This is going to be my last recipient profile before the Nosco Ride this weekend. The event begins with a shorter Burrito Ride leaving from Serious Cycling in Thousand Oaks on Saturday; the Nosco Ride itself leaves Sunday at 9:00.
Talking to the recipients has had a pretty big impact on me. I think it’s partly because so much of what I experience nowadays is second-hand through the Internet and therefore not real. Each person I’ve spoken with is going through something real. It’s not gussied up for Instagram or selfied to create just the right impression. It’s life in its raw, unedited state, things unfolding without regard for how it’s going to look when translated to 1’s and 0’s.
The last person I spoke with was Jen Audia, the marketing manager for Liv at Giant Bicycles. She’s been there for five years and fits the profile for a uterine cancer patient in almost exactly zero ways. She’s the wrong age, the wrong lifestyle, the wrong health profile, the wrong genetic profile, and the wrong medical history. About the only thing that makes her a candidate for uterine cancer is that she has a uterus.
Cancer, of course, is often unconcerned with profiles or finding a good match. It hits where it hits and you’re left to deal with the blow.
Jen began working with the Nosco Foundation several years ago as a supporter of the ride. It began with simple things like Giant making product donations, and has grown to hosting the recipients’ dinner at the Giant office, to implementing the current bike valet setup at the ride itself. Seeing the euphoria of cyclists finishing the ride has been another aspect, and that’s how Jen got connected, meeting recipients along the way and feeling the shared compassion for their journey.
The road to Jen’s diagnosis began when she realized there was a weird bump in her pelvic area at the beginning of this year, but she didn’t think much of it. She is healthy, physically active, has zero medical issues, eats all organic, and had no reason to believe there was anything wrong. But as months progressed, she still noticed the lump but didn’t do anything until April when her pants were getting tight, and she could lie down and see the noticeable rise. An MD friend told her to go to urgent care and get an ultrasound immediately. The radiologist came in and said, “You have a 14-cm mass on your left ovary and a 2-cm mass on your uterus and we need to act immediately to remove it and biopsy the tumors.”
At the beginning of May, Jen connected with a gynecological oncologist and went over a multitude of options regarding what the tumor could be, concluding that uterine cancer was uncommon and therefore they could schedule surgery for the beginning of June. She went in for surgery and woke up with the realization that there was a lot more happening in her life than she’d thought, and there was going to be even more.
Not only did she have a mass on her left ovary and uterus, but also on her right ovary, the lining of her peritoneum, and in an unrelated matter, her appendix had to be removed as well. From that surgery she was diagnosed with stage 3b uterine cancer, low grade. The surgical recommendation was for a full hysterectomy followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.
Getting her head together following the surgery, she put together a list of questions with her family and spoke to her doctor. Her biggest concern was whether or not she could pursue egg retrieval, since the surgeries would result in sterility. To have fertility taken in such a brutal way was almost incomprehensible, and then Jen learned that it would in fact be possible to move forward with egg retrieval. In a way, this turned out to be a good distraction from the cancer treatment and allowed her to focus on something else, something life-giving and positive.
Her medical team refused to charge her for the second egg retrieval; the compassion and generosity of others was beyond anything she’d ever imagined, and the retrieval was successful. Next came the cancer.
After a full hysterectomy and oophorectomy, Jen went on work leave for six weeks as she healed from surgery and began doing the research to figure out what was next. She returned to work, started chemo at the end of September, and is working now. Her third round of chemotherapy is coming up; they are five-hour sessions for six cycles to kill the cancer, after which it’s just a matter of seeing if the treatment worked. In her second surgery they removed seventeen lymph nodes, two of which were positive, with no signs of additional tumors. The CT scan came up clear as well so now it’s a matter of chemotherapy and hope.
As Jen says, “I don’t plan on doing this again. It’s going to stay away.”
Amidst all the upheaval, though, the diagnosis and treatment created what was perhaps an equally brutal emotional dilemma, because whatever else Jen is, she considers herself a very, very private person. “I wanted to be private, beat the cancer, put it behind me, and in a couple of years be done with it completely. I can’t compare my situation to the other recipients’ journey, to what some of the other people are going through.
“I’ve kept my illness private and haven’t wanted to tell people. I’m not blasting my root canal on social media, why should I blast my cancer? But I’ve learned that friends want to be there for you. And they all share the same analysis about me: ‘No question you’ll get through this because you’re very stubborn.’
“I don’t want to be helped or seem incapable of doing something. I don’t want people to treat me different or look at me different; I don’t want this to affect me or my future. These things all make me want to keep it private, but you know what friends have said? They’ve been like, ‘Shut up, don’t worry, this won’t define you.’
“And there was the timing of a few things, like when a friend came into town and he didn’t know about my diagnosis. I’d embraced the hair loss and had a mohawk; I used to have long curly hair and he was like ‘Awesome!’ and I was like ‘I’m on chemo.’ That didn’t change anything for him, and helped me realize that people want to know and want to help. That’s hard to hear because you feel obligation to them and have to give them a sense of what’s going on in your world. If the shoe were on the other foot, though, I’d want to help. I think it’s a part of the human condition, to support one another, and Janel did this for me in a very powerful way.
“Janel met with me and talked with me about the Nosco Foundation. I knew she had a personal experience with cancer with her father, and she’d asked if she could nominate me as a recipient. It’s a lot to not be well and have financial burdens. I’ve done alternative things not covered by insurance; IVF and integrated oncology are definitely not covered. MD’s want to remove the cancer but there’s no support for the wear and tear on your mind and body. You get a fistful of Norco and that’s it. Support from other treatment is not covered, and it would be a blessing to get financial support, I realized.
“For Janel it was more than that. As she said, ‘We want you to know you matter and that we’re here for you.’
“It was a hard call knowing that being a recipient is pretty public, but with Janel being vulnerable enough to ask me, given her cancer experience, it gave me a chance to make lemonade out of this, and if I can encourage someone to not feel alone or just be a voice or a symbol or sign that I’m not going to let this thing take Jen away, I want to do that. It’s been an incredible few weeks getting support from the foundation, from Jack and Janel and Ramona and everyone involved and knowing it’s shared, and if it’s on a web site, well, I know people want to hear it from me as well.
“I shared my situation on Instagram and it was unreal the amount of messages I received. It’s powerful to have everyone rooting for you. The mental intents and prayers or whatever you believe, for people to put forward that hope and prayer for healing is a strong thing and I’ll embrace it. If everyone puts their mind to me getting better that can’t be a bad thing.
“It’s been an evolution and it’s showed me that there are a lot of people that really care, and it’s humbling to know that, and my company has been incredible. My colleagues have rallied around me. My family is on the East Coast so it’s unique to go through this without them, but I definitely feel like there are people locally who have become family through this.
“I think that one of the things that has been unique for me as a cyclist is that I used to race ‘cross, and that experience of being out there on your bike by yourself is no different, and so similar to what this is like. You have the incredible highs and incredible lows. I remember it was always the third lap saying to myself, ‘Why are you doing this? It’s so painful and dumb, just pull over and stop.’
“And the other voice saying, ‘Who cares about the pain? You’re fucking out here for you, I don’t care if you’re the last one out here, you’re fucking going to finish this.’ On the days and moments where it feels so hard, that’s been my thought. I’m just going to cross that line no matter how hard it is to get there because it’s worth it and because there are so many people cheering and waiting for me to finish.
“What we can learn from Jack’s experience in mourning his brother’s loss is this: Here I am beating myself up myself over this illness, how do I turn it into something positive and make something good out of it? That’s the parallel. How do I make the best of this on a personal level, how do I grow and learn and how do I also outwardly do something with this? I would say when you are all out there riding the course and feeling the pain or the euphoria, well, you’re right there alongside me and alongside everyone else.
“Take those things that hurt and keep hitting back. I never realized what it meant to be on this side of the diagnosis; in my job it was to get women on bikes and watch their success, climb the hill or clear the rock garden, I was always on the outside watching people fight for their life, how could I really understand? But that’s the human condition. Not everyone will have this diagnosis, but it doesn’t mean that what you’re going through isn’t as painful to you, in your world. And you know what? Everybody’s going through something.
“Community and being there for each other is so important, and I want to thank the riders for recognizing it and going out for a ride dedicated to those of us fighting for our lives. I don’t know why this happened to me. I’m a non-candidate for this cancer and I have no cancer markers, so I want to know ‘Why me?’ I was grasping for something, genetics or whatever so I could have a way to explain it, so I want to do everything in my power to be open to whatever this means for my life. Embracing Janel and Jack and being available to share my story? If it might help someone else, hell yeah, it’s worth it. There are so many folks going through the same thing who have inspired me. There’s no playbook or how-to on any of this and doctors are good at what they do but they only do one thing. It’s been important to be open to whatever’s coming my way, to heal, to get through this.
“My last five to six months have had hardship, sure, and I’m in the midst of trying to decide about some important things, and am having some sobering conversations with friends and family. I feel honored to be counted among the group of recipients. Jack had asked if I’d be willing to lead the group out but my third infusion is on Friday so I might not be feeling up for it, but maybe I could do it on a new e-bike.
“One thing’s for sure. I plan to be moving forward and not standing still.”
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