemo towards the end of August. Daily trips to the Upper East Ride via the MTA’s Access-A-Ride service were appreciated, but exhausting! Especially, arguing with drivers to wear a face mask after the Governor said that masks were optional on public transit. You wouldn’t believe how many people wouldn’t put on a mask when picking up a cancer patient from the hospital! I was getting into the routine of showing up to radiation with a full bladder. Over the weekend of September 17th-18th, I found out that my dad had passed away at home. What could I do? Rushing home to Nebraska wouldn’t bring him back. I had to focus on my own health and complete my treatment. Yes, I cried while I was in the radiation machine. I cried over missing Chinese food meals with dad. I cried a lot.

I finished up my radiation and chemo treatment and had one month without any treatments. Originally, I had thought about going back to work for a month, but after Dad passed away, my mental health and well-being came first. I took the time to visit a friend upstate, get out of the city, a friend from Chicago came to visit, and I saw some Broadway shows while I could. At the end of October, I cut off my hair in anticipation of it falling out during chemo treatment. (A bonus: it was long enough to donate to Children with Hair Loss!)

My first chemo cycle started on November 9th, and I would have it every three weeks on a Wednesday. Anticipating that I would feel the worst over the weekend and then after seven to ten days, I would have better immunity, I figured that I could safely go out before going back for another cycle a few days later. I was lucky to have friends come and stay with me for each cycle - shaving my head when my hair was patchy, cleaning and cooking for me over the Christmas holiday weekend, watching BTS concerts, and helping with laundry. My last chemo cycle was on January 11th and the follow up scans were promising. I was cleared to go back to work in February - after eight months away. Although I wasn’t physically able to do the same work, it felt wonderful to be back.

I’m now seven months in remission and looking forward to a delayed 40th birthday trip to Korea in October. My doctors will still follow me for the five-year journey, but I hope that things will be okay. Throughout this process, I have been very open with friends, family, co-workers, etc. about what I have been through. If I helped one woman get her annual screening and helped with early detection, then that’s great news for me. In this capitalist society, it’s easy to put work before your own health and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you need to take care of yourself first. Work will always be there, but you may not be.

Emily Chen

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