Two Years Ago My Life Changed Forever
November 8, 2012, I went in for my first colonoscopy. For those of you putting off your colonoscopy please don’t. Colon cancer is slow growing and the quicker you catch it the better. The procedure itself is really no big deal compared to the prep. My friend Megan dropped me off and was going to be my ride home as well so that Jon could pick up the girls. I went in for the procedure and remember seeing the screen but not really knowing what I was looking at then all of the sudden it was over and the doctor was telling me I am so sorry to have to tell you this but you have cancer and I need you to follow my instructions. He hand wrote his notes on piece of paper that I still have. I was told to go immediately to get blood work done, to go tomorrow at 10 am for a CT scan and then at 1:30pm to meet with Dr. Pamela Lee, the surgeon he thought best equipped to get the tumor out. I knew that something was wrong which is why I had the procedure in the first place but I never though I would hear the word cancer. For years I had been having symptoms of bloating and constipation and for years I was told eat more fiber, drink more water, take miralax. I wish someone years ago had shared their story so that I maybe would have pushed my doctors just a little more to look into my symptoms because unfortunately although the medical industry still has the standard first colonoscopy set at 50 people are getting colon cancer earlier and earlier which means screenings should be done earlier and earlier.
The next day, November 9th at approximately 2pm I was given the news that not only did I have colon cancer but it had metastasized to my liver and lymph nodes putting me at Stage 4. I remember the appointment with Dr. Pamela Lee like it was just yesterday. At 10:00 am I had a CT and at 1:30 pm I was to meet with Dr. Lee. Jon and I waited for what felt like an eternity to be brought into the room. Then more waiting and finally Dr. Lee walked in and introduced herself. She started talking about her background and the colon but nothing about what the CT showed. I finally just said this is all great but what came up on the CT. Then she said it – you are stage 4. As I heard those words I was trying to compute what stage 4 meant, was that really the worst stage? So I asked and as you all know yep it was the worst. Not only was I stage 4 but was told that at this point all she would be able to do remove was the tumor in the colon which had to be done immediately. The fear was if I didn’t get the tumor out I would die from the blockage. This also meant the rest of the tumors spread across my entire liver and in the nodes had to be left. It was all so surreal. It was like I was having an out of body experience and watching from above. She told me surgery should be scheduled no later than Monday. I looked at her and said Monday, you just told me I have stage 4 cancer and you want me to wait till Monday. I had not eaten in two days and if all possible I wanted to forward immediately. I think she thought I was a little crazy but hell wouldn’t you want to get as much cancer out as you could and as soon as possible. She booked my first surgery for the next day November 10, 2012 in the afternoon but was hopeful that an OR might open up so I could go in earlier in the day.
Jon and I walked out of that appointment and he looked at me and said what are we going to do? I began to sob uncontrollably while Jon started to call our immediate family. I could hear him crying as he told our parents the news and I just remember him saying over and over what are we going to do. My life was flashing before my eyes and so many questions were popping up. Why was this happening to me? What were the chances of survival? Did I really want to know the chances of survival? How were we going to tell Lucy and Madison? Should we tell our friends and community? How do you find the right doctor, the doctor that is going to fight for you, look at you for who you are and not just as patient number 10,001? Where do you start? How does this work? Will I lose my hair? The questions just kept popping up at lightning speed.
I will be forever grateful to Kelly Rosenheim for helping me get through those first moments post diagnosis. I needed to talk to someone that had already treaded the dreaded cancer journey. Someone who could help me slow down and take it one step at a time. Someone who would understand just how scared I was. Someone who had children the same age as mine. Someone I could trust. Someone I could breakdown too. Someone who understood.
I decided that I needed to start letting our close friends know what was going on and give them my diagnosis. I couldn’t bare the thought of having to call each person so instead I took to texting. Looking back I realize this isn’t really the best way to let your friends know you have been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and are going in for surgery the next day. I had at least one friend who thought it must be one of those scams where someone is trying to milk you for some money. Don’t I wish that was the truth.
That night I was supposed to be getting ready to accept a Humanitarian Award from the Santa Barbara County Bar Association instead I was sitting at home in the corner of the couch curled in a ball trying to wrap my head around what I was about to face and how I would face it. I finally got to bed that night but I don’t think I really slept.
The morning came quick but the waiting to get to the hospital seemed like forever and surgery even got bumped up. It all happened so fast that I didn’t even have time to be worried about what might happen in surgery. A couple of things I remember the most about the operating room, it was cold, it was bright and there seemed to be a lot of people. I can’t remember how long my first surgery was but I do remember waking up and having this overwhelming feeling that cancer was not going to beat me. I was pissed and the only way I knew to describe my feelings was by saying “FUCK CANCER”. I felt deep in my heart that although my journey would not be easy that I would ultimately beat the beast.
My cancer warriors assembled quickly. Doctors were researched, friends were reaching out to friends to get me in with the best doctors, appointments were made, on line medical record organization created, dinners were brought, my girls were taken care of and given extra care and love, alternative treatments were found, Jon’s shifts were covered, my cases were taken over and so much more.
A day or two after I came out of surgery Dr. Woliver came to my hospital room to meet with me. He walked in with a kind and calm energy. He pulled his chair right up next to my bed and we just started talking. I told him that I wanted to hear my worst case scenario just once. He told me that I had a 5% chance of survival and that I was considered terminal. He told me that there was a very slim chance I would get to a point where they could take out the rest of the cancer and that my worst case scenario was six months. I knew it was bad but to hear those words, to really hear those words, nothing prepares you for that. But once that was out it was time to move on leave them behind. I told Dr. Woliver I was going to do both Western and Eastern medicine and that I needed a doctor that would support me in doing both. Apparently there are doctors that do nothing but shut down alternative medicine and that was not the doc I was looking for. Dr. Woliver said he would support anything I tried as long as it wasn’t counterproductive to what he was doing. That was when I knew Dr. Woliver was the guy for me.
After talking with Dr. Woliver it was time to prepare for battle because for me a terminal diagnosis just was not in the plan. What do you do when you are going into battle? You strategize, you plan, and you seek out every weakness your opponent has and use it against them. You become laser sharp on your goal and in my case the obliteration of cancer. But you must understand this was my cancer journey and not all people with cancer approach it in this way. If you have a friend or relative that is dealing with a cancer diagnosis support them in the way that they need. Try not to judge how they are handling the cancer diagnosis or what treatments they are seeking. We are all so different. You can give them ideas, provide them with books, tell them inspiring stories but in the end it is their journey and they need you to be okay with that journey.
I have learned so much through my cancer journey. Things I really shouldn’t have needed cancer to teach me but I am so glad that it did. Life is about connecting with people, really connecting with people. Life can be scary but if you are able to push through the scary it opens up so many possibilities. Life is not about pleasing everyone. Life is about being yourself and loving yourself. Life is a journey with or without cancer and we are all going to screw up on our journey, be judged on our journey, and love and hate our journey. For those that are judging our journey I have learned that is not about me and those are the people you just have to cut from your journey. The number one thing I have learned is that you have to BELIEVE in yourself, in your journey, and in your outcome to make it come true.
FRIENDSHIP PADDLE FOR TUCKER HEINTZ
On October 10, 2014, I was extremely honored to head out to Santa Rosa Island for this year’s friendship paddle for Tucker Heintz. As many of you know last year my goal was to be able to paddle if even for a very short period but I was given very stringent orders from my surgeon that I just wasn’t healed enough to be on a paddle board in the middle of the ocean. I have to tell you if it would have been glassy I think I would have gone for it but that was not to be. This year I felt extremely lucky to not only be able to paddle but to be able to paddle for a friend that had just recently lost his battle.
Team TSFC (April Medina, Serena Weddle, Kristie Chapman, Cara Chiarappa, and Nicole Herlihy) headed out to Santa Rosa Island with Captain Pam and First mate Tom. The ride out was beautiful we saw tons of sea life including a whale.
We arrived at Bechers Cove and it was howling. Rather than wait for everyone else to arrive in the howling wind we headed over to Forneys. The adventure really began when we headed back to Bechers from Forneys. As Pam and Tom were maneuvering the boat through the waves, the rest of us were trying to keep everything from flying inside the boat. I haven’t laughed that hard in a very long time. We made it safely to Bechers Cove but the wind had picked up even more. We missed the pier gathering after being told it was freezing. We stayed on the boat and proceeded to have a great evening with the guys from De Nada.
Tom told us according to the wind apps it should die down around midnight. I was holding him to that because it was looking miserable when we headed to bed. I woke up at 1:15 am probably because the tequila wore off or maybe the sound of the anchor chain which felt like it was going to slam through the boat at any minute. I went up on deck to check the wind situation and it was still blowing. I was then cursing Tom and his wind apps. I thought to myself how in the heck are we going to paddle in this tomorrow. We are going to get on the board and be blown backwards. But then I realized you just have to try, you just have to get on that board, paddle as hard as you can and see what happens. I couldn’t let a little wind and swell deter me from doing this paddle. That was not an option. I was not only out there for myself but for Tucker and his family and so many others that were and are currently in the heat of the cancer battle. I finally fell back to sleep and woke up to this the beautiful sunrise.
I was set to lead off the paddle. I headed over to the morning circle and the enormity of what my family, friends, and community have been through for me just hit. I think Steve Campbell was the first to come over and give me a hug and the tears started to flow. I looked around at all of the amazing people involved in the friendship paddle, saw Tucker’s friends and family and soaked in all the love that the friendship paddle has to give. The start to the paddle was so touching because they sent out someone for each recipient starting with John McFadden for his brother Doug. I was so stoked to be able to paddle for myself this year!
Our team rocked it paddling in pairs of two for anywhere from 45 minutes to over an hour at a time. It was truly an incredible experience with incredible ladies. One of my favorite memories of this paddle is the time I got to spend with Tavis. He is an incredible young man. Tavis heads up the Hendry’s Jr. Lifeguard program among many other things and Madison was lucky enough to have him as a mentor when I was going through chemo. Tavis introduced himself to me during the summer of 2013 and told me he was a part of the Friendship Paddle. I thought to myself what a polite and friendly kid. He went out of his way to take Madi under his wing. What I didn’t know was that Tavis’s mother was also a recipient of the Friendship Paddle when he was 14 years old and she did not make it. I realized that Tavis knew what it was like to have a sick mom and took the opportunity to help and support Madi. I will be forever grateful to Tavis for all he did for Madison and our family.
We finished the paddle at Chase Palm Park this year with friends, family and our community welcoming us to the beach. Both Lucy and Madi swam out and hopped on our boards as we made our way in. Thank you Hannah and Claire for swimming Lucy out to me.
My cancer journey will always be a part of me. As a cancer survivor that nasty little question lurks in the back of my mind – Will it come back? Every lab draw and scan bring anxiety and stress that I wish upon no one. I am doing my best to keep the haunting questions out of my mind and focus on the fact that I am disease free and will continue to be disease free. I truly believe your mind has so much to do with what happens within your body. I hope to be an inspiration to others fighting the battle and an ear to those that need it and maybe even a guide for those on their journey.
I leave you with this quote:
Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.
Pope John XXIII
Hugs and Kisses