I get asked all the time how I’m doing, and so I’d like to start answering that question. There are many layers to that question: How am I doing physically? Mentally? Emotionally? Spiritually? Etc. So I’m going to begin with the easiest question and answer, and that is the physical one. I’ll give a history, as well as a current update. (Skip to the end if you’re just looking for a current status).
In the 1990s and early 2000s my grandmother, Aunt Jean, Aunt Joyce and Aunt Joan (my mom’s three sisters) were all diagnosed with and beat breast cancer. You could say it runs in the family.
So you would think when I found a lump in June of 2013 I would head straight to the doctor! But I did not. I’d had a baby (Eowyn) at the end of May, and assumed I had a clogged milk duct, or some other breastfeeding-related issue. I was finally forced to the doctor on account of stitches I had to have removed (another story), and while I was there had him check out my lump.
This started a series of tests and exams that resulted in a diagnosis of Stage IIB Triple Negative breast cancer. Within a month I was on the operating table, undergoing a double mastectomy. A month after that I began 4 1/2 months of aggressive chemotherapy. In May of 2014 I had reconstructive surgery and was told to get on with my life. Every test showed that I had beaten it.
And so, when I started experiencing back pain in early 2015, the last thing on my mind was cancer. I had already beaten that, so it couldn’t be cancer. But my pain got steadily worse, so I started having to figure out how to deal with it. I tried the chiropractor, massage therapy, physical therapy, and finally pain management. The pain doc suspected a slipped disk, scheduled an epidural injection to help with my severe sciatic pain, and ordered an MRI, just to be sure.
As we all know, the MRI did not show any slipped or bulging disks, it showed something suspicious, something the doctor wanted my oncologist to look at. I remember that phone call vividly. It was such a huge shock, because I honestly had not even considered cancer. I was on the phone, trying to hold back tears, just as Caleb walked in the door from work. Once I hung up, the floodgates opened, and for a few minutes I couldn’t even explain to Caleb what I had just been told. But I finally did, and thus began another series of tests and exams and a super fun biopsy.
On August 11, 2015, Caleb and I listened as my doctor officially diagnosed Metastatic Triple Negative breast cancer, Stage IV. It was in my spine, the source of all the back and sciatic pain of the previous 8 months. It was in my lungs. Treatable. No cure. Despite my suspicions, I was still shell shocked. Caleb and I were immediately thrown into crisis mode, plopped on a path few walk, for which there is no guide or map or how-to book.
Thanks to the encouraging words of a dear friend, we were able to get through that night. And the many nights that followed.
Almost immediately I started radiation treatment, fifteen rounds of focused radiation on the tumor in my lower back. This is when I started to lose my appetite. Once radiation finished, I began to notice a real difference in the pain, an indication that the tumor was shrinking. Wahoo! From there we thought we’d be able to begin an oral chemotherapy treatment, but that silly tumor was just too aggressive, and IV chemo was going to be necessary. So I spent 9 weeks getting shot full of toxic chemicals. They left me fairly sick. The only up side of all that nausea was losing 50 pounds. Yay for new clothes! In reality, a small consolation prize.
Chemo and its side effects ended in mid-December. A CT scan showed the tumor having shrunk significantly, so much so that we were able to take me off IV chemo, and go back to the oral drugs. I started the oral treatment at the end of December, and I’ve been tolerating it extremely well. I haven’t experienced any of its common side effects yet. Wahoo! I’ll undergo another CT scan in a couple weeks to see if the drug is actually working. If it is, then this will be my treatment for the foreseeable future. We pray its working! I do not want to go back to IV chemo.
On a side note, the epidural injection I got for my sciatic pain helped tremendously, and I was only left with some residual neuropathy in my left foot. This isn’t painful, just uncomfortable, and annoying. The low circulation also causes some swelling, which makes shoes tricky on some days. I’ve also developed some severe tendinitis in my left knee. It’s gotten so bad that the doctor has finally ordered some x-rays, and maybe even an MRI, if the x-rays are inconclusive. So if you see me limping around, that’s why. Yes, it was getting better several weeks ago, but it’s gotten bad again.
So, my current status in a nutshell: the tumor in my back is significantly shrunken; I’m about to start round 3 of the somewhat experimental oral chemo drug, which I’m tolerating extremely well; we are finally moving forward on figuring out what’s really wrong with my knee.
I still have cancer, and always will. That reality never changes. Which is what makes those other questions about how I’m doing (mentally, emotionally, spiritually) much more difficult to answer.
Most of the time, this is how you see me. It’s the face of bravery and readiness and willingness to fight. But truthfully, though I do feel like this a lot, I don’t feel like this all the time. Sometimes I want all this to go away, a bad dream I just need to wake up from. But more on that later …