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  • Writer's pictureSusan Strong

Decades After Diagnosis:The Unrecognized Trauma of Surviving

When I met Darryl in 2012, I was in the best shape of my life. Our first year together was joyful and active: we enjoyed mountain hikes and long talks, with the crunch of graveled trail underfoot and an expanse of azure sky overhead; summer concerts under a canopy of stars at the Red Rocks amphitheater; and shared laughter and conversation over wine and gourmet dinners with friends. At 46, I felt certain that the second half of my life held a joy that my younger self had only hoped for.

One short year later, at a routine appointment, my primary care physician said, “Your murmur is changing. Let’s send you to a cardiologist.” The life-altering chain of events that followed left me blind-sided.

A few weeks later, an echocardiogram revealed severe aortic stenosis. The cardiologist said I would need valve replacement within the next 6 months. He explained that the stenosis was a result of high-dose (36Gy) mantle radiation I had received in 1983—when at 17 years old, I had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.

What?? My experience of cancer as a teenager had become a distant memory.… The staging laparotomy and splenectomy, lymphangiogram, bone marrow biopsy, MOPP chemotherapy, radiation…the impact of that brutal year seemed distant and unreal, like a nightmare that was difficult to recall after the morning light and a cup of coffee.

Stunned, I sat on a metal bench in front of the hospital, waiting for the valet to retrieve my car. I called Darryl to tell him the shocking news about my heart valve. I braced myself and said stoically, “Now’s your opportunity to move on, because things are about to get real.”

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