2013: the message

“Heather, I’m looking at this pathology report and I have to say. . .I’m really surprised. Call me.”

That was a voice mail from my primary care physician that I picked up at about 6:00pm on New Year’s Eve 2012. One year ago today. My doctor had never called me before. I had just spent 2 weeks recovering from routine surgery and was looking forward to going out that night with my husband for the first time since the operation. The Lumineers… Yes!

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But the voicemail baffled me. I played it for my husband and finally concluded that the doctor must be looking at the wrong file. (The power of denial is staggering, isn’t it?) Before the surgery, no one had mentioned that a biopsy would be done.

So I went to the concert and rang in a joyful new year, but in the back of my mind, I kept trying to come up with a better explanation for the voicemail. And then I waited and wondered through New Year’s Day. On Jan. 2, my first morning back at work, I called both my surgeon and my doctor for an explanation, but did not get a call back …it’s busy the first day after the holidays, you know. Finally, I persuaded my doctor’s nurse to fax me the call note she had used and then I started googling terms like “scc” and “T1” to figure out that I had Stage 1 anal cancer.

Later that day my surgeon called me as I drove home from work. I pulled over to hear her tell me that I would need chemo and radiation. She had gone on vacation just after the operation, received the pathology report but decided to wait until our next appointment to tell me. My doctor was copied on the pathology report and when she saw a date almost 2 weeks past, she assumed I had already received the news. When I asked my surgeon why she didn’t tell me as soon as she knew, she explained (over the phone, of course) that she didn’t want to tell me over the phone!

So the odyssey began . . .oncology appointments, PET/CT scans, more surgeries, conflicting recommendations for treatment, inexplicable insurance claim denials, drug side-effects, weird infections, scouring the internet to find the guru-docs for this type of cancer, studying clinical trials of promising medications. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about anal cancer: only 7,000 people are diagnosed with anal cancer each year and often by the time they have symptoms, it’s too late for good outcomes. My cancer had been found incidentally in a post-op biopsy while the tumor was still very small, which is even more rare. This is the cancer that killed another Texas girl named Farrah Fawcett, but the Stage 1 version has a high survival rate. I met with a naturopath who heard my story, stroked his beard, and then gave me this prescription: “Every morning, get up, go look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘You are so lucky.'” Really not a bad spiritual practice for life in general.

Today, one year later, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude and wonder. Through a combination of good karma, dumb luck and excellent medical care, it appears that I have emerged intact and with a good prognosis from the terrific docs at the University of California/San Francisco Medical Center. I’ll keep going back for checks, scans and possible surgical procedures every 4 months for the next 4 years, but so far it looks like I will even escape the serious and life-long effects of chemo & radiation in that sensitive area.

And through it all, I have been so fortunate to have the incredible support of my husband Robert — the strongest, sweetest and wisest care-giver a girl could ever ask for — as well as so many friends who have kept me in their prayers and hearts.

As I navigated all of this uncertainty this year, I set my sights on a guidestar to get me to the other side: a long-postponed climb of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. I made a commitment to myself that, if I made it through all of this, I would attempt the climb. This goal helped motivate me to do so many of the “right” things along the way, including losing weight, completely changing my diet, trying new challenges and gaining new mentors and friends. Sometimes health is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.

So now as I stand healthy and whole at the opposite shore of this unlikely year, I would like to parlay my crazy good luck into something even better by using this Aconcagua climb as a fundraiser for others fighting cancer. After seeing Facebook posts from the Catherine H Tuck Foundation seeking to raise $100K for those facing breast cancer treatment, I knew I’d found the right beneficiary for the climb.

Catherine was my friend and classmate at the Hockaday School in Dallas. We bonded as redheads and joked that we were twins, but if so I was definitely the “evil twin.” She became a talented doctor and loving mother, but we lost her to breast cancer at just 38. The Foundation, started by her brother David in her memory, provides financial aid directly to women and men facing breast cancer treatment to help them cover basic expenses like rent,utilities and child care. The Foundation has raised half of its goal so far, and my hope is that this climb will serve as the right spark — amongst the Hockaday/St.Mark’s community and beyond — to help them raise the second $50K of their goal and also spread the word about Catherine’s life and the Foundation’s
mission.

So if any of this inspires, I hope you’ll consider giving to the Catherine H. Tuck Foundation and joining this Climb for Catherine however you see fit. You’ll see more Facebook posts and blog posts here as the climb and the year unfolds.

Wishing you love, light and luck for 2014,

Heather