Ya, no, it never appeared on my mental radar as something I’d personally face. That’s not to say, however, that cancer wasn’t on my radar at all. After high school and while looking for colleges, God seemed to put it on my heart to go into nursing. But He seemed to nudge me toward a specific type of nursing: oncology.
I remember driving past the hematology-oncology clinic here in Medford, Oregon, and thinking to myself, Someday, I’m going to work there as a nurse and help people with cancer.
The day I finally walked through those doors, I just laughed to myself. No, I wasn’t there fresh out of nursing school and ready for my first interview. I walked in as a patient. I was 23 years old.
As probably with most people diagnosed with cancer, it blindsided me like a semi. They had diagnosed me with stage one breast cancer. After walking through those doors, I underwent a double mastectomy, reconstruction surgery, one year of chemotherapy, followed by three years of hormone treatments. It turned my world upside down and slapped all my happy plans to the ground.
The last day of chemo was bitter-sweet. I was happy to be done with treatment, nausea, fatigue, and just feeling crappy overall. Yet fear gripped me because chemo felt safe like cancer couldn’t hurt me as long as the chemo kept coming.
That last day, I went to lunch with a dear friend named Shaun. She had been fighting cancer for over 10 years and then was fighting stage four breast cancer. We sat at our local Mexican dive and I started crying over my tortilla soup.
What’s going on up there? she said, pointing to my head.
I’m just so scared. What if it comes back? I said.
What she said next changed my life.
If it comes back… you fight. But now you need to live. But never forget to live your life.
She was right. Cancer had arrested my life and led me to put “living” on the shelf marked for “someday later.”
It took about six months of therapy and soul-searching, but I finally took my life back off the shelf and start living again. I decided to start a new chapter in my story. I moved from the safety and familiarity of my hometown (and my mother’s house) to Southern California. I packed all my stuff in my little red Geo Metro, said my goodbyes, and headed for the surf and sun.
After a week all alone in Cali, I got really homesick and was about to pack my bags and head back home when I got an email. Another thing that totally changed my life.
The email was from some guy who saw my profile page on a Christian singles page. His name was Joel. Fast forward a bunch and he became my husband.
We were madly in love. I was living again, in fact, at a level, I’d never known before. And all that mushy, cringey, lovey stuff young couples do… yep, that was us. The future was bright. Our future was bright, full of plans, dreams, and goals.
But it wasn’t to last.
Just eight months into our newlywed adventure, I was re-diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. The cancer not only returned (or was always there), but it had spread to my liver, lungs, kidneys, spine, and at least nine tumors in my brain. After looking over all my scans, one oncologist predicted I had, at best, 4-6 months to live–and that was with treatment. I was only 27-years-old. There is no known cure.
While stage one cancer turned my world upside down, this diagnosis just shattered it into a thousand pieces. Our bright, happy future went black.
But something in me, something deep, something primal, said no.
I know God has more for me to do than this.
That primal part or that God-inspired part… whatever it was, it fought. It chose to live.
I got accepted as a patient at the City of Hope cancer center, in Southern California (where we were living) and they attacked my cancer aggressively. They hit me with 15 rounds of full brain radiation, followed by chemotherapy. City of Hope is amazing! They beat back most of my cancer and put me in what's called "a near-complete remission."
The first (oral) chemo did not work. The cancer spread still. So they switched me up to an intravenous chemo cocktail. It started working. The brain radiation started working too!
Now here’s the thing with a stage four cancer. Since they can’t (usually) totally eradicate it, you’re basically on treatment (i.e. chemo) for the rest of your life. Ya, it really sucks at times, but I’m deeply grateful because it’s saved my life.
Oh, and did I mention it’s been seven years since that initial re-diagnosis?
But here’s one of those sucky parts of doing chemo for so long. Eventually, the cancer outsmarts the treatment, and it stops working so well. The good news is that there are many types of chemos and medications, so doctors will try a new chemo cocktail. I think I’m on my fifth or sixth cocktail.
Most people with a stage one diagnosis will typically do chemo for six months to a year. Something like that. I’ve been doing chemo without a break for nearly eight years now. Joel says I have several black belts in chemotherapy and cancer combat!
Because of all this, I think I’ve experienced nearly every negative side-effect people get from chemotherapy–and then some!
Chemotherapy tends to be cumulative, not punctuative. That means it’s not like aspirin that you take and after a short time, it wears off and leaves your system (i.e. punctuated). Chemo stays in your system and the more you do it, the more it builds up in you.
Now that’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good (or helpful) in consistently working to fight cancer; it’s bad (or harmful) because it also targets and kills some (not all) healthy cells, like hair follicles, mouth cells, and stomach lining cells. This is what leads to negative side effects, like nausea, fatigue, mouth sores, and hair loss.
Over these last eight years, I’ve learned a lot of tips, techniques, and home remedies to help ease most of these side effects. I wish I could say I’ve discovered the silver bullet to make it all go away, but that’s just not reality. But I earned my black belts in cancer warfare by going through the wringer over and over and learning what helps (me) and what doesn’t.
That’s why I wrote my little eBook, Power Through Chemo Like a Badass… Even If You Feel Like a Wimp.
In it, I tackle 17 of the most common nasty side effects people experience from chemotherapy. I’ve put some other helpful cancer-fighting, hope-inspiring goodies in there too. It’s a quick read but packed with everything I can think of on how to make chemo less sucky.
We want to give this little book to anyone who wants it. Totally free.
My heart’s desire is still to help cancer patients. I guess I’m just doing it now from the driver’s seat. And If I can help you (or someone you know) to become a black belt, badass cancer fighter, then we both win.