The Journey Thus Far
One thousand, nine hundred and twenty three days ago, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. If you don't feel like doing the math, that is five years, three months and eight days ago. The experiences I've had, the lessons I've learned, the ups and downs, they have all been innumerable. I have felt both as close to and as distant from God as one could possibly fathom. I have been surrounded by angels and left alone in the depths of darkness. I have had great hope and I've had it stolen away from me. I have laughed, cried and plead for things to be different. I am quite often the literal, proverbial Elephant in the Room. Clearly, no one wants to be me and rarely can anyone relate to me. I could look at that with great despair, but instead, I'm choosing to use it as my mission. To do better, be better, dwell in my authenticity, follow my own heart and pave the way for anyone else to do the same. I am challenged with learning how to live with the cancer demons that follow me, determined not to let them force me to surrender. The sacrifices I have made often go unnoticed, so I wrestle with trying to be seen and yet also to blend in. The journey hasn't been easy. Often, it's been down right treacherous, but at the same time, stunningly beautiful. For those new to My Site, this is my Journey Thus Far....
In 2021, I was a guest on a Podcast "Talk Grit and Grace". I thought my cancer experience at that time was so unique and complex. Little did I know, that was just the tip of the iceberg. So much changed right after that. So much so, that I was asked over the weekend about my story. I internally giggle when someone asks me about this. "My Story" is longer than I feel like anyone wants to listen to, it's evolving and in no way is it done. When I was giving the cliff notes version to this attentive listener (while trying not to scare her), I was kind of blown away by the number of hits I've taken. There is a quote from a Rocky Movie that goes like this: “It's not about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.”-Rocky Balboa. Holy Shit, I was realizing in that conversation how many hits I've endured and it seems weird telling the story while sitting in an easy chair appearing seemingly normal. It's a really good reminder that you truly never know what someone is going through. But we can ask, we can empathize and we can support others as they go. I've run 8 half marathons...the race itself is brutal, but the fire within and the people cheering you along make it doable. Talk about a true life metaphor, huh?! Light your own fire, acknowledge the fire within others, ask questions, cheer loudly (both for you and others) and never give up. Slow down, rest, reset, but never give up. Here's why:
In 2017, I found a lump in my left breast. Too young for mammograms, putting on my sports bra pre run that day and noticing something *weird'* ultimately saved my life. Yes, I saved my own damn life. I have had lots of help since then, but ultimately it was, is and always will be up to me. The first month of investigating and coming up with the diagnosis was a blur. Lots of tears, fear and disbelief weighed me down and started the descent into the black pit of despair. The faces of my children 9, 6 and 3 kept me pleading to God that this was not what I thought it was. How on earth could it be cancer? Three mammograms, two ultrasounds and three breast biopsies later, it was confirmed that I had Stage 3 Estrogen and Progesterone Positive Invasive Ductal Carcinoma in my left breast with Metastasis to My Axillary Lymph Nodes. A breast MRI, CT scan and Bone Scan would determine that I.V. Chemotherapy needed to happen right away prior to surgery. There are so many little details that are engraved in my memory, but for time sake, I will save them for another post...For the book (😉). They are sprinkled in past posts and root causes of sleepless nights and unresolved trauma. They are the parts that are the broken pieces of me worthy of piecing back together, so hold on for more of that, later. But for now, back to business...Five months of Chemotherapy followed, complete with losing my beautiful head of hair, eyebrows and lashes (TRAUMATIC!) and the beginning of chemical induced menopause. That May I had one month off of treatment to regain strength and rest. Although for me, that meant half marathons and a Spartan Race! In June, a double mastectomy with nipple sparing reconstructive surgery occurred. After being home for a week healing, fevers, difficulty breathing, zero ability to eat, drink or use the bathroom found me in ambulance traveling 90 miles to my Cancer Center hospital. I was admitted to the ICU with sepsis and kidney, renal and heart failure, as well as fluid in my lungs and around my heart. I met God when I was there and somehow I was given another chance at living. I was very different after that experience. I learned that 19 lymph nodes were taken during surgery, 17 still having cancer. I began monthly infusions to suppress my ovaries/hormone production. I completed 8 weeks of radiation to my breast/chest wall/lymph nodes and then began a clinical trial for the next year and a half. The trial ended in May of 2020 which I celebrated because of the pandemic and the opportunity to rebuild my immune system at a time when I was terrified what Covid could do to me. My chemo port came out that summer because it had become compromised. A hole was detected in the catheter that if broken off, it could travel to my heart causing severe complications. Four months after that, it was time to swap out my implants for new ones as they were recalled for the possibility of causing a rare form of lymphoma. Reconstruction surgery #2 was successful, or so I thought. Two months post op, I developed a fever and severe pain in my left breast/arm area. My plastic surgeon immediately admitted me to the hospital with what we found out to be a staph infection in my left breast area. We tried to save it, but ultimately I had emergency surgery to remove my left breast. I went home after a long hospital stay with just one breast and a giant whole in my soul. I focused on healing, physically and emotionally for the next seven months. Then it was finally time for another reconstruction. A Lattisimus Dorsi Flap surgery (using my back lat muscle to reconstruct my chest) was done on my left side with a spacer or also known as a tissue expander. That expander would be filled slowly for the next 3 months. My heart completely shattered that November as we had to make the agonizing decision to place my beloved mother in memory care due to her Alzheimer's progression. The next month, December 2021, I was at a routine oncology visit. My labs were concerning so a scan was ordered. My lower spine was showing some suspicious activity. My son broke his arm the week after and we were directed to Iowa City (5 hours away) to see an orthopedic oncologist because they found a tumor at the site of his break. I pleaded to God in this moment to spare him and take me. (Gabriel has since been cleared with a benign cyst in his healed arm. We follow up religiously, but he is well, thank goodness.) The day before Christmas, I had a biopsy of my L5 vertebrae. The day before New Years, I had my reconstructive surgery where the expander was removed and an implant replaced with fat grafting to help with shape. One week later, December 6, 2022, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Oligometastatic Breast Cancer to my Spine. I jumped right in with high intensity radiation to my spine and now a whole year of oral chemotherapy. I have monthly oncology check ups, scans every three months and by the grace of God and some really amazing doctors, I'm doing well, no signs of cancer. 👼🏻
The journey is not over. In some senses it is just beginning. The hardest lesson, has been learning to let go. Letting go of who I was and who I thought I'd be, has changed my life significantly. I am trying really hard to figure out who I am right now. The lens I see life through is altered. It is sometimes clear and sometimes foggy. Regardless, I must keep moving forward. I now know and accept that I truly don't want to go backwards, mostly in part, to how much pain I don't wish to relive. This quote from the book Ignite Your Light by Jolene Hart sums it up for me. It goes: "My long search for healing became the gift, one disguised as an incredibly dark experience, that reminded me of the one function I could never lose: my ability to create my own story, led by the energy of my body."
I will continue to lead by the idea of possibility and of hope for one day feeling like it was all worth it. Thank you for asking, for cheering and for holding space for me to define it all for myself. I have yet to overcome cancer, despite the title of that podcast, but I do hope to overcome the limitations that this disease or my cancer demons try to project onto me. "Yes, it is different than you expected. Yes, it is different than you were wishing and thought it would be. And yet it is still beautiful. It is only that if you keep looking for what you thought it would be, you may miss the beauty of what it is." -@mymentalhealthspace
My wings, your wings, our wings. Keep On Killing It...Much Love-M
Never Come Back Again
From the Archives!
Talk Grit and Grace: Mia Overcoming Cancer