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Vicki Shapiro - Sarcoma Survivor

Around January of 2010, I started to notice a small bump on my left leg. It didn’t hurt, so I waited until April to visit my family doctor who ordered a sonogram. After a subsequent referral and an MRI with contrast, I received my diagnosis: high-grade soft tissue sarcoma in my left quadriceps. I was immediately referred to radiation by my orthopedic oncologist; the hope was that after 25 rounds of radiation, I would be able to forgo chemotherapy. Unfortunately, this was not the case, but overall my radiation experience was a positive one full of hope, and I am blessed to say that I am seven years cancer free.

Receiving the results of my biopsy was difficult. My husband took my daughter home, and I spent the night alone in the hospital. I sent an email to my business mentor describing what was happening, and the reality of the situation hit home and I started crying. One of the patient care advocates sat with me, and gave me some advice I never forgot. He pointed to the flowers sitting by window, and told me “Just like these flowers are here for you, and you can hold them in your hand, God will do the same. Put yourself into God’s hands and he’ll take care of you.” I had a whole army of people praying for me, and I thought if I could get just one person to connect with God who normally wouldn’t, then something positive had come out of this.

Two weeks after the biopsy on my leg, I started radiation. For the first three weeks, I couldn’t bend my leg enough to get into the front seat of a car. I was lucky enough to have a fantastic support group of friends who drove me to UT Health San Antonio every evening; the time with friends was something I looked forward to every day and was a great relief to me and my family. The actual time in “the vault” seemed very short. I kept trying to listen to the songs playing on the radio while I was receiving treatment to try to figure out how long it took; my radiology technician was an oldies fan, so I ended up listening to “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles at least twice a week while the machine was rotating around me sending out beams!

I always looked forward to seeing the radiation technicians as I had gotten to know them during my daily visits. One time when I mentioned how I would miss seeing them (although I wouldn’t miss the machine), one remarked how that is usually how it goes for them. It must be hard on radiation technicians; after seeing a patient regularly for five weeks, they never see them again and don’t know how the cancer survivor is doing. It’s easy to go say hello to a chemo nurse, but walking back to the vault area where the machines are is not something you do without an appointment.

After five weeks, we celebrated my twenty-fifth treatment together. I still have my certificate signed by the nurses, technicians and doctors. I loved celebrating this moment; it felt like I was graduating and going away to college. In this case, going away to college was the next milestone of major surgery to remove the tumor. I made the technicians cookies and a card to show them how much I appreciated their hard work. What they do is so critical because they have to line the patient up exactly right for the radiation to hit the right areas. It was important for me to celebrate the success of completing my radiation treatments with those who had been right there administering the treatments. I still have the three small tattoos to help line up the machine. My daughter was in 7th grade at the time and thought it was so cool. Now I use it as a surprising truth in Two Truths and a Lie – no one would expect me to have a tattoo!

I do have some lingering joint and muscle stiffness that I attribute to the radiation treatments. The area at the back of my leg just above my knee is always stiff and has some discomfort. The groin area can also be uncomfortable; during my radiation treatment, this area turned black and the skin peeled because it was so sensitive. As long as I regularly exercise and stretch my leg, the pain is manageable and seems a small price to pay to be alive and a mom, a wife, a sister, a daughter and an aunt.

Never forget, how you deal with your cancer diagnosis will have a huge impact on your experience. Though it’s hard for some people, you have to be open and try to see things from a positive experience. For me, the fact that I got to keep my leg and I could be treated by an incredible team in my hometown were two things that I was immensely grateful for. My mother-in-law died of breast cancer; she faced her diagnosis with anger and refused to let people help her. When she passed away, we felt there was no closure. Try to give your diagnosis a purpose. Try not to give in to the desire to close up or give up. People want to help you. If you close yourself off, you’ll miss out on all the love and care that people can give you.

After surgery, I came to cherish my time with the radiation team and the fond memory of our celebration in the clinic which helped me get through the rest of my treatment. Today I run a support group for survivors of sarcoma. I love helping others, but I have a selfish reason for volunteering too: I never want to fall back into that routine life I was living and forget how blessed I am to be here and to be alive.