Well…I did it. Twelve brutal chemotherapy treatments, done! I wanted to write this blog post to celebrate getting to this point, to thank those who have carried me through this nightmare, and most importantly to help others learn more about what a cancer diagnosis really means…not the movie version of cancer. I’ve been sitting on this post for awhile because I wasn’t sure about sharing such a personal experience – but I think it’s important. It’s going to be long, so get comfy. I think by this point, I’ve experienced every stage of the grieving process, though I think I went through it backwards, forwards, and over again. As for now, I’m a little overwhelmed, a little bummed out most days, and definitely anxious about what the future holds for me. I know it will get better, so I’ll allow myself a small pity party and get on with it, while realizing that I’ll never be the same.
I want to try to paint a realistic picture of what it was like. Not just for you, but for me too. I always want to remember this. Before I was diagnosed, I sometimes thought, “What would I do if I had cancer?” I thought everyone had this morbid thought. June 2nd was the day we got the diagnosis that shocked the pants off all of us. I got the news alone in my living room; a call from Dr. Surrell. I let myself cry for awhile, and when I thought I could keep it together I called Dano at work. The words wouldn’t come out, and he rushed home and we cried together. We packed our things and headed for Marquette. In the waiting room at the surgeon’s office, I told my parents what the doctors already knew, it was definitely cancer. I remember wanting to be strong for my parents’ sake – but with surgery scheduled for the next day I was honestly just looking forward to the drugs that would take me to a place where this new reality hadn’t yet sunk in. Dano’s sister drove all the way from Lansing to be with us at the hospital, and our families made sure that I was never alone.
The surgeon told us that after a portion of my colon was removed, I would begin chemotherapy. That was a reality check. Sure, I have cancer – but chemotherapy? Shit’s getting real! Although he dismissed my concerns about fertility issues, I started to panic. If I can’t have babies, what is the point of all of this? I’ll spare you the details of my surgery, but I’ll just say that it was a miserable six days. Next came the surgery to place the port in my chest where I’d be receiving chemotherapy. It’s hard to top the colon surgery, but this one was almost worse because I had to be awake. Nobody told me what to expect, so I assumed I’d be out like a light. I also assumed that my port would have a removable external cap because someone wrongly informed me that a port means no more pokes. That’s SO not true. The port is sewed under my skin, with a catheter going through the jugular and into my heart. It creeps me out to this day, and I get poked all the time.
In the midst of all of this, Dano asked me to marry him. It’s no secret that I was not very patient about waiting for that ring! I’m still in awe that I met someone who brings me such happiness. It’s kind of ridiculous how much I like that guy. I always joke that even if I didn’t like him, I’d stick with him just for his family. Honestly, I have the best in-laws in the world, although Dano’s aren’t too bad either!
We started to talk about getting a second opinion for everything, and our trip to Mayo began to take shape. On the agenda: a fertility specialist, medical oncologist, nutritionist, and genetic counselor. I ended up staying in Minnesota for a couple weeks in July for fertility preservation. The odds were unknown, and I wasn’t taking any chances. Dano and I have twenty embryos frozen in a safe place, and that small comfort made the next six months bearable.
Chemotherapy began in July. At first I thought “Hey, this chemo thing is not so bad!” It caught up with me soon enough. My drug cocktail was called Folfox, which is the standard treatment for Stage III colon cancer. It stands for 5fu, leucovorin, and oxaliplatin. The oxi was the nastiest of the three. That’s the one that caused the severe sensitivity to cold. Almost immediately after my first infusion, I was unable to drink or eat anything cold, touch anything cold, or be outside if it was under 65 degrees. I started wearing mittens everywhere. I relied on my mom or Dano to crack an egg for me, peel an apple, pour juice, or open a cold doorknob. Did I mention that I was still photographing at this point? I’m not sure how I managed that. The doctors said I wouldn’t lose much hair, but it started coming out in handfuls when I washed it. I lost over half of my hair, and it now takes some very strategic back-combing to hide the bald spots when I feel like getting pretty, which doesn’t happen very often. Of course, the hair on my legs kept growing. Go figure! At least I had a great excuse to skip shaving for months at a time.
About midway through my treatments, the skin on my hands and feet started peeling off – yet another lovely side effect. I started to get even more nauseous after each treatment, and there were a few treatments that sent me to bed for a week straight. I can’t describe the overwhelming fatigue, it was even mentally exhausting. I couldn’t sleep though, so I had to add another prescription to my daily routine. It does the job, but my doctor says it’s also the reason I’ve lost my sense of balance. At least Dano and I can laugh when I bump into walls and trip over my own feet. When my white blood cells got too low, I’d have to get a shot of Neulasta, which stimulates your bones to produce more white cells. I’d compare that experience to being hit by a bus. Way worse than the chemo itself.
I do have to say that chemo has its perks for a spoiled girl like me. My mom and dad never failed to get me a “chemo present” for each treatment. From a special necklace, to gym passes, to winter boots – they had it covered. Chemo day also meant that I could ask my family for virtually anything, and they’d do it for me. This means a CLEAN HOUSE!Plus I had one grandma doing all of our laundry and the other grandma bringing me homemade applesauce on demand, not to mention the countless other people who so kindly cooked a meal for us. Yes, I am fully aware that I am spoiled rotten. Dano made me breakfast in bed, put my socks on for me, and always let me warm up my cold hands in his armpits. Oh, and he didn’t make me do dishes for an entire six months. If that’s not love…..
After my 11th and second to last treatment, a brand new side effect popped up out of the blue. All of a sudden, my hands and feet are numb. I can’t feel textures, and they tingle 24/7. When I tilt my head down, my feet feel like they’re being shocked. The same thing happens to my hands when I hold them away from my body. When I try to run, I can’t feel where my feet are going to land. For many people, chemotherapy induced neuropathy is permanent. I’ll just have to wait and see if my condition improves, and keep my fingers crossed that the feeling comes back! On the bright side – I think I’ve kicked my life long nail biting/picking habit. Yay!
That’s the tip of the iceberg, but I won’t bore you with any more details. I think you get the picture! Although it’s sometimes hard to put a positive spin on this experience, I still wouldn’t change a thing if I could. So many wonderful things have occurred as a direct result of my cancer, which is why I’m almost thankful for it in some demented way. Does that sound crazy? First of all, this ordeal has brought my entire family so much closer. I get to see my grandparents all the time, and there are few things I enjoy more than spending time with them. I have a better relationship with my brother, I’m closer to my dad than I ever have been before, and I will never fail to appreciate my mother again. She’s the true hero of this story. Watching your child endure cancer has to be the only thing worse than enduring it yourself. She held me up when I wanted to crawl into a hole, and she helped me physically, emotionally, and mentally – every. single. day. I know she would have traded places if she could, but I’m so glad that it wasn’t her. And you know I can never say enough good things about my Dano. He’s always been my Mr. Wonderful, so it was no surprise that he has done everything in his power to give me the strength I needed to get through this. I owe him big time.
Friends new and old have come out of the woodwork with words of advice or encouragement, a generous donation, a home cooked meal, or a shoulder to cry on. All of my dear friends who I hold so close to my heart have proved that they indeed deserve to be my best friends. I’ve never felt so loved. The community came together in a huge way, both in Crystal Falls and Rapid River…to hold a benefit in my honor. Thanks to your kindness, we were able to set up a special fund for my medical expenses and future insurance costs. The generosity of friends, family, and strangers has brought us to tears many times this year.
Most surprising of all, I’ve seen a change in myself that may have taken years to realize if not for cancer. I have SO much more self esteem! (Maybe it’s from being spoiled! Haha!) But in all seriousness, I have always worried about what other people think about me. I think I’ll always care to some extent, but for the most part I just don’t give a darn anymore! I know that I’m a nice person and so it’s not my problem if someone chooses to dislike me. Why did it take me so long to realize that? Nothing like a life threatening illness to give a person a little perspective, I guess. So, for the most part I’d say that I’m changed for the better. I do have a new pet peeve though. I seem to have lost my tolerance for overly negative people who whine too much! Don’t get me wrong – I certainly don’t think that my problems are worse than anyone else’s. I realize that we all have to vent sometimes, even if the issue is minor. Just think twice before announcing to all of Facebook that you have the worst life EVER because you ran out of windshield wiper fluid. Let’s all agree that things can always get a lot worse.
Although I had a wonderful healthcare team, I would like to especially thank “Doc” Surrell, who instead of dismissing my concerns, insisted on a colonoscopy. He kept us all laughing with his corny jokes – he is truly one of a kind. He was the one who had to give us the bad news, but he couldn’t have handled us with more care and compassion. He saved my life and I will always be grateful to him.
I’ve also discovered that there’s an incredibly special bond between people who have experienced cancer. No one else can truly understand what it’s like. To my cousin Tina, who I’ll always look up to. My dear friend Misti, who has paved the way for me with her fearlessness and support. To my new friend Erin, who reached out to a stranger to help me cope. She helped me allow myself to feel…whether that is happy, hopeful, angry, bitter, resentful, anxious, depressed, and all the emotions in between. Most of all, she taught me to cry whenever I feel like it. To a client turned friend, Angela, who lights up a room with her warmth and gives the best advice. To one of my model’s mothers, Stacey, a very special gal who was diagnosed around the same time as me…her positive energy is inspiring. To a very wise lady, Joy, whose strength and kindness has helped my family greatly. To my cherished piano teacher, Karen, who always knows exactly the right thing to say. To all of those wonderful people who shared the chemo room with me. You took me under your wing and silently taught me how to be strong. I hope you know how much you have all touched my life when I needed it most. For anyone I’m forgetting (chemo brain) and to anyone who has ever had a cancer diagnosis, or watched someone you love go through it…and especially to anyone who is still reeling from the shock of hearing your name and cancer in the same sentence: You are SO much stronger than you think you are, I promise.
P.S. While I have your attention, I can’t help but sneak in a little public service announcement. If you have any concerns about your body, tell your doctor ASAP! If you are over 50 or if you have any symptoms of colon cancer, GET YOUR COLONOSCOPY. It’s a piece of cake, trust me.