Posted by Heather McCollum Sep 6 2012, 1:31 am in Crisis, Diagnosis, Ovarian Cancer, Survival, writing
Battling cancer with chemo and Nutterbutters
March 26th 2011
Paper crinkles under my butt. “While I’m here for my maybe-broken hand, could you test my urine? I think I might have a UTI and I’m going away with my girlfriends this weekend to celebrate my 40th birthday.”
“Sure, but lay down first,” Jenny, my nurse practitioner said. “Where are you going?”
“Grove Park Inn spa. I can’t wait!”
Silence. Pressure. Ouch! “Does this hurt?”
“Yeah, off and on.” The ceiling is white and ugly. They should paint something up there to look at.
Pressure. Ouch! Ouch!
“Sorry…Heather, I have to do a pelvic exam.”
“For a broken hand?” My giggle stops short. Jenny’s easy smile is dead flat. “Okay,” I say. “Now? I have my annual GYN visit in another couple weeks and I was just there for some spotting five months ago and everything was fine.”
“We need to do a pelvic exam. Now.”
March 27th 2011
The room is cold. Why do they make it so cold when they know we’ll be in these flimsy hospital gowns sitting on a vinyl table?
“Did you drink a lot of water?” the technician asks and dims the lights.
“I’m about to burst.”
She laughs. “This won’t take long and I’ll let you go.”
“I hope I don’t pee on the table.”
“Well it’s happened before, but we’ll try to let you go real soon. Sorry, this might be a little uncomfortable.”
Wow – another unexpected invasion of the hoo hoo. The transvaginal ultrasound isn’t nearly as much fun as the ultrasound to see a new baby.
“How long have you been feeling this pain?”
“Off and on for about a month.”
“Is it sharp or more of an ache?”
“More sharp when I feel it, but I’m starting to feel a little heavy down there.”
God, I have to pee!
“Okay, go use the bathroom.” She has a sweet voice, like high-pitched honey that I’ve only heard in the south.
Thirty minutes later I sit in a chair in my thin, guard-your-butt gown.
“Do you want something to drink, sweetheart?”
“A warm blanket?”
“Sure.” I bundle up in the heated wrap that reminds me so much of the hospital after the birth of my babies. No wonder the kids like it when I heat up their towels in the dryer after a bath. I rest my head in my hands.
“Are you okay?” The technician must be watching me. I rub my hair in my lap as I nod. “You can get dressed, sweetheart, but don’t leave. Just wait out there. Is someone with you?”
“My husband brought me.”
Good? Why is that good?
30 minutes later
“A large mass?” my husband, Braden, repeats while I stare at the puppy print on the technician’s shirt.
“We can’t get through to her GYN, but she needs to be seen right away.”
“Let’s go,” he says and helps me to the truck.
“What’s that mean,” I say when he starts it up. “A large mass? Is that the size of a pea or the size of a grapefruit?”
“It’s on these films. I’m taking you right to your GYN.”
“It takes months to get an appointment.”
“We’re going now.”
1 hour later
“You have a complex, 12 cm mass on your right ovary,” Dr. Hawk says, finger to his lips as if contemplating how to get a dollar out of one of those puzzle boxes.
“That’s big.” Braden holds out two hands. “Like 5 inches.”
Dr. Hawk nods. “I want you to see a GYN oncology surgeon. I could remove it, but since it looks complex, it would be best if we send you to Duke Hospital.”
“But I’m going out of town tomorrow.”
“They’ll see you at 8:30 AM.”
“But we are leaving at 8.”
“We’ll be there at 8:30,” Braden says.
30 Minutes Later
I get out of the truck. My neighbor, Margaret, is getting her mail.
“Hi, how was it?” she asks.
I shake my head, unable to speak.
“Is it bad?”
I nod and the tears start flowing – the precise start of my rainy season.
“Oh my God,” she says and pulls me into her chest. I rest my head there.
“It’s a mass on my ovary. 5 inches. I’m seeing an oncologist tomorrow,” I squeak out.
“Oh my God,” she says and holds me.
I hear my 12-year-old daughter, Skye, behind me talking to Braden. They whisper and I feel her hand on my back.
“Are you going to be okay?”
What do I say?
“Mommy, mommy, mommy! You’re home!” my four-year-old, Kyrra, vaults outside to grab my leg. “Hold me!” she demands.
“She can’t,” Braden says and picks her up, but she reaches for me.
“Why are you sad, Mommy?”
What do I say?
“Hey Mom!” my 10-year-old son, Logan, calls from the house. “Can I have TJ over? What’s wrong?”
What do I say?
Braden and I sit on the back porch together, next to one another but not touching. We stare out at the lawn that needs to be mowed. It’s sunny. The birds dip and soar, searching for bugs. I stare out, letting the world absorb my numbness for a while, letting the fear of what could be lay like a wet washcloth, cold and musty, in my stomach.
I breathe in, not knowing if I’d been doing that all along or not. I guess I have. It’s funny how everything feels so still, so muted, like the world is holding its breath, yet the birds keep moving. The trees watch. The house behind me is unusually quiet. My mom has taken Kyrra to her house to play.
“Wow,” I whisper and see Braden nod out of the corner of my eye.
“Amazing how suddenly everything seems different,” I murmur, barely moving, not wanting to set everything in motion. As if I’m on a precipice and know that as soon as I look over the edge, everything will start moving way too fast as I head toward the ground.
“It could just be a mass. Easily taken out,” he says.
“I’m not tired. I run every day. It grew way too fast to be cancer, right?”
“Yeah. I don’t know.” He reaches for my hand. It’s as if we are looking over the edge of the cliff together, waiting, hardly moving, to see which way the wind will blow us.
2 Weeks Later
Surgery. “Stage IIc Ovarian Cancer. 70% chance of living five years. 15 months of chemo.”
“We can do this,” Braden says.
“So many want to bring meals,” Margaret says and smiles though her eyes glitter with tears she won’t shed. “You’re fed for four months already.”
“My little girl,” Mom says. “You will do this. You are strong.”
“I’m selling my sea glass jewelry to give the money to Ovarian Cancer research, Mom,” Skye says. “Read this poster I made, everyday okay? I am a survivor. I am a fighter. I am stronger than the world!”
“Promise me you won’t die. That’s all I ask. Just promise me,” Logan says in the glow of his nightlight, his big eyes full of brave, big-boy tears.
“Who will you play with in Heaven if I’m not there with you?” Kyrra asks as I kiss her goodnight.
What do I say?
I creep back to my room. Each step is a reminder of all the hurt my body is enduring. The tears on my cheeks are a constant. I don’t even look for tissues anymore. I stop by my bed in the dark. The house is quiet, again holding its breath. The demons of fear and panic growl in the shadows, waiting for me to let them in. I lower to the floor, my side where they scraped away the cancer is a piercing, lightning wound inside. I am on my knees and lay my head on the bed.
I. Know. What. To. Say.
“Dear God,” I whisper and the stillness leans in. “Dear God, please.” I think of my wonderful husband, my three kids, my rescued dog, my mom, my friends. “Oh God, please…please let me live.”
The above, dear friends and fellow authors, is how I survived. Oh yes, the doctors and drugs battled inside me, reclaiming my body with miracle poisons. But me, the essence of who I am – mom, daughter, wife, friend, writer – I survived cancer by writing about it.
I couldn’t write my fiction, no romance with a guaranteed happy ending since I wasn’t sure I would have one. In fact I couldn’t read either. I tried, but after a couple chapters I’d put it down. I couldn’t lose myself in another world when mine was so gripping, so full of life and death struggle. I was smack dab in the middle of writing my fourth novel and couldn’t write another word.
“You have to write. It makes you happy,” Braden told me.
“Write something. Write what you know.”
So I did. I wrote my story. I wrote what was going on inside me. How it felt to deal with questions from my kids. The pain of going from independent mom to very dependent friend and neighbor. Of being furious about not being able to taste the salt in my tears because I lost my taste buds with my hair. About realizing that the victims in the chemo ward were the strongest warriors I’d ever met.
I wrote about battling from the front lines. I poured my heart and fear and desperate prayers into my posts. I bled them out of me onto the page. And you know what? It helped. A lot.
This post was going to be all about how to go on with your career even when something terrible smacks you in the face – divorce, death of a loved one, illness, disaster. But I still need to bleed, still need to heal, still need to write about it.
Today is the first time I’ve written the very beginning, the day the first tears fell, and I cried through writing most of it this afternoon. Cathartic. It’s how I heal. And I thank God for giving me this gift so I can help myself do so.
If you find yourself in a mess, a terrible mess, remember to use your gift. Do what you love to do even if it’s in a new way. If you can’t write fiction, try writing about your experiences and what you learn along the way. It has been a huge component to my healing.
I am in remission. No sign of cancer : ) And I refuse to knock on wood. I beat it. I am healthy, and I’m not afraid to say it. I’m owning it, wearing it and strutting around in it. I am living a long and healthy life!
September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month and teal is our color. It is the deadliest of the GYN cancers because there are no good tests for it and it is usually caught in Stage III or IV, giving women only a 20% and 5% chance (respectively) of living five years. Those numbers are horrendous and we are raising money for research to find a detection method (a PAP smear does NOT detect OC) and a cure. Until then your best defense is knowledge. The symptoms of OC are:
Bloating that’s persistent
Eating less and feeling full
Trouble with your bladder
Other symptoms may include: fatigue, constipation, menstrual irregularities, back pain, pain during intercourse and indigestion.
If you experience a couple of these symptoms almost every day for three weeks, please…PLEASE go get a pelvic exam.
Pass along this information. We have started the SHOUT Against the Whisper! campaign because the symptoms are mere whispers in a busy woman’s life, and we will SHOUT until everyone knows what they sound like. If you have questions or comments, please post or e-mail me off line at Heather@HeatherMcCollum.com.
We must not cower away from cancer. We must look it in the face and use all our tools to crush it without crushing our spirits in the process. Hugs! And remember to SHOUT Against the Whisper!