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From Doctor to Patient

Written by Tonya Shultz, Ph.D. on in Patient Stories

The small lump on my right elbow turned out to be a liposarcoma of the right triceps, and it needed to be gone.

The small lump on my right elbow turned out to be a liposarcoma of the right triceps, and it needed to be gone.

Twenty-two years ago, my surgery was scheduled at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, followed by 38 days of radiation. The drive from Lompoc to Santa Barbara for radiation occurred every day of the week; it was scheduled early enough for me to be at work at the then-named Valley Medical Group by 10 a.m. each day. Everything was good for five years.

When another tumor appeared, amputation was the suggested treatment of choice by my medical team, but I sought a second opinion at UCLA. The UCLA surgery – tumor removal but no amputation -- was followed by six months of chemotherapy. Four years later, there was another surgery.

When the next issue occurred in the arm, amputation was the recommended path to save my life. Again, I sought another opinion and went to the City of Hope. Fourteen years of perfect arm health followed.

In 2016, the tumor reappeared, and I was again treated with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

By 2018, it was no longer possible to use remedial measures, and amputation surgery was scheduled.

When I had the first cancer surgery on Feb. 4, 1997, I was concerned about the visible scar on the arm. After chemotherapy from January through August 2004, my entire self was bald, and I used scarves, hats, and wigs to feel comfortable around other people.

After the amputation, there was no mistaking that I was missing an arm.

Amputation occurred Oct. 31, 2018, on Halloween, an interesting and quirky way to accept my “new normal” self, and carry on!

In truth, I had been preparing for the loss of my arm for many years —not worrying every day, but aware the sarcoma was lurking somewhere in the arm. So, I gradually shifted more of my painting and other art expressions to the left hand, practiced at the computer with the mouse in the left hand, ate left-handed and attempted writing with the non-dominant hand.

Honestly, I had varying levels of success with all of these preparations. Writing with my left hand after a lifetime as a right-handed person continues to challenge me.

After taking time off to heal, I returned to seeing patients for psychotherapy. The ability to help others with life challenges at the Lompoc Health Counseling Center is a gift. I am so glad to be with compadres and friends, and my psychotherapy work is my passion.

The adjustments to this new normal continue. My driver’s license has no restrictions and only requires that I have a knob on the steering wheel for easier turning. Several devices help me maneuver in the kitchen; chopping, cutting, carrying, lifting, and a loving Annie dog to pick up the bits of vegetables that getaway.

My core belief is that “We do not learn anything for no reason,” and the gifts of knowledge given to us are meant to be shared. With this life change, I’m sharing what I’ve experienced and learned.

I am currently writing a book: A Butterfly With One Wing, which should be available soon. A set of videos will be ready by September, showing several “How to do it” ideas for navigating an amputation, a stroke, shoulder surgery or partial paralysis.

I am grateful every day for this journey through new learning, “the new normal” and appreciate how cancer has enriched my life.