Am I Cancer, or Am I Still Me?

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Ever since I was diagnosed with lung cancer two months ago I’ve been having a real identity crisis. Suddenly, I have this thing sticking out of my neck that probably nobody notices but me, yet I’m my harshest critic. It’s ugly, it’s embarrassing, it marks me as not being like everyone else. I’m a tumor. Who would want to hang around with me? I might be contagious. And truth be told, I’ve already been dumped by someone I thought was one of my best and closest friends. So, I must not be me anymore. I must be nothing more than a cancer growth.

I’ve started to have social anxiety. Me, the traveler that a few months ago was expounding on the wonders of Sri Lanka after an exciting summer trip. Me, the hiking lady. Me, the road trip queen. Going shopping is a challenge now. Everyone looks so happy and cancer free. Going for a walk is a great achievement. What if I feel weak or need to sit down? Driving is even more aggravating than it used to be, that petty nut behind me trying to push me to go faster, not knowing the challenges I’m facing. Get a life, will ya? I got cancer, screwball. You: In a big hurry to get to McDonald’s for dinner. Me: Figuring out how to save my own life. Beat that. Yeah, you’re seriously going to get the finger now. No questions asked.

I keep hearing the usual things.

“Everyone has problems.” Yes, I know. But not everyone has the problem of figuring out how to be here to see the calendar flip to 2021 in thirteen months, when the statistics say it isn’t going to happen. Not everyone has a devastating disease rendering them unable to do seventy-five percent of the things they love to do.

“You’re still you, and we love you!” I know that, too. I don’t blame my mindset on anyone but me and cancer. You wouldn’t feel any differently if the future you were working so hard toward and looking so forward to might not ever happen.

“You’re not being a warrior!” Listen, I can’t be a warrior one hundred percent of the time, and for a person who had the rug pulled out from underneath her several weeks ago, I think I’m doing pretty good, in spite of it all. By some small miracle I’m not severely depressed, even though my life has changed from hopping planes to hopping on hospital tables. From hiking poles to biopsy needles. From Southwestern road trips to doctor’s office road trips.

Am I working through it? Yes, I am. I realize that life is fleeting for everyone. It can end at any time. There’s no guarantees for anyone. It’s a crap shoot that we’re all destined to lose. Maybe, though, I’d rather not know when, how, or why it’s going to happen.

Lately, I’ve been listening closely to the words I put out to the world, and I’ve changed the way I’ve been doing it. Instead of bemoaning my situation, I’m thinking of it as a hurdle I have to get over to get back to what I want. Instead of assuming that I’m not going to reach my goals, I’ve put them back on the table. Retirement is still a possibility. Getting back to traveling is, too. Over the weekend I took my first hike in a month and a half. Was it as fun as it used to be? No. But I can’t expect miracles. I just have to chip away at the hole I’ve dug for myself since this all started.

Oh, wait, was I really me and not a tumor just a couple short months ago? Yes. Then maybe I’m not that far from where I need to be. I’ve begun treatment and am ready to see this ugly piece of costume jewelry start to shrink. Until then, it’s easily covered with any number of pretty scarves I used to wear just because I liked them. I’ve been lucky enough to be granted a pass on chemotherapy, so I won’t need to deal with the extra added burden of being stared at while trying to look fashionably bald. Go, me.

I’ve stepped up my daily fitness goals. Though they’re still a shadow of what they used to be, they’re still better than they were. I’ve made some new norms, since many of the old norms aren’t possible right now. And yes, I have five realistic goals set for 2020. Let’s not worry about 2021 quite yet.

Something has to make me happy. My life can’t be all about cancer. Thankfully, most of the poking and prodding is over now that treatment has started. And the endless phone calls have ceased, too. Though I have to admit, those annoyances kept me busy with little time to think about anything else.

Now, I have to think about getting me back and ceasing to be defined by a tumor. Maybe I’ll even figure out, like some cancer survivors do, that there’s a really good reason behind all this, as ironic as that sounds.

I want to believe there is. Just be patient with me while I find it.

Reason

The Big Adventures of Little Lump

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I INTERRUPT THIS EPISODE OF MY BEAUTIFUL LIFE TO BRING YOU THIS SPECIAL BULLETIN:

I HAVE CANCER

Whoa baby, what? Me, who travels around the country and the world hiking and enjoying the great outdoors and eating fruit and cheese and taking care of her body and not smoking and…gasp, gasp, gasp.

I HAVE LUNG CANCER

Just got a full diagnosis late last week. It could have been much, much worse. Like if it had spread to other major organs. It was caught quickly enough, but not quickly enough to be easy to get rid of. And so, a new adventure in the life of me begins. A journey I didn’t ask for that started just one month ago will end in a way that I cannot predict, but that I pray I can have some influence over with continuing to fight, be positive, be strong, and do what’s best for me.

The saga begins with Little Lump.

Little Lump appeared in the middle of my neck , near my clavicle, without me even knowing it was there. My first sign that something wasn’t quite right was when I was on my road trip this summer and I felt a strange pulling in my neck and upper chest that I had never felt before. Because I spend so much time with stuff strung and slung across my body, I just figured it was something rubbing against something else. When Little Lump started to show itself to the world I pointed it out to a few friends and family members, but none of them took much notice of it. I even went to the school nurse at the high school I teach at and she thought maybe it was a cyst. On September 12th, I took myself to my primary care doctor. She sent me for an X-ray immediately following my office visit. Two abnormalities showed on my chest x-ray. I was contacted right away and scheduled for a CT scan. Let the hell begin.

Pointer #1: If you find anything on your body that doesn’t belong there or doesn’t feel right to you, do not ignore it, even if someone tells you it’s “normal.”

While I anxiously awaited my CT scan, (and believe me, none of these things are ever scheduled fast enough!) my body started to fall apart. For a couple of days I was in incredible pain radiating from my neck, and had other disturbing symptoms. I was advised to go to the emergency room, where I ended up getting my CT scan, not only of my chest, but of my C spine, too. Compared to the saga of Little Lump, being told that I had arthritis and spine degeneration seemed like a minor inconvenience. And now Little Lump had a partner in crime: Little Lesion. Let the hell continue.

Pointer #2: Get serious when it’s time to get serious. I’m not saying to “prepare for the worst.” But do prepare for news that you don’t want to hear, because it’s a lot easier to deal with when you get it.

With some muscle relaxers and anti inflammatory medication prescriptions in hand, I had a week of relative peace until I followed up with my primary care doctor, who had boldly spearheaded this whole nightmare. She referred me to an oncologist (uh-oh!) not because she thought that I had cancer, but because the next step was to get a biopsy, and oncologists are the experts at that kind of stuff.

Okay. I’m going to an oncologist. Oncologists means cancer. Cancer!

Pointer #3: If you have a lump or abnormality and your care isn’t going similar to this, (x-ray, CT scan, specialist, biopsy) then advocate for yourself or get a new doctor.

Now, I have to take another break here and talk about the things that were going on around me while my life was turning into one big health crisis.

Everyone knew what was wrong with me (except, of course, for my team of doctors!) Everyone had advice. Some people made faces, others couldn’t look me in the eye, the immediate perception was that I had cancer and thus I was going to die. This was a hell of way to feel when I was already doing myself in. I just had to keep asking people to BE POSITIVE. I’m a firm believer in negative vibes causing negative events to happen. And for the record: unless you’re a medical professional with up to the minute knowledge of the world of medicine, you really have no business spouting fancy language. NONE.

Pointer #4: Don’t listen to Google doctors. Politely thank them as well meaning people and wait for opinions from your medical team.

My oncologist was skeptical about a cancer diagnosis, but was more concerned about Little Lesion than Little Lump, so I was scheduled for a biopsy of my lung. September 30th was the big day. After being warned about the possibility of air getting in my lung during the biopsy and having to spend the night in the hospital, my radiologist made the decision that Little Lump had to be biopsied after all, so the day went much easier. But at that point I pretty much knew I had THE BIG C. Believe me, when you hear the term PET SCAN, you can pretty much win any bet that you have cancer. With a cost of $5,000 or more for the ear-to-knee variety of the PET Scan, no insurance company is going to pay for this test without a serious diagnosis, and I’ve heard of people being turned down for them even if they have one. Luckily, I was not one of those people.

My pain-free peace came crashing down a couple of days after my biopsy, and I landed in the ER again. This was probably the worst part of my journey thus far, because I had a CT scan of my brain, and it was believed I had a brain tumor, until an MRI shot that theory down. I think that was the only time I cried since this whole thing started. For the first time since I was five years old and I had my tonsils out, I was admitted to the hospital to have more testing done but not, thankfully, to have emergency brain surgery! My oncologist visited me the following day and wanted me out of that bed immediately, as the PET Scan can only be done on an outpatient basis. Hey, I had to get my steps first!

 

The week between my discharge and having the scan then awaiting my diagnosis and prognosis was horrendous. I lost weight at an alarming rate, had awful nights, was afraid to be alone, couldn’t even drive! Me, of the 10,000 mile road trips! I was convinced I had cancer throughout my entire body, going on its very own horrible road trip.

Meanwhile, two of my sisters were (and are) bringing me everywhere and sleeping on my couch. Friends and coworkers were (and are) visiting, texting, messaging, emailing, supporting me on social media. People I don’t even know and have never heard of were (and are) hoping and wishing and praying for me. The response has been overwhelming, humbling.

Pointer #5: Gather the troops! And make sure every bit of attention and support you’re getting is POSITIVE.

Diagnosis/Prognosis day: October 10th. A real nail biter. The news wasn’t quite as grim as widespread cancer, but it isn’t exactly party central, either. I got the best thing possible: hope for a cure. My cancer has not spread to distant organs, but it has gone to one lymph node and, of course, Little Lump. All on the same side of the body.  Stage 3b lung cancer. Me! Healthy, happy ME!

The statistics are against me. But I’m not dealing in statistics anymore. I refuse to be a statistic. I’m just preparing for a damn good fight.

I’ve gained weight back. Took a leave from school to stay healthier. (Thank you, paid sick time!) Still have fitness goals, but obviously nothing like they were. Finding out everything I can to help me go in the right direction.

That’s all I have for now. Soon, I’ll have more appointments and treatments to write about. Until next time, I’ll leave you with a couple of things. First, the GoFundMe page I set up to help me fight this battle. Every cent of donations will be used accordingly. Second, a few pictures from my adventures this summer, not to be melancholy, but to remind myself (and the world) that I’m going to be this person again when I see the light at the end of the tunnel.

 

Cancer Bitch