Sunday, July 30, 2006

Ten Years Ago

I realized I have never really written about the one experience that changed me and my life forever. I never really talk about it either. I thought about as time goes by, things get more fuzzy and I start forgetting the small details. Today, after my long run, I decided I'd write them all down.

My parents got a divorce when I turned 17. It was a bad time. It tore our family apart, my Mom was a mess. It was decided that I would move to NC. My Dad bought a home with his girlfriend on a golf course. My Dad worked in DC during the week, he only came home to NC on the weekends. His girlfriend was always around though.

I found a job as a waitress at Don's old restaurant. I finished my junior year. When my senior year of high school started, I started working more hours at the restaurant. I had two honor classes, English and creative writing. Some nights, I would stay up until 2am finishing papers. I thought I was just working very hard and that was the reason I was so tired.

One morning, after a shower, I noticed the left side of my upper body was bigger than my right. Especially my shoulder and armpit area. I thought maybe my left side was just fatter than my right since I am right handed. I did my Cindy Crawford workout more on my left side for a week. It didn't help.

When I was shaving my pits a few weeks later, I saw a lump. When I felt it, I felt many lumps, like a cluster of grapes. I had a bad feeling deep in my gut. I called my Dad and told him I think I need to see a doctor. He called Fort Bragg and I was to go to the Army hospital two days later.

I just saw a GP during that appointment. He drew blood and start feeling my lumps. He called in a nurse and she watched while he checked my breasts. I felt humiliated, warm tears were rolling down my cheeks. Little did I know, this was just the beginning.

It all happened pretty fast after that, the GP was so concerned he wanted me to stay in the hospital over night so the head pediatrician could see me first thing in the morning. The next day, about ten different doctors asked me questions, poked and felt my lumps. They called my Dad at the Pentagon and asked him about my family's history of cancer. Had anyone ever had Hodgkin's Lymphoma? I wasn't shocked because deep down, I had known. I knew the day I felt them when I was shaving.

My oldest sister and mom rushed down to be with me during the biopsy. They had an awful time drawing blood and getting IV's in my arms. My mom was in the room when the nurse was attempting to get the IV in, it was attempt number twelve. My arms were black and blue from blown veins, I looked like a junkie. I started crying, not because the IV attempts hurt so bad but I was mentally scared and tired. My Mom ran out of the room. I could hear her sobbing in the hallway talking to the doctor. Nobody ever wanted to cry with me. They wanted to pretend they were strong and I'd be just fine.

Once the surgeon cut open my armpit, he said "Wow! We've got a lot of good samples here." He told me it didn't look good. The thing about military hospitals is that they don't bullshit. You don't get a lot of bedside manner. If I'd cry, they'd tell me to "steel myself, it would get worse before better". Those doctors helped toughen me up and helped shape a part of me today. I'm more likely to laugh than cry when I'm hurt now. I asked to see the tumors he cut out. They looked like little balls of 80/20 raw hamburger. They were shipped to Bethesda, MD.

Everyone already knew but they wanted the oncologist to officially break the news to me when the results came back. I remember him sitting on the bed and saying "Something has happened that will change your life forever sweetie, you have cancer." He scheduled all sorts of tests; bone marrow biopsy, CT scans, bone scans, blood tests.

The worse test was the bone marrow biopsy. My oncologist had to do it. I got no pain killers or anesthesia. I guess you can't numb a bone anyway. When I saw Dr.C come in with a hand auger/drill, I started to get scared. When he called four soldiers to hold me down on the table, I was terrified. On one side of my hips, Dr.C had to drill through my hip bone down into the marrow for a sample. As he drilled, he said my bones were so hard. It felt like my hip was going to shatter with all the pressure and force.

He'd stick a piece a metal down through the drill to see if he'd hit the marrow yet. When it first started, I was crying, hard. Then, it got to a point of shock and I just made some weird noises. The other side, he chipped a piece of bone off for the sample. When the soldiers released me, I saw tears in Dr.C's eyes. "I'm so sorry, I know how painful that was, it hurt me to do that to you." When I turned around to look at my hips, I noticed it looked like a smiley face. The two holes he drilled in were the eyes and my where my butt cheeks' creased was the mouth. Dr.C laughed hard.

After all the tests were done, I learned I had stage 3. I had lots of tumors in my chest, around my lungs and heart. I decided against letting them cut me open and take samples of my liver, spleen and bladder. I just felt it wasn't necessary. I had cancer, I was going to have chemo so it didn't matter if it was in my liver. I was going to start four chemo drugs, Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine and DTIC. The worst of these drugs were the A and B. They cause heart and lung damage. Lance Armstrong refused bleomycin during his treatment due to lung damage. Before chemo started, they had to install a port-a-cath. I needed the port in my chest because my veins were so small and if the chemo leaked out, it would destroy the vein.

The port surgery would be my first surgery ever. I arrived at 7am but there was emergencies and I didn't go into surgery until 1pm. I was so hungry and thirsty but had to go under general anesthesia on an empty stomach. I remember the nurses giving me the gown and instructing me to take off all my clothes. I didn't listen, I left my underwear on. They wheeled me into the operating room, it was cold and full of shiny metal. They put a mask on my face and I only got to number 96.

The next thing I remember, is laying on a gurney flying down the hall. I was very upset and trying to get up. People kept yelling at me to lay down. I looked down at my chest and had a large needle sticking out of it. I couldn't stop crying, anesthesia does that to me, I get hysterical. They told me if I didn't calm down, I wouldn't get to go home. I started doing the snotty, hiccupping, gulping sob because I really wanted to go home. I looked at the clock at it was 6pm. I was in surgery for over five hours? They said it would take two max.

I guess I'm like a horse, they couldn't knock me out. I woke up during surgery and put my hands over my chest, trying to stop them. I broke the sterile environment and they had to start over. They had problems threading the tubing into my jugular vein. Because I'm so small in my chest, it was difficult to anchor the port and pull skin back over it.

The port bothered me a lot during my entire treatment. It felt like it was going to explode out of my chest. I didn't like touching it. I didn't want people hugging me too tight. I could feel the tubing pull when I'd turn my head too far. It was working though, they could draw blood and administer chemo. In the long run, it would save my veins.

I had my treatments every other Monday. It would take about four hours for chemo. First, I'd have a bag of anti-nausea medication, then steroids, then Vinblastine and DTIC. They'd have to push the Adriamycin and Bleomycin in slowly. If you pushed the Adriamycin in too quickly, I could have a heart attack. I could taste the bleomycin and at the end of my chemotherapy treatments, I would gag when I got that drug.

After the first treatment, I had very bad jaw and back pain. I felt like I got hit by a truck. I wasn't vomiting my head off like what I saw in the movies, that would come later. The first treatment, I was a strong 18 year old and my body fought against the poison. My hair started coming out the second round. Mostly in the shower, big handfuls. I had loved to dye my hair. Black, brown, red, blonde it would make my parents so mad. Dr.C was thoroughly impressed because I never lost all my hair. A bit of fuzz always remained, I never got a chrome dome. The hair that remained was striped like a skunk. Each treatment would leave a thin ring, the next week my hair would grow thick again. My family would send me hats, scarves and flowers. I was alone with my dad's girlfriend most of the time.

As the treatments went on, I got weaker. I was very nauseated by cycle three. Dr. C prescribed me a drug called Marinol. Marinol was the shit, it was weed in a pill. They were little round brown pills. I loved Marinol so much but there were days I was really sick. I'd sometimes vomit them up right after I'd swallow them. I'd pick them back out of the bile and swallow them again. They were the only medicine that gave me an appetite. I'd beg people to take me to Sonic after two Marinol pills. I'd get a double cheeseburger, tater tots and a limeade.

I was only supposed have eight cycles. I remember walking into the hospital, thinking this was my last one. I went into Dr. C's office, he told me that the cancer wasn't responding to the chemo like he hoped. He wanted to go to the maximum amount and do a total of 16 treatments. I was so sad that day. A soldier was in the chemo room having a party because it was his last treatment that same day. I gagged and wept, I didn't know if I could handle eight more.

I got to go see my Mom and sisters one week for a vacation. It was hard for people that loved me to look at me at first. I could see the sadness and tears in their eyes. I think being sick was harder on them than it was me. We never really talked about it. Nobody ever talked to me about death and dying. It was easier to pretend death didn't exist. I happily caught crabs and ate them(thanks to Marinol) during that vacation.

I quit my job working as a waitress for Don right when I got sick. He still kept in contact with me and told me as soon as I got better, he wanted me to come back to work. He kept asking me to come into the restaurant to see him. Sometimes, I felt like a freak show. People would ask me if I was a boy or girl. Kids would run away from me. I still remember the day I went and saw Don at the restaurant. He was so happy to see me. He gave me such a big hug, I had to tell him not so hard because he was hurting my port. His eyes filled with tears and was one of the few to cry in front of me. I sometimes think that was the moment I decided he was good enough to be my husband. That didn't happen until four years later, the cradle robber!

How my life had changed. I once was a homecoming princess, now people were confused about my sex. I used to love make-up but with no eyebrows or eyelashes it all looked weird. I used to love to color and style my hair but it was gone. My body had become just a shell. That was the year I learned about who I truly was.

I became strong even though my body had failed me. It humbled me. It taught me not to look only skin deep. It taught me to be thankful for each day. It made me a fighter. All this triathlon talk was started because during my last treatment Dr.C told me two things. First, not to try to have a baby for at least five years. It would be too much for my body to handle. Second, the only thing I couldn't do would be an endurance event due to heart and lung damage. It took me ten years but I proved him wrong.

Today, when I was running in the heat, I didn't complain. I'm alive. I feel the heat. I feel the sweat dripping from my hair into my eyes. I am stronger than I have ever been. My husband can hug me hard without hurting my port. I want to always remember because I think as hard as the cancer was, it made me a better person.


At 6:54 PM, Blogger Chris said...

OMG, I had no idea. For whatever reason, this is one of the most touching cancer stories that I've ever read. All those parts about the military hospital... Yikes!

I'm so glad that everything turned out for the best for you and that you're healthy again. Thanks for sharing!

At 7:02 PM, Blogger Cagey said...

That was such an incredible story. Thank you so much for sharing.

I'm glad that you were able to beat the cancer and I hope that you continue to live a healthy life.

At 9:53 PM, Blogger Jessica A. Freas "Freeze" said...

Even though I already knew your story, I never knew in great detail. It made me cry and it makes me realize why you are so determined to finish whatever you start! Thank you for inspiring me. You really do. You and your family are very special to me.

At 9:55 PM, Blogger Swordfish said...


I'm at a loss for words .

The images speak volumes of what you must have gone through -especially the one of you holding the crab trap ., its mezmerizing.

I'm really happy that I checked your blog this it has reminded me what a gift life truly is and how it's so unpredicatable.

It was very brave and generous of you to share. I feel like I have a new friend indeed : )

It would be a honor to tow the line with you at a race one day.


PS: Keep kickin ass and taking names-OK .

At 10:02 PM, Blogger Stillwater Heron said...

Thankyou so much for sharing that with us.
Your one tough cookie and I'm so glad your story has a happy ending.
You inspire me too...

At 10:05 PM, Blogger tarheeltri said...

Wow. I just plowed thru half a pint of ice cream reading your story. I'm touched and glad you thought enough of everyone out here to post it.

At 2:28 AM, Blogger Julia said...

Such a big situation for such a small girl...

But now I want part II: how did you hook up with Don? You already knew at 17 that he was it?

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Miss Jenny said...

Thank you so much for sharing your story and reminding us all how lucky we are for bodies that do what we want them to, when we want them to and for all the chances we get to use them.

I already knew you were amazing, now I just know it a little more...

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Bolder said...

oh moj. i'm completely in tears reading this. it's never right.

but, i'm glad you are with us, and can be our Lance Armstrong.

my prayers ran out long ago, but you will still be in my thoughts often.

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Flatman said...

Mojo, like others, I had no idea. Thanks so much for being brave enough to share this with us. Please know that you have become one of my alltime heroes for what you went through. I am so sorry for your pain, but so happy you are with us now. Now, how to pretend I am not tearing up at work...

At 12:16 PM, Blogger Papa Louie said...

Thank you for sharing your life changing experience. You truely are an inspiration to us all. God bless you and your family.

At 11:18 PM, Blogger 21st Century Mom said...

What an amazing, inspiring story. Your strength humbles me. Thank you so much for sharing your long hard journey with us.

At 2:46 PM, Blogger Holly said...

Thank you so much for sharing this story. I can't imagine going through all of that at such a young age and once again, I am humbled .. Your survivorship is awe inspiring.

You are a true example of Living STRONG!

At 8:35 PM, Blogger jeanne said...

wow, i don't know you and am just reading your blog for the first time. what an amazing story. i have to constantly remind myself to be thankful i have the ability to move at all. life is such a treasure. we fret so much over nothing. thanks for reminding me tonight. and i'm sorry you had to go through so much of that by yourself. you're one strong chick.

At 8:15 AM, Blogger E-Speed said...

wow girl. I never would have guessed. I love that your husband pushed to see you during your treatments. That's true love. He must have been so worried.

You are truly a fighter. And in my book that means you win every day, no matter what place you come in. You fought something much tougher than any triathlon, you are truly awesome.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Siren said...

Wow. Thank you so much for this - I've watched a couple of close family members lose their battle, so it's wonderful to hear about the people who beat it.

At 4:01 PM, Blogger Bolder said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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