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My name is Sabrina Fuoco and I am a five-time cancer survivor. I have been battling this gruelling illness for 31 years: as a child, teenager and young adult. Over the years, cancer has taken my health, my hair, my energy, chunks of my body and sometimes even my sanity – but it has also given me a gift – to live life meaningfully and with great urgency. Not knowing whether I have months or years to live has forced me to live life in the moment and enjoy the present.
This is my open letter to cancer: Part three.
By age 18, I had defeated you twice.
I was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma at the age of three and underwent surgery to remove the cancerous tumour resulting in the loss of a significant amount of muscle on my neck.
And just shy of my 18th birthday, I had my entire thyroid removed to beat my second diagnosis: thyroid cancer.
It was starting to feel like at every major milestone in my life, you would strike again. Living in fear of recurrence became my new normal.
A new chapter: University life
At age 22, I was in my last year of University and working toward my dream: law school.
University was such a refreshing experience. I finally felt like I had settled into my own skin. The independence, mental stimulation, friendships, and atmosphere worked together to create this exciting new chapter in my life. Not to mention I was at the University of Toronto downtown campus with tons of great restaurants, cool cafes, and fantastic shopping. Life was good.
So naturally, something bad was brewing.
I remember putting cream on my legs and feeling a small bump on my thigh. At first, I thought I may have pulled a muscle running. But I was about to find out it was much more than that.
An MRI revealed an abnormal mass that required a biopsy. Right away, alarm bells sounded in my head.
The biopsy confirmed it was a cancerous tumour.
I was diagnosed with a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumour (MPNST), which despite its strange name, is actually a type of sarcoma.
Fortunately, the tumour was small and localized. The plan was for Dr. Robert Bell, former president and CEO of UHN, and currently Ontario's Deputy Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, to perform surgery. He did a wonderful job and my scans came back clean – which meant no chemotherapy or radiation needed. What a relief, I thought.
But because I could not postpone surgery, I would not be able to write my exams and graduate on time.
I had worked so hard only to learn that I had to put my life on hold – again. My fourth and final year of university was lost, just like that.
Lost and found
Despite having to use crutches for a while before I could learn to walk on both legs again, the recovery from surgery was pretty standard. But the emotional toll weighed heavily on me.
After taking time to heal and coming to terms with my situation, I decided it was time to get on with my life and focus on the future. A future that involved going to law school.
I wrote the LSAT and applied to all of the law schools in Ontario. But my top choice was Osgoode Hall Law School of York University.
I will never forget the day I found out I had been accepted to Osgoode Hall. I was elated.
Since I had taken a break in between university and law school, I was excited to be back at school in a new environment. The professors were amazing, the course material was very engaging, and I had made some wonderful friends there, too.
Although law school was mentally challenging - as we all dreaded law exams and the thought of the Socratic Method - the true challenge for me was my health.
During my first year of law school, I was plagued with massive fibroids that caused a host of complications. I became anemic during this time and nearly bled to death on multiple occasions. I had surgery to remove my fibroids, but was told they could grow back.
To my dismay, in my third year of law school, the fibroids grew back. My gynecologist at the time, Dr. Janice Graham, suggested I undergo an ultrasound of my kidneys to ensure my fibroids were not putting pressure on my blood filtering organs.
This was supposed to be a routine test, so you can imagine my shock and disbelief when I was presented with the results.
The ultrasound and MRI concluded that I had a cancerous tumour on my right kidney. The diagnosis: Leiomyosarcoma.
To further complicate matters, not only did I have to have my entire right kidney removed in order to eradicate the cancer, but I also was faced with an extremely tough decision.
The MRI of the uterine fibroids suggested they were now pre-cancerous masses. Given that the uterus is a muscle, all I could think of was that in a few years, maybe months, I would be faced with a uterine sarcoma.
Although it was one of the toughest decisions to make, I decided I would remove my uterus.
'The mother of abdominal surgeries'
Removing the uterus when the lesions were pre-cancerous meant no chemotherapy or radiation; however, had I waited until these tedious buggers developed into a full blown cancer, the treatment plan would have been very different.
Not to mention the threat of death if I waited.
I underwent a hysterectomy and right nephrectomy all at the same time. It was what I called the "mother of abdominal surgeries." Two major organs gone – my right kidney and uterus – just like that.
I had a very difficult time coming to grips with the loss of two completely functioning organs.
I was also forced to deal with an issue that I didn't think I would have to grapple with at such a young age. Although I didn't want kids at the time given I was focused on my career, I didn't want to shut that door altogether. This was something I wanted to consider down the road. But instead, I was forced to make this life-altering decision in my late 20s.
Luckily, I was able to finish law school and graduate with my peers. This was the best thing to have come out of all of this insanity. I was able to get through law school and cancer. Now, I had to focus on articling and my career.
A shocking revelation
By age 29, I had survived cancer four times.
Was this a fluke? Why did this keep happening to me? No one else in my family besides one aunt had ever been diagnosed with cancer.
It was time to get genetic testing done – and the results would be shocking.
Until next time,
Sabrina Fuoco is a patient in the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Program at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. Tune in for the fourth and final instalment of the 'Dear cancer' series next week.