2018 was a year of ups and downs for me. In January I went back to college at Benedictine College to work towards my bachelors in sociology. I was working full-time at night and attending school full-time during the day. Exhausted doesn’t begin to describe it.
As busy as it was, I felt such a great sense of accomplishment everyday as I worked towards such a difficult goal. I enjoyed the classes I was taking and the challenge excited me. Then everything changed. Cancer took that all from me. The excitement, the motivation, the incredible sense of accomplishment. With three words, that all was gone.
When I was no longer able to work or go to school, I lost my sense of purpose. I laid in bed for days and weeks feeling incredibly sorry for myself. I began to give up on myself, and to give up in life in general. During this time I was talking to a friend of mine about my younger sister who had recently moved to Arizona. I was talking about how proud I was of her for moving so far away to chase a dream. It was while we were talking that my friend suggested that maybe I should take a trip to visit her. My initial response was are you kidding? I can’t even get out of bed, let alone make a trip halfway across the country. But my friend told me that it would be good for me, to get away and see something new.
Suddenly I had a goal to work towards. I began pushing myself to get out of bed, even if just to walk around the house and get my own meals. In the beginning it was incredibly hard. I was extremely weak and couldn’t walk without a walker. But I kept pushing. Soon I graduated to using a cane, and finally I was able to walk short distances unassisted. I was so proud of myself. It’s amazing how much you take for granted in life until it’s gone.
In late November I had a hysterectomy to stop my body from producing the hormones that were feeding the tumor in my breast. While this surgery was incredibly necessary, I was a little sad because I figured my recovery would set my trip plans behind but I had a goal. I decided I wasn’t going to let something as minor as surgery stop me.
I pushed myself more and more each day. I became more active. I started driving again. Surprisingly enough, as I became more active the pain that had become a part of my daily life began to fade. During my worst days I had been taking as many as 12 Percocets a day without relief. Suddenly I realized I was down to as few as four during a 24 hour period. Slowly I was taking back control of my life. Cancer wasn’t winning the war anymore. I was. The sense of pride I felt couldn’t compare to anything I had ever done before. I felt as though I had just won the Boston Marathon.
I had an appointment with my oncologist scheduled for December 10th. My goal had been to leave for Arizona the Wednesday following my appointment if my doctor felt I was healthy enough to go. He was so pleased to see the progress I had made since my first appointment when my pain was so bad that it reduced me to using a wheelchair because I was unable to walk. Now I was walking again and had actually driven myself to the appointment so my husband didn’t need to miss a day of work. Much to my delight, my doctor told me he thought the trip would be great medicine for me.
Having received my oncologist’s blessing, I began to make the final arrangements to take the bucket list trip of a lifetime. I had considered flying into Phoenix to shorten my trip, but after much deliberation I decided that driving would offer me the opportunity to see more of the world and with no real time table in my head I planned to take my time and see everything there was to see.
As I left Atchison on December 12th I began to have second thoughts. Would I be able to make such a long drive after being bedridden for so long and having only been getting up and around for such a short time? Would my back hold up to the strain of the trip? I was facing a 21 hour drive, the longest drive I had ever made by myself. I almost changed my mind many times as I set out for Arizona, but I kept telling myself I can do this.
The further along on my trip, the better I felt. For the first time in months, the weight of my stress and anxiety began to evaporate. With each mile I drove, a happiness and calm settled over me. Normally when I am driving I become so focused on the road that I miss everything around me. For the first time, I opened my eyes to everything around me taking in each little detail seeing the world with a childlike wonder.
I had my first daughter two days before 19th birthday. I had spent my entire adult life caring for my children and had never really had the opportunity to travel. While my peers were traveling to Europe and going to college, I was changing diapers and burping babies. I had never really made it outside of the Midwest and this was one of the few times I had ever taken a vacation that didn’t involve a soccer tournament. Normally those trips were rushed and there was very little time to relax and enjoy the sights around me.
The further I got from home, the more I saw all of the beauty in the world. As the miles passed, I began to believe in myself and for the first time I believed that cancer wasn’t going to beat me. I was going to fight with everything I had in me and I was going to live whatever life I had left no matter how long or short as though each day was my last. I decided that I refused to die with regrets.
When I reached the mountains of Arizona and my sister’s home, I was overwhelmed with everything I had seen. I was excited to see my sister, her husband, my adorable niece and my favorite floofer (code word for dog). I spent four days relaxing in the warm Arizona air, far from the cold of Kansas. The days with my sister were lazy and simple and incredibly calming. My mind was clear and free of worry over my future. I took each day as they came without thinking about whether cancer would beat me.
As my days with my sister came to a close I made the decision to head further west since I was only four hours from the sandy beaches of San Diego. I was astonished as each mile passed while I drove through the mountains and palm trees. I was amazed by the mild weather and when I reached San Diego I fell in love with the sights all around me. I walked through the beautiful winter wonderland of Balboa Park at night, and dipped my toes in the ocean during the day. I enjoyed the tastes of authentic Mexican and Italian food, and let my mind clear from any of the negative thoughts that had held me hostage since my diagnosis.
When I returned home I had a new goal. My journey had given me a new purpose. My passion for nursing was still there and I realized just how much I missed taking care of and spending time with my patients. But I also realized that my time might be short and I wanted to experience as much living as I could for whatever time I might have left. The more I thought about this, the more my mind wandered back to an idea I had a few years earlier. I wanted to move on from my staff hospital position and become a travel nurse. I realized that travel nursing would offer me the opportunity to combine my love of nursing with the ability to travel and see all that the country has to offer.
I celebrated New Years Eve by mailing my nursing license applications to Arizona and California. In the weeks following I began discussing potential opportunities with recruiters, and began the initial process to build my file for submission to future employers.
As excited as I was, a cloud of fear hovered over me. Would my body be strong enough to return to work? When I had my appointment with my oncologist on January 10th, as terrified as I was to hear the answer I asked my doctor if my career was over. He looked at me and told me he didn’t see why. In one moment all my fears evaporated. I was going to be able to return to the work I love so much. Cancer didn’t take nursing from me.
2018 brought a lot of pain and fear as I was forced to accept my new reality of life with a chronic illness. 2019 is going to be a year of adventure and discovery for me. Some days I am angry for all of the changes that have come to my life since I heard those terrible words ‘you have cancer.’ There are still days that I want to cry when I think about possibly not being here to watch my nieces and grandchildren grow up.
Even with all of the sadness and uncertainty cancer has brought to my life, some days I am thankful for the things I have gained because of it. I have realized how very precious life is and how important it is to appreciate the gift of each day. I live more fully, I love more deeply, and I appreciate each moment I have. I’m living with cancer, not dying from it. I’m LIVING. Each minute of every day.
Dx 10/9/2018, invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), left breast, 1.5cm, Nottingham Grade 2, hormone receptor positive, ER+ (estrogen receptor)/PR+ (progesterone receptor), HER2- (human epidermal growth factor), BRACA- (genetic mutation), Stage IV, metastasized to bones
First CA 27.29 10/9/2018 83 (goal <38)
Hormonal Therapy 10/12/2018 Tamoxifen (Nolvadex, Apo-Tamox, Tamofen, Tamone) pills
Targeted Therapy 10/12/2018 Xgeva (Denosumab) injection
Hormonal Therapy 10/19/2018 Lupron Depot (Leuprolide Acetate) injection
Surgery 11/29/2018 Vaginal hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy
First CA 27.29 post hysterectomy 12/10/2018 73 (goal <38)
Hormonal Therapy 12/11/2018 Femara (letrozole) pills
Targeted Therapy 12/23/2018 Ibrance (palbociclib) capsules
First CA 27.29 post medication change 1/10/2019 60 (goal <38)