I could have never imagined the series of events that would lead me to start this blog. In my case, the road leading here is just as important as the road ahead so please excuse me while I take my time explaining.
In early October 2010, just a month short of giving birth to my second daughter (c-section), I started to have pretty severe back pain. I assumed it was just standard c-section recovery coupled with nursing, caring for an infant and toddler and having my baby sleep on me every night for the first few weeks. I assumed it would just go away. It didn't. I was stiff as a board and every little task caused pain. I couldn't lay flat on my back. Couldn't cough, sneeze or breathe deep. Hurt to do much of anything. Several weeks later, I finally decide to see an internist. Maybe I punctured a lung. Maybe I broke something in the 8 hours I was in "natural" labor with no drugs (except pitocin). I certainly pushed hard enough to break something in there. Sure enough the Dr. confirmed my original thought - just a rough recovery: get a massage, go to physical therapy, take it easy.
At my first physical therapy appointment, the PT said I was the "stiffest spine" he had seen for someone my age in his whole career. At least I knew I wasn't making this all up. I lugged my 3 month old and almost 3 year old with me to every appointment for the next month. Not so fun when you can hardly move and it's barely 30 degrees out. Christmas and New Year came and went. My progress was slow, maybe even backwards. Pain started moving to my arms and legs. Not good. My PT decides that more brains (and hands) are needed and refers me to the head of the clinic. We start a new treatment plan: water therapy everyday for the first week, no laundry, no vacuuming, no carrying anything heavier than my baby, new exercises to attempt every few hours. I saw some gains. I certainly got some range of motion back. Some days were better than others. Still, I wasn't seeing the progress I needed to make. In fact, the pain had radiated to my arm/shoulder so bad that I couldn't pump the soap dispenser, couldn't shift into reverse, and moaned every time I picked up my baby. I was getting tired of hearing myself. I was frustrated and oh so over it. My PT determined that the problem in my shoulder was a separate issue and would require a separate insurance referral. He asked me to have my Primary Care Physician call in the request. Fortunately, my PCP wasn't going to call anything in. He asked me to come in to see him.
It's early February. I'm still lugging my girls (now 5 months and 3 years old) to appointment after appointment. After just a couple minutes with me, my internist orders blood work and x-rays, tells me to come back in a few days. He tells me to wean my daughter so that he can "treat" the pain. I cry. He tells me I'll still be a good mother. Results come back. My erythrocyte sedimentation rate (indicating inflammation) is high. Really high. He wants to do more blood work and schedules me for an MRI. There's talk of arthritis of the spine, other rheumatological conditions - none of them sound fun, or temporary. The MRI is almost 2 hours long. I'm not claustrophobic but 2 hours trapped in a machine is too much time to be alone with my thoughts.
It's Valentines Day. The girls and I went to Borders for some books, coffee (aka: chocolate soy milk and pomegranate tea) and a Valentine brownie. It was a simple and perfect day. We planned on making chocolate covered strawberries later that afternoon. When we got home I put the girls down for their nap and started to clean up and get things ready for our Valentine evening with daddy. The phone rings. The MRI results are in and the doctor wants to see me. Can I be there in 10 minutes? No, I can't be there in 10 minutes. My heart starts to pound. Okay, come in at 4:30. I call my husband, ask him to meet me there. What could be so urgent?
Sitting in the exam room with my girls, my husband isn't there yet. My doctor walks in and explains I have 2 lesions on my spine. He needs to do more tests and wants to admit me to the hospital tonight. He starts to ask questions, so many questions, then proceeds to give me the longest breast exam ever. What is going on? He asks me again if I can get to the hospital tonight. I look at my girls. A lump starts to build in my throat. I look my doctor in the eye and ask, "Are you telling me you think this is serious enough to go to the hospital right now?" Without hesitation, "Yes, it could be anything. Anything from an infection to cancer. We need to do more tests." Cancer? How the heck did cancer get thrown into this mix? My face feels hot. Tears start to run down my face. My husband shows up. Doctor talks to him outside. We go home to pack our bags.
My brother-in-law comes to pick up the girls. I pack their bags. I don't know what I'm doing. I can't think straight. I nurse my baby one more time and my husband loads them into the van. Happy Valentines Day girls. I love you.
The drive to the hospital is surreal. Just a few hours ago I was looking at recipes for our Valentines Day dinner, now I'm being admitted to the hospital. I check in to the neurology floor. The nurses hurry to get me all suited up and ready for some tests. Over the next several days I'll have a chest x-ray, CT scan, full body bone scan, another CT scan with contrast dye, a mammogram, a breast ultrasound and dozens of blood tests. Each time I went in for another scan, the tears rolled down the side of my face, my milk leaked and drenched my hospital gown. Another reminder of what I should have been doing at that moment. I missed my babies. The mammogram and ultrasound showed a mass in my breast and spots on my lymph nodes. The oncologists pay me a visit. I'm scared, confused and need some answers. They explain that the lesions on my spine may very well be breast cancer that has metastasized on my spine. My heart pounds. I can't believe what I'm hearing. In one breath, they tell me that we still don't have an official diagnosis - they need to do a biopsy - but in another breath they talk to me about a treatment plan: radiation and/or chemotherapy and surgery. I'm told there is an excellent cancer treatment facility in Texas. I'm told that these days it's better to have cancer than heart disease. Wait. What? I can't believe I'm listening to this. The next evening, my very as a matter of fact breast surgeon comes to examine me and discuss the breast biopsy. She throws "cancer" around like nothing, just something that has to be taken care of, like a bad cough or a wart. I, on the other hand, can't stop shaking. My entire body is trembling. She says she'll be back tomorrow for the biopsy. My husband holds me. We pray but can't find words, only tears.
There's too much to take in and we're in disbelief. At this point, we have three hurdles to clear: cancer in the breast, blood and bone. I ask my husband to go to the gift shop and buy me a journal. I need to write. He picks out the prettiest one and I start to write as though my life depends on it. The next day I have two biopsies: one of my lymph node and one of my breast. They tell me I can go home tomorrow and wait for the results.
Everything looked different on the drive home. I remember when I got glasses for the first time in the 8th grade. We were driving home and I couldn't believe I could see all the leaves on the trees. In the same way, everything looked clearer and more vibrant than ever. We got home and everything was as I left it on Valentines Day. It seemed like a lifetime ago. My sister was on her way with the girls. I didn't know how I would react when I saw them. I took a shower and cried one of those cries you can only have in the shower. The van pulled up and the joy is indescribable. I held them for what seemed like forever and fortunately, they let me.
We spent the next couple of days enjoying each other. I was completely present. Every meal. Every story. Every hug. I was there, embracing the moment and etching it into my memory. Life was beautiful. While I was terrified of the phone call I'd be getting, I wasn't going to let fear steal one moment from me, at least not one moment the girls were awake. I found myself in bed every night in a puddle of my own tears. God knew my fears and I knew he heard my cry.
The next day we drove to visit my sister and her kids. The kids played. My sister and I talked and laughed. My husband, well, he tried. He tried, that is, until my cell phone rang. It was the oncologist's office and the nurse wanted to confirm my appointment for next week. I told her I'd be there and proceeded to ask if my results came in and if she knew anything. She hesitantly said that she normally doesn't discuss results over the phone but she didn't want me to worry. She explained that both biopsies came back benign, negative for cancer. I kept saying it out loud, "So I don't have cancer!" She assured me that the two biopsies came back negative but that I would now have to schedule a biopsy on my spine. I could tell she didn't want me to celebrate prematurely. But still, we cleared 2 out of 3 hurdles. I'll never forget my husband's reaction. He ran into the other room because he was just so overwhelmed. Amazing. I was so relieved and thankful. I knew we had another bridge to cross and while I was so thrilled with the results, I just couldn't let my brain go into full celebration mode. Plus, there was still the issue of pain. I still had incredible pain in my back and my inflammation levels continued to be 10 times more than the normal levels.
Later that week I had a biopsy on my spine. There's a 2 inch scar where the neurosurgeon went in and took out part of the lesion. Recovery was incredibly long and painful. The call came in about a week later. No cancer. The lesions were classified as "bone remodeling" - most likely the result of trauma or an infection. So there it is. All three biopsies cleared. No cancer. The doctors were baffled. Thank you, Lord. I am currently on a low dose of steroids to manage the pain and I am waiting to meet with a specialist at the Oregon Health and Science University. Hoping for a diagnosis soon so I can move forward with proper treatment.
This blog will document my journey of health, wellness, faith, and happiness. I decided to start the blog for a few reasons:
* For my daughters: When I was in the hospital (and for the 2 weeks we were under the cancer cloud) I kept thinking about how young my daughters were and how much I had to teach them. I can't get sick. I have daughters to raise. I sobbed at the thought of not being around for them. I wrote them letters, mommy to daughter stuff. Just seeing the words on the page gave me a sense of peace. They are too young to understand what's going on right now but at some point, when they're older, I want them to be able to read about this season of our lives. I want them to know what we went through as a family. I want them to get a glimpse of mommy as a woman, a woman fighting for her health and her life. I want to give them something that will last a lifetime.
* For you: We have had incredible support from family and friends. The outpouring of love and prayers has been overwhelming. The sense of community has made me want to walk with you even further. If any part of my journey encourages you to live and love better, well then, what more can we ask for.
* For myself: I always thought I was too private for a blog. And really, I sort of am. But here's the thing. I have learned more, changed more and experienced more in the last 6 months than I have in years. There's so much to take in and so much more to go. I need to document it. I need to be accountable to myself. For me, writing is healing and empowering, two things I could use right now. I am determined to not just live, but thrive. And I'm going to do it out loud!
Peace and Love,