Original Article Written By Laurel Felsenfeld
In October 2010, I was walking to a restaurant, talking with my husband, my face turned toward him. I didn’t see the curb. I smashed my left great toe into the concrete — and immediately felt a ripping pain left of my belly, shooting through my left hip and lower back.
That pain saved my life.
For two years, I went through MRIs, X-rays, ultrasounds, physical therapy. Doctors ruled out a hernia, a herniated disc and an ovarian cyst. The diagnosis — a torn muscle or ligament.
But strange symptoms arose. My left leg felt weak and heavy after I’d climb stairs or bike up hills. I’d wake up with my leg still asleep. My inner left thigh would cramp up. I was told that a firm, tender lump I’d found deep in my left side was normal anatomy (although there was nothing like it on my right side), maybe the stump of the torn muscle.
Finally, I had a special MRI that injects dye into the hip socket. The dye leaked through a hole in the socket — and was absorbed by a lime-sized evil oval of a tumor deep in my pelvis. It was a rare and aggressive cancer, unclassified spindle cell soft tissue sarcoma. Only about a dozen U.S. cases occur annually in the spot where I got it. I could have hit the lottery with those odds — one in 138 million. Lucky, lucky me.
The tumor was removed in a three-hour surgery. But microscopic cells were likely left behind, and I’d have to undergo regular surveillance scans. If cancer came back, they’d take it out again, plus more neighboring tissue — maybe a kidney, bladder, colon, muscle, pelvic bones. Chemotherapy and radiation would only slow the growth.
Anyone who has had surveillance scans will tell you that the days preceding the scan are fraught with anxiety — call it “scanxiety.” By May 2013, I was terrified that my cancer-free scans would come to an end with the next one. I was already defying odds.
That’s why, after taking off work early, on a glorious spring bike ride in a county park, I was not enjoying the trees in bloom or the warm sun in a cloudless sky. My mind was playing what-ifs. What if the scan shows the cancer is back? What if it spread?
Lost in thought, I didn’t see the geese until it was too late — a Mother Goose, eight toddling goslings and a Daddy Gander (from Hell).
They were all smack in the middle of the bike path at the base of a hill. I didn’t see them until I was 20 feet away. I figured I’d blow the coach’s whistle I wear when cycling (saves me from inattentive motorists) and they would move and I’d pedal past. But, no:
I roll to a stop, wave my arms and give three whistle blasts, which must mean something really offensive in goose talk. The gander takes off full speed, heading open-mouthed for my face. I get one foot out of the pedal clip and duck in time to hear whoosh-whoosh-whoosh as he slams into my helmet, beats me with his wings and gets off a good nip on my elbow before I fling him to the ground behind me.
Then I hop-hop-hop on my right foot to turn the bike around; but he is coming at me again. I lift the bike like a shield, Hi-Yo Silver-style, and BAM! He hits my wheel and gets his feathers tangled in the spokes. He’s insane, flapping, honking, flailing — and I discover those stumpy legs give powerful kicks and those big web feet have sharp claws that rake my leg. I shake him loose and bike one-legged uphill, warning an oblivious jogger listening to his MP3 player about the danger ahead. He says I am bleeding, and sure enough, there’s a bloody line from my left knee to the ankle.
The next morning, I headed for the shower and glanced at deep purple welts on either side of my left elbow, bruises on the elbow cap, calf, thigh, right shoulder and belly just above my 8-inch surgical scar, plus red lines under my chin and right ear where the helmet strap dug into my face when he slammed me. I looked and felt like I’d been hit by a truck. My helpful teenage daughter told me more people in the U.S. are killed by swans than by sharks. And I thought, how many people would want it known they died from a swan — or goose — attack?
Here’s the life lesson I took away:
There I was, all worried about sarcoma cancer taking my butt off the planet, and I almost succumbed to 45 pounds of testosterone-infused fois gras. It’s so easy to get caught up in what you stand to lose with cancer that you lose sight of what you have.
And what we all have is today. I tell this to myself, that I am here, I am alive, I am still cancer-free, I am blessed with a wonderful husband and family and friends. I am loved now by beautiful people I would never have met — 60 to date — from an online support group.
So instead of looking ahead to worry about what if and what could be, or looking behind to regret what was or was not, focus on what is in the path right in front of you.
That will determine how you live your next five minutes, and that is what really counts.
Laurel Felsenfeld, 50, is an award-winning nurse and entrepreneur, founder and president of Aging Answers Geriatric Care Management and Axis Case Management. She has dedicated her 26-year career to helping families overwhelmed by the care of aging, ill or injured loved ones navigate the health care system. She is the 2009 recipient of the Nightingale Award for Excellence in Community Nursing, and 2013 Geriatric Care Management Platinum Award honoree. Laurel never thought she would use her professional skills for herself when diagnosed with a very rare, aggressive cancer in August 2012. She credits herbal medicine, yoga and attitude for keeping her cancer-free to date. Laurel is married, lives in Farmington Hills and is a mother of three.