August 2012 archive
Stephanie and Matt, February 2012
Last Friday (8/24), I went to the hospital to get a PET scan. This was my second scan of this kind, the first being exactly seven months ago. Besides being the same procedure, this one was drastically different than my first scan, which you can read about here. Why was this one different, you ask? Well you see, in January I knew I had cancer, and was receiving the imaging to determine where and how far the cancer had spread. A week ago, I received the imaging to determine if, after all my treatment, the cancer was demolished. Waiting for results is the worst part of the process. Although God has been teaching me patience throughout my entire life, specifically during this journey, I haven’t yet mastered it. Let’s just say, I am not a fan of the waiting game.
Waiting truly is the hardest part. Whether it’s waiting for results for an important exam, waiting for paperwork to go through on purchasing a home, or waiting for doctors to tell you cancer is or is not present in your body, it’s still difficult. In the stillness, your mind is more capable of wandering off onto paths you thought you blocked off. I’ve had five whole days to battle against doubt. So many thoughts have run through my head. But over these last few days, I’ve learned that my thoughts are a choice. I can either choose to let doubt flood into my brain and infect all aspects of my being, or I can look forward and keep my thoughts fixed on the end goal. My end goal is to be cancer-free. And I will be.
Sometimes it’s hard to fight those thoughts of fear and doubt, but I’ve found that I am meant to rest in God. Only in Him can I find authentic relief. I was not created to fight this alone. None of us are. He has reminded me of that greatly throughout these past five days. On Sunday, pastors from South Africa came to speak at our church. I was amazed at how God used this man to speak directly to me. The message was titled “Hold On.” And one major point that stuck out to me was: “God’s delays are not God’s denials.” I’ve actually heard that saying twice since diagnosis from two separate sources. He’s obviously wanting me to absorb it! Holding on is all we have to do when things get rough. When you think you can’t possibly keep your grip any longer, find your strength in Jesus. He will give you rest. “Blah, blah, blah,” you may be thinking, but give it a shot. I promise you won’t be disappointed. But always keep in mind, our timing is not God’s timing. Be thankful for that; His timing is never wrong.
Like I mentioned, I’ve waited since last Friday to receive my PET scan results. I can finally announce, the waiting is over. I received a call from my nurse at my Radiation Oncologist’s office a little bit ago. She happily informed me that my scan came back… drumroll, please… “clear!” Praise God! After asking her if there were any possible traces of cancer in my body, she responded with “the scan shows absolutely no evidence of malignancies anywhere.” In English, this means there is no cancer in my body. None. I can proudly say that these last six months of treatment have worked! (Cue applause, hoots and hollers, jumping up and down, and tears of joy!) I am elated.
Where do things go from here? Realistically speaking, I am nowhere near the end of this journey. Not until I reach five years of clear, cancer-free scans will I be considered “in remission.” Until then, I will continue to get pelvic exams every three months, and PET scans every three to six months. This adventure isn’t over, and like I’ve talked about before, this next part of the story might indeed be harder than the beginning; The battle of protecting my mind from doubt is on. I will be fighting against the statistics of Neuroendocrine cancer. It’s gnarly. It’s aggressive. It can come back. I will most definitely have ups and downs, good days and bad days, but I will persevere. My hope is in Jesus. And He has promised to never disappoint. I’ll say it again, with Him, I will defeat this.
I’ve been asked several times how I’m feeling now that treatment is complete. After my blood transfusion, things have been on the up and up. I’m feeling more and more like ME with every day that passes. I’ve told Matt he has his wife back, and he’s pretty stoked about that! My energy is coming back, my body is starting to cooperate with me, and I no longer wake up and think “is today a good day or a bad day?” Most days prove to be great days. I haven’t touched on it much, but I gained quite a bit of weight during chemotherapy. In fact, I was shocked when the numbers on the scale continued to increase with every treatment. It’s actually not uncommon. Truth is, after I got diagnosed and was told what treatment I would be undergoing, I literally thought, “YES! Chemo-diet! It’ll be great to lose a few pounds!” How silly and naive of me. Chemotherapy is known to shut off your metabolism. Frankly, it throws your whole body out of whack. Yes, some people lose weight. A lot of people simply lose their appetites. As for me, I definitely didn’t. Nurses say it’s a good thing, however my scale says otherwise. Since my hysterectomy, I have gained about 25-30 pounds. Yuck. With the whacked metabolism, lack of energy, and extreme body pains, I was unable to be very active. Think couch potato. However, now that I am regaining more and more energy every day, I have been able to be more active.
Many of you can understand what gaining unwanted weight feels like. It sucks. And I really don’t like the way my body looks with these extra pounds clinging on. So, I’ve told myself, “if you can fight and beat cancer, you can whip your ass into shape, girly.” Ok, so I left the girly part off… whatever, that’s not the point. Since Wednesday, (8/22) I have been extremely committed to losing this extra weight and getting back into the shape I was before diagnosis. Hopefully I’ll be in better shape than before the craziness began! My commitment means working out five days a week (typically at 5:30am, yikes), and eating very clean. Thankfully I have my husband who is my teammate and accountability partner. Many of you know I am a vegetarian and have been for the past four years. I was vegan for an entire year, but that’s a totally different story. Don’t get me started. But although I’m a vegetarian, I’m a carboholic. I love carbohydrates. This new weight loss commitment has entailed me ridding myself of most carbs. I eat tons of fruits, vegetables, and find my protein in things like eggs and nuts. I can proudly say that what I’m doing is working! I’ve lost seven pounds already. My goal is to lose twenty pounds by the time Matt and I head to California for our “cancer-free” vacation in thirty days. I’ll keep you updated on my progress, and look forward to fitting into and wearing the jeans I wore eight months ago.
Oh, by the way, if you missed it… I’M CURRENTLY CANCER-FREE!
Romans 5:3-4 (NIV)
“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
We’ve come a LONG way! Stephanie and Matt, August 2012
I am smiling from ear to ear. Fact is, I have been since 8:30am. Today is the first day in a LONG time that I have had true energy. I almost forgot what it felt like. I have become so used to only being able to do one “big” thing a day; i.e.: shower, vacuum, attend church, etc. Today was different. Today, God blessed me through blood.
Thank you all for praying for my transfusion, it went very well! Although we were at the hospital for about five hours yesterday, God had his hand on the whole thing. I’ve mentioned before that God has been sending down gifts along this journey, and yesterday He sent along quite a few. My attending nurse was a true angel, a grandmotherly type, and simply amazing. And, I loved her name. She was perfect for my visit in the hospital, and Matt and I both enjoyed her dearly. She was warm, welcoming, and attentive, and she continued to refer to me as “sweetheart,” “sweetie,” “honey,” and “beautiful.” This sweet nurse made our stay very comfortable and easy, and when receiving a transfusion for the first time, that’s exactly what you want your nurse to do. It was the best experience it could have possibly been. God weaved the whole thing together. I’m thankful that He has a tendency of doing that!
Because I’m sure many of you are wondering what the procedure for a transfusion is like, I’ll explain. It’s actually quite simple. Once I was led to an available room, I sat in a very comfortable recliner. Matt took a seat next to me, and my lovely nurse then accessed (aka: inserted the needle into) my port. She then went to retrieve the specific blood being donated to me. Once she returned, bag of wonderful red blood cells in hand, she announced that it came from Omaha, Nebraska. We weren’t even expecting to know anything about the donor of my blood, yet knowing where it came from eased some of my lingering fears. After my nurse connected me to the IV bags (both red blood cells and saline), she pushed a few buttons on an attached machine. This machine regulated how quickly the blood would be pushed through my body. I received two “units,” or simply IV bags, of red blood cells. When the first was complete, she attached the second, and it was as non-complicated as that. My job was fairly easy. Sit in the recliner and take it all in. Like I said, I was at the hospital for about five hours. Easy peasy.
Special note to the donor in Omaha: I sincerely thank you for volunteering and generously donating your blood. It helped me tremendously. And for other generous people who donate blood, thank you from those of us who so desperately need it.
Having energy is something you shouldn’t take for granted. And to be even more specific, having healthy and abundant blood cells is something to thank God for. Believe me, when your cells are low, it sucks. My reds were obviously extremely low, and the only way to improve them was to receive this transfusion. I’m extremely happy that I stopped being stubborn and just submitted to what my body was telling me. If you are ever in a position when a blood transfusion is an option or possible necessity, do it. It’s worth it. Today I got my life back. Albeit I’m not 100%, but my energy was noticeably increased. Before this transfusion, for the past couple months, I could walk up the stairs and would immediately need to sit down and rest because I was so out of breath. Red blood cells transport oxygen, and when they are lacking, so is your oxygen. Today, I woke up feeling great, so Matt and I took Scout to our favorite dog park. She about jumped out of the car in excitement over this trip… Poor thing, she hasn’t gotten out much since my energy has been so non-existent. I can proudly announce that we walked two miles while Scout played. Yes, you read that correctly… Two miles! And I survived! I haven’t walked that long since the very beginning of my treatment. And it’s definitely not for a lack of trying! I nearly cried when we were done. My energy has been confining me to our home, so being able to get out without being utterly exhausted was a huge feat. I’m so proud of myself.
We not only walked two miles, which was plenty for one day, we also went grocery shopping. I’m sure it sounds odd, but the amount of energy it takes to grocery shop is more than you’d think. And when just walking up the stairs wears you out, the last thing you want to do is walk around a grocery store for an hour. I can’t believe we did all that today. I can’t believe I did that! Needless to say, this blood transfusion helped me considerably, and if ever my red cells get low again, I’ll be opting for one a lot quicker!
I look forward to continuing up this hill and can’t wait to keep getting better and better. It’s so nice to know that I don’t have any more treatment! Praise God.
P.S.- “GO BIG RED” has a whole new (and much bigger) meaning now!
Malachi 4:2 (The Message)
“‘…The sun of righteousness will dawn on those who honor my name, healing radiating from its wings. You will be bursting with energy, like colts frisky and frolicking. And you’ll tromp on the wicked. They’ll be nothing but ashes under your feet on that Day.’ God-of-the-Angel-Armies says so.”
I am done with cancer treatments!! I officially finished my last chemotherapy session about eight days ago, and I can’t begin to express my thankfulness that it’s finally over. As I was sitting in the recliner receiving chemo for the very last time, I realized it was six months (to the day) since my hysterectomy. Six months typically doesn’t seem like that much time, but I can tell you, these past six months have been the longest in my life. It’s amazing what a journey this truly has been and will continue to be. I can now proudly say that I went through a total of 26 chemotherapy treatments, 24 radiation procedures, and 1 radical hysterectomy. All that in half a year. Yes, I’m a badass.
I have found myself with such a variety of emotions since treatment has ended. Of course, the biggest being happiness and gratitude that treatment is complete. However, there are several other feelings that I wasn’t ready to experience. I guess I just wasn’t sure what to expect from myself. Although I was extremely excited to be done having poison invade my body, the fear of not having poison in my body plagued me, and still sometimes does. Truth is, in the midst of chemotherapy and radiation, I settled in the fact that doctors had prescribed me one of the most aggressive treatment regimens out there. In fact, chemotherapy has been constantly coursing through my body since March. And for about six weeks, laser beams were shattering my insides, as well. Oh, and not to mention, most of my internal lady parts were removed. I’ve been able to trust that even if there were microscopic cancer cells anywhere inside of me, that all of the hours of treatment I’ve received have most likely decimated them. Cancer hasn’t had a chance. My body has been undergoing a physical war for a long time, and for a while it’s job was to just make it through. Now that it has, my body’s only requirement is to recover. And, oddly enough, recovery is turning out to be a bigger battle than treatment. It’s now more of a mental game. I can allow my body to rest, but it’s increasingly difficult to turn my mind off.
People often ask, how do you do it? Besides the obvious answer being, I don’t have a choice, the prevailing response is, my faith. My faith in doctors can only go so far, and when it ends, my faith in God takes over. Yet, in some moments, my faith is small and my fear and doubts are big. Sometimes I find myself worrying about my future scans. If I have an unusual pain somewhere, I fear that the cancer has spread. What if it comes back? What if chemotherapy and radiation didn’t take care of it? What if August 8th wasn’t my very last day of treatment? These are common questions inhabiting a portion of my brain. These are thoughts that the devil is trying to convince me of. Now that I’ve battled this disease, I have to battle these thoughts. And, wow… it’s hard. I constantly remind myself of how strong I have become and that I have a shield of armor protecting me. His name is Jesus. I did my part, and He has promised to do His. He tells me to have faith, even as small as a mustard seed, and nothing will be impossible for me. Truthfully, some days all I have is the size of a mustard seed. And do you really know how small that is? A mustard seed is only one to two millimeters in diameter. That’s tiny! Yet, when that’s all I have, it’s enough.
Faith doesn’t just exist. Faith is a verb. Faith is an action. Faith is a choice. Faith is a requirement to stand up and believe in something that seems impossible. I believe that God has healed me. I have faith that He will not let cancer invade my body any longer. But, my story isn’t over. This adventure isn’t complete. Although I can rejoice that I no longer have to endure cancer treatment, I still have a battle every day.
My body hasn’t recovered as quickly as it has before. This last cycle of chemo was, by far, the hardest. My skin hurts to touch and my body aches from the inside out. I’m extremely weak, and most of my musculature has atrophied. I constantly feel dehydrated, but my stomach is always bloated. I have an ongoing dull headache. On Tuesday, I went in for a followup blood draw. Remember how my red blood cell count was extremely low last time? It’s even lower now. Although I stealthily avoided a blood transfusion these past few weeks, my body just can’t function at this point without one. So, tomorrow morning I will head to the hospital to receive the gift of someone else’s red blood cells. I feel a lot more confident about receiving a transfusion now because my doctor answered many of my questions, yet I am still nervous. Firsts are always nerve-wracking right? I will be receiving two units of red blood cells and the transfusion should take from four to six hours. Most patients who receive blood notice an immediate change and feel much better; I’m hoping for the same. Today I went in for a “type and screen” blood draw. This will ensure that the blood I receive will be compatible to my own. Please pray that I receive perfect blood tomorrow and that it will allow and promote my body to begin producing more of its own red cells. I am more than ready to start feeling better.
Many of you have asked what my life will look like from here on out. After this transfusion is out of the way, next Monday I will get my blood drawn again to check that my levels have gone up. After that, I will see my Oncologist for a physical exam every three months. In addition, I will get my blood drawn every six to eight weeks to make sure my levels are in healthy range. The nurses will also use that time to flush my port. My doctor has told me that I can have my port removed whenever I’d like, but for personal reasons, I have chosen to keep it in for at least the next six months. For the next couple years, I will receive a PET scan every three to six months. And once I reach two years free of cancer, I will then go to having a scan every six months. When I reach five years cancer-free, my doctors will then declare me in remission. Because the type of cancer that invaded my body was so aggressive and rare, my doctors say that if I can make it to two years without any recurrences, it most likely will not ever come back. As we all know, there are no guarantees in life, but oh man, I can’t wait for 2014!
Don’t fret, I will continue to write and update my blog. Hopefully, you’ll start seeing cancer fade and my life start spicing up again! Thank you all for your continued prayers and support. Like Coach George Karl says, “It takes a team!”
Matthew 17:20 (ESV)
“…For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
I’ve promised to tell you the truth and not sugarcoat it. Well, here it is. Cancer still sucks. These past few weeks have been rough. In fact, as I write this, I have a horrible stomach-ache. It’s not your everyday, run of the mill stomach pains either. It feels as if all of the food I consumed over the last week is sitting at the base of my ribs. When it decides to travel through my digestive system, it punches every inch of intestines. My whole core aches. My mouth is sour. Gross, huh?
An ER visit, multiple infections, and dropped blood levels have all plagued me this past month. Not to mention the typical overall crappy feeling that haunts most of my days. Let me add, I really hate to complain, but I would be doing a disservice to myself and all of you if I were to act like everything was fine all the time. Every cancer journey has its share of ups and downs, it just seems that the end of my treatment road has had more potholes than smooth pavement. However, I do know it could be worse, and I have been blessed throughout even the most difficult moments. I’ve got to keep reminding myself of that.
My trip to the ER brought eye-opening results. It’s amazing what cancer treatment can do to your body. It boggles my mind that something that decimates the inside of my tissues, cells, and organs can be, at the same time, saving my life. A few weeks ago, after on-going, not ceasing, severe kidney pain, my sweet husband took me to the emergency room. Can’t we all agree that emergency rooms aren’t the most fun place to be in the hospital? I’d much rather be on the labor and delivery floor! So I digress… After a blood draw and culture, urine analysis, physical internal exam, and CT scan, it was determined that I had Hydronephrosis and a very low white blood count. (So you don’t have to leave my page to scan Wikipedia for a definition, I’ll share it with you. Hydronephrosis means essentially, fluid in and around the kidney.) In addition, my white blood count was at a staggering .42. To understand how truly low that is, I can tell you that the normal range is anywhere from 4 to 11. This obviously alerted and perplexed my nurses. My white blood count had never gotten that low throughout all of chemotherapy and radiation. I can tell you with deep sincerity, I felt like shit.
As most ER visits go, we were there most of the day. Although, like I mentioned before, through even the hardest times, God has blessed me. We were at the same hospital that I receive all of my regular treatment at, and the one at which all of my doctors practice. Therefore, my attending nurse was able to call and chat with my oncologist about my symptoms and test results. Worst case, my oncologist was just a short walk away from being by my side. For that, I’m grateful. God always works things together for my good. After many hours of chit-chat between the nurses and my oncologist, they determined that I should probably be admitted. In fact, I was able to speak to my doctor and she said they even had a room saved for me. I can’t even begin to express how much I did NOT want to stay the night at the hospital. I didn’t care if they had a suite reserved! The nurses got my point, and I can proudly say, my stubbornness won out. I was eventually discharged with the orders that I turn right around if my pain got worse and if I got a fever. Luckily, neither happened. Well, not the fever at least.
I have been pretty in-tune with my body as I have grown up. In fact, it’s saved my life. Had I not continued to press for answers and made several trips to multiple doctors, only God knows where I would be right now. Although my cancer was treated at stage three, it could have been worse. Because of my oneness and understanding of my body, I’m able to know when my blood counts get low. Some people don’t have a clue, but as my knowledge for how my body works and is affected by treatment, I can nearly pinpoint what levels are down. For instance, I can tell you that today my reds are suffering. When my whites are low, I feel like I have a bad case of the flu. Complete with body aches, skin sensitivity, and a general “sick” feeling. When my reds are low I feel like a fat kid trying to run a marathon. I’m always out of breath, and simple things like taking a shower or walking up the stairs feel like a two-hour intense cardio workout. Needless to say, I haven’t showered today. Pounding headaches are also common when my reds are lacking. Good news is, there is a benefit of learning how to be harmonic with your insides. When you know what’s wrong, you know how to better treat it. That’s unfortunately another downside of treatment. When my blood levels are down, there’s not much I can do. Treatment for low white blood cells are the self-administered shots you have heard me distastefully talk about. Luckily, they typically work great to boost my whites. However, reds are trickier. And boy, have I discovered that recently. One of the main prescriptions for low red blood cells is a blood transfusion. If you have known anyone who has been through chemotherapy, you know that transfusions are common. I’ve been blessed to not even have had a conversation with my care providers about a blood transfusion…until this week.
A week ago I had a regular follow-up blood draw. This is not uncommon. In fact, the week after every chemotherapy round, my blood gets drawn in order to watch and better regulate my levels and prevent them from getting too low. It goes without saying, that I’m at the hospital nearly every single week, if not multiple times weekly. This past blood draw, all of my levels were lower than expected. Especially my reds. Most definitely my reds. They were low enough that my nurses brought the words “blood transfusion” into the conversation. They gave me two choices, receive a transfusion in the next few days, or wait it out and see if they came up naturally. Never having a transfusion before, and being given those two options, you can probably guess what my decision was. Correct. Let’s just wait and see! After all, I’m so close to the end of treatment, and I would like to avoid a procedure like that any day. A few days later, I went back in to get another draw. My red blood count didn’t come up enough. According to my nurses, a blood transfusion was the best and only option at this point. To say I was scared would be an understatement.
To be redundant, blood transfusions are fairly common during chemotherapy treatment. They are used for a wide variety of other ailments as well. The procedure consists of transfusing a donor’s blood into the patient in order to replace and improve lost components of the patient’s blood. I like to think of it as someone else giving me their blood cells to team up with mine, and in turn help me feel better. When thinking about the procedure itself and knowing how many people need transfusions to boost their red blood cells (approximately 85 million units of blood are transfused every year), a deeper sense of gratitude has been born in me. So, if you’re on the fence about donating blood, do it. It can help people like me feel a whole lot better! Although there are many obvious and immediate benefits of receiving a transfusion, it still scared me to think about it. Never learning about them before caused many fearful thoughts to race in my head. “How do I know the blood they put in my body is not infected or diseased?”, “Is it going to hurt?”, “I don’t want someone else’s blood mixing with mine!”. And, although I trust my nurses completely, I wanted to hear my oncologists view on the procedure and called to leave her a message. You know you have a good doctor when they call you back after office hours and after a long day of surgery, to answer your questions and calm your nerves. My doctor and I talked in length all about the procedure. She not only explained that the risk of contracting any disease is less than 1%, but that it’s a fairly easy process. In fact, the hospital has an out-patient blood transfusion wing. In addition, she said that because of my age, and because my symptoms aren’t too severe, I could probably avoid having one altogether. She explained that my chemo nurses are typically quick to recommend transfusions because they understand how much better the patient feels after receiving one. It’s a good thing to have nurses who want you to feel better. I’m just thankful that my doctor believes in me and my body’s ability to recover quicker than that of someone older. Age is in my favor again! She did, however, explain that if my levels haven’t naturally risen by the time I have chemotherapy next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, that I will need to get one. I’m fine with that, doc! Please pray with me that God drastically multiplies my red blood cell counts by Monday. I know He can do it. He is for me, not against me.
With all of this being said, I am going through an intensifying battle. My journey has only gotten harder and harder. I’d like to say it’s rare to experience this, but unfortunately chemo has proven with many, if not all patients, to be cumulative. I knew that fact going into it, but it’s a different story when you are in the midst of the storm. The end is the most difficult; for many reasons. I know my last treatment is less than a week away, and that’s so exciting, don’t get me wrong. However, the pain and discomfort is mounting and sometimes it takes everything in me to overlook my physical despair and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. Being a Christian isn’t easy. It doesn’t guarantee a pain-free and easy life. In fact, I believe it’s harder to follow God than follow the world. It requires accountability. It requires faith. Faith itself means “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” When I get emotionally down, which I continually fight against daily, God convicts me. Do I or do I not have faith? Taking one day at a time, today I’m choosing to say, “I do.”
Psalm 42:5-8 (The Message)
“Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul? Why are you crying the blues? Fix my eyes on God- soon I’ll be praising again. He puts a smile on my face. He’s my God. When my soul is in the dumps, I rehearse everything I know of you. From Jordan depths to Hermon heights, including Mount Mizar. Chaos calls to chaos, to the tune of whitewater rapids. Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me. Then God promises to love me all day, sing songs all through the night! My life is God’s prayer.”