In the midst of the pandemic, Shana Bull was diagnoses with anal cancer; she is candid about sharing her story in an effort to break the stigma surrounding this specific cancer which can develop as a result of HPV.
In April, Shana found out she was cancer-free, and that same month she published a bestselling children’s book this year, Randall the Blue Spider Goes Surfing, which she co-authored with her son, Ryeson, age 5.
Sunday Edit: Can you share a bit about your cancer diagnosis?
Shana Bull: On July 7th, 2020 I was diagnosed with stage 3 anal cancer. I was 38 years old.
After a month of non-stop testing, along with several months of doctors simply trying to fix the symptoms (hemorrhoids and a mass, which I thought was hemorrhoids, so large I couldn’t insert a tampon), it was almost a relief that there was a diagnosis for my issues. At least having the diagnosis meant that there was a game-plan.
I knew there was something wrong with my body before March 2020 when the pandemic shutdowns happened here in California, but I didn’t do anything about it, hoping that the hemorrhoids would go away just like they did right after I gave birth. I ignored them, just telling myself I will call a doctor if they don’t get better in a week… Then a week would go by and I’d forget.
Squamous cell carcinoma is the official name, and it is a type of skin cancer that was derived from HPV. The tumor was situated between my vaginal wall and my anus and it spread to two small lymph nodes, which is why I was diagnosed with stage 3 (stage 2 would have been if I just had the tumor).
SE: What was it like to receive a diagnosis in the midst of the pandemic?
SB: When I first saw a doctor about my symptoms it was in May, and no doctors were seeing people in person. I did video chats with my regular doctor a few times and all he did was try to fix the hemorrhoids themselves, not looking at what might be causing them. After a month of no changes even with several medications, I called and they told me that the only doctor that would see me would be an OB/GYN doctor, versus a specialist.
She was quickly able to realize that the mass in my pelvis was more than just large hemorrhoid. After that, it was a month of non-stop testing. And the team at Kaiser (Permanente Walnut Creek Medical Center) was very quick to diagnose my anal cancer.
I went to each appointment double-masked and thankfully didn’t have to ever be around too many people. I guess that was the bright side of receiving the diagnosis in the middle of the pandemic. They weren’t seeing as many patients so I was able to get into my appointments and get out very quickly.
Once we had my diagnosis and treatment schedule, everything was a whirlwind. It almost all happened so quickly that I never really had time to process until after my treatment when I started to recover from the radiation burns that covered my upper thighs and entire pelvis.
I went through every radiation treatment (each took about five minutes once I got on the platform), each scan, and each check-up all alone. Normally significant others are there to help walk you into treatment when it gets hard to walk, but I had to do it alone while my husband waited in the car.
It was also hard because I didn’t get to see friends and family very much. I did get some help from family and friends who came up to stay with us, they got tested and quarantined for two weeks before they came up to see me. During my treatments, my husband took care of everything. Taking my son to school, driving me the half-hour to radiation, and then taking care of everything at home while I was practically bedridden for a month and a half.
SE: When did you find out that your tumor was gone?
SB: I found out that I officially didn’t have cancer anymore on April 10, 2021. I was having random tightening aches in a different area of my pelvis so the doctors decided to do a PT scan and exam a few months before I was originally scheduled. The test results came back that there was nothing new to be worried about.
I had a week to process that the tumor was gone due to confusing emails from my doctor that were very clinical. But when he finally said “the CT scan did not detect any residual tumor,” I read that email over and over again. And then shared the news with friends and family [on Instagram].
I remember that it took a little while after reading those words before it really hit me that meant I didn’t have cancer anymore. The tears started coming down. And my five-year-old ran into the room because he thought I was hurt. I had to explain to him that sometimes happy tears are okay.
How has your life changed since your diagnosis?
SB: Pre-pandemic, my everyday job was as a freelance writer, writing about digital marketing, wine, restaurants, and concerts in Northern California. I also taught classes on digital marketing, specifically for hospitality industry marketers, and small business owners. During treatments, my body was too exhausted most days, and the chemotherapy, even though it was oral versus infusions, still made my brain feel a little foggy. I had to give up all of my clients, including one that I had for seven years.
My body needed to rest. And I definitely did that. The month after treatments, I spent about 80% of my days asleep. The other time I would watch shows that I already knew the ending to, like reruns of Top Chef and RuPaul‘s Drag Race. I found that I couldn’t concentrate on things very long. And anything that had a stressful storyline I couldn’t deal with (including the news at the time).
That time off gave me the opportunity to think about what I wanted to do next with my career. I connected with a hybrid book publisher, Krista from East 26 publishing, and partnered with her on two books. One, a memoir of my life in digital marketing, and the second a children’s book that I co-authored with my son when he was two years old.
View this post on Instagram
The second book, Randall the Blue Spider Goes Surfing is a cute story about a surfing spider who is nervous about people watching him. The story was living on the notes app off my phone for three years because I never really thought it was going to go anywhere. I just thought it was a cute story that my rambling toddler and I wrote together after a trip to Long Beach.
The book ended up being released on Amazon, and in Northern California bookstores about a week after I found out my cancer was gone. Needless to say, April was a pretty good month for me.
I’m telling my story now, I look back and realize that this book, a bucket list item for me, would’ve never been published if it wasn’t for having to pivot during my cancer treatments. I am eternally grateful that I have the opportunity to look ahead and figure out what I want in my life to look like post-cancer treatments, and post-pandemic.
In addition to the book, I made it a point to talk about my cancer journey on my website and social media. I always encourage clients to be authentic and tell their stories, so I wanted to do it for myself. And now one of my goals post-cancer is to encourage people to listen to their own bodies and seek help when they think something is off.
SE: Has your attitude toward your body changed?
SB: I have definitely prioritized my health more than I ever did before. Stretches in the morning, daily walks, laughter with my family, and getting away from my computer instead of staying at my desk for eight hours at a time.
In the months after my treatment, I went gluten-free, dairy-free, alcohol-free, and low sugar. I did have a bit of relapse once I found out the tumor was gone but my body quickly told me that I couldn’t eat an entire cheese plate & two glasses of wine like I used to. Moderation is a friend now.
SE: Do you have any advice for individuals or families who are going through cancer treatment?
SB: I couldn’t have made it through cancer treatments without having a support system. My husband drove me to treatments when I was on so much medication that I couldn’t functionally drive. And I had friends and family that were willing to quarantine for up to two weeks just to come help.
For people that don’t have friends or family around them, I recommend that they talk to their doctors, and see about local support. There are a lot of nonprofits that help drive people to treatments and provide resources.
But really, the best piece of advice I would give to someone is to not be afraid of talking about what you’re going through. It is scary, and when it comes to anal cancer, it is embarrassing. But the more we talk about our experiences, the less taboo they will be for others, which hopefully encourages people to seek treatment for things like hemorrhoids when they feel like something is off.