It’s that time of year again, ALREADY. Thanksgiving has somehow come and gone, and Christmas is right around the corner. My childhood BFF Mary just celebrated her birthday on December 1st (a chronological landmark I remember every year) and now the third is here…
It’s my EIGHT YEAR CANCER-VERSARY!
Can you believe it? It’s been eight happy, wonderful, blessed bonus years that I’ve been gifted since beating Stage III Hodgkin’s Lymphoma back in college.
The funny part about this commemorative occasion is that for the last several years, we’ve been celebrating it on December 5th. In writing a post for this very blog, I uncovered some old photos, and actually found my radiation completion certificate – and lo and behold, it was dated the 3rd. So the third of December it is.
This morning when I woke up to some texts and emails from family, I kinda found myself reflecting for a bit. My moods ranged from full of awe and reverence to downright giddy. On Facebook, I posted an image of my cancer-beating certificate, and I’ve gotten an obscene amount of likes on it, like in the 160s and climbing. And my dear pal and former-roomie and current co-worker Sasha “Salsa” Freeman Gray has been quite lovely in uploading some of the sillier pics from those crazy cancer days.
I was in college, had already gone through some really crazy health issues (a mis-diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease led me down the garden path of insane meds and eventually a full bowel obstruction which required a surgical resection), when my neck started to look like a sock full of golf balls – at least that’s the easiest way I’ve come to describe it. I was tired, running slower than usual (literally, I ran a 5k and noted that my time was really slow, even for me), and I was having terrible night sweats. Eventually I developed a non-producing cough, and around the holidays I just assumed I had some kind of supercold that my immuno-suppressed body couldn’t really fight so well. It wouldn’t be until February of 2004 that I’d begin the process of diagnostic testing, and actually April when we found out for sure that it was Stage III-BS Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that had taken my collegiate body hostage.
I’ve gotten some interesting questions today – people wanting to know what it was like, how I’ve made the most of my time since, how I’m doing now… so without boring you all to death, I’ll try and give some tidbits:
What is it like to know you have cancer?
Cancer was wacky crazy and very surreal for most of the experience, with one grindingly serious memory that jumps forward in which I finally absorbed the fact that I indeed had fecking CANCER and that it was hardcore. Most of the time though, when you have cancer and you’re all chemo-bald, people know what your deal is and they’re very nice to you. In my ongoing health issues with “Crohn’s Disease” and what we now know to be Acute Porphyria – it’s different.
The serious realization came about very randomly. I was driving home, and I was getting on Hodges from JTB (Jax ppl know what I mean), and it just hit me: I HAVE CANCER. THIS IS SERIOUS. And it kind of quietly overwhelmed me for a few moments, but by the time I got home I felt “normal” again.
How old were you?
I was 20 when I was diagnosed, and celebrated my 21st birthday between chemo sessions. I remember going to the Pepsi 400 (because that’s what it was called back then) on my actual birthday (July 3rd) and when a freak rainstorm came through I was freezing. My then-boyfriend, Rick Neidringhaus, went and bought me some sweats and a windbreaker for my two favorite drivers: Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr, respectively. I still have the pants and actually wear them often!
What got you through?
This one is easy: God, faith, family, friends, the entire UNF family, the Greek system, and my incredible team of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and techs – all the good people of Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville who efficiently and effectively saved my life. I had top notch doctors – I was already a patient at Mayo because of my aggressive “Crohn’s Disease” (since I really didn’t have Crohn’s, my body would never respond to the treatment – rendering me a medical outlier with an extreme case and therefore in need of the best doctors in the land. Luckily for me, I lived in Jax, FL at the time and had Mayo access just a few miles from home).
I kept a really awesome attitude the entire time. I bore everyone to death with the stories I tell again and again – but the one that I must tell when I saw a mother and her wheelchair-bound small child park next to me at Publix the day I was officially diagnosed. Seeing that kid who has likely never walked and likely never will, I refused to feel sorry for myself. It changed my entire perspective on the situation. The first 19 years of my life were spent in excellent health, as I lead a life of privilege, freedom and one full of lovely memories and special experiences. Had I died the day I was diagnosed, I wouldn’t have had a regret or a single sad feeling for myself. Having cancer is what it is – once that tough lump is swallowed, all that’s left is making the best of it. So I fought hard, kept my chin up, and did what I always do: plow my way through with some jokes and a lot of laughs, and a firm anchor to God and faith in the ultimate plan He has for my life.
Have these eight years been well-lived?
I mean, according to me – YES. Heck, yes! I’ve done some pretty amazing things and I believe I’ve chocked eight years full of an awful lot of life. I’ve traveled, I’ve helped others, I’ve tried new things, I’ve experienced love, loss, happiness, and pain, full spectrum human experience. I’ve created art, made others smile, formed friendships in the strangest and most normal of places – and every now and then I hear the “I word,” that I’ve inspired someone else into doing something good or at least having a good attitude about whatever it is he or she has going on.
Knowing that I can actually inspire others is very humbling.
Knowing that I’ve literally been granted 2,992 extra days of this life (heck yes I counted Leap Years) is humbling.
So what’s it like now?
It’s both far-removed and ever-present. The scars have faded, but they’re still there; and I still have my very first tattoos – the radiation dots that they marked me with to make sure they hit the same spot every day. (As far as scars go, I had a couple stitches in my neck from a biopsy, another incision on the left side of my neck from having a lymph node removed, and I have a scar on my chest when I had my port-a-cath taken in and out). I don’t obsess or worry about relapsing like I once did, and I don’t have to do the often check-ups and scans as I did in those first crucial years of remission. I passed the five-year milestone three years ago, and that was a BIG ONE. That’s the “you’re cured” milestone.
I don’t ever want to lose touch with that experience though. After all, having been through cancer is a huge definer of who I am as a person. It shaped me into a MUCH nicer person in general, and a tougher person in many ways. It gave me a glimpse of my own frailty and left me with a profound appreciation for life and every breath I take. And with that comes a responsibility to carry out a life well-lived and to do good in this world – and I find myself still trying to grasp at the best ways to keep that promise.
From this experience, what still impacts you today?
I forever live with inexplicable gratitude in my heart. For every nurse who held my hand, every doctor who took the time to make sure I received exemplary care… to my loved ones who came with me to chemo, prayed for me around the clock, and supported me in so many ways that words can never express… to the friends, classmates, and total strangers who came together to raise funds to help cover the costs of my treatment, to my Dad for working hard and having a good job that provided excellent insurance for me and money still to cover the costs that even excellent insurance didn’t take care of.
I carry with me a legacy of the hopes, dreams, and the honor of so many people who aren’t as lucky, of those who came before me and the technology that saved my life, of those in circumstances that don’t allow for early detection or top-notch medical care, of those who just don’t win the fight. And that’s something that’s very real with me, a part of who I am. We stand on the shoulders of so many giants, and I can’t ever forget that.
Mostly though, I just feel like me: Rose. A happy wacky tie-dye loving slightly-redneck weirdo who often smiles and laughs everyday, and who is truly loved. And I’m happy to be me, and I feel blessed to be me – each and every day.
I suppose if there was ever a profound take-away from an experience like mine – it is knowing in every ounce of my being that I am loved. By my God, my family, those around me then and now, my husband, my friends, my sister, and even strangers – yes. I am loved. And being able to come face to face with such colossal concepts as life, death, and love is an honor that I am humbled to have experienced and lived through to write about now.
This post is dedicated to all of the many, many people who saved my life. And to the many more lives that are forever changed by cancer, in all manner of ways – both happy and sad.
Thank you for reading and for your support.