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.