Judy Greenberg is an artist, the mother of two adult daughters, and grandmother to four grandchildren. She now lives in Atlanta with her husband of 43 years, Robert.
I'm a watercolor artist who was known as the "Grape Lady" in California because I painted a lot of images of grapes for the wineries in Sonoma County, where I spent most of my life. Painting is a way of life for me; but for three months, I stopped.
I had just turned 60 years old, and with 60 came changes I never expected. I was taking an aerobics class and could feel something bouncing around inside me, sort of pulling behind my belly button. I asked my gynecologist about the weird feeling in my stomach and she said not to worry, that I was in great shape. I asked two doctor friends about it and they both laughed, saying I had "cockamamie" disease. I started getting so bloated that I'd buy a pair of pants and, a week later, wouldn't be able to put them on. I developed a stomach pooch and my husband commented that I had a grayish tinge. I had no idea what was going on with my body.
I decided that I couldn't wonder any more and made an appointment with an internist, who scheduled a CT scan. My CA125, the tumor marker for ovarian cancer, was 430 – it should have been lower than 35. I had stage 3 ovarian cancer. It hadn't invaded any major organs, but it did attack my lymph nodes and was near my kidney and bladder.
I've always been very afraid of doctors. Before an appointment, I'd hyperventilate in the parking lot, and my blood pressure would skyrocket. I have no idea why I reacted this way. However, after I got the diagnosis, I wasn't terrified over the countless doctors' appointments I knew I had ahead of me. Instead, I felt this resolve, this sense of peace, come over me. Something took over and gave me strength. In a way, I almost felt numb.
The day came for my surgery and never for a minute did I think it wasn't going to work out. I had no choice; I had to do what I had to do. I wasn't afraid of dying – I was afraid of pain, of chemotherapy, of being really sick. I was more afraid that I would never be myself again. During the surgery, they removed ten pounds of fluid in addition to the tumor. But my health problems continued.
I underwent chemotherapy every three weeks for six months at the beginning. One of the many surprises of chemo was the development of neutropenia. Neutropenia occurs when there's an abnormally low count of neutrophils, which are white blood cells that help an immune system fight off infections. The chemo drug caused my neutrophil count to go way down, and the numbers didn't come back up. Doctors prescribed me two different medications to reduce my chance of infection, since my neutrophils wouldn't be fighting infection for me
I'd stopped painting. I was too exhausted and had no desire to do the activity I dedicated my life to. My students wrote me and called me, insisting that I had to start painting again. I finally listened. I painted a "Chemotherapy Series" – a collection of watercolors that were more abstract than I'd ever done. I consider these paintings some of my best work, because they were so personal and so emotional.
After undergoing chemo, I was healthy for the next two years. But then the cancer returned, and I had to have chemo every week for 18 months. I hated it; I was never out of the doctor's office and I had no life. Now, I undergo chemo every five weeks. I still take the neutropenia medication one day after treatment, which gives me a strange, achy feeling in my bones. I've learned that the more I exercise, the less I notice the pain.
I am determined to not be defined as someone who has cancer or as a cancer patient. I hate it when people say that I'm looking good, because I know they're thinking "...for someone with cancer." I hate feeling others pity me. It's a waste of time to think backward. I created a bucket list, and my husband and I travel a lot now. We've been to Russia, Greece, Italy – I even rode a camel in Egypt and checked that off my list. I'm a mother, a grandmother, a wife, and a painter. And yes, cancer and neutropenia are illnesses I'm overcoming.
Putting Things in Perspective:
I wish I had gone to the doctor sooner and found one who would listen to me – and I wish I insisted that she do an ultrasound.
I wish I had had the CA125 test sooner, and insisted on it, even though my doctor said I was fine.
People don't tell you that when you go in for treatment, you'll have a port put in that will be in you forever. They don't tell you that you'll lose not only the hair on your head but also your eyebrows, pubic hair, everything. And chemo is such a libido killer. I wish there was more awareness of how exactly chemo changes a body.
Mentoring and helping others through treatment will help you deal with the pain of cancer. Find someone who is a few steps ahead of you, who you can talk to, who can help you anticipate what's coming next.
When you have neutropenia, getting yourself up and out of the house is the best thing you can do. Keep moving--being outside is everything. I go swimming every day. Go for a walk, just move. If you're toned, you won't feel so achy.
When your energy level is down, you must plan accordingly and learn to pace yourself. I take a nap every afternoon.
Eat lots of protein - it will give you more energy. Try peanut butter, nuts, and lean meats.
Drink LOTS of water.
There are a lot of things you can discuss only with others who have cancer – they'll understand.
Judy Greenberg is an artist, the mother of two grown daughters, and grandmother to four grandchildren. She now lives in Atlanta with her husband of 43 years, Robert.