The week in April that I was hospitalized was the most challenging in terms of facing and understanding my own mortality. The past month since I lost my job has brought an entirely new set of challenges and realizations of my sense of self and strength. Working through the devastation of losing my job in large part because of irreconcilable issues due to my cancer treatment was something that took me several weeks and stages of working through the loss and emotions. My initial response was largely denial of my emotions and refusal to acknowledge defeat. It took me several weeks to work through my thoughts and understand my emotions and reach acceptance and finding contentment. A couple weekends ago I finally got past the anger and injustice that were suffocating me and found peace. I finally cognitively recognized the multiplicity of issues that were detrimental to my former company and job and found solace in the ability to be free from them and ready to move forward and finally pursue a career that will fulfill my soul and intellect.
After reaching these conclusions, I decided to take my abundance of time to go visit my family in Alabama and help move my brother and sister in law to Minnesota, so over Memorial Day weekend, I booked my flight to Birmingham and another one back from Minnesota. I thought this would be the turning point where I got away to breathe and surely had to be done with the proverbial lemons life had been handing me and that I would be onto the lemonade drinking phase. The day before I was scheduled to leave, after being out running errands all day, I got home to discover Annabelle had developed a large lump under her left arm on her rib cage. I did my best to remain rational, although every part of me immediately cringed and thought of the lumps that had formed in my neck. I called the vet to schedule an appointment and hoped I would get some speculation from them as to what it could be, but they only told me she should come in immediately, which was the next day.
Jason convinced me to not change my flight and that he would take care of Annabelle, and that if something changed, I could fly back. I landed in Alabama, and Jason called as I was getting off the plane. The vet determined they needed to remove the tumor to determine whether it was cancerous. There was no more hoping that it was just a fluid filled cyst. We were back in the same position we had been in back in December when my lymph node was removed: an impending surgery followed by a waiting period that was sure to feel like an eternity. The surgery went well on Thursday, and the vet was able to remove the tumor and said that it wasn’t “rooted” in the surrounding tissue, which he indicated to be a good sign that it if it was cancerous that it had not metastasized. We had to wait three to five business days for results, which meant that we would likely not get results until the following week. I was glad the surgery went well, but as my dad and I were driving to Dan and Tess’s house to help pack and visit, we found ourselves looking at each other and both laughing at the absurdity that a few weeks after I had finished chemo and six months after my cancer diagnosis, that now my sweet little dog (one that I love more than 99% of people, that is the center of our lives, and that sleeps between us every night) was also facing a potential cancer diagnosis. For quite some time on our 20 minute drive, all dad and I could do was laugh and curse cancer in multiple profane ways.
As poor Jason, Annabelle, and Layla were home and miserable in different ways during Annabelle’s recovery period, we had a long, hot Saturday of loading the 26-foot Uhaul to the brim with all of Dan and Tess’s belongings. Late Saturday night, I grilled burgers and chicken for the six of us (Tess’s mom Susan joined the party Saturday morning). After finishing dinner, I went to brush my teeth, and get ready for bed. As I was using a Placker Dental Flosser to try to pick out what I thought was a popcorn kernel from the gum behind my back molar that I had been poking for the past five days, I discovered there was not a popcorn kernel in my gum; there was a wisdom tooth coming through the gum! Using a flashlight, I marveled at this new and unwelcome tooth. Hearing me squawking in dismay, Mom, Dad, and Dan came into the bathroom to check on me. As I played show and tell with my new tooth, I again was laughing so hard that I was crying because my wisdom teeth decided to make their appearance over a decade too late. I sat in bed with my parents’ dogs as they packed their bags, laughing at yet another lemon added to my growing collection of life’s lemons, drinking wine from a coffee mug, and being thankful that everyone in my family has my same twisted sense of humor and resilience. After a couple of mugs of wine, I decided to share my status as a teething adult with the world through Instagram, and (again due to the wine in a mug) revealed a somewhat secret: in the picture, I featured my mug of wine being grasped firmly by my left hand. Quickly thereafter, I find my phone buzzing incessantly and realized that my friends are much more observant and astute than I was at that point. They laughed at my teething status, but more importantly noticed the fact that my left ring finger was donned with a wedding band. Through this picture, it allowed us to widely disclose that Jason and I got married back in December when we knew my diagnosis was impending*. We had been breaking the news to friends and family in organic situations over the past six months, but due to my newly posted picture, got to finally break the news publicly and widely.Sunday at 4:00am came quickly thereafter, and we were on the road to Minnesota by 5:00am. Mom and I were tasked with driving Dan’s Jeep on 17 hour journey, which we filled with serious and silly conversations, dance parties, snacks, and many Diet Cokes. As we were in the last hour of our drive, which was on numerous two lane roads between endless cornfields through many parts of Iowa that I didn’t know existed and never hope to see again, I pass a cop. My stomach immediately dropped as I realized I didn’t know the speed limit and was operating on the assumption that it was the same on that two lane road as the last one. Of course, in the rear view mirror, I saw the cop make a U-turn in the middle of the road and turn on his lights. I eventually stop beside one of the cornfields and entered into a conversation with the cop where we discovered I had not actually passed a speed limit sign since turning onto that road, because the closest one was posted several miles before I turned onto the road. I hoped I would finally get some kind of break and the cop would give me only a warning given the circumstances, but to my dismay, he took his sweet time writing my ticket. Mom was in full protective mom mode as he walked back up with my ticket and tried to reemphasize that we legitimately didn’t know the speed limit and relay the array of my other misfortunes, but I saw it was clear the cop was resolute in his decision to give me a ticket, so I took it and we got back on the road. In our truest form, Mom played Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” on repeat for a little while as we laughed and approached the Minnesota state line. Mom and I had sped ahead of the U-Haul and Tess’s car so we could get pictures of Dan and Tess as they crossed into Minnesota for the first time as new residents. Fortunately we had gotten enough distance ahead that the delay with the cop wasn’t detrimental to our plan. As we’re standing on the side of the road beside the Welcome to Minnesota sign waiting for the other two vehicles to approach, we finally see them and expected Dad and Susan to slow them down so we could get clear pictures. Instead, Mom and I got a video of Dan and Tess speeding by the state line sign at 60mph with us laughing in the background and then pictures of ourselves with the Minnesota sign. We waited on the side of the road for a few minutes thinking they’d turn around and come back to take pictures with us, and finally realized our communication of the plan to Dad and Susan was a total failure, so we get back in the car laughing at the fact that I sped and got a ticket for failed aspirations and a hilarious story.
The rest of my trip in Minnesota was fun getting to enjoy perfect spring weather while helping them set up their new home and taking breaks in the afternoon for runs by the river followed by fun family dinners and exploring Rochester. Despite the challenges of the past week (Annabelle’s surgery, wisdom teeth, and speeding ticket), spending time with my family provided me with the laughter and joy that I needed. Wednesday, June 3, I had a Rochester style breakfast at a local diner and started my day of flying to get from one small city back to our current small city. As I was flying back to North Carolina, the vet called Jason and told him that they had the biopsy results and that the tumor was a cancerous sarcoma. Fortunately since the surgery had gone so well and the vet had removed the full tumor, there isn’t more to be done except for monitor her for additional tumors, which the vet thinks is unlikely. Although it was bad news, it seemed to be the best of the bad, and I was relieved to be home with Jason, Annabelle, and Layla, and go into the maxillofacial surgeon to deal with my wisdom teeth. I went in on Friday and first had X-Rays then met with the surgeon who said all four wisdom teeth needed to come out. After signing away all risks of having my wisdom teeth removed, I was sedated and woke up an hour or two later groggy with gigantic cheeks. It took me until the following Friday to get back to eating softer, but almost normal adult foods, and the same afternoon, we finally had Annabelle’s stitches removed.
Since then, things have normalized around our house. On the cancer recovery front, I have seen continuing improvements of my health and the immediate side effects of chemo subside. After getting the results of my blood levels from my May 15 check-up appointment, I have gradually started reintroducing all of my normal foods back into my diet: fresh, uncooked fruits and vegetables at restaurants, rare meats, sushi, runny eggs, unpasteurized drinks, alcohol. I have continued to wash all fruits, vegetables and containers with soap upon bringing them home from the market, just as an extra precaution. I have felt my strength and stamina increase, and have finally stopped getting light-headed during work-outs. I have taken an increased focus on my health since May, and realized how much I actually needed rest and a break from work-related stresses to let my body recover from the trauma I’ve been through in the past seven months. I have been exercising regularly and focusing on ensuring my body is getting all of the nutrients it needs. I workout for about an hour and a half five to six days per week and eat healthy most of the time, but allow myself to enjoy indulgent dinners and drinks normally twice a week when Jason and I have date nights and go enjoy our favorite restaurants and bars.
In addition to being back to feeling like myself on the inside, I’ve noticed my skin is recovering. Throughout chemo, I battled mouth sores and dry and sensitive skin, which I noticed most on my hands and feet where I’d develop large blisters (2-3cm in diameter on my feet) from walking or exercising. The skin on my face has started to regain the brightness and the dark circles under my eyes have lessened. I still get small blisters on the balls and heels of my feet if I run longer distances (3+ miles), but they are much more bearable than what I had previously. My nails are getting back to normal and growing and not as susceptible to breaking. My hair is also making a comeback, which has been one of the most fun things to watch, because it is such a visible sign. During the last rounds of chemo, my eyebrows and eyelashes were reduced in length and fullness by about 60% of what they were pre-chemo. Now they’ve started to fill back in and grow longer. I obviously lost essentially all of the hair on my head to chemo. I think maybe due to the two week delay in the last round of chemo, I had fuzzy super blonde hairs form on my head, which ended up falling out during the middle part of may when my real hair started to come back in.I knew there would be a time when I would have enough hair that I wouldn’t have to wear hats or turbans, but wasn’t sure when that point would be. Early in chemo when I first lost my hair, I didn’t think that I would be brave enough to go without hats until I reached the point of looking like I had an intentional short hair cut where my hair was at least a couple of inches long. I’ve realized throughout the past several months, that all of the statements I heard and read from other women who said that after battling cancer and being bald, that I would discover a different strength and sense of self that I could not have ever otherwise known. I doubted this, but have recently realized they were right.
I was fortunate that my parents helped me develop a strong sense of self and confidence, which came out in different ways throughout the past seven months. One of the ways that surprised me was in facing my baldness in different facets and not being afraid to face the world at different points with my shiny head showing. Similarly, two weekends ago, I found a part of myself and strength I didn’t know I had. As I was getting ready and put on a dress and make-up, I worried that my hair made it clear I was a cancer survivor in recovery and that without my formerly long hair, I wasn’t girly or pretty enough to wear my dresses anymore, which make up 85% of my wardrobe. I decided to squash those silly fears, put on a favorite dress and walk out of the door sans hat. At the movie theater, I had two women compliment my “hair cut”, which made me smile from ear to ear and realize that others see me differently than I do. I was thankful for others’ kindness and for restored faith in humanity. Every day since then, as I’ve gotten ready and stepped out of the house without a hat, I’ve taken a breath and realized I am thankful for how incredible the human body is. Mine has gone from having a deadly illness, to receiving toxic drugs to beat that illness, to being healthy again, all within a matter of months. I think I am past the immediately, initial side effects of chemotherapy, and on the longer and more profound road to recovery, and I am thankful to be solidly standing on that road for now. I am also glad that I have found strength in myself through all of this and a greater resilience than I had previously. It gave me the ability to face the circumstances over the past months with laughter and the thought that no matter what that I could handle it and that everything would be okay. I’ve also decided that life has given me enough lemons to make a gigantic pitcher of lemonade that I should add some vodka and throw one hell of a summer party for all of my friends 🙂
I go for my first follow-up PET scan on July 14th, which is a huge hurdle. Most people with DLBCL who relapse do so in the first two years post chemotherapy (See 1, 2, 3), so getting through each PET-scan and having the results come back negative will be triumphant for us. Each one will also get me closer to the coveted “durable remission” point at two years of clear scans post-treatment and ultimate “medically cured” point at five years of clear scans post-treatment. There isn’t a day that goes by where the upcoming PET scan and fear of relapse doesn’t cross my mind. I hope that over the next five years, I’ll have the trend of clear scans and these thoughts will become distant memories. But for now, I am going to be thankful that I am happier now that I was before cancer (I’m not sure how it’s possible, but it has been one of the best realizations to date), and I am going to focus on that happiness and all of the good in my life. Jason and I have several trips to see friends over the next couple of months (yay! travel!), and I’m going to continue to focus on regaining my health, enjoying my girls and looking for the next phase of my career and our lives.
PS: We’ve received a lot of questions about whether or not we’ll be planning a wedding/celebration….Our goal is to get through these initial PET scans and to feeling relatively safe that I won’t relapse, and to me feeling and looking normal. Then we will be planning a wedding party so we can properly celebrate with all of our loved ones!