June 13, 2023

My Cancer Story: Dianne Cleveland


My cancer experience

The first person I ever knew with cancer was a dear family friend when I was only 10 years old. He was found to have advanced-stage lung cancer and passed away in a very short time. The second person I knew with cancer was me. I was only 14 years old when I found a lump in January on the back of my left thigh just above the knee. It was the size of a small lemon. I showed it to my parents, and they immediately took me to our physician who referred us to a surgeon. He was sure it was a Baker’s Cyst, slapped my leg, and said “We will take it out this summer!”.

By March, it had grown to be the size of a large grapefruit. This was during the era of miniskirts, and I was extremely self-conscious. We were not allowed to wear pants to school, so I would stand with my knee bent hoping no one would notice the lump. I begged my parents to take me back to the surgeon.
During spring break, they removed the totally encapsulated tumor which was found to be a low-grade leiomyosarcoma. I remember when the surgeon came into my room to tell me I would need another surgery. Even though no one said the “C” word, I knew I had cancer. But being young, only the horrific scar on the back of my leg, the complete length of my thigh bothered me. I had to learn to walk and run again on my own because they removed all three hamstring muscles from the back of my leg. I was not referred to physical therapy, but I did have bone scans for the five years following.
I always wondered why this happened to me. Why did I have cancer? I was relieved when wearing pants became more acceptable and hemlines moved down. Every now and then, people would (and still do) comment about the funny way I walk. Recently, a teenager mocked me at an airport as I departed the plane. His parents just laughed.

How has this affected my life and career?

While going to HIM school, one of my clinical rotations was in a young registry (state-reporting only). I loved the work in the registry. Not only was it coding, but there were plenty of other tasks to keep from getting bored. They were looking for a permanent, full-time Cancer Registrar, so I applied. I got the position before I even graduated! I enjoyed the challenge of building a cancer program from the ground up. It wasn’t long before we had Cansur software (Anyone remember Dr. Brent James?) and our program was CoC-accredited. I have devoted my entire life to the Cancer Registry profession because I have a passion to make a difference. It is the only thing I want to do! But I would give it all up today if there was a cure for cancer. My Mother passed away in 2014 from T-Cell Lymphoma.

What do I have to say to other cancer survivors for National Cancer Survivors Month?

Be proud of your scars. They show you won that battle! I celebrate each year with you, but I realize that some of you may still be fighting your own war. Try to turn what happened to you into a gift for others whether it be participating in clinical trials, volunteering at your local cancer center, or just silently listening to a family member/friend in need.

Dianne Cleveland, RHIA, CTR
Implementation and Client Support Specialist
ONCO, Inc.