Three Little Words
Wipe your nose! Sit up straight! Do your homework! Clean your room! Come and eat! You have cancer.
Most of the three little words strung together don’t make you feel like your life is about to be over. However, those last three little words are ones you never want to hear, right? But when you do, it’s not the end of your world, even though initially you may think it is. Trust me. Been there. Done that. Got the tee shirt. Actually, several tee shirts over the past three years. That’s right. I’m a survivor! Was the journey tough? You bet. But my faith is tougher than any diagnosis I could ever get including triple negative, stage II breast cancer. Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through Him (Christ) who strengthens me.” That was one of many scriptures I clung to and repeated daily throughout my journey.
When I initially found the lump in my left breast, I thought it was a pulled muscle because of its location and the fact that I had been pumping iron in the gym with a personal trainer for the previous three months. After all, 2009 was the year I was going to lose weight and get healthier than ever. Or so I thought. The mass was painful and I thought cancerous lumps were not, so I wasn’t too concerned about it. My husband finally convinced me to get it checked and to quit complaining about the pain. I’d had a benign breast lump removed a year earlier so my doctor and I weren’t too concerned about this one. However, with my mom’s history of surviving breast cancer three times, we decided to remove the mass instead of just taking a biopsy.
I teach 7th grade English and math and at the time of my diagnosis on March 23, 2009, I was teaching full time, taking classes toward a Master’s degree and teacher certification, singing in my church choir, and working out at the gym 5 days a week. Did I mention being married to the most amazing man on the planet? You can add being a wife and mother to our 5 furry children (some people call them “pets”) to my really full plate.
When my surgeon came into the exam room about a week after the surgery, I offhandedly remarked, “I don’t like the look on your face.” He replied solemnly, “I don’t like what I’m about to tell you.” When he shared what the pathology report showed, at first I wasn’t get scared, I got mad! “I don’t have time for this!” I exclaimed before I asked, “Did you get clean margins?” He replied with his sad eyes looking directly into mine, “No, we have to go back in and remove the rest of the tumor. Plus we need to take out some lymph nodes to make sure it hasn’t spread.” Oh great, just what I need, I thought, something else to add to my already overflowing plate. More time away from work, more medical bills, more time missed from the gym. Great. OK, I was a little scared, but still more mad than scared because of all the deadlines I knew I had to meet.
So after two surgeries to finish removing a mass that was “about the size of a good lemon”, removing 32 lymph nodes from under my left arm, having a port placed, and seeing a well-known and respected oncologist whose specializes in breast cancer treatment, I knew that I had embarked on a journey I hadn’t planned on and that it wasn’t going to be a picnic. I learned that because of the large size and type of tumor that I had, and the fact that I elected to have a lumpectomy rather than a radical mastectomy, I was in for 8 rounds of chemotherapy and then at least 30 radiation treatments to follow. My oncologist told me about the side effects of drugs I would be taking and losing my long locks of auburn hair would be the most visible one. Oh well, I thought, at least it will be summertime and hot and humid so being bald just may be a blessing. Turned out it was. In more ways than one!
I was able to finish the school year, both teaching and being a student. I got my teaching certificate and only needed four more classes to finish a Master’s degree in teaching. I started every other week chemo treatments on the Wednesday before Memorial Day, and sure enough! After the second one, my recently cut but still thick hair began to fall out. I found my hair everywhere! I thought 2 shedding dogs was bad enough until I started losing my own hair like crazy! Everywhere I looked, I saw hair. It got so bad that one day after working out with my trainer, I asked him to take me to his barber so I could get my head shaved. We went, but the barber was closed, so we went somewhere else and I got talked into a very short, pixy cut to “make the transition easier”. For who? Me? I was already ready for a close shave so she must have meant for the people around me. I was told to “not wash or comb my hair and just keep putting hairspray on it.”
Four days later I couldn’t stand it anymore-- all hot and sweaty from work outs and not being able to wash my hair when I showered was just about unbearable. So I took the plunge and dunked my head under the water and voila! Half of the hair on my head fell out and onto my chest and the rest of it clogged up the drain. I looked down and saw my chest covered with hair and began laughing! Can you believe it? I laughed myself silly, forgot to finish taking my shower, jumped out of the tub and looked at myself in the mirror! I didn’t see me at all—there in the mirror was a pudgy-belly, half-bald, old fat guy with boobs looking back at me. That thought and the reflection I was seeing made me laugh even harder and then it happened! No, not shock or horror. Not disappointment or shame. The phone rang. I ran to get it and was still laughing when I answered it and to my great delight, it was my best friend from college who still lives in Mississippi. She asked if I crying, I said no, then told her what just happened. She stayed on the phone with me (on speaker) while I cut the rest of my hair off, then shaved my head. We laughed like idiots as I sent her pictures taken with my cell phone during the process.
It took a while to get used to seeing myself (not the old fat bald guy with boobs) without hair and I was determined to NOT be dismayed but rather full of joy because at least I was alive and my prognosis was excellent. I never had a bad hair for the next 7 or 8 months, while it was totally gone and as it grew back. I had some great scarves, ball caps, and even a beautiful human-hair wig that my cousin had made for me, but it was so hot that summer, being bald was beautiful and my shiny head made a great place to record scripture references that became my daily devotions! People looked at me funny, but I didn’t care. It was a great conversation starter which allowed me to share my story and to tell them about Jesus.
I took a break from chemo so my wonderful husband (who took me to every, single chemo and doctor appointment that summer) and I could take our three week California Dreamin’ road trip vacation that we had already planned and paid for prior to my diagnosis. We had a blast, from visiting old friends that I went to high school with and seeing other friends and relatives all the way from Portland, OR, to Laguna Beach, CA. I took 2 wigs with me on the trip but only wore one once. I figured that this is the way I look right now, and people can just deal with it, because it sure didn’t bother me. In fact, my nearly 80 year old dad with his keen sense of humor taped two big googly eyes on the back of my head and drew a face with a grease pencil. He told me to tell my students that I indeed DID have eyes on the back of my head and I could see everything even though I wasn’t looking at them! When we returned from that trip, I had four more treatments, started back to school, and finally took the last chemo on Tuesday after Labor Day. I only got a little bit sick once from the treatments and besides some leg pain and weakness issues for a few days after each of the last four treatments, I did fantastic through the summer and except for being bald, nobody could tell that I had been “sick”.
During all of this time, I was able to talk to and pray for other people going through the same thing as me and I actually found the journey to more pleasant than I had expected. Sure, I lost my hair. Who cares? It grew back thicker than ever and it was nice not having to spend money on hair products for nearly 9 months. Besides that, it was a lot cooler than having long thick hair during a hot Louisiana summer! Sure, I had more medical bills to pay, but it that didn’t stop us from taking our California Dreamin’ road trip. In fact, we also bought my husband a Harley-Davidson Dyna Fat Bob right after my first chemo. A short little putt on the Harley with my nose in the wind worked better for nausea than any medicine I had to take! Now I know why dogs like to hang their heads out of the car window! When we got his bike three years ago, I said that one day I’d have my very own Harley to ride. Sure enough, I got mine a month ago and I’m lovin’ it!
I learned some things about myself, others, and life through my cancer journey. First of all, with God, all things are possible including going through cancer treatments and coming out the other side with a much stronger faith than I ever thought possible. Secondly, I learned that my husband really is a gift from God and I am thankful to be his wife. Thirdly, it doesn’t matter what you look like if you can laugh at yourself and make others feel at ease in the process. With or without hair, people who love you will love you no matter how you look. Finally, I learned that life is a precious gift and we need to be thankful for every day we have. Every day when we wake up, we have a choice to make—are we going to be positive and joyful or negative and sad? Are we going to lift someone else’s spirit, or bring them down with our attitude? Now, since my journey began 3 years ago, I try my best to always be cheerful and positive. Three little words can change your life. It did mine.
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