I’m Paige and am currently a PhD student at the University of Oxford and half-way through I was diagnosed with duodenal cancer and Lynch syndrome at age 27. After already overcoming various hardships along the way and defying odds of ending up at a place like Oxford, I went from feeling like I had the world at my finger tips on the brink of starting an exciting career to an ultimate low. I’ve always had an exceptionally positive outlook in nearly every situation I’ve been in but in that moment I was struggling to find that silver lining. I have an extensive family history of cancer because of Lynch syndrome but I’m the first to get duodenal as opposed to colon cancer like everyone else.
Everyone knows I have a long history of finding myself in unique situations, odd encounters, and bizarre medical experiences in the past, so I figured this was just another way I was meant to stand out. Even with the elevated risk of various cancers, including duodenal, this was the least likely of gastrointestinal cancers for me to get with just a .4 percent chance by the time I’m 80.
Much like my reputation for standing out because of odd medical occurrences, I’m also usually at the center of family jokes for the abnormal amount of “humbling” and humorous experiences I’ve had. From tumbling off stage at a cheerleading competition that was televised on ESPN to all of the times I’ve mistaken strangers waving at me, I’ve learned that humor really is the only way to make it through life. My loved ones and I have relied on humor to get through what is in reality a pretty gloomy situation.
When I was admitted to the hospital I had a PICC line for TPN to fatten me up for surgery and my sister-in-law came to visit and entered my room saying, “now it’s a party!” and in her hand was a Franzia wine box she put on my IV pole to look as if I had wine flowing through my IV (the dream!).
When I was seeking out support groups I asked the patient advocate at my cancer center about duodenal cancer groups. She said, “Paige, sweetheart, you’re the only patient we have with duodenal and the groups for other gastrointestinal cancers are made up of people at least twenty years older than you but I can ask permission from the breast cancer group to see if they would be okay with you joining them there.”
I suddenly felt like I was Lindsay Lohan’s character in "Mean Girls" and was thinking how I could win their approval to let me in the “cool cancer” club. I decided to ditch that effort and leaned more on my new friend, Antoinette that I met during treatment who happen to have the same oncologist as me.
Antoinette and I connected immediately. My oncologist likes to tell the story of how just a week after us meeting Antoinette told her to give me whatever organs of hers that I might need. This still makes me laugh. Soon after meeting, we began coordinating our schedules to make sure all of our treatments were together. Walking through the cancer center you could hear Antoinette’s infectious laugh that constantly worked to bring me back down to earth when I would start to let my fear-driven thoughts spiral. There was never a single chemotherapy session that I wasn’t holding my stomach from laughing so hard with Antoinette. We would laugh as we tried on hats and wigs and tell stories of embarrassing chemo-brain driven incidents like the time I got into the wrong person’s car at the cancer center after treatment. The nurses and our oncologist know we’re a team and our oncologist has commented on how Antoinette knows more about how I’m feeling and what is going on with me than she does.
Nearly two years later and we’re still in it together. With Lynch syndrome and my family history I was told to expect more cancer diagnoses in the future. While I’m not looking forward to those conversations, I know with Antoinette that it won’t be such a gloomy experience and the laughs will at least keep my abs in shape. I wish every patient had an Antoinette by their side. She will no doubt be that silver lining I reach for when that time comes.