The Journey – Before Cancer to After Cancer

A couple of weeks ago Mom was asked to speak at the Wyoming Women in Ag conference.  They wanted to hear about her recent breast cancer journey.  She said, “I don’t know….do you really think I have anything to say that anyone will want to hear?”  Turns out she did  have a lot to say and people did want to hear it, they needed to hear it.

Her dear friend Sharon introduced her, in part saying “How are a tea bag and a woman alike?  You don’t know how strong they are until you get them in hot water.”

Here is Mom’s story….

The Journey 

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From BC (Before Cancer) to AC (After Cancer)

 I often wondered why I deserved the life I had.  Sure I have had my struggles along the way, but I would look out the window of the log house I had dreamed of, and thank God for a wonderful husband and family, a life filled with many Blessings.  Life was good.  And then my world began to rock.

It had been quite a fall.  Jim had crushed an artery in his right hand in mid October.  It quickly turned into a very serious situation and we spent the next month going from one hospital to the next trying to save his hand.  He had surgery at the Mayo Clinic and circulation was successfully restored to his hand.  We returned home grateful for God’s continued Blessings.  Then there was the blood clot in the leg, which later moved to the lung.  Once again we were thanking God for saving him.  The Dr that was treating Jim for the blood clot was located at Rocky Mountain Oncology.  During a visit to see the Dr. we went to their lab, which is right off the chemo room.  I looked around that room filled with patients receiving chemo therapy and had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Please Lord, don’t ever make me come back here.

I knew from the first moment my hand brushed across my chest and I felt the lump that I would end up back there.  It was the week before Christmas.  Surely it will go away.  I must have just pulled something, or bumped it.  It can’t be cancer.  It will go away.  I tried hard to ignore it, but I couldn’t seem to keep my hands off the damn thing.  One day I would think it was getting smaller, the next it seemed to have doubled in size.  I told Jim a day or two before Christmas and then the girls after Christmas.  I saw the Dr between Christmas and New Years.  Then had a Lumpectomy on Jan 3rd.  I really didn’t need the Dr. to tell me “it didn’t turn out like we’d hoped”, I already knew.  But still they kept saying “don’t worry, we’ll make sure the lymph nodes are clear and you’ll have a little radiation and life will be good.  Two days later there was another surgery to remove the Sentinel Lymph node for a biopsy.  The lymph nodes were clear, but the lump was located on a nerve, so the tumor board came to the conclusion that chemo was necessary after all.

All of the tests and the waiting for results seem to take years to complete and while you wait you wonder what to say to family and friends.  How much to tell them, how much do they really want to know.  Well, word gets out and the phone begins to ring, and you’re glad because you need to know that no matter how alone you feel, you’re not alone.  Your family and friends care.  I think its hard to know what to say to someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer, or any life threatening health issue for that matter.  And to tell you the truth it’s hard to know what you want to hear.  I am certain that everyone who called or came by had the very best intentions and wanted to say all the right things.  Everyone reacts differently to situations and someone else might not have the thoughts I did, but here are a few of the things that were said to me and how I felt about them.

The day I went to the hospital for the Sentinel node biopsy I was greeted by the same jolly fellow that had admitted me two days earlier.  Good morning Mrs. Price.  Weren’t you just here?  How are you doing today?  Yes I was, and I’m fine thank you.  All the while I’m thinking “I’m not doing too good.  If I as I wouldn’t be back here.  We were then greeted by the sweet little Pink Lady who came to take me to my room.   Good morning Mrs. Price.  How are you today?  I’m fine thank you.  Then there where the nurses on the floor.  Good morning Mrs Price.  How are you feeling today?  I’m fine thank you.  Next came the transfer fellow to take me to radiology.  Are you Mrs. Price?  I’m here to take you for your procedure.  How are you doing today?  I’m fine thank you.   He wheeled me down some very dark gloomy hallways and into this cold, sterile x-ray room and announced that he would return in a little while to take me back to my room.  I sat there alone, cold and scared spit-less, and then appeared this very young radiology tech.  Good morning Mrs. Price.  How are you to day?  I could no longer control the tears and I began to sob, and between the sobs I tried to convince her I was fine and I was really sorry for upsetting her.  She was apologizing for something, not really knowing what she had done, and trying in every way she could think of to make things better.  Would a warm blanket help, could she adjust the lights, how about some soft music.  She says she’s sorry but she has to ask if I know what I’m there for.  “Yes, you are going to stick a needle in my nipple and insert some radioactive dye in the breast.  Then you will take pictures as it travels through to the lymph nodes and when it reaches the first node then back to surgery I go”.   I passed the test!  Next came the Dr. with his toothy grin and his “Good morning Mrs Price, how are you today?”  The radiology tech informed him that I was feeling a little anxious about the procedure.  He told me not to worry, its no big deal, once we get the needle into the nipple it doesn’t hurt any more.  Thanks Doc, thats comforting.  I think the tech sensed my overwhelming desire to punch this man and quickly asked if I would like her to hold my hands.  My response was, “it doesn’t matter to me but this Dr probably wants you to hold my hands.”  I so wanted to say to him, “and how many needles have you had stuck in you nipple?”  He looked at me then and said to her, “please, hold her hands.”

I know all these people were just doing there job, and they were doing it very well, and I don’t know if it would have made any difference, but I so wanted someone to say to me “I’m really sorry you have to go through this.  This really sucks, and I know this is a frightening time for you.  We’ll do whatever we can to make it as easy as possible”.

You must be so depressed!   REALLY!  No I’m not depressed, but I am scared, lost, confused and to spite the fact, that I am surrounded by family and friends that would move heaven and earth to fix this for me, I feel alone.  I tried to put on the “happy” face and be positive around Jim and the girls, but there were mornings when I couldn’t wait for Jim and Casey to get out of the house so I could fall apart.  So I could cry and scream and question and cry some more.

I remember one particular morning when I simply collapsed in the middle of the floor and cried until there were no more tears.  I begged God for strength and courage to face the days, weeks and months ahead.  I also begged God for my life.  The life I wasn’t quite finished with yet.  I still have a daughter  I want to see get married, and she’s accident prone, so who will take care of her if something else happens to her and she’s not married yet and doesn’t have a family of her own to do it.  I have to be there if she needs me.  I have grandchildren I want to see grow up.  I want to be here for them when they need someone to talk to that they know will love them unconditionally.  I have a husband I can’t stand the thought of being without.  I’ve loved this man since I was 17 years old.  How can I leave him.  I was so scared a month ago when he was so sick and I thought you might take him from me, and now I beg you, please don’t take me from Jim.  And besides God, who will cook for him.  I have wonderful friends, I don’t see them often enough but I think they’ll miss me.  I don’t have the museum finished yet.  What are you doing God?  And then there are no more tears, and I look up and the sun is shinning on my Momma’s sun catcher.  There are little rainbows all around me and I say OK God, not my will, but yours.  I was filled with an incredible peace.  I don’t know what tomorrow will bring,  but I do know that I won’t be facing it alone.

It’s all part of God’s plan.  Are you kidding me.  The caring, forgiving, loving God and Father that I know didn’t plan for me to have colon cancer 18 years ago, and He didn’t plan on breast cancer now.  I do believe that God is there for us, every step of the way, if we ask for his help, if we reach out our hand and let him lead us on.  I don’t believe he has a plan for us, but I do believe he has a dream.  A dream for each of us to become the person he knows we can be.  And I believe that if we open our hearts and allow his Holy Spirt to guide us along our way He will help us through the “crap” in our lives to become the person he has dreamed of us being.  I believe he puts people in our lives to help us through, to make us stronger, to pick us up when were down, to cry with us, and laugh with us, to walk the journey with us.  But I don’t believe he plans for one of us to sail through life with no trials and tribulations while another one has a life full of pain and suffering.  I don’t believe he plans for cancer, or head on car crashes, horses that kick us in the head, or crushed arteries.  I do believe he carries us through, if we just allow him to.

All things work for the good.  OK.  I do believe that there is good that comes from bad, if we step back and look at the big picture.  But honestly, when you have just learned that you have Cancer, a blocked artery in your hand and they may need to amputate, you’ve had a horrendous car accident that’s altered the course of your life, or what ever challenge comes your way, it may be a little hard, especially in the beginning, to see the good in any of it.  Good can come from challenges, and challenges can make us stronger, so maybe its all about the timing of when you hear these things.  I was reminded once again how precious life is.  What wonderful family and friends I have.  To thank God for every sunrise and appreciate every sunset and all that comes in between.

You have to get out of town.  I know that the friends and family that kept urging me to go elsewhere for treatment wanted only the best for me and I appreciated hearing from them and knowing how much they cared.  I have said the same thing to my friends at one time or another.  The thing is, once you have shared your concerns you really need to support the decision thats made, even if you think it is the biggest mistake ever.  I was diagnosed with Invasive ductal carcinoma.  There were two separate tumors right next to one another.  If you look at them separately then the cancer is a stage 1, if you consider them to be one tumor and add the size together then it becomes stage 2.  All of this matters because it helps to determine the course of treatment.  Of course its always helpful when the doctors agree on whether to add them together or consider them to be separate.  They didn’t agree.  The tumor was also Focus suspicious for lymphovascular invasion with Perineural invasion present.  What that meant was the tumor was right next to a nerve.   So even though the lymph nodes were clean there was still a chance that the cancer could have entered the blood stream through the nerve and spread elsewhere, so chemo and radiation were recommended.  It takes time for all of these tests and reports to get back and in the meantime your mind is filled with unanswered questions and a host of decisions that you wish you didn’t have to make.  Everyone knows someone who has had cancer and stayed in Casper and died.  And they know someone who has gone elsewhere, to Denver or Houston or the Mayo Clinic and had great results.  There are also those people who stay here for treatment and have great results, and those who travel elsewhere and things don’t go so well.  When it comes right down to it, its a very difficult personal decision and encouragement is great, but pressure is not.  In the end I decided to stay in Casper for my treatment.  I needed to be where my family and friends were.  I needed to be in my own house, in my own bed, surrounded by the people who love me.  So once the decision is made it doesn’t help to say, “well, I guess if you trust your Doctors. 

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Mom, Anne and Toga back in April during chemo

Are you going to loose your hair?  Don’t worry, you’ll look good bald.   I will guarantee you there is not a woman alive that thinks she will look good bald!  And it didn’t take long.  It was 14 days after the first chemo treatment that the hair began to come out by the handful.  I called Kim and told her it was time and she showed up with her clippers.  I think we all react differently to news of a life threatening disease.  Some might go buy that new car they’ve been wanting, or take the trip they had been dreaming about.  Me, I bought scarves, hats and hair.  So much so that I probably  could have had the new car!  I have a friend who made me hats, and one who brought me turbans and went with me to the look good feel better class and didn’t laugh at me when I showed up in one of the wigs I had bought.  She just help me find one that was a little more “ME”.  I wasn’t going to let anyone see me without my hair.

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Mom during her talk showing off one of her wigs

Didn’t take long to get over that.  Seemed silly to wear the hats in the house all day, the scarves were hot and I never did get the hang of tying them so they look sheik  and sexy like in the pictures.  The wigs were itchy, not to mention the concern that they might end up in Nebraska if I were to go outside at the wrong time!  One day my granddaughter ask me if it was the cancer or the medicine that made my hair fall out.  I told her it was the medicine, but that the hair would come back when I was through with the treatments, and that some people say it might even come back a different color.  She got these big ol’ tears in her eyes and said “but grammy, I don’t want it to be a different color!”  Well the color didn’t change but it did make me a little kinky.   The good thing about no hair is the personal hygiene time gets cut in half.  Your don’t have to get a hair cut.  No more need for plucking, waxing, shaving, but the best part was those darned ol chin whiskers that seem to show up out of no where and stick out like a soar thumb were all gone.  Of course they were the first to return!!

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No wigs needed anymore!

Your poor husband, this must be so hard on him.   Wow.  Of course its hard on him.  But its hard on me too and right now I want to focus on me.  I was trying so hard to stay positive for Jim and the girls and at the same time, as much as I hate to admit it,  I wanted to feel a little sorry for myself.   And then I hear this and think “well spit”.  I better get off the pity train and be strong for Jim.  Maybe it was a good thing to hear after all.  It doesn’t do any of us any good to wallow in self pity, but at the same time it’s OK to have a pity party now and then, you just can’t stay too long at the party!

What did you do to deserve this?  You think I haven’t ask myself this very question.  I have screamed at God, why, why me?  What did I do to make you mad.  Why did you give me this cross?  And then I’m reminded that that’s not how it works.  I know that no one is sitting in heaven with a tally sheet keeping track of my good deeds.  If so they wouldn’t need a very big sheet of paper!  How would I ever know when I’d done enough, or been good enough for God.  I can’t earn my way into God’s good graces.  It’s not about what I have or haven’t done, its about what Jesus has done for me.  He died. He died because I could never be good enough.  I’m human, and because I’m human, try as I may, I can never follow all the rules.   God didn’t give me cancer but He did give me Jesus to walk beside me and carry the load when it got too heavy for me to carry alone.

Aren’t you scared?  You damn right I’m scared.  I’m no longer a wife, mother, grandmother, rancher, bookkeeper, friend, neighbor.  I’m the one with cancer, and now people look at me differently.  Some people can’t look at me at all.  They don’t know what to say or do, so they just go the other way.  Some people look at me and begin to cry, and then I seem to be the one comforting them.  Yes I’m scared.   People die from cancer.  But people also live with cancer, and in order to live you have to keep a positive attitude and believe that you can get through this mess.   The people I was around had a major influence on my life and my recovery.  They could either build up my faith or tear it down.  When I was around those who doubted my decisions and my healing and believed the worst, I was tempted to doubt as well.  When faithful, positive people were around me I was lifted up and filled with hope.   And once again, when I would reach the bottom of the pit and give in to the fear, God would send one of you to pick me up and pull me out of that pit and remind me of all I have to be thankful for.  Of all the reasons I have to live.

I’m so glad to hear your treatments are over.  Are you cured now?  I hope so.  I pray that I am.  And I wait.  I wait for more tests.  I wait for the three month check up, with its scans and mammograms.  I wait for the next PET scan.  I wait.  The Dr’s don’t tell you that your cured when the treatments are over.  The damned ‘ol stuff can rear its ugly head again and so for the next 5 years you wait.  With every passing test you breath a sigh of relief and then the waiting starts again.  In the mean time you try to put it out of your mind.  For me that has meant life as usual.  I needed to keep doing the things that I always had.  People would tell me to slow down, don’t over do.  I did slow down but I couldn’t stop.  I was afraid if I did I would never start again.

 WHAT I HAVE LEARNED ON THIS JOURNEY

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 I am reminded daily not to judge others.  This reminder comes several times a day in the form of hot flashes!  You see there was a time when friends would complain about the horrendous hot flashes they were having and I would try to sympathize and show my concern, all the while thinking, “it’s a hot flash for crying in the night!  Put your big girl panties on and deal with it”.  To those of you I judged, I am truly sorry.  With chemo comes instant menopause.  With menopause comes instant hot flashes.  I’m fine one minute and the next I’m drenched in sweat.  I sometimes think I might self combust!  The nights are the worst.  I used to have to be fully clothed and covers up to my chin to sleep.  Not any more!  I’m glad we don’t have close neighbors.  They might not understand why I am outside on a cold night with very little covering.  I have come to believe that real women don’t have hot flashes, they have power surges!!  Which means that I must be one powerful woman.

There is no direct phone line to God.  Anyway not the kind that rings and when you answer the voice on the other end says, “hello Peggy, this is God and I just wanted to give you a call today to tell you not to be afraid, I’ve got your back.  Now get your pen and paper ready.  I’m going to tell you how you should proceed with your treatments, what doctors to see, where to have the treatments, what tests to  insist on, what kind of chemo is right for you and the other fifty thousand things you have been asking me about.”  I didn’t get that call, but I did get answers to all those questions.  I just had to stop and listen and believe that the people that were coming and going in my life at any particular time were part of his answer.

There will be up days and down days  –  When you’re down, and doubt begins to creep in, there will be a visit from a friend, the phone will ring, an email will come, and you’ll know there is a whole army of friends and neighbors on your side.

I have learned that part of “Gods plan” for me was to have a wonderful husband and daughters that would move heaven and earth to help me through this challenge in my life.  They never let me go to the appointments alone.  One and sometimes two of them were always with me.  I hope they know how much that meant to me.  It’s not something you want to do on your own, but sometimes in your confused state of mind it seems like asking for help makes you seem weak.

It wasn’t all that long ago that I was the one taking care of my Mom.  Taking her to the Dr..  I was the caregiver and now the roles had reversed.  It seemed at times like an out of body experience. That God would allow me the privilege of having special friends who know the right time to call or come by the house with a batch of cookies or a meal on chemo day.  Friends that would drive 80 miles to take me to my chemo appointment and sit with me while the poison dripped into my system and drive 80 miles home again.  The friends that just dropped by the chemo lab to make sure I was OK.  Then there was the friend who had been down that long road I was about to embark on.  She came by the house with a bag of her favorite things and shared with me her journey.  And though everyones journey is different she let me know what I might expect around that blind corner.  What a gift that was!  And there was the friend who suggested I go to Colorado and get a prescription for medical marijuana and then she would come stay with me and take care of me!  We could set in the swing on the front porch and not give two hoots about that danged ol cancer!  I no longer take my family and friends for granted.  You carried me through.  Thank you.

I have learned that God made spiders, and since he did he must want those cobwebs that are on the logs.  I don’t understand the anatomy of spiders but I think they must need dust to survive so I will leave that there as well.  I don’t have to sweep the floor every day. In fact, once a week seems to be working out OK these days.

There will always be people in my life who think I should be doing things differently or that I should do more, or less.  I have learned that what other people think may be a problem, but it’s not MY problem.  I am doing the best I can and I’m OK with it.

You will encounter some very wonderful, caring, compassionate doctors and nurses along the way.  There will also be those who don’t listen and aren’t so caring.  So, you have to trust your gut.  If you believe that something isn’t right, know matter what the doctor or nurse might be telling you, trust your gut.  Keep calling until you find someone who will listen.  Park yourself in the doctors office and refuse to leave if you have to.  Just don’t give up.  You know your body better than anyone else, so listen to that inner voice, it just might be God speaking.

I’ve learned that a nap in the middle of the day is a good thing.  A really good thing.  It quickly became a habit, but it’s still a good thing.

Cancer will bring you to your knees  –   God will reach out his hand and help you up.  All you have to do is ask Him.

We all know someone who seems to have the perfect life.  The perfect house, the perfect job, the perfect family.  I no longer believe anyone’s life is perfect.  We all have our battles to fight, they just come in different sizes and shapes.  Kind of like all of us.  But they are battles just the same.  Know one wants the pain and grief that comes with a battle.  It’s against human nature to want to suffe, but without the battles, there would be no victories.  If I hadn’t stood at the edge and experienced the pain and suffering that came with my battle I may never have cried out to the Lord for help and guidance.  I may never have had the opportunity to experience what it means to truly trust.  I may never have grasped his precious gift of life and all that he sacrificed just for me. What an awesome gift, Gods grace and mercy.

But most of all I’ve learned to appreciate all that I have.  My wonderful family, my dear friends, every new day.  Cancer has a way of reminding us of the important things in life and I hope I never forget that lesson.  I thank God that I am able to be here with all of you and share some of my story.  I pray that none of you ever have to travel the cancer path, and I hope you know that whatever your battle, you don’t have to fight it alone.

I hope you will remember these three things that I have learned along the way:

1.  When you are doing you self breast exam make sure you are doing them right, always check high.  Breast cancer isn’t just in the soft tissue. It can be anywhere from your neck down.

2. Listen to your body.  Know one knows it better than you and trust your gut feeling.

3. Whatever your struggle in life, don’t ever give up, on yourself or your faith.

Thanks for allowing me to share some of my journey with you.

For more information on Breast Cancer Symptoms, Treatment and Self Breast Exams please check out the following sites:

www.cancer.org  and ww5.komen.org

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