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A Happy Ending
SHANA BULL
Even with a cancer diagnosis, there can be moments that are cause for celebration.

In February of 2020, I had hemorrhoids. I put off going to the doctor because I assumed they would go away after a few weeks, like they did after my son was born four years earlier. 

They didn’t.

Then the pandemic hit. I had several virtual doctors appointments where they tried to fix the hemorrhoid itself, and each time I told them there was a noticeable lump by my rear end that had a dull but constant throbbing pain that was getting worse. Finally, after two months of video and phone calls and begging to see someone in person, I saw a gynecologist in her office. 

Instantly, she knew something was wrong. A screening showed that I had a small fibroid in my uterus. She thought my lump was most likely a rogue fibroid that made its way into my colon. A CT scan was scheduled. A phone call from the doctor came two hours later, saying the lump looked cancerous and follow-up scans needed to be done ASAP.

Three more scans and a few weeks went by—and I was diagnosed with stage III anal cancer.

Specifically, squamous cell carcinoma, a skin cancer that develops on the inner layer of the anus, derived from HPV (HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It is usually harmless and goes away by itself, but some strains can lead to cancer. About 80 percent of women used to contract genital HPV by age 50, according to the CDC in 2005, but now there is a vaccine and those numbers have significantly dropped). 

When I was in my early 20s, I found out I had HPV during a routine check up at a Planned Parenthood. I was convinced there wasn’t much to worry about, so I hadn’t given it a second thought, until the day I found out what ultimately caused the tumor in my pelvis. 


Going Public

More than 15 years later, I sat in my living room with this news, wondering what I did wrong, or what I could have done to prevent the cancer. Telling others, especially my own family, about HPV was scary; I was afraid of being judged. 

I am also very active on social media (on Instagram), and I have made a brand for myself by being open and honest about my own life as a mom (of a kid who has a genetic disease cystic fibrosis) and a small business owner. 

I knew I couldn’t encourage others to be authentic with their own social media marketing if I kept this huge secret from everyone. So, with some humor about everything (because let’s be honest—there are a LOT of butt puns out there in the world), I wrote a blog post and answered any questions I thought I might get. The blog post, “2020 Is a Literal Pain in My Ass,” shared symptoms, plans for treatments and why I chose to talk about having anal cancer with my online community. Hitting publish on this article was cathartic for me. Telling my story released my pent-up emotions. 

I got a lot of great advice from online friends, as well as some not-so-great advice (which I took with a grain of salt, because I knew they were just trying to help). But, mostly, I received support, and that made everything a little less scary


 

An Unexpected Opportunity 

Last summer, I went through 30 days of radiation and oral chemotherapy. My doctors tried to prepare me for the worst of it  two weeks after my last day of radiation. But to be honest, nothing could have prepared me for how bad it was. I was bedridden for a month and a half because the radiation burns were too much to handle. Thankfully, I slept most of the time, and when I was awake, I was able to watch lighthearted shows like “Top Chef” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” to pass the time. 

Prior to my treatments, I had to say goodbye to my wine and food clients—writing opportunities, social media marketing gigs and the classes I taught—so I could focus on myself and not stress about my business. The extra time gave me an opportunity to look inward and ask myself what I wanted to do next with my career. I’ve been an entrepreneur in the wine and food space for over 12 years, and I loved what I did, but I also created unhealthy habits, like sitting at my desk all day. I asked myself where I saw myself in a year or, if something happened because of my cancer diagnosis, what I would want my legacy to be.

Ever since I was a kid I wanted to work in marketing and I wanted to be an author. At different speaking gigs, I have told my story of how I worked my way up in my own business and felt like it was a compelling story for a book.

I had also been sitting on a short manuscript for a children’s book I co-wrote with my toddler when he was only two years old. It was during a trip to visit my in-laws at the beach, and my son started rambling on about how funny it would be to see a spider surfing, and that he might get nervous if people were watching. 

I started asking questions and recorded his musings on my phone’s notes app. The story was a cute tale about Randall the Blue Spider, who is nervous about entering a surfing competition. His friend helps him with simple coping mechanisms and lots of silliness. This book sat on my phone for almost three years, and while I was bedridden I thought it was finally time to publish it. 

I spent time researching self-publishing and talked to a friend who released a book with an indie book publisher, East 26 Publishing. I connected with the owner, and we worked out a deal to turn both of my book ideas into a reality. 

Fast forward seven months later. In a two-week timeframe, I learned that the tumor in my pelvis was gone, and I launched my first children’s book, “Randall the Blue Spider Goes Surfing.” 

Either one of these accomplishments is worthy of a celebration. But finding out that my cancer was gone and pivoting my career from wine and food marketing to being a published author before I turned 40 years old—I’m still kind of in shock. The children’s book would never have become a reality if it weren’t for me taking the time off during cancer treatments. 

Since getting cancer, I have changed my mindset about what “success” looks like for me. Instead of spending more than eight hours sitting in front of a computer, I start my day off with mobility exercise and stretching. I go on walks outside more often, drink more water and eat more vegetables. I never really considered myself unhealthy before, but there were times when I literally sat in front of my computer until I was so hungry I couldn’t function. 

This past year has made me realize that a healthy lifestyle makes my workday easier, telling my story reassures me that I’m not alone and reevaluating my goals when given the chance has allowed me to reach new heights. 


As You Move Forward

Ask yourself where you see yourself one year from now. Is it sitting at your desk all day, ignoring symptoms that are telling you something is off with your body? How can you change that moving forward? See a doctor if you know something is wrong. Ask questions, and try to build healthy habits in your life right now. 

Also, take Randall’s advice: Share ice cream with friends. It helps.


Shana Bull, digital marketing educator and best-selling children’s book author, has worked in marketing for over 12 years. Her title changes, but she is passionate about helping brands connect with their audiences and tell their unique stories through digital marketing. Find her at shanabull.com, randallthebluespider.com, or on Instagram at @sharayray. 


Shana Bull, digital marketing educator and best-selling children’s book author, has worked in marketing for over 12 years. Her title changes, but she is passionate about helping brands connect with their audiences and tell their unique stories through digital marketing. Find her at shanabull.com, randallthebluespider.com, or on Instagram at @sharayray. 

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