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LOVE YOUR SKIN

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A Nationally ranked tennis player’s experience with skin cancer

by Jill Porter, CyPort Performance Tennis

LIVESTRONG Army CyPort

Jill is the Owner, Director and Trainer of CyPort Performance Tennis based in Cypress, Texas. She trains elite tennis player’s off-court to enhance, strength, agility, speed, COREand balance specific to their individual needs. She has been a National level athlete in six prior sports with tennis being the seventh. Jill recently comes from a Corporate Training and Regulatory background, as well as, public school teacher where she was the only coach for a high school men’s tennis team. Jill is also a proud volunteer representative for the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s LIVESTRONG Global Cancer Initiative.

Millions of people are diagnosed with cancer each year. Some receive treatment and continue living their lives; others are not so fortunate. Skin cancer does not discriminate with its recipients. It’s not just what we do now, but what we did years ago that can effect the risk potential. This means, whatever we can do to avoid becoming a statistic should be a priority. When caught early, skin cancer can often be treated in the doctor’s office with creme, liquid nitrogen, pills and outpatient surgeries. But waiting, can mean prolonged and extensive treatment.

From an athlete’s standpoint, it is devastating for someone who depends on knowing all they can about their body. An athlete’s self image is usually defined by their contribution to their sport and the potential for fame, glory and honor. We endure tremendous strains to our minds and bodies and rise to the challenge in sacrificing a lot to achieve our goals. However, there is nothing “special” or “glorious” about getting cancer and coping with its outcome.

I am one of those athletes affected by skin cancer. When I heard the diagnosis, I was terrified, but encouraged when I learned mine was non-life threatening. My life was thrown upside down with emotions ranging from frustration to fear of the unknown. I remember walking into the waiting room the first day and being terrified about what I didn’t know…how bad was the cancer, what treatment would be recommended and what would I feel like along the way. As a person, getting rid of the cancer was first. As an athlete, I wanted to know I could continue my training, maintain the great condition my body had finally achieved and compete nationally. Due to the location and size of my cancer, I was told radiation treatment was the only option. I was blessed with meeting and working with a world-renown cancer specialist who emphasized the importance of maintaining my movement and flexibility before, during and post treatment. He ordered my individual treatment plan for 6 weeks (30 sessions) of radiation therapy once a day during the week with weekends off.

Treatment began and I thought it relatively easy at first though I noted some folks in the waiting room with blankets or heavier clothing, water bottles and loose fitting clothing…unknowingly, I would do the same. I was familiar with visiting hospitals and cancer treatment facilities and providing support for family members and close friends who under went surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy. But it became personal when it was me receiving the treatment and in need of support. Along with my husband, family and friends, I also began meeting and talking to those who received treatment the same time and developed close and lasting friendships. As we all said, it was such a difficult feeling for us to walk in as patients and recipients.

Side effects vary by patient and for some reason, I seemed to experience quite a few. They began the second day with a change in taste. I never got nauseated, but a moderate metallic taste made even water undesirable. Further symptoms developed quickly. By the second week, I completely lost my voice and had to whisper for 2 weeks. As another patient (friend) had the same symptom, we spent our “visiting time” in the waiting room whispering. It even caught on with others who found themselves whispering “just to fit in”…we did find some humor, but understand that there is nothing funny about having cancer. I tried so hard to continue to train on the tennis court and in the gym, but treatment took its toll. Even simple household chores and errands became extremely difficult. If I had not been blessed with friends, hospital staff, pharmacists and grocery employees who knew me so well, I could not have endured the final 3 weeks of treatment when my husband had to take a business trip overseas. He and I just never knew the fatigue would get so bad. When my body finally succumbed to the extreme mental and physical fatigue, it put me in bed almost 24 hours a day the final 2 weeks (and the next 2 afterwards). I remember being in such a mental stupor that nothing seemed to matter except just lying there. Walking became difficult with balance issues. I’d move around the house holding on to walls and furniture, shuffling my feet in such a wide stance to stay up.

I finally gave up trying to train when my coach and I decided I looked pretty funny shuffling to the courts and experiencing such disorientation while hitting because my feet were so far apart. It was truly an ultimate challenge to maintain some sort of dignity when I looked and felt so fatigued.

Up to this point, I had not admitted to the hospital that I felt so badly because there was guilt that my cancer was non-life threatening when others were not. That may sound odd, but it’s been another trial along the way that I still work through. Day 23 of treatment was the worst. For some reason I remember that day because I felt so bad and “out of it”. I went to treatment, used the free valet parking our hospital so generously offers for cancer patients and couldn’t get out of the car and into the hospital on my own. The attendant helped me to our hallway as I dragged my backpack on the ground from such fatigue. One of the radiation therapists saw me and when she asked how I was, I could only say “I need help because I am so sick”. It took every fiber in my being to get back home after convincing them I could do so.

Time has in some ways stood still and others passed so quickly as it has already been 4 months since treatment ended. I AM NOW CANCER FREE after also having 2 suspect areas (actinic keratoses) treated in simple form; one was treated with a chemotherapy crème, the other with liquid nitrogen. At the direction of my dermatologist, I will receive skin screening several times a year to address any suspicious cells PRIOR to possible development. If only I had known what I do now I would have begun skin screening years ago.

I’m back to full training, but not in terms ever experienced. As an athlete, if we can’t immediately attack afterwards, we need a goal. My sports medicine folks finally discussed how to come back and it means throwing everything ever learned with recovery from injuries out the door. “Just because I can, does not mean I should”. The more I tried to approach this as an injury, the more stress placed on this atrophied body and mind and the more the fatigue tore me down. No tournaments can be targeted until late Spring/early summer which makes the full down time almost a year…at least I can have a goal.

I finally cried the other day (4 months post treatment, 6 months since diagnosis) at the sheer enormity of the situation. From a personal and athletic perspective, this experience has been humbling, humiliating, embarrassing, and a learning process about myself. It doesn’t just take courage and stamina to survive, but the necessity for full support is imperative. My loving husband, family, coach and friends provided more than I could ever have asked and it has helped give me strength before, during and now post treatment. I take nothing for granted and I WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE! I don’t want anyone else to needlessly wait and have to receive radical surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or worse, die. I do not want someone to go through the physical and mental anguish, frustration, fatigue and depression that can result from whatever form of treatment you must endure. Love your body enough to get skin screening as much as your doctor recommends and know how it can impact your life.

I know I was placed in this situation for a reason and can only hope I do what was intended. The Lance Armstrong Foundation has allowed me the opportunity to volunteer as part of its LIVESTRONG Global Cancer Initiative, and I plan on speaking and writing as much as I can to promote early skin screening and evaluation. I will make that difference and uphold the spirit of LIVESTRONG by protecting myself and informing others.

I would like to personally thank Dr. Robert Behar – M.D., Chairman and CEO of North Cypress Medical Center; Dr. Leslie Ledbetter, M.D. – The Woodlands Dermatology Group; and Dr. Matt Hammit, M.D. – Texas Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine for leading me in the right direction for evaluation, diagnosis and treatment. Each one provided more than I can ever describe with caring, professionalism and sensitivity to my personal situation. I cannot say enough about Dr. Behar’s carefully planned and designed cancer treatment that has allowed me full opportunity to continue my quest for a National singles title in tennis.

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Excerpt from her personal experience with skin cancer:  Millions of people are diagnosed with cancer each year. Some receive treatment and continue living their lives; others are not so fortunate. Skin cancer does not discriminate with its recipients. It’s not just what we do now, but what we did years ago that can effect the risk potential...  (full story)