By Connie Ferguson
I thought I knew about cancer. Both my parents and my two older siblings died of cancer. My father
died of lung cancer. My mother, brother and sister all died of stomach cancer. But in June 2011, when I was the one being diagnosed, everything I thought I knew and understood about this disease quickly vanished.
It is only now that I realize that I had been blindly riding on a magic carpet of privilege my whole life. And, all too soon this ride came to an abrupt stopping place and I was forced to step off. Almost like free falling and not knowing how, when and where I would land. Everything changed on that day from what I thought was a routine MRI scan that would tell me why I had been having pain in my left hip, to months and months of intense cancer treatment. I listened to the doctor, in whom I have the utmost confidence, carefully choosing his words. He explained the MRI report he had just read indicated there were several masses in my pelvic area, mostly located on my left side.
With a sad look on his face, he began to tell me what it all meant and what would have to be done next. He seemed taken aback when my reaction to this awful news was not what he had most often observed. Since we were not precisely sure of the cause of these masses, I didn’t think there was any reason to be sad and cry until I knew exactly what I was dealing with. And besides, maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as he was telling me. Looking back, I don’t think I would let myself think of the worst case scenario. Little did I know I was headed for a long and grueling journey.
June 1, 2011–MR Imaging scan reported as: Elevated masses in the form of a conglomeration of lymph nodes in several areas of the pelvis. Further evaluation is recommended with CT-CT/PET to evaluate for a primary tumor.
It was my husband’s first day at a new job. Boy, was that a tough phone call to make. “Honey, let’s not change the insurance plan just yet …The doctor says I have masses!”
June 10, 2011–CT scan was performed. The findings concluded the enlarged lymph nodes but no indication of a possible primary tumor. Major organs in the viewed area were normal size.
July 8, 2011–Appointment with a surgeon with the Vanderbilt Medical Group. He requested a biopsy be performed on the lymph nodes in hopes of pinpointing the source of the tumor.
July 12, 2011–Checked into hospital for a CT guided Biopsy. These detailed images improve resolution of most pathology in the body and can be effectively seen. The mass/fluid is seen in an unusual position and the scan can confirm the identity of these abnormal masses. Using a special needle, under X ray guidance the biopsy of the pathology is obtained. The tissue samples or fluid are then sent to pathology department for analysis. Although it sounds quite simple, I can tell you, it was not. Since the location of these lymph nodes was close to an artery, and others were attached to the stomach wall, the pathologist chose to enter the area through my buttocks. During the procedure, he accidentally touched a nerve with this special needle and I nearly fell off the table. That was the first time since the beginning of June, the tears began to flow. I cried like a baby. It was a terrible experience and I couldn’t wait to go home.
July 14, 2011–Keith and I met with the surgeon to hear what we thought was going to be clear answers from the biopsy taken two days earlier. Instead, we were told to make an appointment with my Gynecologist since the DNA from the biopsy indicated there was a component linking to cervical cancer. It was malignant. He did tell us that the tissue in the biopsy was “squamous.” This is skin cancer. How could that be?
Since as far back as I can remember, I have never missed an annual OBGYN appointment. Always normal Pap Smears. I always made the appointments in the month of my birthday so as not to forget. I have no explanation as to why I let this year’s appointment slip by me. Ridden with guilt, how could I have let this get by me? Blaming myself that I had caused this to happen because of my neglect. That was a tough day.
July 18, 2011–Four days later I was in the office of my Gynecologist. He seemed perplexed as he read the biopsy report and searched his office files only to find nothing to indicate we had overlooked something in past appointments. As we prepared for an examination, he said, “I honestly don’t think we will find anything.” Truthfully, I was secretly hoping he would find something, anything, so we could begin to fix it. The examination resulted in nothing unusual. A pap test was performed. He was not the least bit concerned that it had been over my usual time since I had always had normal tests. He asked if he could perform a biopsy of the cervix. Of course, I agreed. That was extremely painful since I am at the age of menopause and my cervix was “closed up.” As he forced his way through the cervix wall with some kind of tool, apologizing with each push, I just stared at the ceiling and held on tightly to the sides of the table trying to keep from scooting away from his every forceful push. He said he hated doing this to me as he was sure we would find nothing there, but this was a way to eliminate even a remote possibility. It was the beginning of finding answers. Or so we thought. After, I wiped the tears from my cheeks and sat up to face him. He told me of a Gynecologist-Oncologist he considered being the best in his field and he wanted me to see him immediately. His office made the appointment. Still no real answers.
July 19, 2011–The doctor called to say the Pap test was normal and the biopsy of the cervix was negative. Nothing there.
July 29, 2011–Met with the Gynecologist-Oncologist at St. Thomas Hospital. He had spoken with my OBGYN and was up to date with all my test results. A primary tumor had not yet been located. After yet another pelvic examination, he was left scratching his head. Since the biopsy indicated skin cancer, he checked every inch of my body looking to see if there was anything on the outside visible that may have been overlooked. He was determined to get answers. I really like him for that reason.
Up to now there had been a couple of doctors who requested a CT/PET scan but my insurance company continually denied the requests. Not this time! An appointment was made. This guy can get things done! He did however, tell me the type of treatment he would get started once we found where the tumor was. Radiation, chemotherapy, blood tests, months and months of treatment. WHAT? It was just too much to take in.
August 3, 2011–Finally, over two months from the first time I heard the word “masses” I was going to know something! CT/PET scan was performed. A PET scan looking for tumors can locate a tumor as small as the head of a pencil. It simply can’t hide anymore.
August 4, 2011–Phone call from Oncologist. He told me the PET showed nothing more than what we already knew. WHAT? Lymph nodes in my pelvis were enlarged with cancer squamous cells and no additional tumor was located. Where did the cancer cells come from? Where did it start? The doctor told me this was an extremely rare case. He told me he had discussed the specifics of this with several Oncologists around the country. He even sent the pathology report to one of them to read. He wanted answers. No one could seem to understand how squamous cells got into my lymph nodes with no primary tumor being found.
I had become what you never want to be: an “interesting patient.” I was the kind of patient who stimulates discussion and angst at weekly medical conferences. The sort of patient who continues to remind the medical community of how much they don’t know. And as an “interesting patient,” I entered the always infuriating, although never boring, land of “lack of data.” After all of the doctor’s searching, he concluded we would most likely never know where the cancer started and that it probably disappeared after some of the cells broke away from it and landed in the lymph nodes where they began to reproduce.
That’s when the conversation took a turn towards the treatment process. He wanted me to see a Radiation Oncology MD to lay out the schedule of the radiation portion of my treatment. Radiation would target the precise enlarged lymph nodes on my left side. He would administer chemotherapy drugs in addition to the radiation. It would be between 6 and 8 weeks of intense daily treatment five days a week. I told him I would have to think about all of this and discuss it with my husband. I then asked if this could be put off until after I go on a long planned vacation out of the country in October. His reply was, “Well, if you were my mother or wife, I would tell you that the treatment should be started immediately. I can’t guarantee the cancer will not spread between now and October.” I told him I would decide and call him back. Keith and I gave much thought to the time frame of all of this and hoped if the treatment was started immediately then I should be finished just in time to go on the trip. I called the doctor and told him that if he could get this process started immediately I would be willing. He said, “Great, I’ll make arrangements and I will be able to sleep tonight!”
Friday, August 5, 2011–The next day I was in the office of the Radiologist/Oncologist at a Nashville hospital. After many questions and his initial examination, this was the beginning of many trips I would make to this radiology office.
Tuesday August 9, 2011–Appointment with the radiology department for specific measuring. Marks were drawn on my stomach, hips and legs which would pinpoint the exact location where the radiation would be administered. After that, I went for a blood draw to check red and white cell counts, also the platelet count. This was in preparation for the surgery tomorrow where a Port-A-Cath would be inserted just under the skin on the left side of my chest. This was necessary to administer the chemotherapy directly into my veins. They said it was a simple procedure. Yeah RIGHT !!
This was the time they discussed with me the option of staying at the Hope Lodge. It is a facility funded by the American Cancer Society for patients being treated with cancer whose treatment is far from home. It provides a temporary place to stay during the week that is conveniently located near the hospital at no cost to the patient. The Hope Lodge only takes patients sponsored by the oncologist professionals. The Radiology Department at Baptist Hospital provided this sponsorship on my behalf since I live about two hours away. I didn’t know what to expect but I told them to try to get me in. It is on a first come first serve basis.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011 –Early that morning I checked into the hospital and waited in the large room with other surgery patients for my name to be called. A nurse with a clipboard appeared and called my name. I followed her to a small office for more questions. “Are you allergic to anything?” “Will someone be picking you up after surgery?” “Let’s go over your insurance.” An identification bracelet was secured to my wrist and I was led to the elevator. On the surgery floor of this hospital, I was ushered to yet another waiting room. Again, my name was called and I went to my private “holding area” where I was prepared for surgery with IV’s, blood draws and more questions. It wasn’t until I saw his sweet face that I would finally relax. My oncologist, Dr. Thomas Numnum, (yes, Numnum) appeared in his scrubs to check on me. He is renowned in his field and is an expert in the use of the DaVinci machine. He is not only well known among his peers for having an abundance of knowledge and a spotless reputation, it is his “doctor” demeanor and his always happy face for me, that makes him seem like a good friend and I instantly became comfortable when I saw him appear. He promised I would not feel a thing. What he didn’t tell me is that when it was all over, I would have the most uncomfortable apparatus thing bulging from under my skin just above my left chest area. It was awful! Don’t even think I was going to wear a seat belt; that would rub right across the port and push on it causing discomfort. It just felt weird. This “minor” surgery would change everything. On this day, I realized there was no turning back and it was the beginning of a chapter of my life that would bring emotions back to me that I had not experienced in a very long time.
Friday, August 12, 2011–Appointment with Dr. Numnum. He checked the Port-A-Cath area and we talked about the treatment of chemo and radiation. He would administer the medicine through the port directly into my veins. It would take about four hours each time. It would be done every week. Blood would be drawn each Monday and a report sent to him. He would look to make sure my platelets and blood counts were in order. Next week, I would have a training class to discuss the specific drugs he would be giving me and what to expect with regard to side effects of the chemo.
Received a call from the Hope Lodge that I was accepted as a tenant there for the duration of my treatment. I told them I would check in on Monday since I was going to be in Nashville anyway for my first radiation treatment.
Monday, August 15, 2011–Worked at my office located in the courthouse of a small town, until lunch time then I headed to Nashville for my first day of radiation. Before I went to the hospital, I first went to the Hope Lodge and checked into what would be my temporary home for the next 8 weeks. It is located on Charlotte Avenue, in the downtown area of Nashville. I was shown my room which had a full sized bed and one twin bed. It was more like a hotel room. In one corner of the room was a desk with a chair and a reclining chair sat in another corner. To me, it smelled like “an ole’ man,” YUCK!! I would have to bring some air freshener. Family was allowed to stay anytime, but no more than two additional people at any one time. No food or drinks were allowed in the room, except for water. Downstairs in the main lobby area was a large dining room and massive kitchen. I was shown my specific places in the freezer, refrigerator and the cupboard set aside just for my food while I was there. Anything outside those areas would be thrown away.
My radiation appointment was at 2:45 p.m. so I had just enough time to find a parking place in the garage, walk through the lobby and catch the elevator to the basement. The area where my blood was drawn was around the corner from radiology and I had to go there first. The blood draw would take place every Monday until the end of the treatment.
The people in the oncology radiation department were all very nice. They made me feel as comfortable as possible. I was a little scared the first time since I didn’t know what to expect. It didn’t physically hurt me but it was more psychological than anything. Especially after they told me of the many side effects I might experience. I drove back home that night and did not stay at the Hope Lodge.
During ALL of this time, my everyday life continued. Every June, I attend a training seminar for my job. Before this particular seminar I told the part-time person in the office that I was not sure what was going to happen but that I had been diagnosed with some masses in my pelvis area. I expected her
support during this time and would ask her to work a little more than usual until I got this behind me. The next week she informed me she would be quitting. She would stay until I found someone else to replace her. There was no way to see this coming. But as time went on, I realized it was for the best. I interviewed several people, talked to others who might recommend someone that had the right skills who was looking for work part-time. I found the perfect person. With no prior knowledge in election laws, voting registrations or anything to do with election procedures, she was still willing to work every day if she needed to until my treatment was complete and I could get back to the office on a regular basis. She was a God-send. I worked each Monday morning until lunch time. She would come to work after lunch for the remainder of the day. From Tuesday–Thursday she was there all day. Friday morning she came in to the office until I could drive from Nashville after my radiation treatment and relieve her. She was willing to do that for me.
Keith and I told very few people about this. We shared it with family and only close friends. Not because we wanted to hide it. I didn’t want people feeling sorry for me. I didn’t want phone calls asking for details. I didn’t want to be told how strong I was. Nor did I want it announced in church services for the entire congregation of church members to put me on their prayer list. This is a private moment in time between the diagnosed person, their family and closest of friends. All I tried to do was look beyond the difficulties of the moment to the possibilities of the future. That is what kept me going. NO, I wasn’t as strong as it appeared to others. I kept God close and asked him to help me overcome this misfortune, to be optimistic. I drew so much strength from my wonderful husband who never left my side. Without him near me it would have been impossible. I can only imagine the fear he was experiencing, though he never showed it to me. We have five children spread in different parts of the country. This affected our children also. They called often for updates, they sent cards and came for visits when they could. Although she does not live near me, my baby sister, (only remaining sibling) stayed as close as a phone call if I needed a shoulder to cry on. No, I was not strong by myself. I was doing what needed to be done to save my life…. For THEM !
It is only now, two years later that I can even talk about it.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011–Chemotherapy class. I had to watch a video and talk at length with the chemo nurse. We discussed the blood draws, injections and side effects. There were two kinds of chemo medicine the doctor is prescribing. Both are infused into the vein through the Port-A-Cath. Both medicines kill cancer cells. The first one is called Gemzar. This medicine will cause side effects such as increased risk of infection or bleeding, mild nausea and vomiting, minor liver damage, fever and hair thinning. The other chemo medicine is called Cisplatin. The side effects of this drug are also nausea, vomiting and the loss of appetite. Kidney problems can occur as well as the increased risk of infection or bleeding. Both of these can decrease the number of white blood cells in your body. The white blood cells help fight infection. Both medicines can decrease the number of platelets in the blood which help with clotting. The red blood cells are also affected by the chemo drugs. Without enough red blood cells, the tissues get less oxygen and you could become fatigued. The nurse strongly recommended I drink lots of extra fluids while on chemotherapy to flush out the medicine and help the kidneys work. I took a lot of papers home with me to read. My goal was to get lots of rest for tomorrow, my first day of chemo. Yikes!
Wednesday, August 17, 2011–I prepared to stay the next night at the Hope Lodge. My youngest daughter, Julia drove from Knoxville to be with me during my first chemo treatment. She is a registered nurse at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and she interned in the cancer research division in Nashville during her studies. She met my husband and me at a nearby McDonalds. He went to work and Julia went with me to the Hope Lodge where we took her things and got her settled in to spend the night with me. At the doctor’s office she went back with me when the nurse called my name. She knew more what to expect than I did. She asked questions of them that I would not have known to ask. When it came time for the nurse to make the “stick” into my Port, I could not help myself and I began to cry. The nurse asked if she had hurt me. I said, “No, I’m just scared.” Julia later told me that seeing me scared like that was more than she could handle and she began to cry. The nurse led me down the hall to a large room full of La-Z-Boy rocking chairs. Julia handed me a warm, soft blanket she had brought for me and kissed me goodbye. This was as far as she could go with me.
I chose an empty chair in the back of the room. The nurse hooked up my IV tubes to several bags of fluid hanging on the hook above my head. She began to tell me which medicine was going in first and for me to relax, watch TV or read a book. Yeah, like that was going to happen!
As I snuggled under the blanket I carried with me, I looked around the room and noticed most of the La-Z-Boy chairs were occupied with women who were also connected to IV poles by lots of tubes and bags hanging from the poles. They all seemed to be looking at me as the “new” girl. “This is HER first time” girl. Meekly, I smiled at them as they stared at me. Soon they focused on other things as they began to talk to each other. There was another girl in the room who soon announced to me that she was also a “new” girl. It was clear she wanted to talk about her troubles, her situation, her doctor, her surgery. I did NOT. I just listened. The woman in the chair next to her was very willing to share experiences. Way more than I wanted to hear! What I learned that day would cause me much anxiety, grief and guilt. I have never understood why people tell other people, actual strangers, their troubled stories. All the women were talking and I found it difficult to tune them out. I had no book to read, no movie to watch. Suddenly the front desk nurse appeared in the room and walked straight towards me. She handed me a puzzle book that Julia had gone out to buy me so I would have something with which to occupy my mind for the next three hours. That’s my girl!!
I tried to keep my head down and work the puzzles but one part of me wanted to hear what the others were saying. How was I supposed to know what to expect? I knew they would tell me. So I put my book down to listen. All these women were cancer patients from the same gynecological oncology office. Different doctors, same office. Some had ovarian cancer. Others had cervical cancer. They began to talk about losing their hair during the chemo treatment. Some of the women were wearing caps or head wraps to cover their baldness. The subject quickly changed to wigs! What kind, where to buy them, which ones look the most attractive. They talked about how long it would be before my hair will begin to fall out. They said that after the third chemo treatment my hair would completely fall out. I told them that my hair isn’t going to fall out. I’m quite sure they didn’t believe me or they may have thought I was in complete denial.
They talked about at what stage their cancer was before they underwent surgery. Some had progressed to Stage 3 and others Stage 4. All had been recovering from surgery prior to getting chemo. Most of these women would be in that rocking chair room today for at least eight hours getting chemo fluids and waiting for their hair to fall out.
After four hours I walked out of that room feeling so guilty. How come I didn’t have a Stage? Why did I escape surgery? The doctor told me my hair would thin but not fall out…WHY? It took deep soul searching before I came to terms with the answers to those questions. Call it a reality check. I had to accept the fact that I was sick! I was, after all, receiving chemo and radiation. That was the chilling moment when I really, truly believed my fate! I was going to get worse before I get better. I hoped I could do this.
Thursday, August 18, 2011;–After my first chemo and radiation, Julia and I shopped at the local market for groceries to take with us back to the hotel. She made sure I was drinking lots of water so as not to get nauseous. I spent my first night at the Hope Lodge with Julia in the twin bed next to mine. We woke often with the sound of sirens going to and from to the hospital just down the street. Every time I aroused, turned over for a more comfortable position or went to the bathroom, (and there were lots of trips) like a mother hen she would inquire if I was doing OK. Julia had to drive back to her husband and job in Knoxville, the next morning after my radiation treatment. I didn’t want her to leave me.
My weekly schedule during treatment: Keith and I stayed weekends at home. Friday radiation treatments were in the morning so I drove back to Hohenwald in time to work a half day each Friday afternoon. I would drive back to Nashville at lunchtime on Mondays after I worked the morning half day. Our weeknights were spent in the tiny room at the Hope Lodge. Keith packed his clothes for the week each Monday and took them to work with him. He works not far from the Hope Lodge, so for him it would be a much easier commute. He would stay with me in Nashville until Fridays, when we would each drive home after work.
The Hope Lodge–The Hope Lodge provides a nurturing, home-like environment where guests can retreat to private rooms or connect with others. It also offers a variety of resources and information about cancer and how best to fight the disease. One of the many conveniences they offer to patients free of charge is transportation to and from the hospital for treatments. They provide a laundry area for all the patients and their family to use at no charge. The laundry soap is also freely provided through donations.
The “connection” with other patients and their family members was my biggest obstacle during my stay. It was most difficult for me to discuss with total strangers my personal diagnosis, specific treatment schedule, my sense of helplessness, yet others were more than willing to share their experiences with the “new” residents. At first I went straight to the elevator and up to my room, stopping to look at no one. But it didn’t take long before I was trapped in the elevator with other patients and families. Some were new to the hotel, as they may have only needed a place to stay for one night, some had been there many, many months. Most of the patients were bald. Every single one had a smile. Every single one of them had a pleasant greeting.
Since I still had my hair, it was easy for me to fly under the radar and avoid unwanted questions. At first, they thought I must have been a family member there for support of a patient. But as time went on, it was easy to see that I was there all the time. I began to go to the dining area for coffee in the morning, then for a snack or a drink of something other than water. It was amazing to me that family members were there cooking large breakfasts (biscuits, gravy, ham and eggs) or lunches for themselves and their resident patient. How could they possibly eat so much while taking chemo? The dining room always smelled of cooking odors! Over time, and receiving more chemo each week, that in itself would cause me to get sick to my stomach. I could smell the odors in my room four floors up! Yuck!
As I began to venture more into the common areas, I noticed a calendar that was posted each week. These calendars had dates where various volunteer groups would bring evening meals to the patients and families of those staying at the Hope Lodge. The first time Keith and I joined everyone in the dining room for a volunteer provided meal, we were most astounded. We were intrigued by the individuals of the groups and their commitment to this cause. They didn’t simply send over a meal out of obligation or some sense of duty. No. They delivered it themselves and served it themselves. They even brought drinks to the table for the residents and families. Often these meals were homemade. Not only did these volunteers deliver the food and serve it, they sat down with the individual families to visit and interact with them as they enjoyed the food. It was a happy time for everyone.
Many families were facing dire circumstances that were manifested in the visible scars: the hair loss, the frailness of the patients, and the emotional toll on the entire family. This allowed them a moment of pleasure. The volunteer group members always cleaned up and left any food uneaten for residents to enjoy the next day. At the Hope Lodge there were at least three out of five days where an evening meal was provided. Student organizations, churches, businesses, individual doctors and other volunteers coordinate these special events whereby providing an excellent time for guests to meet each other and to bond with one another.
It was at these events where I met many different people from all walks of life. Each one telling a different and individual story of their personal journey. There was one young girl in her early 20s whose cancer had spread to all the organs in her body. Her prognosis was grim but she always had a happy face. Sometimes she covered her baldness, other times she proudly displayed her battle scars. I met patients with brain cancer, lymphoma and many other varieties of the horrible disease. I’m still amazed when I think of the one factor that joined us all together as one group and allowed us to keep going. It was hope. For those who face life threatening illness, there is hope to just make it through this day, hope that tomorrow will be a better day than today and on a more broader spectrum, hope for a cure.
During my ongoing treatments–The first week wasn’t so bad. The second week wasn’t too bad. I was beginning to experience some side effects from the radiation more than the chemo. The third week the chemo was getting to me in addition to the radiation. I had little to no appetite and no energy. All I wanted to do was sleep. Keith would come to the hotel after work and be ready to go get a bite to eat. I was never hungry. Nothing even sounded appetizing. I didn’t want him to suffer with me and go hungry, so when there was not a meal offered downstairs, we went to a restaurant. It was all I could do to get dressed to go. I ate very little, but at least it allowed us some time together and conversation other than how I was feeling. My blood work the next week was not good and the doctor put off my chemo for one week. Radiation never halted. As I began to feel better towards the end of the week it was difficult for me to think about starting back up again the following week with another chemo injection.
Towards the end of the fifth week, all I wanted to do was sleep. I knew my blood work would show a low red cell count again. As described in the side effects of chemotherapy medicine, the red cells were not getting the necessary oxygen which caused fatigue. So I knew from how I felt what was going on. I would have blood drawn on Monday before radiation and then I would see Dr. Numnum on Tuesday. He was seriously concerned with the report. Not only was the red blood cell count low, the platelets were also low. Both of these contributed to the fatigue I was experiencing. I would be hospitalized right away. WHAT? He wanted me to receive a blood transfusion. OK, now this was getting way too serious for me.
September 30, 2011–Friday morning I was admitted in the hospital and wheeled to my room where I would stay for the next 24 or more hours. Of course nothing happens quickly in a hospital environment. The nurse began the IV process, and the bags of platelets and blood were soon flowing into my veins. After the bags were empty, the nurse drew blood from my arm and took it to the lab. I was preparing to go home. All the while, the nurses were taking my pulse with much difficulty. My fingertips stayed white and numb so no pulse could be found with their special finger pulse-taker. They resulted to the old fashion way of putting the thermometer under my tongue. It was getting later in the day when the nurse came back with the news that I would be staying the night and I would be receiving yet another bag of platelets and blood. This bag of blood was not the same type as the first bag, that was a perfect match, but she said there should not be a problem. She would stay close should I experience a reaction to this particular blood type.
Keith had been with me all day. With this news, he would need to go and get some things from the Hope Lodge and get something to eat so he could spend the night with me there in the room. That was the only brief time he left my side. It was a private room, so it was as comfortable as we could expect for a stay in the hospital.
With the last bag of blood, and not the exact match to my own, I experienced a little reaction, but nothing that was seriously concerning. I tried to sleep when the nurses were not coming in and out. Keith slept in the chair next to my bed. It was comforting to know he was there. With the morning light and a different nurse on the day shift, it was announced that I could go home. My blood was showing that the numbers of white, red and platelets at normal levels. We prepared to drive back to Hohenwald that Saturday morning. I noticed a considerable improvement in my energy level. My radiation and chemo treatment would continue on the next Monday.
First week of October, 2011–Same schedule as always. Radiation every day and chemo on Tuesday. I was expecting this time to be much better with my new blood. As the week ended and the weekend approached, I noticed the fatigue overcome me again. I only had one more treatment. Our scheduled vacation to Mexico was fast approaching and I would discuss it with Dr. Numnum next week.
Second week of October, 2011–Monday morning work at office, after lunch drive to Nashville for blood draw and radiation. Tuesday morning was my appointment with the doctor before chemo. We discussed the results of my blood work and I was whole heartedly prepared to tell him NO MORE!!! I had all I could take! As we discussed the test results and that the red cells were dropping, and, just as I was preparing to tell him that I was done, he informed me he was going to reduce the dosage of chemo today. It was after all my last one. I agreed to a reduced dosage since I had come this far. I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t gone to the finish line. What if I quit now? What if the cancer came back? I had to get my last injection.
Then it was time to discuss my vacation plans. Dr. Numnum told me he wasn’t comfortable with me being out of the country and if I got sick he may not be able to help me there. What if I landed in a foreign hospital? Something I had not considered. All I could think of was I had been planning this trip for months. But he was right. We cancelled the trip with the understanding we would plan another vacation when I was much better.
This week would mark the end of my treatment. Only time would tell if the radiation and chemo results were successful. Everyone was anxious. Dr. Numnum ordered a CT scan to see if the lymph nodes had been reduced. I told him that I wanted the Port-A-Cath removed as soon as possible. Although I would always have my battle scar, I needed to put this behind me. He agreed and the surgery was scheduled shortly after he learned the CT scan was showing a slight reduction in the lymph nodes. He said they would continue to reduce over time as the radiation will continue to work for a couple of months. Every three months I had an appointment with Dr. Numnum and a CT scan complete until it appeared we were seeing improvement.
It is coming up on two years from the beginning of this ordeal and I still have appointments with Dr. Numnum every three months. He is encouraged that the treatment was successful although he remains perplexed that he did not find where it all began. The scans are now scheduled every six months and thus far everything is positive.
Some might consider me a “Survivor.” SURVIVOR? What exactly does that mean? The term “survivor” is as ubiquitous as it is hard to define. It seems like too much territory to cover for a single word. It’s either exclusionary or overly broad. Some define it as someone who has cancer and is not dead? To me, that would mean that I was a survivor the minute I was handed a cancer diagnosis. That would be like prematurely declaring the mission is accomplished. OR, is survivorship defined as crossing the finish line to remission or a cure? I will consider myself a survivor, if, after five years I am cancer free. That would be my goal and the moment I will call myself a Survivor. One day at a time!
Conclusion: Cancer changed my life; for the better
Looking back, my cancer journey was not as lengthy as it seemed while enduring the diagnosis, weeks of waiting for test results and finally the treatment itself. This journey has taught me many things about myself. I list a few that are most important to me.
• Allow God to work in my life and accept whatever His plan is for me.
• Continue to remind myself that my mortality is very much a part of my daily existence.
• Tell the ones I love that I appreciate them and love them very much. Without them, there is no purpose.
• Be optimistic, look beyond the difficulties of the moment to the possibilities of the future.
• Stay strong for those around me when misfortune overcomes me.
• Be positive and always think of good things in a bad situation.
• Find moments in each day that make me smile.
• Fight sadness with humor.