This blog has always been about finding the many little joys in the midst of a messy, busy, somewhat chaotic life. Well, if ever life was chaotic, the past few months have been a crazy, exhausting tornado.
Three months ago, I had no idea that my first few months of the new decade would involve so many trips to the hospital, hours of reading medical journals, and two surgeries. At one point, I had all sorts of goals for the new year, but I crossed them all out and replaced them with just one:
I’ve been pretty non-existent in the social media and blogging worlds for the last couple of the months. Getting a crash course in everything-you-never-wanted-to-know-about-cancer has pretty much taken up all my time and energy, and, frankly, I wasn’t ready to talk about it to the world.
But now I want to share a little bit of my story.
Because my life is a miracle, and I don’t ever want to take that for granted again.
I hope that as you read my story, you’ll see the miracles woven into the fibers of this struggle. And as you see them in my story, maybe you’ll see them a little more in your own life, too.
My cancer story
Last December I went in for a routine colonoscopy. If you’re wondering why a thirty-five-year-old woman with no symptoms was having a colonoscopy two weeks before Christmas, let me explain.
Last year I found out through some genetic testing I had done (*miracle*) that I have Lynch Syndrome: a hereditary condition that significantly increases a person’s risk of several types of cancer…including colorectal cancer.
People with Lynch Syndrome have a 50-80% chance of developing colorectal cancer over their lifetime. That’s a scary statistic. However, effective screenings make it one of the easiest cancers to check for and detect problems before they become cancerous.
Hence the colonoscopy. I had put it off for months, too busy with the normal hubbub of mom life to make it a priority.
I’m only 35, I had told myself. Even with Lynch Syndrome, the likelihood of getting cancer that young was really low, so I just didn’t feel like it was urgent. Besides, I had no symptoms that would suggest any problems, so I figured there was no rush.
As the end of the year drew near, however, I felt that it was time to get “schedule colonoscopy” checked off my to-do list. (Miracle: I happened to get connected with one of the top gastroenterologists in Utah who specializes in Lynch Syndrome patients.)
Everything went fine until the doctor came in after the procedure and told me she had found one rather large lesion. It was too big to remove endoscopically (6 cm), so she was referring me to a colorectal surgeon to discuss further treatment. She reassured us that we shouldn’t be overly concerned–that even if it was cancer, it was very treatable.
At this point, I was still really groggy from the sedation, and I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around what she had just said.
I might have cancer? But it was okay? How could the possibility of cancer ever be okay?
For the time being, however, there was nothing to do but wait. We carried on with Christmas preparations and holidays parties (Miracle: I was actually able to enjoy the holidays and keep my anxiety in check). The following week we were relieved to hear that the pathology report had shown that the growth was precancerous…as far as they could tell.
We met with a surgeon, scheduled an outpatient surgical procedure to remove the polyp, and breathed a sigh of relief that as long as the pathology report afterward came back clear, we would be done with treatment. We’d just have to be diligent about screenings from here on out.
Surgery went according to plan, and within a few days I was back to my normal routine. I truly wasn’t even worried about the pathology results. I was confident that the tests would come back negative for cancer, and we’d be grateful to have closely dodged a bullet.
But as it turned out, I didn’t dodge a bullet. That bullet hit me right in the gut.
It was six days after my surgery, and I had just finished feeding my kids an after school snack. My two older boys had gone to a friend’s house, so I was settling on the floor to build a wooden train track with my train-obsessed two-year-old.
On a whim, I decided to quickly check my email. I opened my email app and sitting there, looking so innocent, was an email from the hospital…subject heading: “You have a new result in MyChart.”
Surprised, and a little wary, I clicked on it, logged into the patient system and found the pathology results. My eyes scanned the page and while I’m no doctor, I knew within seconds of reading words like “adenocarcinoma” and “lymphovascular involvement present” that these were not the results I had expected and hoped to receive.
I took a screenshot of the summary and sent it to my husband who (wonderful man that he is) responded immediately with “I’m coming home.”
I called the surgeon’s office, but they had already gone home for the day so I was left alone on the floor of my living room with no one but Google to confirm my fear: I had cancer.
All the while, my two-year-old was chug-chug-chugging his little train around the track, oblivious to the giant bomb that had just been dropped on his mama’s heart.
My husband came home and held me, and I tried to keep myself from melting into a puddle on the floor from all the questions and fears swirling around inside of me.
I’m 35 years old, healthy (except apparently for a little bit of cancer), and a busy mom of three extraordinarily active little boys.
I don’t have time for cancer, I thought. This is extremely inconvenient.
But convenient or not, two days later, I found myself seated across from my surgeon in an exam room discussing treatment options. In a nutshell, the surgeon explained that I had stage 1 cancer…which is really good news in the cancer world. The report showed also clear margins around the tumor they had removed. In fact, if it hadn’t been for that little line on the pathology report that showed “lymphovascular involvement present,” no further treatment would have been needed.
But that line was there…and it created a big question mark.
You see, once cancer gets into the lymphatic system, it can spread to other organs (metastasize). Basically, the surgeon needed to go back in and remove more tissue to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes. If the lymph nodes were cancer free, then I would be declared cancer free. If the lymph nodes were cancerous, then my cancer would be reclassified as stage 3 cancer and I would need to undergo chemo to kill the cancer cells before they could spread anywhere else.
But it wasn’t that simple (if surgery is ever “simple”). Due to my genetic predisposition for cancer (remember the Lynch Syndrome that started all this?), I needed to consider more than just this current cancer. The risk for developing cancer again in the future is real–and high–so we needed to decide how aggressive to be with surgery to reduce my risk for Lynch Syndrome related cancers in the future.
Making those decisions was, for me, the hardest part of the whole cancer experience. It felt like someone had spun a roulette wheel and was waiting for me to make the call…red or black? Remove part of the colon or the entire large intestine? Without being able to see the future, I was at a loss as to how we could possibly make such a decision.
The surgeon summed up the dilemma accurately: “The problem,” he said, “is that all we have to go off of with cancer is statistics, but the statistics cannot tell us what will happen to you as an individual.”
Everyone hears about cancer, but you never imagine yourself as the person sitting across from a doctor discussing which organs to remove in order to save your life.
On the drive home from the hospital that day, I could actually feel myself cycling through various stages of grief:
I was confident that I was not going to die from this cancer, but I was terrified of what I was going to experience in the coming months…and how it would impact the rest of my life.
I was angry that I was being asked to make seemingly-impossible decisions that I felt so unqualified to make.
I was annoyed with myself for not having scheduled my colonoscopy eight months earlier.
I worried about how my kids would handle the upheaval that was certainly coming our way. I wondered how I could be the mom my kids need when I wouldn’t even be able to pick up my toddler for six weeks.
Let’s just say, it was a good thing I wasn’t driving.
Later that night, I curled up against my husband and explained, “I know that this is all going to be okay eventually, but it is not okay right now. I know we’ll get through this, but I don’t want to go through whatever it’s going to take to get to the other side.”
The following weeks were a revolving door of emotions as I met with more doctors, did more tests, and spent countless hours of reading medical journals to learn about my diagnosis and all the pros and cons of the surgeries I was considering. My days (and my thoughts) were consumed with all things cancer, and yet very few people knew about what was going on.
Sometimes I was optimistic and determined to take on the world. Other times, it was all I could do to keep myself from completely falling apart while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my kids. I was exhausted from the mental work of trying to make critical decisions as well as the emotional battle of trying to keep my anxiety at bay.
Those weeks were also filled with so many little miracles and tender mercies.
Finally, we set the date for surgery: February 13. Happy Valentine’s Day! Spending this Valentine’s Day in the hospital may not have been ideal, but I reasoned that this not-so-romantic Valentine’s would make the next 40 or 50 years of Valentine’s Days possible. It’s a good trade.
Today marks exactly one month since that surgery. It has been an intense roller coaster, and admittedly it’s not quite over yet.
It will take several months for my body to adjust to having part of my large intestine removed, and it’s not totally clear what the long-term consequences will be for my digestion. Still, I’m starting to feel more like a normal human being again, and we got the good news that the pathology results came back clear and I am now officially CANCER FREE. (read: I don’t have to do chemo!)
I am a survivor.
I did not escape unscathed—physically or emotionally—but the scars will forever remind me that I am stronger than the cancer that tried to kill me. Cancer will always be a part of my story, but I’m grateful that because it was caught early I have a much longer book to write.
As hard as this experience has been (and is has been SO SO hard), I have also seen so many blessings.
I’m grateful I found out last year that I have Lynch Syndrome and realized I needed to get screened. Cancer in Lynch Syndome patients grows fast (3-4 times faster than the average person), so it’s scary to think what would have happened within a few years if I hadn’t known to get screened this young.
I’m grateful that I live within an hour of a cancer hospital with highly specialized doctors who were able to diagnose and treat me.
I’m grateful for good insurance with an out-of-pocket maximum.
I’m grateful for my amazing parents who dropped everything in their own lives to come and take care of my family for two weeks while I had surgery got through the worst of the recovery.
I’m grateful for the legions of earthly angels who have circled around us and carried us through this time. Friends, family, and neighbors have brought in meals, taken my kids for play dates, driven them to and from school, and so much more. I may have been fighting cancer, but I was never fighting alone.
I’m grateful for my husband, who has walked through the fire with me every step of the way…going to doctor’s appointments, sifting through the sea of research with me in order to make impossible decisions, holding me as long as I needed on the nights when I couldn’t fall asleep, taking over so many of the tasks I usually do even though he’s exhausted from his own responsibilities, giving me blood thinner shots daily even though he hates doing it (today is the LAST ONE!). I truly don’t know how I would have gotten through this without his strength. I always knew he was a good catch, but I have developed a deeper love and admiration for this incredible man. Good thing I get to keep him forever.
Will you do three things for me today?
Hug someone you love and tell them what they mean to you.
I was always confident that we had caught the cancer early enough that I was not going to die from it. Still, being diagnosed with cancer makes a person think about all the “what ifs” of life.
What if we hadn’t caught it early and my kids had to grow up without me? Am I being the kind of mom today that I want them to remember?
I don’t ask these questions to make myself feel guilty for all my mistakes (and I still make mistakes regularly), but instead I ask them as a way to set my priorities each day.
What traditions and routines can I start that will help them know without a doubt that I love them with all my heart? No matter what they do and where they go in life, I want them to walk in the confidence that their mom will always be there with a smile and a hug when they need it.
Take a moment today to savor a small moment of joy.
There are so many little things each day that we take for granted. Slow down today and enjoy one of those things that brings you joy.
With the BIG things in life in chaos, I have found my solace in the little things that are so easy to take for granted: an eskimo kiss from my toddler, bedtime stories with my boys, a sunny day between snowstorms. These small moments have anchored my hope in all the good that still exists. In that sense, those little joys pointed me to my biggest joys: faith and family.
Stop putting off your own health and needs.
We moms have a tendency to put everyone else’s needs before our own, but I have learned the hard way that I’m no good to anyone else as a caregiver if I’m not healthy, too.
Whatever you’ve been putting on the back-burner because mom life is just too busy–make it happen. Call your insurance, make the appointment, schedule the babysitter…whatever it takes. You are worth it, and your family needs you.
I would never have chosen this path.
I don’t know the whys. But I can say that I know God has been with me all the way. He heard my cries (and sometimes my screams), and guided me along the path I wanted no part in walking.
So I trust that–as much as I wish there had been some other, easier way–He is leading me to something better than I imagined for myself. And, thankfully, I now have many more years to watch that beautiful life unfurl.