There’s a quote I’ve heard often:
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Except bears. Bears will kill you.”
After everything I’ve been through since my initial diagnosis for cancer, I must be tungsten by now. That’s the strongest natural metal. But to be honest, I definitely have days where I feel more like a ball of cotton.
Now, I’ve always been a pretty tough kid. And, growing up in the mountains of Colorado with a dad who worked for the Division of Wildlife, I’ve definitely seen lots and lots of bears! But having cancer was something that definitely threw me for a loop, partially because it was a total surprise. I didn’t have a lump, bump or any other indicator. The computer that read my mammogram saw teeny little specks, which indicated there “might” be a problem. The majority of the time, these specks are harmless. Of course, I had to be special – a trend which continued for many, many months.
I was sent to a breast surgeon, who said that I did indeed have cancer, but early indicators were that it was Stage 0 and would be VERY easy to treat. I know that she told me all of the other gloom and doom things, but I was definitely Pollyanna and choose to hear only the best outcome. Technically, she diagnosed ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is a non-invasive cancer. I worked for an oncologist for two years, then spent two years with the American Cancer Society, so I knew DCIS was the best possible diagnosis. I did shed a couple of tears, but then figured everything would be just fine.
Boy, was I wrong.
One of the first big tests ordered was a breast MRI, and of course, I just had to be special. For this MRI, you’re face down, in an extremely uncomfortable position and told to stay perfectly still for hours (or at least it felt that long). Well, I moved, so the images were blurred and I had to have another MRI. This time, I was smart enough to ask for Valium! However, my body rebelled at having the MRI contrast dye twice in a short period of time and I had an allergic reaction. A bad one. Think oompa loompah. My eyes swelled shut, I couldn’t breath and had to have those very fun adrenaline and Benadryl shots. Full body hives in August in Atlanta are not fun, no matter how cold you set the AC.
I found out my cancer was not Stage 0 and had spread, not from my doctor, but from reading the MRI results on my online chart. The word “metastatic” literally jumped off the page at me. Not good.
After speaking very sharply at my surgeon for releasing the info into my chart before she met with me, we proceeded with trying to fine-tune the diagnosis. I had two really fun stereotactic biopsies (think car on a mechanic’s car lift). Big needles. More Valium. Not enough Novocaine. But, the results were still promising, so we proceeded with a lumpectomy and a check of the nearby lymph nodes.
Special reared its head again when 8 of 12 lymph nodes came back positive for cancer. I think my surgeon was as surprised as I was. Finally, off to the oncologist I went.
LOVE my oncologist. She’s a bit like a hyperactive child, but I trust her 100%. That’s absolutely critical anytime someone is facing a serious medical condition. She felt that it was critical that I start an aggressive chemotherapy regime immediately, and have a mastectomy later. Her “final” diagnosis is Stage IV cancer.
My first treatment took over eight hours and involved a whole bunch of really nasty, strong drugs. Luckily, my surgeon had “installed” a port in my shoulder, so all my IVs go through it. I felt fine for a couple of days, then started feeling puny. I chalked it up to “normal” chemo reactions, but eventually realized that something was seriously wrong. Ambulance was called, firemen carried me down our stairs, and off to the hospital I went. I remember complaining that we weren’t going “lights and sirens” – then the bottom dropped out of my world. I don’t even remember arriving at the hospital. Long story short, I had a reaction that happens less than 1% of the time (see, I said I’m special). The chemo had eaten a hole through my colon and I was in septic shock. There’s not a lot that I remember, but I do remember the surgeon and oncologist arguing about how to proceed, as I was probably going to die, so they were debating how much effort were they going to put in to my care. YOIKS!
I ended up spending over five weeks in the hospital (that time), with two stints in ICU. I had three abdominal surgeries and ended up losing more than half of my small intestine when it “died” – the word my surgeon used when describing the 6+ hour surgery. Three times my husband was told to prepare for the worst. I really don’t remember much about my time in the hospital, which I know is my brain’s way of protecting me. I got to meet the Rapid Response Team not once, but twice, when I had a “cardiac incident” and again when I started throwing up copious amounts of blood. I think at one point I had 10 different specialists who were providing me with care. Morning rounds took forever, as it was a parade of doctors in and out of my room.
But, as I said, I’m a tough kid. I had a HUGE number of people in my corner, who I will be forever grateful to for their love and support. I honestly remember thinking one time that I couldn’t die and let them all down!
Eventually, I was released and things were looking up. We decided chemo wasn’t for me – especially as my oncologist said that she thinks I’m the only person who has ever survived that particular side-effect Yup. I’m special. I had a double mastectomy and was stunned that it’s done as outpatient surgery!
Of course, I had to be special again, when 10 or so days later, a blood vessel ruptured in my chest wall and back for emergency surgery I went. My surgeon had NEVER seen that complication…of course.
Because my cancer could be fairly aggressive, once I’d healed (again), we decided to try a different regime of chemo. This time, I made it through four treatments before realizing I had the same problem that I had before. Back in the hospital I went. Ugh. Eventually, I had a small portion of my colon removed, but for once, that surgery went well!
Amazingly, I sailed through 30 rounds of radiation. I’m very fair skinned and we figured my skin wouldn’t be happy. But, I didn’t even peel! Yay!
I’ve had an additional surgery to relocate the port, as we continue to use it for a treatment I receive every 21 days…and will do so “indefinitely,” according to my oncologist. That surgery was #9 – and when I was first diagnosed, I was told three surgeries at the most. In an 18 month span of time, I spent over two months in the hospital.
So, why am I telling you all of this…if you’ve managed to still be reading! More than anything, it’s to show that we can all be as tough as we have to be. Bad things happen. I never thought about giving up, but I did have a few “why me” pity parties. My life will forever be changed, and that’s more from the complications than from the actual cancer. There are so many people whose lives are worse than mine, so who am I to complain? I am so very blessed.
What doesn’t kill us does make us stronger.
Just watch out for bears!