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!