I am a Survivor
By Dana Portwood

I tell people I got cancer for my twenty-third birthday. Two days before, I heard the words that changed my life forever: "Dana, I'm afraid you have cancer." Many women are prepared to hear this by the time they are talking to their surgeon post-surgery. I was not. For two months, I had been told repeatedly by my primary care doctor, the radiologist who read my mammogram, my surgeon and two fine-needle biopsy reports that I was cancer-free. I thank God that I had a surgeon who was not satisfied with an anonymous lump. He saved my life. He performed a lumpectomy one week before my twenty-third birthday, and we knew. The tumor was 1.5 centimeters and later surgery found three involved nodes. There is no gift like a little shot-glass-sized death for your birthday.

Now I remember events like little snapshots:

* A surgeon tells me I have cancer, and I leave his office to find my husband of 16 months standing in a football field surrounded by high school athletes to tell him our future is suddenly much less certain.

* A person I have never met before begins administering a dark red medicine slowly into my veins, and I go from feeling perfectly healthy to more hellish than I have ever felt in my whole life.

* My husband makes jokes to keep me from crying while he shaves my head in our bathroom, and I look up to see tears in his eyes, too.

* A doctor tells me I will never have children as the drug that kills them drips slowly into my arm.

* A man at the grocery store asks me if I fell asleep in the barber chair and I sadly smile and say "No, the chemo got me first."

* I lay on a table and two strangers write on me from chest to chin and then take pictures.

I took four rounds of "the red devil," Adriamyacin, a drug that more than earns its name. I also took two rounds of Cytoxin, but turned it down when I found out it would kill my chance to have any more children. Instead, I took four more rounds of a less toxic cocktail. I also did seven weeks of radiation concurrent with my chemotherapy, the most aggressive form of treatment.

I finished chemotherapy on February 14, 1997 -- Happy Valentine's Day!!!!

For eleven weeks I waited for my period to come back and let me know that I would still be able to have kids one day. It didn't, and on a heart-stopping hunch I took a home pregnancy test. Positive. I remember sitting alone on the bathroom floor and thinking, "Sweet Jesus, I've killed us both."

But God had other plans for me. I didn't abort my baby. In December of 1997, I gave birth to Lindsay Margaret Adaire Portwood. She is perfect in every way and born to a healthy mother. That day I knew I was cured.

I have since had two more precious, and perfect, little girls. My youngest was born May 9, 2000, four years exactly since my diagnosis. It has now been six years. There is no sign of recurrence, and I am blessed with the family I always dreamed of.

These are the snapshots that fill my album today:

* My backyard is filled with laughing, happy people and flashbulbs twinkle as my daughter plunges her chubby hands into her first birthday cake. It is her birthday, and officially, my first day cancer-free.

* My husband and I sit at the table and make plans for a future 10, 20 and 50 years down the road.

* I wear a pink T-shirt and walk surrounded by hundreds of other women also in pink. In the stroller ahead of me, my daughter says, "Pink is my favorite color." Funny, it's mine now, too.

* I read another letter from a devastated young woman who has just received the most devastating news of her life, and I begin to tell her about my own journey back to life.

I want young women to know that cancer is a reality for ALL women, but at the same time, it is NOT a death sentence. It does not mean the end of your future as a mother and wife. There IS "normal" life after cancer, and I honestly think it is sweeter having had such a bitter twist for a time. I am a survivor -- and so are my children.

Dana Portwood is a writer, wife and mother. As a health care advocate she believes that there is no question that is too embarrassing or inappropriate to answer. She hopes to educate readers on some of the less delicate subjects.


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