Survivorship

Technically speaking, I guess my last form of cancer treatment was on August 20, 2019. That is when I endured my twelve-hour surgery to remove my rectum, build a permanent colostomy, take out the rest of the cancer tissue that was present, conduct intraoperative radiation, and do a complete hysterectomy, including ovaries. A lot.

I remember one of the surgeons told me that by Halloween I would feel “back to my new normal!” Having never had major surgery or any medical issue at all really, I was a little taken aback at first by the recovery process. I actually had trouble walking again and almost passed out when the nurse tried to help me walk after surgery. Eventually, though, I mustered up enough strength, and making those regular laps around the hospital floor became routine. Multiple times a day. Have to keep the body moving and blood pumping I guess! I actually only spent six days in the hospital after that extensive surgery, only six! For some reason, my body just…worked.

To say I was terrified of what body I would wake up to is an understatement. I had never even had a real surgery before for God’s sake! I did not know that my ostomy would be permanent until I woke up from surgery. I knew there was a chance yes, it was discussed beforehand. However, my surgeon also told me she would do everything she could to avoid it. We talked about margins and LARS. We discussed quality of life and what it meant. It was heavy.

I could not eat for the first few days, liquid diet only. Then they slowly increased my food intake to see if my bowels would “wake up”. This my friends, is a terrifying moment wondering if your new bathroom system is going to work? So we just have to…wait around? Sure enough, a nurse came by to check and said there’s output in your bag. I was kind of floored I didn’t notice (was also on a lot of pain meds!). The nurses came by and emptied my bag for me every time they came in.

On the white board in the hospital room there was a series of videos they wanted me to watch about my ostomy before being discharged. I was not into this. The conversation went something like this:

Husband: You have to watch these videos before we leave.

Me: I’m not watching that.

Husband: Yes, you are.

Me: No. I’m not. I don’t care about it.

Husband: Yes, you are. *turns on videos*

Me: *pouts*

Sure enough, by Halloween I actually was feeling pretty good. I drank two whole bottles of wine to celebrate! [Insert meme about how Catherine does not drink anymore because she has lost the power of choice, this issue predates cancer, but cancer gave me the gift of realizing it] I had a small blip where I was briefly hospitalized due to a potential blockage about 6-8 weeks after surgery. But with fluids, it seemed to clear itself up. I even avoided the dreaded NG tube. I was about ten seconds away from meltdown city when the nurse bounded into the room and said “hold on, they said don’t place the tube yet, they don’t think it’s a true blockage”. I surmise it was an adhesion but I really haven’t had any issues since. Other than that my body has just…worked. I have had some frustration with my ostomy and finding my new routine but that’s to be expected I guess.

Other than that, survivorship has been a breeze! Just kidding. Albeit, it’s been amazing to be on this side of cancer and be no evidence of disease and i’ll always be grateful; however, it does come with its own set of challenges. I thankfully do have a good quality of life now but there are lasting side effects I will deal with for the rest of my life.

I have had innumerable adventures in survivorship such as learning to manage and irrigate my ostomy, learning to dress my new body, finding medical providers to manage my care going forward, managing menopause symptoms and medication, managing my own rage and sadness, managing ongoing skin issues from vaginal reconstruction, trying to build my life back after a seismic shift from cancer. It’s a lot.

Truth be told, I was in a hard spot prior to cancer and cancer gave me the gift of knowing I wanted to do more with my life. Prior to cancer I had been fired from my job, was generally discontent with motherhood and life, and had little direction. My husband and I decided I would stay home for a few years with the kids since having multiple kids in daycare wouldn’t even make my paycheck worth it. Enter cancer.

Honestly, making a lot of decisions after cancer, I kind of felt like I was floating through them. In a nutshell, I did have trouble controlling my drinking prior to cancer. But I was not able to admit I had a problem. After my cancer treatment concluded, I found myself still stuggling with the same issue and knew it had to go. I fell into the world of recovery and had never identified or loved anything so much. I started praying for direction and guidance and got a job at a local university. Not only a good job, but a great job that actually is flexible and aligns with my kid’s schedule well. Throughout this time I was also regularly attending my own therapy sessions. I would exit every therapy session and could hardly get the pen to write quick enough as I tried to word vomit back down everything I had just discovered about myself. My husband and I also went to couples counseling together during this time. It was fascinating, honestly. I learned so much about my own behavior and how to ask for what I need. How to act in a relationsip and respect the other persons needs too. I did have a good friend who gave me a journal during treatment. It has exactly zero entries in it from my year of treatment.

The summer after my treatment ended I began to seriously think about going back to school to become a therapist or counselor. I needed to make income to help my family but could I also actually find something I loved? I ordered my transcripts from undergrad without saying anything to anyone and began looking up schools online. I wondered if I could really do it? Should I attend the university where I was employed part-time? Maybe getting an online degree would be easier? Could I afford it? I spoke with admissions from a few different colleges. I prayed about it. I talked myself out of it numerous times. I ultimately applied to and was accepted at the small university I currently work for part-time. While my employment does not cover any tuition, I have applied for over fifty scholarships and aim to remain employed to help cash flow my masters. Of course student loans are there too, to help me make my way through school.

I’m incredibly excited about it; however, I’m also plagued by a lot of doubt as it gets closer. Just mainly keeping up with life demands alongside work and school. Let’s face it, this program will take me longer to complete than the traditional two-three years it does for a full-time masters student. By the time I complete this program and am ready to enter the workforce, I’ll probably be around 43 years old. Just starting my career at 43. That’s wild. It seems reckless in the most adult and responsible way you could be reckless. I wonder if this is financially irresponsible, as I’m probably supposed to be saving for my own children’s college fund and not my own. I’m questioning my time management skills and how I’ll ever be able to study, read books, make dinner, write papers, work, shuffle to practices, keep up with voluneer commitments, walk my dogs and remember to put out the trash.

But I’m also incredibly ready and grateful for the challenge that lay ahead too. I decided after cancer I wanted to be a helper and I do have some really cool visions of stuff I could do to support early onset cancer patients and new moms. Can I group that together?! I’m not the first working mom in history to do it and I certainly won’t be the last. I guess that’s why I kind of feel like I’m floating through it all because if you know me, I do not take chances. I do not typically do hard things. I usually take the easy way out. But cancer made me realize my time was almost up and I honestly just think I’m capable of so much more. I want to know. This time my past is shaded by events that I know have made me stronger and more resilient. I just hope I can be trained to pass on that same spirit of resiliency.

Coffee Alternatives

I’ve recently tried to cut out coffee after 1pm (ok, 2pm). I honestly don’t have a ton of issues with sleep, but I do know that I drink a ton of caffeine, so in the name of health and better habits I’ve recently tried out some better alternatives! Here are my thoughts:

Breakaway Coldbrew Matcha – (25mg caffeine per serving) This is so interesting because it’s cold brew and I’m always on team iced! I got this as a gift and I was not used to seeing cold brew matcha, I thought it was unique! Matcha is known to help stabilize blood sugar levels, so it’s a great choice for diabetics (or really anyone!). To get the full benefits, it’s best not to drink with milk (see their FAQ page); however, if you’re looking for a healthier alternative this is definitely a good one to try. I don’t mind the taste, though I do sweeten it with some honey!

Amazing Grass Green Superfood Effervescent Greens – (85mg caffeine per serving) Ok. I’m going to be totally transparent on this one, these do not taste good. If you are a baby about stuff tasting “healthy”, please scroll past. However, I really love these! I have purchased these a few times. No idea how I came across them but they are convenient to drop into water bottles. I definitely get a noticeable boost of energy with these and I like the way they make me feel. No jittery feeling. Also a plus for anything that has a serving of greens in it. Two thumbs up!

Liquid IV Energy Multiplier – (100mg caffeine per serving) I’m sure you’ve likely seen this brand all over Instragam. Truthfully, this was an impulse Costco buy that did not disappoint! The ginger-lemon flavor is actually quite good! I kept a few of these in my purse and at work for a quick and convenient alternative to afternoon coffee. Definitely will purchase again!

What are your afternoon pick-me-up faves?

The best medicine…

A few years past my diagnosis and surgery I have finally begun to process a lot about my cancer and ensuing treatment. Make no mistake about it, rectal cancer treatment is awkward and weird (for me at least it was, but I don’t let that shame own me anymore).

There are quite a few instances of things that stick out in my head: the rectal examinations from different doctors (so many), rectal contrast, having doctors constantly coming in the room to ask if you can roll over so they can look at my butt and ‘flap’ (this is what they called the reconstructed part of my vagina). Oy vey, I do not miss the hospital!

Rectal cancer is not funny. At all. But I would be remiss if I did not think back to some moments during my journey and laugh.

…coming out of the bathroom on one of those first visits to MD Anderson and exclaiming to my husband and mom “I pooped!” They both cheered! At first we thought a stent might have to be put in so I could continue to pass stool…that never happened…

…My surgeon, Dr. You at MD Anderson, reminding us this was going to be a marathon not a sprint, to which my husband replied we really don’t even like walking out to check the mail…

…the time after surgery when I commented I literally never had a reason to get up with my ostomy AND catheter both in. My husband immediately remarked how wonderful this sounded and confided he was jealous!

The truth is, medical providers giving you this treatment have done this so many times. It’s my hope in sharing this that we realize the worst things that happen to us, we can get through. We can endure. Often times in the moment with tears and anxiety and afterwards with tears of relief and laughter. Not always. But sometimes.

It was a few days after surgery and my team had finally removed my catheter. I was expected to pee a certain amount to signal my bladder was working. Initially, I thought nothing of this. However, as the day ticked on, the nurse came back in and casually mentioned catheterization if I couldn’t pass a certain amount of urine.

WHAT?? No.

That’s definitely going to hurt. I started drinking water and began to slowly realize that…my bladder was not working…I couldn’t really feel any sensation of having to pee. A lot was going on post surgery, so it took a while for this to dawn on me. As the hours wore on, I became increasingly anxious of having to have the catheter put back in. I know it might seem silly, but all these little things I viewed as set backs and it was hard not to spiral. I dedicated a lot of time sitting in that bathroom with various audios of rivers and streams playing. I willed it. I meditated it. I remember at one point David followed me into the bathroom and told me to calm down. I remember turning back around and exclaiming, “Don’t tell me to calm down, its not YOUR body!”.

At some point I realized my body was not doing this naturally and paged the nurse. An ultrasound was done on my bladder, which confirmed lots of pee. My bladder wasn’t working. The nurse indicated sometimes the bladder took longer to wake up from surgery and they would just catheterize me to give me some relief and give my bladder more time to wake up. Don’t worry, in the small time frame here I did lots of google searching. No message board was left untouched. The nurse asked if she could bring another female nurse in to help. Sure I thought, invite the whole floor please.

The nurses came back to the room and I entered full blown panic mode. It was going to hurt and I knew it. I knew it. I had my legs spread, my mother holding my hand on one side of me and my husband holding my hand on the other side of me.

“Do you mind if we tilt your legs up some? It will let us see what we’re doing better…”…..Sure I thought…perfect….my legs are now spread, tilted upwards somewhat with my mother holding my hand on one side and my husband on the other. As I prepare for mutilation, I suddenly hear they are commenting it’s working. The bladder is draining.

“Oh, I didn’t even feel anything,” I said relaxing my death grip.

“Well, then that means we did it right,” the nurse laughed back.

Of course I was embarrassed for making such a scene about it but the nurses were very kind and understood. Edit to add I always had good nurses. A lot of them were young and my age it seemed. I remember one writing me a special note on my board before she got off her shift when we didn’t see each other.

None of it was done gracefully or bravely. It was done messy through anxious tears and anger. Honestly, I sometimes still can’t even believe it happened to me. It’s been a lot to grapple with, the road taking that twist you never expect. I guess it’s the one thing we can come to expect. It will toughen you up for sure, but hopefully you can find some laughs along the way.

Much love.

That App Life

I know we all can end up with random apps on our phones we no longer use…right?… RIGHT?

I thought I’d list a few I actually use on a regular basis that I deem useful so here we go:

  • GetSorted – This is a great app to tidy up your photo library. I end up with thousands of photos on my phone so this app sets small goals for going through photos by date and month and deleting/saving what you want! It’s all about small goals and fun rewards along the way!

  • Rakuten – If you are spending money online and aren’t using this you are crazy! Especially around the holidays! You just pull up the app, see all the stores that offer cashback and then shop through that link. You can even link to your cards so it automatcailly credits you cash back when you shop in person. You can sign up HERE. It’s worth it! *Disclaimer that I do get some free cash if you sign up with my link, and so do YOU!

  • Dark Sky – I heard about this app from a podcast I listen to and have been using it since! This is apparently a super accurate weather app people in Hollywood use to track the weather for shooting movies (so they say). Anyways, its easy, it always pulls up to my city and shows an hourly breakdown of temp/rain chance so it’s convenient. Especailly in Florida where rain can come on quite quickly! Or when I spend two hours trying to decide if I should water my plants or not.

  • Dunkin DonutsDo not laugh! You need this if you’re a DD fan. There is one by my house and I have gotten quite a few free coffees earned by using this app! It’s super easy to order ahead and they often run deals for double points and other specials for app users only!

  • ABC Mouse – We subscribe to ABC Mouse and honestly, I do feel like it’s worth it. They have both preschool and kindergarten level for each of my kids. My 3yo doesn’t play it much, but my 6yo does! He enjoys the matching games, mazes, taking care of the pets etc. Worth It. He can’t really work a mouse but honestly…aren’t those probably going to be extinct by the time he grows up? Everything will be touch screen. He mostly plays this on the ipad and it’s way better than anything you’ll find on youtube kids!

What other apps are you liking these days? Hard to keep up with the constant new ones coming out. I’m always deleting unused apps from my phone! Time for a clean-up…

Summer Faves

So to kick off July I’m going to share my current summer favorites as of this very moment

Beauty

Truth be told I have always mixed & matched my Beautycounter products and this is the first time I am using a complete regime! It is so luxurious and I honestly have a sacred nighttime routine I look forward to every night. This Countermatch line is gentle enough to use twice a day + is super hydrating but non-greasy. I know. The trifecta. It doesn’t really have much of a smell to me, which I like for my body products!

Primally Pure is another great clean brand I have been loving! Their dry shampoo specifically is great at absorbing + creating volume.

The Palo Santo Aromatherapy Mist is ahhhhmazing as well!!

Use code WONDERFULLY10 for 10% off your order!

SPF

My go to favorites for sun protection lately are:

  • Mineral face sunscreen – super lightweight, tube lasts me all summer for my face, no white residue
  • Badger Sunscreen is great – this comes in a pack with a face tube which is great for little faces – love that its unscented as well!
  • This long sleeved rashguard swimsuit was a great Amazon find and is super cute

Wellness

I have been consistently lifting weights now for going on six months! Go me! Here are a few favorites I have loved the past few months while on that journey:

  • These high-waisted leggings are an ostomate’s best friend and keep everything held in – I own them in multiple colors and patterns
  • These amazing grass energy tablets are great to drop into a bottle of water in the morning, gives me a super quick energy boost for my morning workout
  • Breakaway Matcha is another great alternative to coffee I have been loving, they have a cold brew blend. I was gifted it for Christmas and have been enjoying it in the afternoons for sure

Remember guys, we can take our power back by making the next right choice for our physical + mental health! Stay Well!

Quick, Kid Approved Smoothies

Happy Wednesday! I am a morning person through and through, often rolling out of bed between 4:30-5:00 a.m. Now, that’s not to say that I don’t have my mornings where my feet drag and I miss my alarm, I most certainly do! I find now; however, that often times my body wakes on it’s own internal alarm clock and I often find myself glancing at the clock and rolling out of bed before my alarm even goes off. I remember my father being like this as well.

In the spirit of talking about mornings, I want to share my three go-to smoothie recipes to grab in the morning. With the exception of the coffee one, my kids will drink these and they are packed with real food.

Coffee Time

This smoothie is one of my favorites and probably my most made recipe.

  • 1 scoop chocolate protein powder (Orgain organic chocolate protein powder & Shakeology are my favorite)
  • 1 cup dairy free milk (I often use oat milk or almond milk)
  • 1 tablespoon powdered peanut butter (or the real thing, whatever is on hand)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • handful of ice cubes
  • top with coconut whipped cream

Ultimate Green Goddess Smoothie

  • 1 cup dairy free milk or water
  • hanful of spinach
  • 1-1.5 frozen bananas
  • 1 cup of frozen pineapple
  • handful of ice

Orange Dream Smoothie

  • 4 – 6 cutie oranges
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • splash of milk (if desired)
  • handful of ice

Lagniappe

Extras I always have on hand to add to smoothies are:

  • ground flaxseed
  • hemp hearts
  • chia seeds

Happy Blending!!

5 Tips to Reduce Your Toxic Load

Long before cancer creeped it’s way into my life (well, long before I knew it was growing inside me) I had already begun to make lifestyle changes to help to reduce my toxic load. At the time, I didn’t realize this is exactly what I was doing, I just knew I had been becoming more aware of how toxic so many things in my environment were. The processed foods, meat industry, personal care products, even baby food has been found to have high levels of arsenic! “Toxic load” refers to the accumulation of chemicals and toxins in our body that are ingested or absorbed.

I think it’s also important to point out that we are far from perfect as a family on this. No one can practice perfection in this area, it’s too hard! We make safer swaps where we can all while remembering we are human trying our best to navigate this. My kids nutrition is not perfect and I’m sure there will always be areas to clean up. Progress over perfection my friends!

Here are five ways I help to reduce our chemical exposures in our family

  1. Eat vegetarian whenever possible & buy organic fruits and vegetables

    This one is kind of a no-brainer as we’ve all heard it a hundred times. I get it, buying all organic everything isn’t financially possible and that’s when you stick to buying organic items that are on the dirty dozen list. Buy organic when you can and be sure to always thoroughly wash produce (we use a 3:1 water/vinegar solution). In addition, I always lean towards recipes that are vegetarian. Eating vegetarian is cheaper, better for the planet, your health etc. My favorite cookbooks that got me into plant based eating are The Happy Herbivore and Everyday Detox

2. Transition personal care and makeup products to safer alternatives

Our skin is our largest organ and believe it or not, we are absorbing all the products we slather onto our skin and face. I have been using Beautycounter for over a year now for my skincare and makeup products. Beautycounter delivers high performing personal care products while banning a plethora of ingredients. In addition, they are also a B Corp, meeting the highest standards of social and environmental performance. I will also link a great article by one of my favorite beauty bloggers, This Organic Girl, that goes over cleaner beauty options available at Target. Cleaner, safer options are out there and I hope to continue to share all those things I come across on this platform!

3. Never wash plastsic in the dishwasher – switch over to glass storage containers instead of plastic tupperware

Did you know that back in 2018 the American Pediatric Association stated to, “avoid microwaving food or beverages (including infant formula and pumped human milk) in plastic, if possible, don’t put plastics in the dishwasher, and use containers made from alternative materials like glass or stainless steel whenever possible.”

That means that all those cute plastic kid plates, cups, snack containers you have should never be going in the dishwasher. Ever. Even if plastic is labeled ‘dishwasher safe’, it is not. On a personal note, we do still have and use plastic kid plates and cups. I wash them by hand and yes, it is a pain in the butt. We have some stainless steel kids cups we use as well. Will slowly transition over to stainless steel but it’s a process.

4. Take care of your gut

This perhaps seems like a random one but I have never been more aware of how my own gut functions since getting my permanent colostomy. Your bowels are how your body expels waste and toxins from your own body. It’s imperative to keep them working regularly and treat them well. This means drinking a lot of water (I personally aim for a gallon a day) and basically not killing yourself with crap food. I don’t think I need to go into this further. Another huge component of this is getting adequate exercise so your gut can actually process and absorb what’s needed and expel what’s not.

5. Switch to a natural laundry detergent

After trying quite a few more natural laundry detergents I have finally found one that is unscented, comes in small recyclable packaging and actually works on kid stains and sweaty clothes, Earth Breeze laundry sheets! You can get $10 OFF your first order here. This company is great, focusing on zero waste products that actually work. Ditch the scents and opt for unscented as well. I practice this in most products, when there is an unscented version, I will grab that. The less synthetic fragrances, the better.

Small and steady action cleaning up our toxic load can go a long way in improving the health of our families! What are some of the ways your practice this in your home?

Top Ten Recent Amazon Purchases

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]
  1. 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 another Young 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. 

 

 

An Ode to My Village

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.

Christmas 2018 – five days after my cancer diagnosis

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.

Done with radiation!

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.

Round five of chemo – holding an ice pack to my port

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 sister and nieces visiting me

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.

Last meal before the big surgery with my mom, husband and aunts

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

Right after surgery

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.

Hello…it’s me…

Present from my high school friends right after diagnosis

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…

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