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
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
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
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.