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Ready or Not...it was Time for War!
Ready or not...it was time for war!
By Lisa Johnson
Well, hello there! My name is Lisa, I’m 30-years-old, & from a small town in West Virginia. I’m forever-obsessed with the TV shows “Friends” & “Dawson’s Creek” – I even visited “Dawson Leery’s” ‘Capeside’ house on my honeymoon! Some of my other great loves include a good cup of coffee, making people laugh, road trips, 80’s movies, watching college football with my hubby, honest lyrics, fashion (lately I’ve been living in long sweaters, leggings & combat boots), writing, make-up, experimenting with DIY’s, &…oh yeah - by the way - I’m also a 2x Stage IIIB Rectal Cancer Survivor & a permanent colostomate.
I was 26 when I was diagnosed on April 28, 2010 when no prior illnesses or family history at the time & had only been married to my amazing husband, Chad, for 15 months. Before my diagnosis I was a recent college graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology & an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice who pushed aside both of those credentials to rekindle a lifelong love: dance. I took my first dance class when I was 2-years-old & didn’t stop for a good 17 years until college & work became my priority. Right around the same time as graduation, the opportunity was presented to me to coach & choreograph for a local high school dance team; the pay was great, I could make my own hours, but the position didn’t come with health-care. After talking things over with Chad I decided to take the offer for at least a year while Chad finished with his degrees. It didn’t take long for me to fall back in love with the world full of pirouettes, sashays, & sore muscles. However, 9 months later I traded in my jazz-shoes for warrior-wear after a colonoscopy & biopsy showed a 7-centimeter tumor that was blocking 90% of my rectum. 3 days later I had a diagnosis: “Infiltrating Moderately Differentiated Adenocarcinoma” which translated into Stage IIIB Rectal Cancer. Within 6 days I had gone from a seemingly-normal, mid-twenty’s newlywed to a cancer patient facing a 25% survival rate. Ready or not, it was time for war.
Almost four years later, 3 different chemotherapy regimens – 5FU, FOLFOX, & Xeloda – 28 pelvic radiation treatments, 2 major surgeries: August 2010 – complete tumor & rectal resection, lymph node removal, & a permanent colostomy, September 2011 – tumor resection, coccyx removal, complete hysterectomy, complete vaginectomy, & external pelvic reconstruction (all by the time I was 27)…here I am! Happily & extremely thankfully in remission since June 09, 2012! Although my body has not yet recovered enough to return to dance, I’ve found comfort in various other “artistic” outlets, especially with writing, make-up & DIY “colostomy-fashion-fixers” (oh, believe me – I’ve discovered/invented some good ones!).
It was after my recurrence in 2011 that I attended a free seminar at my cancer-center which spurred my love affair with make-up. It was my first-time experimenting with better quality, healthy ingredient cosmetics which opened a whole new world to me. Words like “pigments” & “parabens” suddenly made sense to me & I found myself understanding the need for different facial brushes instead of my fingers or 1 single, repeatedly used triangular sponge. Make-up transcended just the physical for me though; it took me to a place where I felt I had a sense of control in a world of the uncontrollable. This was especially true during my last type of chemo, Xeloda, which is an oral, at home treatment. Xeloda, combined with my early-induced introduction to menopause (thank you hysterectomy) completely obliterated my metabolism & thyroid. At the end of my first week I had gained 14lbs; after some blood-work my thyroid came back THREE times higher than normal & I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. I eventually topped-off around 180lbs (an overall gain around 50+ lbs) but gaining so much weight in such a short amount of time wreaked havoc on my body. My already sore, achy ankles & knees only got sorer & achier & I ended up having to use a cane for months even after remission. I developed sleep-apnea & my asthma started to flare up.
The emotional toll was just as heavy as the physical. Before cancer I took pride in my body; I was a dancer which was a great way of stay in tip-top condition & suddenly all of that was taken away from me. I didn’t want to leave the house or even look at myself in the mirror & when I did muster enough courage to do so I didn’t recognize the person I was seeing. It was a really dark time for me & as silly as it may sound, this is when my love for make-up & fashion intensified & keep me sane in an insane world. I had to learn the different ways to dress my new body & once I found out a few tricks of the trade, I was able to grasp trends & styles I liked & use them to flatter my new body. Soon enough, no matter how awful, unattractive, or emotionally messy I felt inside, I was able to find a sense of confidence & security outside with my newfound “war-paint” tactics. Cancer is such a “give-me” disease; we lose control of any & everything so being able to take back even just a pinch of control made me feel like the victor everyday.
Now, 21 months with NED (no evidence of disease), life is slowly but surely getting back to a sense of normalcy however, no matter what, my normal will never be comparable to the definition of “normal”, but I don’t consider that a bad thing. It’s actually been the most eye-opening, love/hate life-lesson I could have ever imagined. I was able to see myself at the barest of all forms, I was able to find the warrior that, unknowingly, lived within my soul, & I was able to fall even more-in-love with my husband who, literally, never left my side. I became closer to my family & friends that remained in my corner during my fight. I was blessed to meet other “20’s” (as we call each other) who have been diagnosed much-earlier than the “recommended” screening age of 50 for Colorectal Cancer & they have become dear, respected friends. Yes, cancer did take a lot from my life but it didn’t take my life &, for that, I am forever changed & forever grateful.
It’s been a crazy, chaotic, life-changing ride but here I am: alive, aware, & doing my best to be a good wife, daughter, sister, aunt (or LaLa as my nieces & nephew call me), friend, & dog-mommy I can be. I don’t know what the future holds & I don’t know what tomorrow may bring but I do know who I am. I’m Lisa, I’m 30-years-old, & I’m a survivor…but not just of cancer, I’m a survivor of life.