How Cancer Saved My Life
I cried into the phone, “It’s cancer! He said it’s cancer!… What am I going to do?… I have two kids… They need me!… I can’t die! I can’t die…” I sobbed so hard I could barely breathe. The fears flooded out of me as I sat in my mini van outside of the doctor’s office. Panic set in to the point that I was shaking and driving was impossible. How could this be happening to me?
Just six months earlier, I had given birth to my second child and was smack in the middle of transition from infant to baby. My daughter was only two years old and severely disabled. I was just starting to feel recovered enough from the newborn stage to start exercising. Like most new moms, I despised my fluffy extra layer that stayed long after my baby had made his appearance in this world. Not long after finishing a workout one day, I noticed a pain in my left groin. I stretched and assumed it would eventually go away. However, as the days went by this “knot” in my groin grew larger and became painful. I thought my body was just out of shape and fighting the post-childbirth aches and pains. Of course I ran my symptoms through WebMD and saw a list of possibilities with everything from a muscle strain to infection to cancer. I decided to see my primary care doctor and he thought it was likely a hernia — not unusual for post pregnancy. “A hernia, great” I thought. “That means surgery and recovery. How in the world am I going to do that with a newborn and a disabled child to care for?”
I still needed to get an ultrasound to confirm a hernia. As the technician looked at the screen, I saw her face go from confused to shocked. I asked her, “what are all of those black dots?” She appeared completely puzzled when she responded, “they’re lymph nodes, but usually there’s not so many.” Then she left the room and began talking to a doctor. She did what technicians do, told me nothing and sent me on my way. There were a few other doctors calls that are hazy, but in the end I found out it was not a hernia. Not long after that ultrasound I was in the general surgeon’s office. He was supposed to let me know if this was some sort of an infection, or if I needed to have a biopsy. He looked at me and said it’s cancer. “We need to do the biopsy but that’s cancer.”
I got out of there as fast as I could and called my mom and then my husband. I’m sure they were shocked to answer the phone and hear me in the middle of a breakdown. It’s still awkward when I see my husband’s coworker who I found out later was in the car with him when I called in hysteria. It’s that look we share like, “okay, remember that time I was a lunatic. Yeah? Okay good. Now I’m gonna look away.”
It was just before Christmas when I had my biopsy. We hoped for results before the holiday but no luck. During the holidays, my father was also diagnosed with prostate cancer and would soon have surgery. I thought after the new year I would for sure have the results, but nope still no luck. I called a couple days later and talked to a nurse who told me it was not cancer. Not cancer! My husband and I hugged, cried, and were overwhelmed with relief. Then five minutes later the surgeon called, and said basically, “hey sorry about that, she was wrong. You actually do have cancer.” You can’t make this stuff up.
Funny story, it turns out the pathologist here couldn’t read my biopsy. He had never seen a lymph node extravaganza like I had going on. My biopsy slide got sent around to every pathologist in the state, and no one had a clue. Finally, he sent it off to Stanford University where there is an expert on lymphomas, thus the long wait. The doctor at Stanford, was able to diagnose me with Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma. This is an extremely rare and very aggressive form of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. After getting the news, I cried with my family and waited on the next most critical test to come back. There are two kinds of ALCL, an ALK positive form which responds well to chemotherapy and an ALK negative form which does not and often results in a shorter life expectancy. Kind of a big deal.
Do you know what happens when you realize your chances of a long life versus a few more years at most comes down to one test? Everything in life is suddenly put in perspective. I ached to raise my children. I longed for a lifetime with my husband. I thought of all of the things I had yet to do in my life. Before I even received the results of this test, I was determined. I would beat this. I would see my children grow up. I would grow old with my husband. I would refuse to live in fear of what may happen and embrace the here and now.
The test came back and it was positive! My chances were good. This was still very rare, and the number of doctors who had successfully treated it was astoundingly low. Luckily, we have a well respected cancer hospital close by. I began the plethora of tests right away in order to see how far this cancer had spread. This included: CT scan, PET scan, blood tests, and a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy (it’s as painful as it sounds, trust me). Then, I met with my team of doctors and they filled me with hope for the future, but also laid out the difficult journey ahead. I had an extremely rare cancer and they were treating it the way they “thought” was best, and the way other cases had been treated. This was new but not unprecedented, and my doctors were confident in their plan.
There was good news and there was bad news. The good news was that the cancer was contained within the groin. The bad news was it’s very aggressive and needed to be treated with chemotherapy right away. Oh and the other bad news, I was going to be losing my hair. But seriously, who cares about hair when you get to live! A few days later, I went to my first chemo session and was terrified. There were so many drugs, needles, and it all felt surreal. I was peeing red (not blood just a weird side effect of the chemo), nauseated, and shaking. Within a couple of days, my hair started coming out in clumps whenever I brushed it. If I tried to put on hair products, I came away with my hands pasted in hair. It was time to hurry along the process of going bald.
I was now bald, tired, and had two babies under the age of three years. My father had cancer and not long after my first chemotherapy treatment I found out my mother in-law also had cancer. We were being ambushed by this horrid disease.
I was lucky enough to have my so many wonderful family members and friends nearby willing to help. Chemo made me tired. All…the…time. I had help from my sister during the day and my husband in the evening, but I was still up several times a night with my young children. I thrive on fitness, and I had no energy to exercise. I felt my body wasting away. I could feel the chemicals in my veins. I thought I couldn’t possibly get any weaker — then I got sick.
What I remember is waking up at 2am in horrible pain and freezing. I took my temperature, and it was hovering around 102 degrees. When you’re undergoing chemo a fever is terrifying. I ended up in an ambulance ride to the hospital, and before I knew it I was pumped with antibiotics, fluids, and pain medicine. I had a gazillion tests run, and it was just a sinus infection. I felt like death and all I had was a sinus infection! My white blood cell count was so low that my body couldn’t fight it off (thus the death feeling). I began getting a medication to help stimulate the growth of more white blood cells. This was so painful! Because it was working within the bone and bone marrow there was pain literally in my bones. I was lucky enough to have a sister who was willing and able to be by my side during the majority of this hospital stay.
On Mother’s Day my sister went home for the holiday, and the rest of my family couldn’t visit because they were also sick. This was also my son’s first birthday. I was trying to remain positive up until this point, but my fortress finally cracked. I laid in my hospital bed, and let myself cry. I cried for what I was missing and the loneliness of a week away from my husband and kids. I cried because I was in my 30's, and my adult life was really just getting started. Yet, here I was in a hospital bed, with no energy, no hair, and alone. I tried so hard to put on a positive face during my treatment, but on this day, Mother’s Day, my son’s first birthday, I just needed to allow myself to be sad.
Just over a month later, I was participating in my first biking event at this same cancer hospital. During one of my darker days, I had come across a flyer for a bike event called the Huntsman 140. It’s a fundraiser for the hospital where I received treatment. I decided I was going to do this ride that was happening one month after my treatment. It would be so hard to prepare but this goal, I hoped, would help me make it through the chemo depression. I had an old bike so on my good days I went out, and rode my bike around the neighborhood a few times. I wouldn’t say I trained, but I did what I could. I told my family that I was doing this 25 mile bike ride as a celebration of the end of my chemo. I was still worn down but I wanted this badly.
As I waited for the start of the event, I looked around and saw my husband, two of my sisters in-law, and my brother in-law surrounding me. Around me at the finish line were my in-laws, sister in-law, and sisters. Behind my sunglasses I teared up because I felt like I was conquering so much in this moment. More importantly, I was not conquering it alone. I was surrounded by my people. Which is representative of this journey — I was never alone in it. I had an army of people by my side.
What happened over the next several months was a beautiful thing. I wanted to LIVE! I wanted to discover what I was capable of. I would become more than the pre-cancer Holly. I would still treasure my kids, and my husband, but I would also value me.
Facing death made me love being alive. It took the fear out of what might be and replaced it with courage to challenge my limits. So I started by doing something I had been afraid to do for years, because one doctor told me not to. I started lifting weights. I lifted because I wanted to see how strong my body could be. I lifted because I have a child who will never be able to walk. But, I will be here to carry her because cancer did not win.
I fell in love with my bike! I rode as much as I could. I wanted to do more biking events. One day I thought it would be fun to do a triathlon sometime. So, I signed up for a triathlon. Actually I signed up for three triathlons. Because I love to torture myself. I trained and trained and trained. And I loved every minute of it! I even loved the running, which validates chemo brain because in reality I hate running. I was reclaiming my body.
I have goals to see and do so much before my time is up. If it weren’t for cancer, I probably would have never ventured out of my comfort zone. I would not have truly discovered my life. Too scared to speak my truth, and too intimidated to challenge my body. Terrified to defy the status quo.
When cancer was in my face with it’s threats of a life never to be lived, it opened my eyes. As much as I hate it and all that it has destroyed in taking the lives of those I love — I respect what my confrontation with cancer has done for me. It was the cold water dumped on my head in the middle of the night, the wake up call I needed to live.
So, yes, cancer could have defeated me but instead it saved me.