Sunday, May 15, 2011

Treatment this is Lisa, Lisa this is treatment.

    The first six weeks of treatment were very…real, to say the least. I was soon officially diagnosed as a Stage 3 with a T3-T4 size tumor; (T4’s are the biggest tumor size you can have) to put it into perspective, my surgeon said that my tumor was the size of a goose-egg and was covering 90% of my rectum; go big or go home right?! I very quickly realized that you can watch as many movies or read as many books with characters who have cancer, but until you (unfortunately) - in some form - experience it yourself, you really have no clue, and I hope you never do.
    For five days a week I, very stylishly might I add, carried around a fanny pack that held my 24-hour continuous flow of Fluorocail chemo or 5FU as it is most commonly called; wherever I went, the fanny pack went - to the store, to dance practice, to dinner, to visit friends, to the doctor - it was always & literally, attached to my hips. It took some time to get over the whole vanity aspect of wearing a 1980's fanny pack 5 days a week, 24/7 in the year 2010, but at times - I’m not going to lie - I kind of felt like a badass & I’m pretty sure that someday, sooner or later, the fanny pack will make it’s way back into mainstream & when it does Hulk Hogan & I can say “we brought fanny back”.
    There’s more to the story of the first 6 week cycle of 5FU, but I’ll save that for later when it makes more sense. For now though, I had the most common side effects from chemo: crazy nausea, crazy fatigue, and the beginning of crazy nerve damage/pain in my hands in feet; I did, however, luck out a bit though - only a few hairs on my head fell out throughout the entire treatment process. I’m still not exactly sure how I managed that one, but I did and, for me, it was one less thing to have to worry about; it was almost satisfying, like finally I was able to beat some sort of odds.
    Along with the chemotherapy came the radiation therapy which was also 5 days a week  (it actually ended up being 28 treatments all together because of holidays) & it was more than real, it was…well, it was an experience. I remember my entire body physically shaking for my first treatment because I was so nervous; this made everything seem so real; there was no more pretending nothing was wrong or that it was no big deal - it was a big deal and the time had finally come to start facing it head on. 
    After the nurses get your body aligned to your slide stats ala radiation tattoos, they then leave the room and suddenly you find yourself laying on a hard table, pants down (with a paper sheet for “privacy” of course) arms above your head, staring at the ceiling and realizing, at that very moment, you are completely & utterly alone. I remember wondering how many people had looked at the same ceiling tile that I was now looking at - I wondered what they may have looked like, how old they were, and what their story may be. I wondered if they were mothers or fathers, daughters or sons, sisters or brothers. I wondered who had lived & who had died & I wondered which category I would ultimately find myself in at the end of my battle. Dramatic, I know.
    The radiation itself only took about 5-6 minutes each treatment - I was hit from 4 angles: underneath, left side, right side, and then directly above my pelvis and yes, it was in that exact order. It didn’t take long to build a relationship with the radiation techs (both named Heather) who I saw more frequently then most of my friends. At first, they asked about my story and I got the same “but you’re so young, you’re only 26!” reaction from each of them, but I don’t blame them, I would have said the same thing. Soon enough, the conversations switched from cancer to life and everyday things; they would ask me about dance team or we would gab about what different TV shows we all were addicted to; I would ask how their children were spending their summers and they would ask questions about Chad & I - how we had met (at work), how long we had been together (six years at the time), and how he was handling my diagnosis (“he's my rock”). We often joked about my sexy fanny pack and how every Friday, I would be “fanny-free” because I would be “de-accessed” before radiation.
    At first, I didn’t experience any harsh side effects from radiation but soon enough, they caught up with me and rocked my world. Wow is really the only word that can truly sum it up. About 3 weeks into treatment my “bottom” started turning various colors of the rainbow - from blue to purple to red to orange - they were all in the mix at some point. Of course my precarious mind was positive I was the only person in the entire world this was happening to; it had to be another sure-sign that my tumor was continuously ever-growing and that I was some freak of cancer nature; turns out, I wasn’t…my side-effects were completely normal and were had by most who receive pelvic radiation, but in my mind, who would have thought?!
    There are some more intrusive side effects, but I think even I have to draw the privacy line somewhere…I mean, I think you need to at least take me to dinner and buy me a drink first; or seeing as I don’t drink, definitely dinner. Stay tuned. ;)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Three Weeks?!

     There were three weeks from my diagnosis from when I actually began treatment of any sort. Three weeks! I know, right? Three weeks to digest something you will never be prepared to hear...ever. Three weeks of me to over react and swear that my tumor was only getting bigger minute by minute (I know, I know, I can be quite the cancer drama queen.) Three weeks of “what if’s”, of worry, of doubt, and yet a sense of hope at the same time, well maybe it was more of a sense of hope for more of a sense of hope if that makes any sense. Within that three week span, I was implanted with my chest port - which honestly, is the best kept secret for any cancer patient; arm veins can only take so much poking and by day 3, my arms looked like I was a part of Fight Club, so I was pretty much up for anything to elevate that problem. If you’re not familiar with a chest port, it is exactly what it says - it’s a small port implanted in your chest; it’s then, somehow, connected directly into your heart arteries so it is able to draw blood as well as act as an IV for chemo or anything other IV meds you may need at any certain point. I know it sounds torturous but, have no worry, there is an amazing numbing cream so when your port is “accessed”, you don’t feel a thing. (You know you’re a true cancer patient when Emla cream gets you excited.) Anyway, the remainder of those three weeks consisted of doctor after doctor after doctor visits - meeting our oncologist (I will always say “our”, by the way, because this wasn’t just my journey - it was also my husband’s, my parent’s, and the rest of my family‘s), our radiologist, the oncology unit floor & nurses, the radiation therapy nurses, the 24-hour infusion center and it’s nurses, back to our surgeon‘s office and so on. So, although it was a treatment-free three weeks, it was definitely action packed. Little did I know, but these three weeks would also give me my first introduction into the tattoo world.
     Before you can begin any sort of radiation therapy you have to have positioning slides taken so they can pinpoint the exact (and I mean exact) point on your body which will be exposed to the radiation, for me it was my entire pelvic region. Along with the positioning slides came a CT scan so there was a lot going on in the room; not to mention in my head so it seemed I had a thousand different thoughts running through my mind at the same time; I remember one of the techs mentioning she was going to give me my radiation tattoos so that when I came back in 2 days for a double-check positioning slide everything would be right on. Call me na├»ve, but when I hear tattoo I picture the rub-on kind that my niece & nephew so proudly wear around the house. Suddenly, I felt a needle prick on my right hip, when she said tattoo, she really meant tattoo! After the needle prick came the drop of dark black dye that spotted my skin; 2 more came after - 1 above my pelvic area, and another on my left hip. I have always thought about getting a tattoo of some sort but could never muster up the courage to do anything about it; I thought about various illustrations - maybe a special song lyric or some sort of angel wings in honor of my brothers, but never did I think my first “tattoo” (well, 3 actually) would be 3 black ink dots around my pelvis!
     Today, they are barely visible, but are able to be seen just enough to remind me of the beginning of this journey; a way for me to look back on those three weeks and remember what life was like before any treatment or side effects would set in. A way for me to remember how many people start this fight but aren’t lucky enough to finish it, but I was….and I still am.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

5, 6, 7, 8!

      Right around the time I graduated from college (with my Bachelor's in Psychology) the opportunity came for me to coach a local high school dance team; I immediately jumped at the chance and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the job. I can't explain the feeling when I see one of my girls land a double pirouette for the first time or the smile that, somehow, always smears it's way across my face when I hear "Shimmy!" (a nickname given to me by the girls) as I walk into the auditorium doors for practice. Before long, we were more than just a coach & a team - we were a family who cherished the hours of dance we were able to share with each other every week.
      About a week or so after my diagnosis, I made the decision that I needed to sit down my girls & be completely open & honest with them. On a random Wednesday (which seems to be a strange reoccurring day of important dates during my journey), I drug Chad (for moral support and as a DD for my recent pain pill prescription for tumor pain) up to the high school with me and took a deep breath. Before I could even collect my thoughts, my mouth began speaking and soon enough, in some form, I spit out that I had been diagnosed with Rectal Cancer. At the time, we didn’t know what stage I was at so I couldn’t really go into deep, deep details with them, but I felt like I needed to let them know. Looking back now, I remember trying my best not to make eye contact with them - especially a few that I had grown particularly close to; I just couldn’t and I didn’t want to. How could I put such a heavy burden on teenagers who biggest worry should be about boys or what the latest school gossip was, not whether or not their coach was going to live or die. To this very day, telling my 12 dance team girls about my diagnosis was one of the hardest days of my life and it’s one I will never forget. I’ll never forget sitting on that stage trying to find the words to make what I was saying sound as least serious as possible. In a strange sense, the news of my cancer brought the majority of us closer; I found strength & support in people who knew way to much about cancer at too young of an age and for that, I am forever grateful. I’m slowly but surely making my way back into the dance world with the love and support of my team. I am the coach and survivor I am today because of them. 
     I love you girls.

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Looking Back on D-Day

      I remember the exact moment I was told I had cancer. It was on a Wednesday at 3:21 pm. The news was delivered by my surgeon, Dr. Burns, via phone call because he knew how much trouble and stress I was having over applying & then, immediately, being denied a Medical Card. Yes, that's right, I was facing a disease that could ultimately kill me but I had no insurance - thanks Human Resources! A college graduate with a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology; an Associate's Degree in Criminal Justice, but alas - no insurance. I remember him saying, “Lisa, you do not have to worry, you WILL,without a doubt, be approved for a card.” I ignorantly replied “but Dr. Burns, you don’t understand…I was there yesterday and was denied…” before I could finish he spit it out “Lisa, the biopsy of the tumor came back positive for malignancy, it's something called Adenocarcinoma” “Adeno what?” I said trying to catch my breath. “It’s cancer, the tumor was cancerous.” I tried to speak but no words came out. I tried to breathe but, still, I couldn’t catch my breath. I handed the phone to my mom as tears began streaming down my face. I literally fell into my sister’s arm and began sobbing while gasping for breath. The only words that could come out of my mouth were “I have cancer. Why? Why do I have cancer? I have cancer.” The next thing I knew I was upstairs waking up Chad from an afternoon nap. This particular week was the longest and most exhausting week of our lives. From the colonoscopy/biopsy on Monday to the diagnosis on Wednesday felt like years. As soon as he saw my tears he knew. He took me in his arms and began to kiss my forehead, “We’ll get through this…we get through everything. I'm here, I love you, I'm not going anywhere and neither are you”. After a few moments of an understanding silence, we went back downstairs where my mom was still on the phone with my doctor. I sat on the couch and immediately across from me was our family memorial of my brothers and Gram, all who had died in the duration of the last 7 years. I thought “oh my God, am I going to be in there too? I don’t want to die, I’m not ready to die, I didn’t do anything wrong.” My mom hung up the phone and sat beside me on the couch. I could see the tears she was trying so hard to hold back. “It’s ok baby, we’re going to get through this; with chemo, radiation, and surgery, we will beat this. Look at this family and what we’ve been through…we WILL get through this too. You have 3 angels up there who will be at your side the whole way through”. My angels…John, Jay, and my Gram. For some reason, that statement gave me a hint of peace. I felt strangely close to them for the moment, it was as if they were in the room with us and we were a whole family again, but in the blink of an eye, I was brought back to reality. At 26 years old you wouldn’t expect that you would want your mom to hold you, but I did and I didn't want her to let go. She opened her arms and I fell into them at the same time. For a second I went back to my childhood, where everything was butterflies and boy band crushes, not cancer or death. We spent the next hour crying, trying to laugh, and just being together. My family, my support system was there for me, and this was just the beginning.

D-Day {Diagnosis Day}

April 28, 2010 (Wednesday)

I have cancer. Cancer, Cancer, Cancer, Cancer, Cancer - Stage 3 Rectal Cancer to be exact, "Infiltrating Moderately Differentiated Adenocarcinoma" to be even more exact. Even when writing the word time and time again, I find myself still trying to distance reality; trying to put some space between what is and what should be: I should be dancing my days away while introducing my love of dance to high school students who not only would steal my moves but also my heart.

How did I get here? Last week I was pirouetting my way through life and now, I'm living hell on Earth. What is is what shouldn't be and what should be is what it isn't. I should be living the normal life of any married 26 year old. I should be house-hunting with my incredible husband who would graduate in May with a History & Philosophy degree; we should be planning when we would start planning to start a family :) , but instead, we are busy scheduling chemotherapy appointments, carefully making sure they don't coincide with radiation therapy appointments. This would be our life for the next 6 weeks: 24 hour continuous chemotherapy Monday-Friday, followed by a delicious desert serving of pelvic radiation also Monday-Friday. I guess, however, I did get to live a bit of every girls' dream, it seems cancer gives you free reign to wear no make-up, glasses, and sweat pants everyday.

When it comes down to it, this is life - scary as hell to live but even scarier to fear not being able to do so. Did I do something wrong? Can I truly "fight" this? These are the questions that now haunt my every thought. I didn't and yes, I can - those are the answers; the only answers that I will continue to tell myself throughout this inevitable journey; because this is MY life and it’s time to start fighting. Game on.