Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Nothing Seems Strange Anymore

I ask that you forgive me for the long delay between my blog posts.  Not that you’ve been on the edge of your seat, chomping at the bit to read my story.  But if you have, thank you because that means that my story has touched you in some way, and for that I am so thankful.   2 Corinthians 1:3-4  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.  This is my hope, that whatever trials or tribulations any one of you may be going through, that I can in some way be of comfort to you through this blog and you realize that nothing is strange when it comes to the Lord’s plan for you.

OK, now I have a slight confession to make (no priest required).  The truth must come out.  In my effort to fully rest so that my body could heal properly, I became obsessed with something…maybe even addicted.  I don’t have an addictive personality, except maybe where chocolate is concerned.  But I have control over it J  But now, chocolate has become my gateway…to candy…Candy Crush!  Yes, I admit it.  Many hours have been spent with my pad playing this game that I said I wouldn’t play.  I’m slightly irritated at the moment that I cannot pass level 39 without boosters.  But I refuse to pay the $.99 to get them.  So, between the need to fully rest, and my new strange addiction (think I could get on that TV show…LOL), I have neglected my blog.  For weeks I have been storing away ideas, but I haven’t taken the time to sit down and write.  So now, I vow to you that I will no longer let Candy Crush Saga interfere with my blog! 

It’s true to me that nothing seems strange anymore.  All the ‘coincidences’ and the weird circumstances surrounding my cancer diagnosis and treatment, no longer seem strange to me.  If you look at the whole of my story, it is evident that God has been involved in every step.  So it should not seem strange to you, or weird, when I tell you the next part of my story.  One wonderful thing about MD Anderson is that they coordinate your appointments and schedules between departments.  They make your appointments for you at the time they are needed.  So, when I looked at my appointment schedule to see when my follow up scans were scheduled I had two initial reactions.  First, I noticed that my MRI and PET CT were scheduled for October 2nd, approximately 10 weeks from the end of my treatment.  I immediately thought, “Oh no, my dad’s 70th birthday!”  Thoughts immediately went to not being able to celebrate with him on his big day.  Then my thoughts went elsewhere…to that ‘strange’ coincidence place…to that ‘God has a plan’ place.  Maybe you will recall from one of my initial blogs that the road to my diagnosis began on my mom’s 70th birthday on April 18th when I had that initial “attack” that made me immediately call our friend Bert to get me to a neurologist.  So when I read that my follow up scans were on my dad’s 70th birthday, I immediately thought, “That is so strange.”  Then I immediately thought, “Nothing seems strange anymore.”  God in His intricate planning somehow destined that those two dates be pivotal in my story.  Maybe He remembered that I was never good at remembering datesJ  Anyways, it’s kind of a full circle…a beginning (4/18) and hopefully a glorious end (10/2) when they read those scans and tell me that I kicked cancer’s A$$.  That is my prayer anyways, and if I’ve learned anything it is that God answers prayers according to His will.  That is a big lesson to be learned.  When I was lying on that table getting my first MRI, I prayed that whatever God’s will was that He give me the strength to get through whatever it was that I would be facing.  By the way, that was the hardest prayer for me to ever say.  When I looked outside of my will and prayed according to His will, He has answered my prayers in so many ways.  Today I received this verse on a daily “Prayer for Today” email from my friend Jerry H.  It is so appropriate to what I’m saying here.  1 John 5:14-15 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask according to His will, He hears us.  And if we know the He hears us – whatever we ask- we know that we have what we asked of Him.

So, with regards to answered prayers, I must give you an update on my vision.  I probably should have used some suspense, or a cliffhanger to keep you wondering.  But the news is just too good for that.  There were several things that were surprises to me going through this process.  The first one was when my Radiation Oncologist, the amazing Dr. Frank, informed me that I would lose the vision in my right eye.  I immediately remembered a conversation I had with my youngest daughter, Molly.   There is a precious little girl at Molly’s school who has been battling cancer since she was 8 months old.  Every so often Molly would give me updates on her condition, or would be excited when she saw her back at school after being away at treatments.  On one of those occasions she told me that Torrence lost the vision in her eye and she was very upset about that.  I told Molly that my cancer was very different from hers and I wasn’t going to lose my vision.  Then, POW!@#, right in the kisser (well, actually right in the eye, but whatever), I am told I was going to lose my vision.  I didn’t cry. I didn’t even flinch. I wasn’t scared.  I knew I could survive with vision in one eye.  That was not going to destroy me.   My only thought was that I had promised Molly I wasn’t going to lose my sight.  How, then, would I now tell her I was?  Well, like any good parent, I just never mentioned it again.  I asked you all to pray about it.  I asked that God show us a miracle.  And HE has!  You see, my tumor was pushed up against my optic nerve.  And even as precise as the Proton Radiation is, there was no getting around the fact that radiation would hit that optic nerve.  The amount of radiation required to kill the tumor was more than the optic nerve can take.  Therefore, it was a sound scientific conclusion that I would lose my sight.  But guess what?  That first week, my vision did deteriorate.  Then, the prayers were all lifted and my vision is now clear as can be.  So there is no doubt.  It is not strange.  It is the hand of God once again.  Please continue praying that it stays that way!

It should be strange, but it isn’t, that I received a package in our mailbox a few weeks back from a friend.  There was a card and a gift.  When I looked at the card, it was written on the back, “Ladybugs = Luck”.  I thought this was strange, because my family loves ladybugs, and I was sure she didn’t know this.  Then, I proceeded to open up two darling kitchen towels with ladybugs on them.   Without sounding crazy, my Grandpa Hall sends us messages via ladybugs.  OK, that does sound crazy doesn’t it???  Well, it’s true.  At my college graduation, he called a ladybug a “vicious little creature.”  He passed away almost 14 years ago, but without fail, at almost every single Conley event or special occasion, a ladybug has found its way to us.  Whether it was on the 10th story of a hotel in Kansas City in October, or in a house at a family reunion, or on the boat before I started cancer treatments, a ladybug (that vicious little creature) comes to say hello.  There is no doubt in any of our minds that it is my Grandpa letting us know he is still with us.  That may sound strange to you, but nothing seems strange to me anymore.  So when I got Ladybug kitchen towels from a friend who didn’t know this story…well, you know.

Kitchen towels bring me neatly to my next point.  I am a failure in the kitchen.  Well, I never really thought so until it was made abundantly clear by the well doings of some dear friends.  My family was blessed when friends put together a care calendar for us.  On weekends when we were home from Houston we would get meals delivered.  What a blessing it was!  One particular weekend, my dear friend Stacy made us a pot roast on Thursday then made chicken pot pie and a pasta casserole that we could freeze for the rest of the weekend.  My kids and husband were so distraught when the care calendar came to a conclusion.  Meghan, my 14 year old, commented that she didn’t want it to end because she loves the variety.  Then as they sat and ate these wonderful meals that Stacy prepared for us (and I looked on with my Boost in hand)  I had to endure the “oohs” and “aahs” that came unknowingly from them.  It’s not their fault.  I forgive them.  It was then I decided that I’d better step up my game and get some new recipes.  Who am I kidding…just get SOME recipes.  Clearly, all of Stacy’s creations are needed to keep my family happy.   Heck, I even got up this morning and had a pot roast and fixin’s in the crock pot by 9:45.  I had to shoo Will away from it as he tried to doctor it up.  I wanted to do it on my own.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.  I’m sure it won’t be as good as Stacy’s J 

On a different note, have you ever seen that commercial with the little toddlers that have just woken up and they have completely crazy, wild hair?  The music playing in the background goes, “I feel pretty, oh so pretty.”  I absolutely love this commercial.  It is so cute.  I can relate to the crazy morning hair, especially now with my big bald spot.  Most people would never see my bald spot, luckily, because I have such thick hair and it parts over that side.  But when I wake up in the morning, my hair is sticking straight up and the bald spot just glares back at me in the mirror.  But this morning I looked at my face, which no longer shows the signs of burns and scabs from the radiation, and saw that it was beaming.  Yesterday the final parts sloughed off, and now my face looks like nothing ever happened.  It looks maybe a little red and slightly dry, but no worse than a day in the sun.  On the flip side of that good news is that my eyebrows have almost disappeared.  My right eyebrow is so thin that you can hardly see it and my left eyebrow is slightly patchy now.  So, I have become that person that HAS to paint on her eyebrows (if I start wearing loads of blue eyeshadow and hot pink lipstick too, please step in and help!). People look strange without eyebrows.  It’s true.  So this morning as I looked in the mirror, after rolling out of bed with crazy hair and bald spots, newly painted on eyebrows, and clear, beautiful skin, I thought of the song from that commercial for some reason.  I felt pretty.  “I feel pretty, oh so pretty.”  I’ve learned to appreciate real beauty, and we all have it even in the midst of bald spots and missing eyebrows!

I continue to get both physically and mentally stronger every day.  Two weeks ago I couldn’t have imagined doing my comeback race event in October that I talked about in a previous blog.  My enthusiasm for my recovery may have been greater than my common sense at the time.  But now, two weeks later and four weeks beyond my final treatment, I feel like I possibly could do it!  My strength and stamina are improving every day, and I feel almost ‘normal’ (whatever that is).  I clearly haven’t been working out yet, but just shuttling the kids around and shopping for school clothes and supplies has prepared me for the next task of training for this event.  I am cautiously optimistic that a comeback race is in my future (hopefully October), and I’ll let you all know as we get closer if I think my body will be ready.  But you know me…once I decide I’m going to do it, you can’t stop me.

The only possible thing hindering my quest for athletic greatness once again (OK, that’s a stretch, I know) is the fact that I still can’t eat solid food.  The sores in my mouth and the nerve damage to my tongue from the radiation make it near impossible to chew.  Even the liquids can cause pain to my tongue.  So it’s been a battle to get the nutrition I need in liquid form.  So, I’m like the old folks who can’t eat and are relying on Boost or some other nutritional drink.  With each day, however, I think it gets just ever so slightly better, but I really want to sink my teeth into some solid food.  Why I crave pizza is beyond me, but it sounds amazing!  And, Terry sent me a crumb cake from Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken (Cake Boss, anyone?).  I froze it until I can eat it…and I may not even share ;)  Anyways, because of the nerve pain I have to use straight viscous lidocaine as a rinse to numb it so I can get the drink down.  Not the best scenario, but it works.  I don’t know if I should be frightened or laugh that Meghan thinks it would be fun to borrow my lidocaine and numb her mouth.  She thinks it’s funny when your mouth is all swollen from being numb and you talk funny…oh teenagers (she is definitely her father’s daughter!!!).  Talk about strange ;)  

I hope that somewhere in the midst of all this rambling, you see that the things in life that seem strange or coincidental or even painful, are somehow part of God’s perfect plan for your life.  Embrace the strange, embrace the change, but most importantly, embrace the Lord Jesus Christ!

Saturday, August 3, 2013


Today marks one week since I rang the gong on my cancer treatments.  One week since I graduated to a new phase in my cancer journey.  One week since I said goodbye to, hugged and thanked the wonderful people who have been treating me for the prior seven weeks.   The last several weeks have been filled with so much raw emotion ranging from joy, pain, anticipation, wonder and relief.  I’ll try to sum it all up for you, but I don’t know if that’s possible.  I think the good Lord is the only one who can really know the full truth and depth of my emotions.

Ring the gong, you ask?  No, I’m not crazy (although some may beg to differ).  It’s a beautiful tradition at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center that when a patient completes their treatment, they ring a gong that is in the hallway between the treatment area and waiting room.  It symbolizes a return to balance and restoration.  I was so excited for my opportunity to ring the gong on July 26th (one day later than our original end date of July 25th).  I made Will promise to be ready with camera in tow by the gong, so we could take pictures and commemorate this special day.  The girls who had done my treatments for the last 7 weeks joined me and Will as I rang the gong, symbolizing my restoration.  I was claiming my body back from the grips of Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma.  With each wave of noise resonating from the gong, I could almost feel the cancer exiting my body.  That was truly one of the most joyous moments I have ever experienced, shy of my children’s births and my wedding. 

Prior to ringing the gong on July 26th, I was taken aback when I was hospitalized earlier that week.  It was that Tuesday, my most hectic and least favorite day of treatment when I was blindsided by my chemo doctor.  A typical Tuesday looked like this…bloodwork around 9am, appointment with Dr. Glisson somewhere around 10am to review the bloodwork, radiation around noon and chemo around 4pm.  But this Tuesday went a little different than planned.  When we arrived I was feeling dizzy and lightheaded (but that really wasn’t anything different).  My blood pressure was extremely low.  The first reading was 87/54, but consequent readings dipped to 79/53 down to 77/53.  This would explain my dizziness (no,  it wasn’t the blonde highlights making me dizzy).  I knew that Dr. Glisson was not going to be happy about that or the 4 pound weight loss from that week.   The week prior she wiped her hands clean of me (“I’m done here.”) when I kept shooting down her attempts at stronger pain meds and additional hydration.  I don’t respond well to opioids, and I hate getting more IV’s than I need because my veins refuse to cooperate.   Well, anyways, I knew this would come back to bite me as I lay there on the exam table (because I was too weak to sit up in the chair) waiting for her to come see me.  It didn’t take long before she told me I “was a sick puppy” and severely dehydrated .  I saw a new side of Dr. G, the softer, sensitive side as she stroked my leg, while I cried telling her I was trying to get enough fluids and nutrition.  She saw a new side of me that day too.  I told her, “See, you weren’t done with me yet!”  She laughed, recognizing my need to find the humor through the tears.   She also informed me that my White Blood Count was at 1.7, which is extremely low, caused by the chemotherapy.   Good news!!  I got myself out of my last chemo treatment.  Bad news, I was on my way to the ER.

I don’t know why that thought scared me so much.  The ER was for really sick people (especially at a cancer hospital), and I just didn’t want to think that I was one of them.  Of course, who am I kidding…of course I’m sick.  I have been fighting a cancer the size of a large plum, been inundated with enough radiation to probably power Chernobyl, and enough chemo to poison an entire lake.  But really, the ER??  Well, they wheeled me straight from my appointment to the ER, where I was admitted for IV fluids and would be assessed to determine if I would have to be consequently admitted to the hospital and possibly receive a feeding tube.  And, I was admitted to the hospital.  Unfortunately, I would have to miss my radiation treatment that day, so I would no longer finish on Thursday, but would have to make it up on Friday.  That was very disappointing.  Anyways, after receiving 2 liters of IV fluid, and then a slow drip fluid, I was sent to my corner hospital room where I would be poked and prodded for the next two days, connected to the continuous fluid IV.  That first night in the hospital, I was awakened 6 different times, four of which were for blood.  The first time I understood.  The second time they said they forgot to test for something and had to take more (I was a little irritated at 3am).  The third time they said something about blood typing(oh whatever) and the fourth time I just didn’t even open my eyes.  That next morning my poor vein looked like someone had been doing some illegal partying on my arm and I wasn’t invited.    It wasn’t long after I woke up that the nurse informed me that my Red Blood Count had dropped to 8, and I would require a blood transfusion that day.  I don’t know why, but again I was faced with a strange sense of trepidation and anxiety about the thought of someone else’s blood entering my body.  And it wasn’t that I was scared of disease or anything like that (they test and retest so many times).  I know that people get blood transfusions all the time, my dad included, and they save people’s lives and restore them to health.  But it was still an odd feeling that I can’t explain.  I never actually watched the blood going through the IV.  But, boy, let me tell you something!  Blood can really make a girl feel a whole lot better!

Luckily, I wasn’t going to miss my radiation treatment on Wednesday.  Not so lucky for me is that they would have to transport me by ambulance (seriously??  a little overkill) to the Proton Center about a mile away.  I told them to let me know in advance when the ambulance would be there so I could at least put on my cute chemo sweats rather than the lovely hospital gown I had been adorning.  But before I could even brush my hair, they were there ready to pick me up.  So, I had to go on a stretcher to radiation.  Imagine their surprise when they saw me being wheeled in on a stretcher, in hospital gowns.  No one had anticipated this scenario from me, the one who is always dressed cute and upbeat.  It was a little embarrassing for some reason…like they saw that I was weak, when I wanted to be strong.  It was humbling, for sure.  That next day I was more prepared, showered and ready when the ambulance arrived again to take me to radiation.  Thursday is also clinic day, but since I couldn’t get down to see Dr. Frank (my radiation doctor) he came up to see me.  It would be the last time I’d visit with him until early October when I have my scans and he (God willing) tells me I’m clear.  He is such an optimistic, intelligent, caring doctor that you can’t help but love him.  He told me how happy he is with how I’ve been responding to treatments.  My skin looks great and should heal beautifully.  He believes he has treated the tumor as aggressively as he can.  He is feeling hopeful about my vision in my right eye, since it is perfect right now.  But please continue praying that I don’t lose my vision as he had initially anticipated.  I told him that God is taking care of that one.  When we were done, I asked him if I could have a hug.   I didn’t know if this was weird or not, but this is the man that helped save my life.  I would miss him.  He gave me the biggest hug and said he’d see me in a couple months. 

I was hoping to be released from the hospital that day, Thursday, when the doctors made their rounds.  Luckily, Dr. Johnson (Dr. Glisson’s hospital counterpart) had seen how well I responded to the fluids and the blood and was going to release me. My Red Blood Count had jumped to 12, which she was amazed at.  I had to promise to drink 4-5 Boosts a day and 4 bottles of water a day (to avoid the feeding tube).  I was not able to venture to other options like I had the week before (pudding, eggdrop soup), because there weren’t enough calories and I would end up in the same situation.  I made a promise and for the last week I have had nothing but Boost and water.  I must tell you, that I can’t wait for the moment when I can have a piece of pizza!  On a side note, this reminds me that the hospital menu was off the hook!  I could only read it and wonder how delicious it must be.  The only time I’ve ever been hospitalized and I’m in a hospital with gourmet food, and I can’t even eat it…such a bummer.

We headed back to our temporary apartment by the hospital, only to have to gather our things and leave to a hotel.  We had told the rental company we’d be out on Thursday, not anticipating any delays.  But since my treatment would now be ending on Friday, we had to get a hotel for the night.  All I can say is thank goodness we spent the extra money on the apartment, because I don’t think I could’ve handled hotel living for 7 weeks!

And there we were…Friday, July 26th.  My last day of cancer treatment.  I pulled out a comfortable (but cute) dress to wear.  It was graduation day, of course, and I had to look the part.  I was excited and relieved that after today I would have no more radiation treatments.  This part of my journey was over.  It also made me a little sad, knowing I would be saying goodbye to the people that have helped to save me.  But anyways, we first headed to the clinic, where Dr. Frank had ordered graduation pictures.  They sound much more interesting than they really are…no portraits by the tree with my hair blowing in the wind.  Just clinical progress pictures of my face, my bald spot, my tongue sores and mouth opening.  But I kind of like the ring of ‘graduation pictures’, after all it is my graduation day.  After clinic, we headed to the Proton center where we were greeted at the reception desk by Deborah with a huge smile and “Good Morning Miss Cathleen!”  She was a ray of light shining so brightly in a place where hope is so necessary.  She made me happy every time I saw her and I would miss her.  Will took a picture of her and I so I could always remember her beautiful smile.  She then proceeded to give me my diploma!  Yes, I received a certificate of completion.  I must say that this diploma means more to me than my high school or even college diploma.  While each of those are significant in terms of knowledge and the time in my life, neither taught me more than what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown since being diagnosed with cancer and being treated at MD Anderson Cancer Center.  This diploma is symbolic of victory over cancer through Christ Jesus.  It is symbolic of my personal growth and understanding.  Yes, this graduation day tops them all!  And before it was over, I would have one last treatment.  They would give me my mask that I wore for 33 treatments.  What I would do with it I didn’t know, but I knew that it was a piece of my story that helped to save my life, and I would treasure it.  And before I walked out those doors for the last time in treatment, I would, in victory and glory ring that gong with pride and assurance that I would be restored to health by the healing hands of my savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.  And when we finally made our way back home to Austin, I was greeted with a king size banner from my girlfriends tied between my front columns that read "Welcome Home Cathleeen!" and balloons from my dear neighbors tied to our lamppost.   What precious gifts, from precious friends. Happy Graduation Day, indeed!