Medical Student Battling Cancer

I guess you can call this my “coming out”, so to speak.

To those who may feel hurt that I didn’t tell them personally – I’m sorry. But this was my diagnosis to tell, and I just wasn’t ready.

To those who I did choose to confide in – thank you for lending a listening ear and for simply being present without judgment.

To my parents – thank you for staying so, so strong and for showing me what unconditional love is. I am truly blessed to be your daughter.

And to Alex – thank you for remaining calm and collective when I just couldn’t be. Thank you for letting me soak your shirts with tears and grieve when I needed to. And thank you for continuing to love and support me through health and sickness. I know it’s been hard, but we will get through this – I believe in us.

On 9/16/18, what was supposed to be a routine exam ended in the worst way possible. The gynecologist took one look at my cervix, and I could immediately tell that something was wrong. She left the room and came back with forceps, stating that she needed to perform a biopsy. Knowing that I was a medical student, she was blunt, which I actually appreciated. “You have cancer…” she said, three little words that left me paralyzed. That devastating moment, along with that entire day’s events, have replayed over and over in my head as if I’m stuck in a continual nightmare that I can’t seem to wake up from. Of course, the diagnosis wouldn’t be confirmed until the pathology results came back, but her tone and facial expression already told me everything that I needed to know. I tried to stay as calm as possible, but how do you really stay calm in this situation? After leaving her office, I got in my car and just sat in silence before eventually succumbing to my tears. How did this happen? How did THIS happen? I was only one year overdue on my pap smear, and everything had been normal before. I was not part of the “statistical” risk group. But there I was – 30 and diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Two days later, the pathology report came back, confirming my diagnosis. For weeks, this was all I knew… which was almost as bad as the diagnosis itself. My thoughts had never been so irrational, and I had never thought about death so often. Of course, like every patient, I Googled. And everything I found indicated that cervical cancer is very slow-growing, specifically with a progression rate of about 10 years. Again, I was not part of the statistics.

It took a week to schedule an appointment with an oncologist, and another 2 weeks to actually see her. “I’m so sorry you have to see me”, she said. And just like that, a sense of comfort came over me, and I was no longer so afraid to be vulnerable. I began to cry, and she held me. I knew she had to do another exam, and I had a feeling that it would be worse that what she assumed based on my age and lack of medical history. Our visit initially began with the discussion of a localized excision of the tumor. Then, the exam took place and again, she displayed the same concerned facial expression as the gynecologist. “It’s big,” she said, “too big to do a localized excision.” In a split second, my treatment plan had suddenly progressed to a radical hysterectomy with total pelvic lymphadenectomy, followed by radiation. I was told that she could save my ovaries, but that would mean a 5% chance of recurrence. For a while, this was the only thing I could think about. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t study, I couldn’t exist without this taking over my mind. To give cancer a second chance or to never be able to have children of my own – a decision I still haven’t come to terms with.

The PET scan came back negative. NO METASTASIS. All of a sudden, I could see a future again. I could see my life, and I was given back hope.

The hardest part of this was telling my parents. It took a month. A month to gather enough information and a month to gain enough courage. To know how much pain I would cause them was at times unbearable. The day they received the phone call was the day that I felt I had failed them as a daughter. They could tell something was wrong. I couldn’t even look them in the eye, even from across the country. A month was not enough time, and I couldn’t do it. Between my oncologist, Amanda, and Alex, the news was broken to them. And I shook as I heard the pain in my mom’s voice as she called out for me and asked why this burden was not given to her instead.

Some days have been particularly hard, and I find myself crying to the point of exhaustion and sleep. Other days are better, and I sometimes even find myself laughing. I am still at the very beginning of what will be a long journey, and I know I will face many challenges ahead. But throughout it all, I have discovered just how loved I am and just how many wonderful people I have by my side. I cannot do this alone, and I know that I will never have to.

Please do not feel sorry for me. If not me, it would’ve been someone else. All I ask is that you do not treat me differently, for I am so much more than my illness.

To the doubts and fears – I know we will meet again.

To the days and nights when I am consumed with sadness – I know there are more of you to come.

But to the moments of hope and happiness – I know you’re waiting for me.

Life is hard. Life is busy. And sometimes, life is incredibly unfair. But life is worth living, and I am not done fighting.

Fuck you cancer.

[In 2 days, I will temporarily be trading in my white coat for a hospital gown.]
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Ngoc-Anh Le 
North Chicago, IL
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