My Story With Cancer...

I never really wrote about my story with cancer. I honestly didn't write much during that time in my life because I don't think I wanted to admit on paper what was going on. Maybe I was scared to dig deep and lay out my heart on paper when I felt so fragile and ready to break. But I wanted to write about it. It's almost time for my 5 year victory over cancer and I couldn't be more excited or thankful. But with that, I thought it was time to write about it. I thought it was time to also open up my journal and share it. So here you go.

. . . . . 

August 19th, 2011.

I got out of my friends car after we had goofed around at Party City to celebrate her birthday, taking pictures with crazy hats and soaking up all the carefree-ness that Sophomore year of high school had to offer… 

Only to have my mom rush over and advise me to get in her car immediately because I had a doctors appointment/ follow up.

She was exasperated and desperate. And the crack in her voice and the fear in her eyes told me something was wrong. But I only had to wait and find out why.

We waited in this cold, small room. The doctor who I had just met a week ago to have tests done for what I thought were just asthma attacks at night, came into that room with the radiance of kindness gone and instead a shadow of dread. She passed us a box of tissues as she informed me of the mass that the chest x-rays had found. Something the size of a tennis ball had made its way behind my esophagus and was pressing so unkindly on the right ventricle of my heart. This explained the trouble breathing and the heart palpitation issues I was experiencing. I froze. I’m only 15. I just finished Sophomore year. What does this mean? My mom began to cry and use all the tissues in that Kleenex box and I just sat there. Not saying a word. Because it wasn’t really happening. There was a fog. And honestly I think the mind and soul treats such news like this with a kind of numbing sensation through the blood veins so to keep one from simply running off the nearest cliff from fear.

My mom and I made our way to the car and she asked her silent and seemingly frozen daughter what I was thinking. I said I was okay. Not fearful. Really not much of anything. But I prayed for us right then and there… hoping that would comfort my mom who was experiencing all the emotions my body refused to take on.

We got home and within the next hour I headed to church because in my mind I wanted to escape back to normal. I wanted to be around friends I considered so dear to my heart. Because that was real. That was a place I wanted to be. Not here. Not now. Not with a mass in my chest.

So I walked in our youth group room with my new ukulele in hand. I laughed, gave hugs, and played Somewhere Over the Rainbow for anyone who wanted to hear. Then I was approached by two leaders that had been informed of the situation by my mother, who only 2 hours into this awareness, had already told a countless number of people. They told me how they knew. They asked how I was. And I was frozen. I thought if I could ignore my fear and brokenness I would be okay. I smiled (What I do best when I know of nothing else to do). And they prayed. And we walked back into that room to sing songs. And then, right there, as I choked on praise lyrics, as I admitted an ounce of fear and an anger towards someone to allow it… a few tears found their way down to my cheek… but no further than that because I wiped them away and continued to smile.

Within the next week I was leaving the house, riding in the car with my family to the hospital where I would have my biopsy and port placement. People gave me coloring books and stuffed animals; I had multiple friends and family meet me in the waiting room to give one last hug before I headed to surgery. I had no idea what this day would entail. I swallowed down that “sleepy medicine” and knew life was drastically about to change. They rolled me back to the operation room and I remember the mask going on me and still being awake, looking at the lights above me, seeing everyone in masks walking around, and the table beside me covered in the things that would cut me open and leave scars that would never leave. Fear engulfed me in a way it never had before. Life changed. And as I drifted off I realized, no matter what I felt, I had no voice in this matter. I was helpless. Life was forever going to be different.

I woke up basically unable to talk above a whisper because they had collapsed one of my lungs in order to get to the mass for a biopsy. It took me over a week of painful breathing exercises and much laughter with friends to finally get that dumb thing inflated again. It feels quite weird to try to take a simple breath or speak or laugh and your own lung enables you from doing so. Its like someone comes and chokes your neck right before you laugh.

I had tubes coming out from all over it seemed like. One in my chest from my port that was now under my skin, and two more under my left arm for the sake of drainage. I was weak. I could barely move. Talk about weird when you suddenly go from being independent to having to rely on someone else to feed you, wash your face, and help you get to the toilet. Ya, big confidence booster.

After this surgery I stayed in the hospital for 4 weeks. I started getting strength back after about two weeks and with that I could walk around and get up on my own. But not without hauling around this monitor thing with me. This machine on wheels that attached to my port where chemo drugs and fluids were constantly pumped through. I got tangled up so many times. I got frustrated when I had to get up in the middle of the night and tripped and yanked it so hard that I thought my port would pop out. Even taking just a normal shower was a pain because they had to detach the monitor for only 30 minutes which meant huge bandages would be placed on and ripped off afterward. And it is there, with all of those things, I realized I was not free.

I couldn’t go outside. The whole, germs will give you an infection and kill you thing. I just looked outside from my window as the transition from summer to fall took place or I waited until a trusted friend would sneak me out for just long enough for me to take a breath of fresh air and realize life in that hospital room is in fact not life at all.

When I was strong enough after surgery they started chemo. Sometimes several doses a day. And I will tell you now… I have never experienced something so strange and powerful before. You feel it making you weak. You have this hatred for this substance you know will make you bald and hopefully save you instead of killing you. It made me sick. It gave me the worst migraines I have ever experienced. It took away my energy to where all I could do was lay there and plead for some kind of medicine to knock me out so I could just sleep through it. It gave me night terrors where I screamed and cried for hours afterwards… regardless of my mom assuring me they were not real (Chemo drug responsible for that: The Red Devil. Lovely right?) It made me lose my appetite. But not lose weight!! I just swelled up like a balloon. Dumb. I would get spinal taps once a month or more where I would lay on my stomach and they would stick a needle in my spine to inject chemo directly that way. Talk about being sore after that one. But the drug they gave me beforehand made me sleep like no other. So, one benefit.

I assumed my hair would fall out immediately. But it wasn’t until about 3 weeks after my first chemo treatment that it started to gradually fall away in clumps. In an attempt to keep up my spirits someone came in to give me a cute hair cut and add some purple highlights because, why the hell not? I wanted it shorter… I couldn’t imagine long strands of hair wrapped around my hands as it left my scalp. No thanks. Then, as I started to notice an increase of hair loss… it was time to show chemo who was boss. A sweet friend and mentor in my life came over and shaved it off. We took pictures. We laughed uncomfortably at times. But I wasn’t alone.

We took my hair away instead of chemo taking it. And I know without a doubt I would never change that. But a week later I still had small bits of hair left… I would wash my scalp and my hands would be black from the little hair that remained. And during one moment in the shower I lost it. I had a meltdown. I scrubbed and scratched my head raw until it was all gone. My head was shiny. And from then on I couldn’t look at myself or touch my head without a scarf or hat to cover it. I prepared myself for my scalp to be bald. But I never realized how odd it would look and feel to have zero eyelashes and eyebrows. That’s when the whole “you look like an alien” thing really started to kick in. I never looked people in the eye when I would go out. I saw the stares. I knew I looked weird. But I knew that regardless of this, I was still loved.

I had friends that cut their long luscious locks to support my change in hairstyle. I was never once without a visitor in that hospital room. And there was even a huge benefit thrown to support my family financially with the growing and insane list of medical bills.

I received more letters than I thought was possible (all of which I kept in case anyone was wondering). It was also during this time that my love for music and writing really grew. It got me through a lot of depression. I was even able to play on the radio and at various benefits.

 I had a rooftop sweet 16 birthday party at the hospital. Though I lugged around that monitor, I still rocked the sparkly scarf and had so much fun with the amazing friends I am blessed with.

All good things right? I was told that I was halfway through the process. And I was ready for that. But then I was reminded again of the frailty of the situation. It was a normal day in October, I was getting ready to be admitted for a chemo treatment and they did the normal “flushing of the port” which is when they shoot this cleaning liquid like stuff to prepare it for chemo. But about ten minutes after that happened, I collapsed. All power and strength in my body left. I was helped on to the bed. My body was in shock. And just like that, I saw life start to drift away. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I just laid there wide eyed as I saw this small impatient room be filled to the max with nurses who were doing their best to figure out the problem. They rushed so much freaking fluid into my port to try to flush out whatever had been put in. Turns out, that stuff was full of bacteria and in a matter of seconds it had been put through that port connected to the biggest artery of my heart and had then been pumped through my whole body. I was crashing. And crashing fast. My blood pressure dropped dangerously low. The amount of fluids they pumped into my port hurt like nobody’s business. They pulled and tugged on my port from urgency, and all I wanted to do was to tell them that they were hurting me… but I couldn’t. I heard and saw my mom weeping and wailing as she saw her daughter collapse before her eyes. My oncology doctor was standing in the doorway with his face pale and frozen. He was scared. This must be it. In that moment I accepted death. I closed my eyes and decided I was ready. The peace in that moment was insane. I felt them roll my bed away and opened my eyes for a moment to see that we were in an elevator and a mask was then placed on my face for oxygen. And then I looked at my mom one more time and fell asleep. I woke up in the ICU. It was a weird feeling. Welcoming death then having life jolt you back to reality. I was weak and the same dependence I was forced to have after that initial surgery, was there once again. I stayed that way in the ICU for about a week. After that began the continuation of chemo.

Something changed in me after that experience. I was okay with death. And as I dealt with more sickness and awful side affects from the chemo and saw my alien self in the mirror, I longed for that same peace I had on that bed when I thought it ended. I was tired of being sick. I was tired of going to the hospital. I was tired of people being worried about me and praying for me and adding me to their list of people to visit at the hospital. I was done. That depression and darkness was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It engulfed me like no other but I had to hide it with everything in me because people were watching. I couldn’t let anyone down or cause them to worry more than they already were. But when I was alone, I felt it. This shadow is what encased me when the doctor came into my room one day in December as I was about to be admitted into the hospital for another thing of chemo. He brought in his clipboard with recent test results on it and said they showed that the cancer was gone. I was baffled. I asked him to repeat himself. And then I had no words to say after that. He probably thought I was so happy I couldn’t speak. So he left the room for me to absorb it. And in that moment… joy was not the main emotion I felt. I was confused. I had accepted cancer. I had accepted death. And now I was informed that I was cleared of cancer and after just a few more treatments I would go home and return to normal life. Normal life? High school? A job? How do I even go about that? I was afraid. I was angry. But I was healed.

My hair started growing back. As soon as it was enough to cover my head I got rid of the scarves and welcomed all the head bands.

Though the cancer was gone, no one ever warned me of the battle I would face afterward. It was the most difficult. And the most isolating. I stepped right back into “normal” life. Hanging out with friends, going to church getaway weekends, finishing my junior year of high school.

But every day I cried. Every day I mourned. Every day I wondered if I could really get used to life. How can this be? I was healed. I was better. No more chemo. No more baldness. But I felt more isolated than I had ever experienced in the past. None of my friends understood. No one had experienced this cancer stuff. No one had to face death like that and then try to process life again. People were talking about how awful it was that their crush didn't notice them or how their teacher is so unfair and I’m standing there thinking back to all those kids at the hospital fighting cancer and how a good friend I met there lost her fight and I just attended her viewing.

I held her mom in my arms as she cried and pleaded that I make the most of this life I was given another opportunity to, though her daughter was not. I agreed. But deep down I feared I had lied. Because I didn’t really know how I could do that. I threw my middle finger towards a God who would allow all of these things. I grew angry when someone would complain about insignificant little problems. And just like that, I was alone. I thought about killing myself so many times. I even resorted to going back to an old habit of cutting my arms because it numbed the emotional trauma I felt inside. It hurt. Everything hurt. And there was no chemo or drug that could heal it.

But I made it. I am here today. Five years later. Still breathing. Still fighting. Still struggling. But going. I still get panic attacks when I walk into a hospital. I still get uncomfortable when someone asks me about my cancer. And I will occasionally drop a stupid joke about having cancer, out of the blue, just because I can. And sometimes I just have to. I used to avoid talking about it all together. It was a chapter in my life that brought about only pain and fear when I thought about it. But I realize it as being a part of my story that greatly impacted my life.  I realize other people have in fact gone through this or know someone who has. So in case you need to know, just because a cancer patient smiles does not mean they are okay. And just because a cancer survivor seems fine, does not mean they aren’t still fighting. Cancer attacks more than just your body. It attacks your mind and your soul. But I have decided to not let it kill me. I have decided to talk about it.

Cancer you suck. But I am always growing stronger.
And by grace, and grace alone, I am alive.
I am loved.

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