So I’ve been thinking of some fun, non-depressing, non-cancer related stuff to do with this blog and have figured let’s start now! My recent favorite Amazon purchases! I loooove watching and reading these so here we go! [These range in everything from kid stuff to beauty to fashion etc]
This Butterfly Garden was such a good buy to do during quarantine with the kids! The kit comes with all the caterpillars, food, cages etc. Everything you need. It gave us at least 7 butterflies so it was good buy! We can even reuse the cage and just buy more caterpillars next time.
2. These sunglasses are also such a good buy. They are affordable, bendy (in a good way) and don’t get snagged in my hair when I push them on top of my head!
3. Ok, have to admit I don’t use these a ton (mainly because I think they create a lot of food waste) but these cutters are fun to bust out every once in a while for the kids! I will cut apples, cookies, cucumbers, sandwiches etc into fun shapes. Kind of encourages them to eat more I think.
4. This swimsuit I actually found from Young House Love! Sherry recommended and well…need I say more? It is super flattering and has good butt coverage. One time at the beach someone driving in a passing car yelled out the window, “I love your swimsuit!” haha
5. Ok, kinda chuckling because this is yet anotherYoung House Love recommendation that I have loved. Sherry recommends this book as a way to get multiple pieces of cool art. The photographs are wonderful and beautiful and can easily fit with a number of different themes in a gallery wall.
6. A few weeks ago, while John Micheal was sitting in my lap I noticed these tiny white bumps on the back of his leg. I immediately knew, molloscum! It wasn’t super bad; however, I called the Pediatrician to see if this was something that warranted an in-person visit since we were amid quarantine. They recommended this wheatgrass spray to help clear it up and I think it has worked! He still has a few lingering but it has helped clear it up for sure!
7. This is the bathroom essential you never knew you needed! I randomly saw this body scrubber on Instagram one day and had to have it. It’s much cleaner than the typical loofah, super exfoliating and honestly just fun to use!
8. I am always on the hunt for a cute pair of denim shorts these days. [Since I’ve actually started living my life and quit worrying about what other people think of my legs.] This pair had excellent reviews so I gave them a try! They are super soft and stretchy, very comfy! [For reference, I ordered a size large, which is my normal size]
9. This is a super cute book & has been one of John Michael’s favorites to read lately! Every night we read three books & every night this is always the favorite and last one read.
10. I’m sure we all know I’m on a quest to clean up a lot of the things in our home! Less chemicals, less harmful effects, trying to keep my cancer at bay as much as I can haha! I have been using and loving this Molly’s Suds laundry detergent for a few weeks now!
Full disclosure that links are affiliate links. I review and recommend only products I personally use on a regular basis. All opinions are my own.
“I should be able to reconnect you,” the surgeon said to me as she sat across from me at MD Anderson in Houston. After being diagnosed with stage 3C rectal cancer, I had traveled to MD Anderson to get a second opinion regarding my surgery and treatment since the tumor had invaded other major organs.
“Ok, great! What does that mean?” I had no idea what I was in for. To say I had no idea about this cancer world would be a drastic understatement. The ports, infusions, never ending appointments and ostomies, I had no idea about any of it. I was as shocked as any to learn that I needed a port inserted into my chest so I could receive treatment. Wait, I need what?
I became an ostomate on August 20, 2019.
When my surgeon, Dr. You at MD Anderson, explained to me what an ostomy was I was…bewildered? I can’t even recall exactly except to say that I thought to myself, “Oh yeah, I think I’ve heard of that before, I’ve seen that before I think.” I was told I would have a bag, most likely temporary, and that I would be reconnected once I had healed from surgery. As I focused on finishing my chemotherapy and radiation treatment, the surgery was always looming in the back of my mind. I knew it would be the last and final (hopefully) thing I would endure. It was also the scariest. The most anxiety inducing.
As August 20, 2019 approached, I set off to Houston, Texas to begin the flurry of pre op appointments. In the meeting with my surgeon we went over my recent scans and the plan for surgery. She urged that I needed to be mentally prepared for either outcome: a temporary ileostomy or a permanent colostomy. Wait, what? What happened to the reconnection? She ever so eloquently explained to me that my tumor was not super low (7cm up); however, she would not know until she got in there and started looking at margins how it would all go. She possibly might have to cut out more tissue to get clear margins. Radiation had also caused significant scarring that could be seen on the scans and would have to be worked around. We discussed a lot in that meeting: margins I comfortable with, margins SHE was comfortable with, quality of life with and without the bag. I left that meeting more flustered and nervous than ever. On top of anxiety over surgery I was also dealing with the uncertainty of how it would all unfold. I did not expect so many decisions having to be made intraoperatively.
One thing did stick out in my head. In the discussion with the surgeon, I latched onto her telling me a permanent colostomy involves the large intestine and would be located on the left side of my abdomen and a temporary ileostomy involved the small intestine and would be located on the right side of my abdomen.
Left side = colostomy
Right side = ileostomy
Left side = permanent
Right side = temporary
I managed to make it through the twelve hour surgery (alleluia) and woke up as I was being wheeled back to the recovery room. As you can imagine, I was super drowsy and out of it from anesthesia but felt no pain. In the recovery room there was a flurry of activity around me, nurses talking to each other and to me and hooking up machines. In an instant, I heard one nurse say to another something about watching out for my colostomy.
She said the word colostomy.
In what felt like a second later, the surgical fellow came by to see me. A young curly haired blonde woman, I swear she lived at the hospital. She would often do her rounds at 6am and then would stop by my room later that evening. I looked at her groggily as she stood at the foot of my bed. She explained that the surgery went very well and they were happy with the outcome. They expected pathology to come back in a few days.
I just stared at her, “Is my colostomy permanent?”
She looked at me for what felt like an eternity (I think she was surprised I was already asking) and said, “Yes”. I can’t even recall what my reaction was. I was still trying to understand what was going on. She continued, “Catherine, you are going to live a long life. The surgery went very well. You are going to live a long life and you can do that with a colostomy. You will do everything you did before this. It will be ok”. I am paraphrasing obviously as I do not remember word for word what she told me but I remember her repeating over and over “you are going to live a long life”. I’m pretty sure I did not cry, I just sat there trying to comprehend it all. We finished our conversation and she left.
The first person to come back and see me was my husband. He later told me he wanted to be first so he could break the colostomy news to me. I think the first thing I said to him was, “The colostomy is permanent”.
I already knew.
I spent the next week in the hospital recovering and fully ignoring and pretending the ostomy was not there. At first the nurses thought this cute and funny. However, as the week progressed I had one nurse tell me I was going to have to do a bag change on my own and get some training before I was sent home. Ugh. They would let me ignore it no more.
I guess I am writing this because I have been struggling lately. Honestly, I haven’t had a lot of issues with my colostomy. It kind of just…works. Mentally; however, I have been having a hard time. Sometimes the weight of having it be so permanent is overwhelming. I will live my life with this ostomy (God willing) for more years than I lived without it. The thought of having to spend the rest of my life with this bag attached to me gets overwhelming. I will never leave the house again without worrying if I have enough supplies or extra clothes.
For the most part, if you saw me, it is not obvious I have an ostomy. Yet, it’s a mental (and physical) weight I carry with me everywhere.
Can other people tell?
Can they hear the bag rustling?
Do I smell?
Is it obvious in a swimsuit?
How do I talk to my kids about this?
Do people think I am gross?
For a long time I felt I was just trying to get accustomed to this post cancer life. I did my best to lean back into life and the day to day responsibilities of being a wife and mother. But sometimes things just feel heavy. They have felt heavy for me lately. Maybe it’s the quarantine, being cooped up and the uncertainty of what life looks like in the months moving forward but I have been struggling.
I yearn for the carefree days of wearing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I mean, let’s be honest, I was not rocking bikinis or midriff baring shirts in the first place. However, now I am trying to dress a body that not only has morphed in size and shape over the last year but now I am dealing with dressing a body with an ostomy. Pants and shorts sit differently on my body. Clothes in my closet no longer work on this post cancer body.
When I was a kid and would complain about things my grandmother would often tell me to “offer it up”. I have thought about her a lot lately. I try to keep in perspective that I survived stage three, almost stage four cancer. That these scars at least mean I’m still alive. That someone certainly has it worse than me. That I should be thankful my cancer responded to the treatment. That I haven’t had a ton of issues with the ostomy.
Just because I carry it well doesn’t mean it’s not heavy.
As I begin to get back into journaling, I’ve been reflecting on what word I’m going to focus on this year. [Yes, I realize it’s already May and I’ve got a late start.] I keep coming back to the word grace. Not only the name of one of my best friends but also what I’ve been trying to extend to myself lately. I try to remind myself that my body is still physically healing and my soul might take a little longer to heal. I’m trying to give myself grace that I can sit in sadness about my ostomy but try to move through it. I remind myself that I am able to do everything I did before. Possibly with more supplies and baggage, but hey, I can do it!
I’d also like to be better about extending grace to others in my life. To live in a way where I give the benefit of the doubt that everyone is doing their best. That everyone deserves grace. That we all carry around our scars and baggage differently but surely it is there for everyone.
For whatever reason this season of life has just been tough for me. Post cancer life has been different and an emotional rollercoaster [amplified by menopause]. I am now navigating it in isolation and it’s just felt extra heavy. For now I’ll remember to give myself grace as I try to navigate the new normal going forward.
Over the years my skin issues have morphed just like everyone else. I’ve gone from oily teenage acne to dry combination to hormonal pregnancy acne – fun! Today I’ve rounded up my skincare favorites I currently rotate! The main thing I’ve learned over the years is…hydrate! Do you know I never used moisturizer until college?! I haven’t landed on a face wash I currently love yet so feel free to throw some clean options my way! My current favorites are below:
Foreo Luna – I got this device in a subscription box and let it sit in my cabinet for months! I finally pulled it out after seeing something about it online. Wow, what a difference after just one use! I use this every night in the shower – it exfoliates and leaves my skin so soft!
Drunk Elephant – This is an amazing, albeit pricey, skincare brand! Hot tip is that Sephora & Amazon sell mini sets of daytime & nighttime duos that you can buy for roughly $20. I usually always buy the mini bottles because they are a better deal for the amount of product and it’s a great way to test it out before committing to a full size product!
Lavido Facial Serum – Another serum that is frequently on rotation is this all natural one from Lavido. When I use serums at night, I keep my skin a little damp and then pat the oil on. This one is a tad greasy and I only use it at night. It hydrates very well!
Shea Moisture Coconut Oil – Did you think I was going to leave coconut oil off the list?! I slather this on after getting out of the shower. I also use it on my cuticles, hair, feet etc. When I use my Vitamin E oil, I mix it with this coconut oil to dilute its thick consistency.
Vitamin E Oil – Vitamin E is so good for the skin. Pure vitamin E oil is extremely thick and will need to be mixed with another oil so it can be applied to the skin. I always use coconut oil. I put this around my eyes, on my forehead – basically any place I get wrinkles.
Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Formula Skin Therapy Oil – Pretty sure I came across this from a beauty influencer but this is a great, cheap option! After pregnancy I suffered with melasma and using this regularly at night has helped lighten my super dark spots. It’s also clean with minimal ingredients.
Aztec Secret – Indian Healing Clay Mask – If you haven’t heard of this you have been living under a rock! It’s a powder and when mixed with apple cider vinegar (always look for ‘the mother’ on your apple cider vinegar) it creates a great detoxifying mask! It does dry my skin out so I slather oil on afterwards, what’s new!
Let me know your current favorites and anything I need to try out!
Full disclosure that some links are affiliate links. I review and recommend only products I personally use on a regular basis. All opinions are my own.
In early 2008, four months after my college graduation I became a member of the Dead Dads Club. My membership into the club came on a sticky Spring morning in April, just as I was about to head to the gym. In full gym attire, I got a knock at my apartment door and opened it to see my aunt and uncle standing there. I swear in that moment the earth shifted. Having never seen them regularly, even though they lived in my college town, I immediately knew something was clearly wrong. Time stood still as my mind tried to play catch up. They announced that they had some unfortunate news, my dad had not woken up this morning and had died in his sleep. Your dad is dead. (Obviously delivered more eloquently than this). I will save you the dramatics of my reaction; however, let’s just say admittance into the Dead Dads Club was not met with a gracious or quiet reaction.
My life has changed dramatically since that 2008 Spring. At the time of his death, I was a new college graduate searching for my first big girl job. In fact, my very last conversation with him was telling him I had a great interview and I thought I got the job! (oh and could he deposit some money puhleasseee). A lot can happen in twelve years. In those twelve fatherless years I: adopted my first dog, met my now husband, moved to South Carolina, got engaged, moved back to Louisiana, got married, adopted my second dog, bought a house, had a son, moved to Florida, had a baby girl and was diagnosed with cancer. That’s some major life events to miss out on. Major. That’s a lot of phone calls, eye rolls, unsolicited fatherly advice, family trips and photo ops that will never happen. Because he’s not here.
I’ve done a lot of growing in these last twelve years. From broke college graduate to responsible functioning adult with children (hah, was that convincing?). Here are a few of the life lessons that stand out (thank you therapy) in my mind.
It does not necessarily get better with time
Grief is different for everyone of course. I think a universal theme to it is that it morphs over time. My shock, sadness and anger were eventually replaced with a deep fear and longing for my dad. Will I forget what his voice sounds like? His laugh? His smell? I would hardly say it ‘gets better with time‘. Each life milestone (holidays, vacations,marriage, house buying, childbirth) is met with excitement, always to be interrupted by the stark bittersweet reminder that Dad will not be here to see this. None of it. I know from experience that grief can pop up at unexpected moments and unexpected times. I will never get over the loss of my dad. My grief just morphs over time as I do.
Keep the memories alive
Most people around you seem apprehensive to talk about the dead person. Walking on eggshells. But I can tell you some of my favorite anecdotes involve things family and acquaintances told us after his death. I want everyone who knew him to help keep his memory alive! One family friend sent a note my dad had written their daughter when she submitted a story for review to him. The letter to the child was on official law firm letterhead and everything. It was so sweet! A waitress at an eatery he frequented commented she was sad to hear of his passing, that he was always so loud and happy when he came into the restaurant. My Uncle once told a story of a fishing trip where they were in my dads beat up boat and my dad was in the mud fishing when a fancy boat full of judges (my father was a lawyer) pulled up and the judges exclaimed, “Is that John in the mud?!”. These stories feel like a secret peek into the life he led. The man he was. Of course he was my dad, I know how he was, but nonetheless, it feels like a confirmation into who I knew he was, even when I was not around. Of course memories bring up sadness, but I love when people talk about what they loved about my dad. It’s how we keep his memory alive!
I am lucky I had twenty-three years with a great dad growing up. Not everyone has twenty-three years with a loved one or even a good healthy relationship for that matter. After the sudden death of a loved one, you become acutely aware of just how quickly things can change. A cancer diagnosis magnifies this as you can imagine. I can’t even eloquently put it into words other than to say I just live my life a little differently now. It’s easy to get bogged down with the minutia of work, kids and life but I always try and remember how quickly things can change. Count your blessings, even when they seem few.
Sit in grief; don’t dwell
I think it’s healthy to grieve thoroughly after the loss of a loved one. I acutely remember the feelings of anger that surfaced after my dad died. Here my world was shattering and the rest of the world just kept on turning. My boss asked me to do the same asinine tasks, the friends and family who offered food, lawn services and lunch dates slowly dwindled down to a trickle. Life happens at an alarming pace for everyone. It’s important to feel the feelings but move through them. I still have my days when an anniversary, life event or song will make me so sad about my dad. It trudges up the ‘ole familiar feelings of anger and sadness. Personally, when this happens to me I want to sit alone in my feelings and cry, eat and be depressed (ah the perfect trifecta!). Of course, my husband becomes concerned and wants to fix it all and I have to sternly explain I need this time to be manic depressive and in eight hours I will snap out of it. This is just how I’ve learned to cope. Sitting in the grief; not dwelling.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
I am slightly hesitant to include this in the list but it truly does remind me of the way my dad lived. The man was an attorney by trade, father of three, endless fix-it-himselfer (often creating more headaches for himself along the way) but always in a good mood. Always. He would start phone calls with a booming, “Tell me somethin’ good” greeting. Shortly before his death, I called him to break the news I had been let go from my college internship (aka I might be needing a spot on the rent this month dad). I could tell he was nervous about whatever news I was about to break. When I started to launch into my well rehearsed speech of why-this-wasn’t-my-fault-really he stopped me and said, “Tell me in one simple sentence why you are no longer employed. There should be no ‘and’ or ‘but’ included in the sentence”. So I did just this and his next question was, “What is the life lesson you are learning here?” followed by, “How much money are you about to ask me for?” I’m chuckling typing this because I can replay this conversation so vividly in my mind. It feels like yesterday. I rarely heard the man complain even though I can imagine his endless responsibilities.
Pictures & Letters are Important
In hindsight, I wish I had more photographs with my dad. They are far and few in between. I grew up in the age before iPhones were glued to everyone’s hands. Pictures are much more accessible these days. Take all the pictures, write actual letters in the cards and keep them. You never know when you’ll need a good ugly cry to release some pent up emotions. You’ll thank me later.
The below post I wrote in January 2020 while awaiting scans at MD Anderson in Houston.
This week I am back at MD Anderson in Houston for follow up appointments and my first round of surveillance scans post surgery. Being back here in Houston and at my aunts house brings up so many emotions. The last time I was here was the end of August for surgery. I think about the physical and mental state I was in right around surgery. That was tough. Not only was I physically uncomfortable and in pain but I think about how riddled with anxiety and fear I was right before surgery. I recall sitting in this exact room a little less than four months ago guzzling down bowel prep in between my tears. My husband, sister and sister-in-law huddled around me assuring me it would be ok. Unimportant things I was worried about regarding surgery: anesthesia (very worried about this, turns out it will likely not kill you), the catheter (very sure this was going to cause immense pain both going in and coming out – spoiler alert- it doesn’t), stitches from surgery (again, very concerned about pain -spoiler alert-they dissolve on their own). Can you tell I had never had surgery before? Things I should have been worried about: clear margins (got those), colostomy bag (got that too), more organs coming out than expected (happened). But alas, everything turned out ok!
All of this has got me in serious retrospective about the years leading up to diagnosis and what my symptoms actually were. Of course I had symptoms where the cancer reared its ugly head; however, I was pregnant and postpartum so it was easy for me to brush them off. First off, let me remind you I had stage 3C RECTAL cancer. I had to do so many physical exams and scans and getting undressed and being uncomfortable about talking about my most intimate parts that I think I could walk down the street naked now and not care. So if anything surrounding rectal cancer and bodily functions makes you squeamish, exit now! Don’t worry, I’m going to spare you my most intimate stories (I save all those mortifying stories for my husband) but there is your warning.
Urgency/Constipation – This is one of the symptoms that sticks out the most for me because I definitely remember it to the year prior to diagnosis. I know it seems odd to have these two sensations together. Know how when you’re pregnant you have to get up and pee multiple times a night? Well, I had that except it was to poop. I would frequently get up at night and feel urgency to go and then wouldn’t be able to empty my bowels all the way. Again, I was pregnant so I chalked this up to pregnancy constipation. It was mostly an annoyance because the last few months of pregnancy it really began to disturb my sleep.
Change in Stool – Somewhere along the way (I can’t exactly recall) I did notice my stools begin to change shape. They were longer and thinner. But HELLO, I was constipated, doesn’t that make sense? It’s not like my stools morphed into some seriously weird stuff, they were just a little…different. The change wasn’t alarming to me, I just chalked it up to constipation. I recall a few times there being blood when I went to the bathroom but never enough to be alarming. I had always thought that bright red blood was a sign of hemorrhoids. After the birth of my son in December 2015 I did complain about hemorrhoids to my OB but no one ever did a physical examination to check.
Weight Loss – With both of my pregnancies I gained about 30lbs. After I gave birth to my daughter in July 2018, I noticed I was steadily losing weight. Not in an alarming way but every time I got on the scale I had dropped a few pounds. However, breastfeeding was going so well (unlike my first), so I figured this was the weight that just “fell off” from breastfeeding.
Anemia – In December 2017 I went to a new OB in Florida when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. Took them about 1-2 months to call me back and tell me my routine bloodwork showed I was very anemic. If I recall correctly, my hemoglobin level was at an eight or six, which is extremely low. Oh, I don’t eat meat I told them! I had been feeling extremely run down and tired, but I was pregnant and running after a toddler, of course I was tired! I was put on an iron supplement and my iron levels came up to normal and stayed that way throughout pregnancy.
General Change in Bathroom Habits – I don’t really know how to categorize this one so we’ll leave it at this. If I really think back I can trace to beginning to notice something being different summer 2017. I felt like I was beginning to deal with more gas, urgency , something was just different. During this time I was also smack in the middle of serious postpartum depression and drinking heavily so I also chalked these changes up to lifestyle at the time. (Honestly, I could write a book about this period in my life, its very much a hard thing for me to talk about because I am ashamed of it).
Of course typing all this out I feel like the biggest idiot for not going to a doctor with these symptoms. What the hell Catherine?! Everything came on gradually and by the time I was diagnosed (thank you access around my tumor for saving my life, you can read more about diagnosis here) I was suddenly dealing with an onslaught of these symptoms all at once. I think it was a case of knowing I had this tumor so all the sudden these symptoms I had been dismissing were magnified. When I look back at this timeline of my life I can clearly see the storm brewing but at the time, I couldn’t.
I don’t write this to scare anyone at all. I just write this in hopes in helps someone else in the future. Never in a million years did I think I would get cancer.
I was healthy!
I worked out regularly!
I was a vegetarian!
I didn’t have a family history of cancer!
I had no risk factors for this type of cancer!
My genetic testing showed I had no irregular gene mutations!
I didn’t have a complicated medical history at all!
I had never even had a surgery before for God’s sake! Nonetheless, I had cancer. It happened to me. Somewhere along the line my body started making these cells at an excessive rate. Was it because I drank heavily during my depression? Was it because I drink tap water? Was it because my diet wasn’t healthy enough? Was it from chemicals in my food? I have beaten myself up over this for over a year. What could I have done differently to prevent this? Why did my body betray me? I guess I’ll never know. Maybe I will. Who knows. I’m trying my best to not live in the past.
The only advice I can even offer is that in the end YOU know your body. I didn’t have to deal with doctors dismissing me; however, if a doctor ever does dismiss you or your symptoms, find a new doctor! Since being diagnosed with rectal cancer, every colorectal doctor I have seen has told me they are seeing more cases of colorectal cancer in patients younger than fifty years old. (I mean, maybe it has to do with all the glyphosate they allowed into our food system in the 80’s but I digress…). People younger than fifty years old are generally not getting colonoscopies so by the time the cancer is found it is often already at advanced stages. Like mine. Be your own advocate. My brother (who is a doctor) told me once that’s why they call it practicing medicine, no one knows it all. All doctors are not created equal, search out the best team. Pay attention to your body. It might just save your life if you listen close. I was lucky enough to find a team of doctors that helped save mine.
At first my village is small. It is my mother, sister, brother and sister-in-law huddled around my hospital bed as the doctor delivers the news. Cancer. I am in shock.
Across town, my brother-in-law, cousins and nieces have assembled to help watch my kids as word spreads I’m in the hospital and it might not be good. I imagine this sleepover must’ve been epic for my three year old with all his cousins that night. Little did he know that across town his mothers world was crumbling.
I am discharged from the hospital and try to return to life as I know it. After a few days I text my closest friends to deliver the news. No doubt they are shocked. That night I get a text to go get the food on my doorstep my friends have delivered for the week. The next day, as my sister and I sit mulling over the diagnosis, a huge cookie cake is delivered to my doorstep. (If you understand my affinity with cookie cake then you really know me). When I mention to my friends a few days later that I am having trouble sleeping, a weighted blanket is delivered to my house. They are my village.
My entire family’s Christmas plans have now changed for 2018 because of my diagnosis on December 20, 2018. Instead of spending one last Christmas in my grandmother’s house as a family before it’s sold, the family has now decided to all come to Lafayette to celebrate the holiday. Everyone is there. My best friend shows up at the house with the sweetest card and gift ever. We sit outside and talk, probably cry, I can’t exactly remember. Lache pas. They are my village.
My cancer treatment begins and IV chemo is started on January 15, 2019 in Louisiana. I have lots of support as I’m pumped full of chemotherapy drugs. My sister and brother-in-law meal prep tons of recipes from a cancer cookbook; soups, bone broths to sip on, protein to keep me strong. My sister-in-law has meticulously taken notes during all the chemotherapy education classes. She goes out and purchases everything that is recommended. I am stocked with supplements to help side effects, medicines, lotions, special toothpaste; literally everything I could need. My sister-in-law also makes copies of notes on what supplements to take when and hands them out to the family. They are my village.
As chemotherapy continues every two weeks, my six month old baby is still not sleeping through the night. My mother selflessly gets up every night with my baby so I can rest. In the mornings, she is also up at 6 am helping me with my children. My third round of chemotherapy I begin to feel really bad. My brother swoops in and takes my three year old for a sleepover at his house while my sister takes the baby for the night. This way mom can try to help me manage my side effects and anxiety. They are my village.
Part of my village was with me when I was stunned to learn during a doctor’s visit at MD Anderson that there are suspicious spots on my lungs and liver. Actually, to say I’m stunned is a drastic understatement. I am devastated. My medical team wants to move me onto radiation and give the spots time to “declare themselves”. If these spots truly are cancer then we are dealing with metastatic stage four cancer. I try not to spiral too far as everyone around me reminds me the doctors know what’s best and to keep my head up.
In March 2019 I begin radiation treatment at MD Anderson in Houston while living at my aunt’s house. My mom and kids stay with me the first few weeks. My mom is always supportive and loving as I insist radiation isn’t bad and I want to go to treatments by myself. She relents and lets me do what I want. I continue treatment while being with my kids but by week three I am in increasingly bad shape. I cannot eat, I cannot sleep, I am throwing up and constantly nauseous, I am extremely weak and losing weight. My kids go back to Florida to be with my husband while I try to get through these last weeks of radiation. My mother drives me to and from appointments, sometimes having to pull over on the interstate so I can puke. My doctors manage to put me on medicine to get me through the last few weeks of treatment but it is rough. I cry through the last few weeks to my mom and my aunts that I’m not sure I can stomach this treatment another day. They never complain as I am sick, grumpy and just tired of everything. No doubt I am not pleasant to be around. I am crumbling. They are my village.
Part of my village is there when I return to the doctor after radiation and repeat scans to clarify if my cancer is metastatic or not. We quietly sit in the small room awaiting the news. These results not only dictate the course of my treatment but potentially the rest of my life. The PA enters with paperwork in her hands, sits down and delivers the news. The spots have not grown and are believed to be benign. Everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief and I begin to cry.
I return to my home in Florida ready to finish out my last rounds of IV chemotherapy before the big surgery. My first chemo treatment back, my port through which chemo is administered quits working. There is a shuffle around the room and I can tell from the nurses that something is not right. The oncologist comes in to speak with me and its evident something is wrong. As I hold an ice pack onto my port, the oncologist explains my port is not working correctly and will have to be replaced asap. I quickly enter panic mode as I realize this means yet another surgery to endure. The nurses are always kind and do their best to help talk me off a ledge. I cannot have my major surgery pushed back because of delayed chemo so he calls in a favor to a friend and my port is replaced the next day and my chemo treatment continues.
My in-laws come together to help watch my kids while I recover from the chemo treatments every two weeks. My three year old goes to Disney with cousins while I complete chemo round number six. For the seventh treatment my sister and her family drive thirteen hours to come see me. We spend a wonderful Fourth of July week at the beach as I recover from treatment and get to watch all the kids play. For my last chemo treatment my mom comes to town. I am nervous, as always, as I sit in the infusion room waiting to be hooked up. During my last treatment my husband shows up with flowers to celebrate. When the moment finally comes to ring the bell I have an audience of family supporting me. I ring that bell and pray silently in my head that this is indeed the last time I will ever do this. I could not have survived this without them. They are my village.
My village is in tow as I arrive in Houston in late August to begin prep for surgery. There is an array of doctors appointments, release forms and directions being thrown at me. I sit silently through all scans and appointments trying to hold it together. I try to stuff the anxiety down as I recite to myself over and over that everything will be ok. I am where I need to be. The night before surgery I am a hysterical mess. My sister-in-law makes all the bowel prep liquids I must drink and hands them off to me one after another. In between my panic attacks and bathroom trips I manage to finish off the bowel prep and I head to bed.
Four a.m. comes quickly. I shower and head over to MD Anderson for my five a.m. check in. I am led back into a small surgical waiting room and am allowed to bring one person with me. In the
surgical waiting room I am in tears. I have so much built up anxiety I have a hard time answering the nurses questions. A Chaplin in called in to help try to calm me down. After some prayers, signing and talking I am slightly calmer. It is in my surgeons hands. The OR nurses come in to get me. I am administered some drugs for my nerves and I kiss my husband goodbye. It is in my surgeons hands. They are my life saving village.
Twelve hours later I slowly come out of anesthesia as I hear the nurses tell me that surgery is over. I ask what time it is. It is 6:45 p.m. The surgical fellow comes by to speak with me. I am still groggy from anesthesia but I understand that I will have a permanent colostomy. I cannot even begin to process this right now. Recovery is slow. I am encouraged to walk as soon as possible; however, this proves difficult. The first three times I try, I begin to blackout as the room spins and goes dark. I am quickly laid back down in bed. On my fourth try I am able to stand up and walk around the hospital floor! My husband, mother and sister-in-law are by my side. My restrictions have me laying down most of the time with no bending or lifting. On the sixth day after surgery I am released to go home! Alleluia!
I remain in Houston for three weeks after surgery as I recover. Recovery is hard and painful; however, every day comes with it’s improvements. I slowly get my drains out, am able to walk more freely and am allowed to begin sitting up some. Approximately three weeks after surgery my healing looks good and I am green lighted to travel back home to Florida. My mother comes with me as I am still unable to bend, lift or sit for very long. Back home in Florida my mom, husband and in-laws rally together to help care for my kids. They are my village. We have moved into a new house and life is starting to pick up again. Everyday I can physically do more than before. Two months after surgery my mom flies back home to Louisiana. Here I begin the start of my new normal. My post cancer life.
My three year old, John Michael, begins to understand more. He knows mom was sick and away seeing doctors. I constantly remind him that I will always come back. I explain to him that mommy is healthy and the doctors have fixed me. I silently pray that I am right.
The new normal begins. I begin to get back into the groove of parenting two children – school drop-offs, cooking, laundry. I find myself over emotional at the small mundane moments I have back with my family. I remind myself that these small, mundane moments are what I prayed for when I was sick. I prayed and yelled and bargained with God that I would do everything better if I could just have my health back. I am eternally grateful I am one of the lucky ones so far. The lucky ones.
I have not even mentioned yet the part of my village that extends well beyond my family and friends. From the moment of my diagnosis I begin to receive letters and cards. Cards and encouragement from friends of friends that I have never met. Letters from fellow cancer survivors who have gotten word of my struggle. Our church congregation back in Florida is a small but mighty group. I never stop receiving correspondence from them. On the day of my twelve hour cancer surgery to remove the tumor they organize a prayer chain which has someone dedicating a whole hour of prayer to me for the entire day. The entire day. People stop my mother and sister in the hallways of church and school to say they prayed a rosary for me or that I was added to a prayer list. I meet fellow cancer patients and their loved ones as I sit in waiting rooms. I commiserate in their stories of heartbreak and encouragement.
A cancer diagnosis makes you a member of a club you never wanted to be in. One you never even knew existed. It violently jolts you into a new reality you have to face head on. Cancer has taught me a lot of things, many of which I cannot even find the words to describe. It has opened me up to how much love there is around me. I am eternally grateful I am one of the lucky ones. I am a survivor in large part because of my village.
I’m still kickin! I told myself I would write more through this cancer journey but the truth is I have struggled through a lot of it. Allow me to explain. My first four rounds of chemotherapy I did in Louisiana. I was terrified and had to navigate through all the emotions and side effects of it. Next up was radiation treatment done in Houston at MD Anderson, which, I swear to God, almost killed me. Followed by four more rounds of chemo that I did in Florida (where I now live). Truthfully, when I had my breaks from treatment I was just focused on physically recovering and trying to be with my family, writing wasn’t really on my mind. I also think it’s probably confusing to people why I did treatment in so many different places. I really have had a knack for making this cancer thing complicated! Allow me to explain…
I shared an update previously on my Instagram but for everyone who may not read that, here goes an update on my current treatment.
Genetic Testing Results
I met with a local genetic counselor at the cancer center who counseled me on getting genetic testing done. If I did have a gene mutation that predisposed me to this cancer we needed to know what it was. This meeting really made me uneasy because throughout the whole meeting I mostly got the gist that she was pretty sure I probably did have some sort of gene mutation and she went down her PowerPoint of what they could all be.
Turns out when I actually got the results back they were … negative! No mutations found at all. I brought the results to the Genetic Counselor at MD Anderson and had her go over them. She didn’t know why the other counselor was so sure I had a mutation but said that local counselor probably doesn’t see as many cases of young cancer as they do at MD Anderson. The counselor just put my mind at ease that I had no mutation and said I fall into the 70% of people who sporadically develop colorectal cancer. Meaning that most people (70%) don’t have a genetic mutation OR family history of it, it just happens.
After I completed my four rounds of FOLFOX IV chemo, I did both an MRI and CT scan at the beginning of March to see the progress of treatment. The scans showed that the tumor was responding to treatment and shrinking. Good news! There was also mention of two spots on my lungs (previously known about) and a spot on my liver. To say the least, I was shocked when the surgeon started talking about them. I was under the impression that the lung spots were totally unrelated to the cancer. They said the liver spot was so tiny it was “indeterminate”. After further discussion with the oncologist, the consensus seems to be they are likely not cancer related and nothing to worry about. Both the surgeon and oncologist agreed that we should move forward with radiation treatment and rescan after radiation. I also had my brother and his partner (both radiologists) review the scans. They agreed the spots were not related to cancer. This was weird for me, but I guess apparently people can just have these spots even if they are completely healthy and they are nothing to worry about. My oncologist jokingly told me to let him do the worrying, if there was something to worry about he’d be up at night about it. Right, ok.
I began radiation treatment on March 18th. The first two weeks went off without a hitch. I got cocky and totally thought I would breeze through this part of treatment. By the third week reality began to slowly set in. I began feeling nauseous, couldn’t eat & was very weak. After meeting with my radiation team, they switched up my nausea meds to see if that would help. After a few days of the new meds I was feeling pretty much the same.
This past Monday I moved up my weekly visit with my oncologist because something else had to be done. I spent the appointment in tears describing how horrible felt. They assured me they had an arsenal of tools and that we’d find something to help me. They ended up prescribing me seven days of steroid pills to help with nausea and appetite and then admitting me for IV fluids to help with dehydration. I literally feel like a new woman after all of that.
So currently I am a little more than halfway through radiation treatment. Thank the lord because I don’t know if I can take much longer of it. When radiation is complete they let you ring this bell to signify this part of treatment is over. It doesn’t mean necessarily that I’m done with all my treatment, but this grueling round of treatment will be over then. I wish I could just take a sledge hammer and smash the bell into a million pieces. Is that too much? Because I sure do have a lot of emotions pent up and I think it would help.
There is a woman who has radiation right before me everyday. I heard blips of her story from one of her sisters who was in the waiting room. One Friday I ended up having a long conversation with her sister telling her all about my story as I waiting for the techs to call me back. The next Monday as Gwen got out of treatment, she sat down next to me. She said her sister told her my story and she prays for me every night. Of course the tears began to fall (it doesn’t take much these days). Then she went on and told me, “You WILL beat this. When I was diagnosed with mesothelioma SEVEN years ago they gave me anywhere from 9-18 months to live. THAT WAS SEVEN YEARS AGO. Look at me! I had a relapse this year but I went SEVEN years cancer free. You will see your children grow up, I know that for sure”. I mean do I even have to describe the waterworks here?? Her sister was crying so much she had to walk away, I was a mess and Gwen just grabbed her stuff and told me to hang in there as she ran after her sister. I don’t know much about Gwen other than she finishes her radiation treatment April 12th and she needs to get on a plane to go back to Idaho to see her daughter go to prom on Saturday the 13th. So if you are the praying kind, keep this wonderful woman in your heart. I will probably see and speak with her a few more times before she leaves, but I always enjoy talking with her. I think of her and pray for her often.
That’s one thing that astounds me every time I walk around MD Anderson is how much cancer affects everyone. I never thought in a million years I would be the one with cancer. In fact, it still kind of feels like a dream. Like it can’t be really happening. In fact, earlier I logged onto my patient portal to look something else up and saw they have already scheduled my follow up scans for June 11th, meeting with surgeon June 12th and the big surgery date for July 23rd. I was stunned because it all seems to be happening so quickly. Just thinking about the surgery gives me anxiety. For those not in the know, that’s correct, I haven’t even had the surgery to remove the tumor yet. They wanted to do treatment beforehand to see how much it would shrink to make treatment and surgery easier.
So the rest of treatment (for now, as I understand it), looks like:
-finishing up radiation on April 24th and lighting the bell on fire and smashing it into a million pieces
-follow up scans and appointments June 11-12
-Big surgery scheduled for July 23rd
-“clean up chemo” will happen at some point after surgery but I’m not sure when (or where geographically) I will choose to do this.
So all in all, there is your update. I apologize for the lapses in updating, its easy to get bogged down with all the side effects and what not.
I apologize for a lack of an update on here. I know many people are curious as to my treatment and I’ll try better to upkeep this regularly. In all honesty, I had actually planned to get on here and write about how great I was doing after my first chemo round and how mentally I was feeling like LET’S DO THIS, I AM HERE FOR IT. Then, second round of chemo happened.
I know my chemo education class went over that side effects can build (I also spent most of that class with eyes glazed over in a complete mental blackout so thank you mom and sister-in-law for taking notes) but I was feeling pretty lousy after round two. I will spare you the intimate details of my tear filled anxiety ridden week but last chemo round had me feeling very fatigued, nauseous, very constipated and very much spiraling into a black hole mentally. Fun stuff!
I do not have much, if any, physical pain from the cancer itself. I’ll tell you my much bigger battle is my mental one.
In the days after I first got diagnosed I was very much in a fog about it all. Yes, I understood I had cancer but it was like everything was in slow motion (ok, I was also partaking in some pain medication that was prescribed so maybe that was part of it). It honestly didn’t even feel real for a few days. The day we were to leave to go to MD Anderson in Houston to get a second opinion, I showed up at my brothers house in complete meltdown mode. I did not want to go to MD Anderson. I was positive they were going to find the cancer was stage 4 and had in fact spread to my liver, lungs and brain. Like, very sure of it. The local hospital that diagnosed me had not done a scan of my lungs and now I was pretty sure I actually was having shortness of breath (see what is happening here?). My sister-in-law and brother (both doctors) assured me that for the cancer to get to my lungs and brain it had to go through my liver and my liver was clear on the scans. I was skeptical. I am no dummy and had done enough googling to self diagnose that this cancer was probably (definitely) in my lungs. We packed the car and headed west to Houston.
I am not sure the last time you had a silent panic attack in the car with your two kids in the backseat and your husband completely unaware but I would not recommend it. Suddenly during the drive I began to feel like I couldn’t breath. It didn’t matter how many deep breathes I took, I was just not getting enough oxygen. My lungs were not working. The cancer. Everything was spinning, I could not breathe and I was spiraling fast. I debated screaming to my husband to pull over and call 911 but instead opted to scramble for headphones where I then YouTubed a meditation video and eventually cried silently until I calmed down enough to nod off to sleep for a few minutes.
I spent most of the MD Anderson visit walking around in tears, not being able to function and fully expecting every doctor to just walk in the room and hand me a pamphlet to hospice. I realize that sounds dramatic but when you are faced with a health crisis you know nothing about and feel completely healthy it is mind numbing the anxiety it brings. I basically tried to ask every doctor to just give me a number 1 out of 10 how alive I would be in ten years but they wouldn’t. Doctors can be the worst. I cried my way through every appointment and couldn’t believe I was here doing this. How is this happening? At the end we left with a treatment plan and made appointments with local doctors who would be administering my MD Anderson chemo plan.
Now that I have physically began the treatment plan there is some relief that I am actually now doing something to combat this disease. We are getting somewhere – hopefully, maybe?
What you do not see on me as a cancer patient is the daily internal struggle I encounter on a daily basis. Sure, I have good days but the bad days are bad. It is hard to be laid up in bed sick and hear your kids running around the house. When my three year old asks about my chemo pump and tells me he’ll make sure not to hurt my bo-bo. When I open up the paper (yes my mom still gets the daily newspaper) and glance at the obits to see a young woman who lost her five year battle with cancer (wow, that one really sent me spiraling). It just is hard. Yes I realize I have to try my best to keep a positive mind set but I am honestly flat out scared of a lot of what is to come.
I am scared of the next round of chemo and it being even worse this time around. I am scared the cancer is still spreading even though I am receiving chemo (is this possible? I have stopped myself from googling it at this point). I am worried my tumor will not have changed when I go back for my progress scans. I get depressed each time I step on the scale to see a number I would have once previously deemed a ‘goal’ to realize I am this way because I am sick (WOW, nothing puts something as silly as body issues into perspective as cancer, its all so stupid). I am scared of the long lasting effects radiation will bring. I am scared of having to go under anesthesia for my future surgeries. I am terrified (understatement of the century) of the 8+ hour surgery I will endure as my surgeon removes my tumor, lymph nodes, uterus and ovaries. I am worried about the colostomy bag I will have to wear as my insides heal. I am scared of the surgery to hook back up all my internal plumbing to make me whole again. I am wondering how all this will look as I try to raise two kids and still live a life. In all honesty I guess none of my feelings matter in the end because it’s all happening no matter what.
I will try my best to surrender all my worries and leave it in God’s hands. I do realize mental health plays a large part in recovery and many days I am in a great head space but I also need space to feel. Which is maybe why I’m writing these posts? The last time my husband was in town we were in the car and I said, “Well, I can honestly say I’m beginning to feel like I don’t think I’m going to die from this cancer”. To which his response was, “Great! I never thought you were going to die from this cancer”. Which is good, right?! I mean, maybe I will die of this cancer, who knows. Maybe you will die of cancer you haven’t been diagnosed with yet. Maybe I will get hit by a bus. I’m not sure how it will happen, but I’m beginning to feel like this cancer will not be it.
“This is never the news we want to give someone but it is cancer“, said the surgeon as he held my hand. I was still coming out of anesthesia but trust me, I heard loud and clear what he just said.
I asked him if I was going to die.
He said no (or some rehearsed doctor version of it).
I said good because I had two babies at home and couldn’t.
That’s how I found out I had stage 3 rectal cancer. The highest stage 3 there is, stage IIIC. Literally a touch under stage 4. It has already spread to my uterus and lymph nodes in that area. The biggest blessing so far seems to be that it hasn’t metastasized to my liver or lungs (although I’d like to be scanned from my head to the tips of my toes to make sure it’s not anywhere else, but everyone keeps telling me that’s not necessary). Continue reading “A Cancer Christmas Story”→