Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Country Road, Take Me Home (January 23, 2015)

I had to ask Dr. Hanna in several different ways if what I was hearing was true.  The words rolled off his tongue as if they were a familiar chorus in my country song life, but the tune was new.  Just minutes earlier his resident, Ashton, told me that the scans “looked good”.  But what did that mean?   I had heard that once before, but this time there was something different in the delivery.  Last time the words “looked good” were delivered a bit flat, and simply meant that the tumor continued to shrink, but was still there.  This time I heard a change in the tune, and I craved to hear more.   I listened closely, with a bit of reverence, and even more anticipation, wondering if I would leave that room having learned a new ending to that song.  I turned up the volume and the emotions began to flood my eyes, as I heard the beautiful (yet ever so clinical) truth that I show “no evidence of tumor.”  Of course, without hearing the words “cancer free” I asked to hear more.  Chorus, repeat.

“Does that mean it’s gone?” I asked with a glimmer of hope in my eyes disguised as tears.  Dr. Hanna smiled and with a hint of jubilation and a wink of the eye said, “There is no evidence of tumor.”  Psalm 25:5  You are the God who saves me.  All day long I put my hope in you.

“So that means I’m cancer free?” I asked again, and he shook his head a certain yes, without ever saying the words.  At that point I knew that the tumor that had so violently reared its ugly head (in my certainly more attractive one) was no longer taking residence in my body…EVICTED!  I looked at my mom who clearly was trying to maintain some semblance of composure, but the quiver of her lip and the tears in her eyes said what the lips couldn’t speak. Dr. Hanna went on to tell me, with the usual audience of doctors from around the world in tow (this time from Italy and Pakistan), that this wasn’t the outcome he expected when he first saw me just a year and 9 months ago.  “You’re a fighter.  But more than that you are a winner,” he told me.  I told him about my efforts to give back now.  I told him about Relay For Life and how I was led to be the Event chairperson.  I told him about being chosen as a Hero of Hope for the American Cancer Society.   He told me with such sincerity and joy, that he was so proud of me.  My world renowned doctor who helped make the plan that helped save my life was proud of ME.  For once, words escaped me.

When I walked out of my appointment in the Head & Neck department, joy was palpable.  You could probably see my smile beaming in the reflection of the windows, in the twinkle of my eyes and the step in my toes (a sound byte from Kool and the Gang’s ‘Celebrate’ just jingled in my ears).  But part of me slowly began to pull back the emotion just a bit, realizing that others in that waiting room may have just heard for the first time that they had cancer, or that it had come back.  It was a momentary internal tug of war.  But maybe, just maybe, they would share the joy with me and see the hope that is out there if you are willing to take hold of it.  I continued with a smile on my face past the waiting room back to elevator B, which I had ridden so many times up to the 10th floor in anticipation.  This time the elevator music was different, like the tune I had heard just minutes before. Now I was able to ride it down to the 1st floor with a clear head (literally) for the first time in years.  So, with all my scans completed the day before, and appointments with pain management out of the way as well, I was free to exit the building for the first time as not only a survivor, but cancer free.

I should’ve never questioned the outcome of the day, given that it started with a trip to my favorite little restaurant, Sweet Paris Crepes, where I feasted on an apple crème brulee crepe.   I’ve been dreaming of this since my girlfriends came to visit when I was in treatment and we discovered this little gem of a place in Rice Village.  I had wanted to find my way back, but the grueling schedule was continually denying me of my unalienable right to sweet apple goodness.  As we walked from the restaurant back to the car, I realized that we were passing the little jewelry store where Chris & Gina bought me the boot necklace which I wore every day for the rest of my treatment and that day as well.  The boot is my symbol, used since the beginning when I had the famous Kick Cancer’s Ass party.  It’s been my cancer kicking mantra.  I should’ve known then, as I passed that store, it was to be the day I would hear that wonderful news.  It was no coincidence that I had kicked cancer’s ass, while wearing that necklace, no less.

We had gotten out of MDA (MD Anderson) a little earlier than normal and the road traveled led me past the apartment where we lived for 2 months that fateful summer of 2013, when life became more than just living, but surviving (cue Donna Summer’s ‘I Will Survive’). It’s strange to say that I don’t have any negative feelings about Houston or the old apartment. I don’t cringe when I think about my treatment or feel like I can’t take another step into that hospital again.  You might think it odd, but I remember it all with the slightest bit of nostalgia.  It isn’t a place where negative things happened.  It was a place where the most positive thing happened…my life was saved.  The drive to Houston and even passing Plum Creek serve as reminders of the miracles that happened in my life and my family’s life.

When we lived in the apartment, a visit to the Ross Store just across the street would bring me joy. Trust me, when you’re doing chemo and daily radiation, you take joy where you can get it.  So, as the beginning of my celebration day, Nana and I made one more stop at Ross to see what kind of treasure I could find to treat myself.  After all, didn’t I deserve a gift?!  I know what you’re thinking…but yes, you CAN find treasures at Ross.  OK, maybe not a Tiffany necklace, but maybe something interesting.  Well, unfortunately for me, I only found ‘treasures’ for the girls.  But I know where my real treasure is.  Matthew 6:20-21 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So, off we went, battling the Friday afternoon Houston traffic up the 605 towards the 10, the road that leads to Buc-ees(you didn’t think we could pass by Buc-ees without stopping did you?).  Talk about pure unadulterated pleasure!  Where else can you get everything from snacks to deer feeders, turquoise jewelry to housewares?  Maybe Buc-ees would be where my treasure lie that day!  Convinced that it was, I searched and searched for the perfect piece of memorabilia that would commemorate this special moment in the perfect way!  The pajama bottoms with the smiling beaver wouldn’t do.  The refrigerator magnet wasn’t quite it either.  But low and behold, like a star shining from the top shelf, was an oversized Buc-ees wine glass calling my name.  We would certainly celebrate that night with a glance of wine, and Buc-ee gives me joy, so it was a match made in Heaven.  Well, not literally, but you get my drift. 

While I was driving home, I was a 12 year old girl (with a driver’s license) in a 45 year old woman’s body.   I was taking selfies with Hottie the Hedgehog (my Cancer Plum Sucks mascot ) and my baby Buc-ee keychain.  I was giddy with excitement to make my way through the list of phone calls that had to be made before a Facebook post could be posted.  But the incredible news would have to wait for the rest of the world, until I could get home and into the arms of my precious girls to tell them first. 

I was happy that my mom was there to share that moment with me (getting the good news that is, not necessarily the Buc-ee’s part).   But a huge part of me was sad that Will, who has been there for nearly every other appointment, wasn’t there to experience it with me.  But a change in scheduling made it impossible with his work schedule.  He truly deserved that moment as much as I did.  He endured as much as I did.   The cancer was as much a part of him as it was of me.  But now that weight has been lifted…that burden released and prayers have been answered.  Psalm 65:5 You faithfully answer our prayers with awesome deeds, O God.

The radio was playing an assortment of familiar country tunes from the 90s and now (sounds like a radio tagline, doesn’t it?).  When I heard them say something about a new Garth Brooks song, I was excited, having been a pretty big Garth fan in the past.  “If Tomorrow Never Comes” was always one of the songs that Will and I claimed as our own.  We wanted to use it in our wedding as the first dance, but thought it sounded a little morbid for a wedding (talking about tomorrow never coming and all).  But now I understand the truth behind the words and it never rang truer in our relationship than the past two years.  We are not guaranteed tomorrow. 

If tomorrow never comes, will she know how much I loved her?  Did I try in every way, to show her every day that she’s my only one.  And if my time on earth were through, and she must face this world without me, is the love I gave her in the past, going to be enough to last, if tomorrow never comes?  Garth finishes that song with these words, “So tell that someone that you love, just what you’re thinking of.  If tomorrow never comes.” 

I couldn’t believe my ears when the new Garth song was called ‘Mom’.  Here I was in the car with my mom, having just received this amazing news together, and God placed this song on the radio for us to hear for the first time.  In the lyrics, God is telling an unborn child, who doesn’t want to leave HIS side, about its mother on earth who is waiting for their arrival.  My mom, who gave birth to me 45 years ago, was able to be a part of my ‘re-birth’ through this experience.  We both teared up as we heard these words:

You’ll never have a better friend, or a warmer touch to tuck you in.  She’ll kiss your bruises, your bumps and scrapes, and anytime you hurt her heart’s gonna break.  So hush now baby don’t you cry.  Cause there’s someone down there waiting, whose only goal in life, is making sure you’re always gonna be alright.  A loving angel tender, tough and strong.  It’s almost time to go and meet your mom.  

It was a special moment, and that song brought tears to my eyes for my mom who had to watch her baby suffer through all this.  But she also got to witness through me the strength and perseverance that only happens with Christ by your side.  That song also brought tears to my eyes thinking about my own beautiful girls, and how truly blessed I am that God chose ME to be their mother, and that I would get to continue being their mother for a very long time. They are my gift and my song.  Jeremiah 1:5  Before I made you in your mother’s womb, I knew you.

That night, as we rolled into Lakeway, we planned a celebratory meal at Mandola’s with the family that was in town. Their gnocci with alfredo sauce, peas, mushrooms and prosciutto is to die for.  Or, in this case to live for!  So, that would be my first cancer free meal!  My parents, the girls (who I hugged with all my might) and my brother all shared in my joy that night as we ate and drank and toasted my good news.  Proverbs 15:15  For the happy heart, life is a continual feast.  When we got home, I checked the mail and had a package from my cousin Bridget, which was full of funny little things, including several little ladybug items.  I could barely believe my eyes.  What a precious sign from God.  She was with me on this special day and so was my Grandpa ;)

I closed my eyes that night, with a peace about me.  It was the peace that surpasses all understanding.  It was the same peace that got me through the storm. Philippians 4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  At that moment, in my head,  I heard the words of the song that made me cry in that first worship service after my diagnosis, and every one since.  “Blessed Be Your Name” – Matt Redman

Blessed be your name, when the sun’s shining down on me
When the World’s all as it should be, Blessed be your name.
Blessed by your name, on the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering, Blessed be your name.

Blessed, for sure!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Never Put Anything Up Your Nose… December 2014

“Don’t put that up your nose!!”  I don’t know if it’s my mom’s voice I imagine or some TV mom screeching out the fact that nothing good comes out of putting something up your nose.  We’ve all heard the story of some goofy little boy putting a carrot or maybe even a marble into the deep, darkness of his nostrils and ending up with a trip to the ER.  Being that I was a perfect little girl (OK, maybe not perfect, but certainly not a boy) I never felt the urge to try this.  But somehow, as a 45 year old woman I thought it would be a good idea.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I didn’t just think to myself, “Oh fun, let’s put something up my nose.”  And when I did, it certainly wasn’t a carrot or a marble.

The day I put a wadded up piece of paper towel and stuffed it up my nose, it wasn’t in order to make someone laugh, but the story is actually kind of funny (in retrospect, of course).  I did this seemingly ridiculous act out of necessity.  As the cancer continues to regress, the hole in my sinus cavity continues to grow larger leaving me without much of my palate.  Oh goody.   Well, actually, that IS good and definitely worth celebrating. Psalm 34:16  Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all.  It is great news that the cancer is shrinking, but that leaves me with complications…let’s just say leakage.  Even as I write this now (at 5:30am) the coffee drips in a slow stream out of my nose.  So, for a moment I have to put down the pen in my right hand (because I’m certainly not putting down the coffee in my left) and wipe the dripping coffee from my upper lip.  My own personal drip percolator of sorts (did I just cross some sort of line with that comment?!)! 

OK, back to my point.  The moment I decided to stick a wad of paper towel up my nose was when Molly and I were sitting at our counter bar eating dinner.  The drainage from my nose is always worse when I’m eating or drinking.    Unfortunately for Molly who sat beside me, I was eating broccoli.  Now this is unfortunate for several reasons, including the fact that it smells horrible and she hates it.  But the most unfortunate reason is that my nose began dripping yet another slow, but steady stream, this time in a broccoli green (gross, right?).  Welcome to my life J  Well, my precious girls have become very accustomed to the fact that my nose dripping is just a fact of life, and they ever so sweetly swipe their finger across their lip as a sign to me to wipe it off…our own little secret code.  You see, the nerve damage caused by the tumor and subsequent treatments left me with limited feeling on the right side of my face, so most of the time I don’t even realize it’s dripping.  That is why I am single handedly keeping Kleenex in business, because I always have to have something in my hand to wipe it away.  

Interesting thought that is.  Makes me sometimes wish I could just wipe it all away.  The cancer, the chemo, the radiation, the pain, the side effects of it all, and just go back.  But I can’t wipe this away, and honestly I really wouldn’t anyways.  I was faced with difficulties and continue to be, but that was God’s plan for me, and that my friends, makes it perfect.  In my moments of weakness and frustration, I can almost see God motioning to me with the whisper of the wind, to wipe the rest of it away.  To wipe away the doubt and the fear and frustration and to know that these are momentary afflictions that lead to eternal glory.  Matthew 10:27  What I tell you now in the darkness, shout abroad when daybreak comes. What I whisper in your ear, shout from the housetops for all to hear!

But for that moment all that I was wiping away was broccoli.  So,  rather than having to wipe after each bite, I decided that I could eat more freely, without having to deal with leakage, if I had a semi permanent solution (the aforementioned wad).  And I have to say that for a while, it was working well.  The moment it all went bad was when Molly motioned once more, and I realized that my solution was no longer effective.  I went to pull it out (with tweezers, of course) and discovered with shock that it wasn’t there.  I had turned into that panicked little boy with the marble up his nose, in the form of a 45 year old crazy lady with a wad of paper towel lost into the sinus abyss.  I could feel it stuck somewhere between my nose and throat.  Did I try to blow it out or suck it in?  Unsure of where it could end up and what kind of problems it could cause, I instantly imagined the embarrassment of trying to explain this to an ER doctor.  Luckily, calmer heads prevail in my household, and Will said that we should call Charlie.  You know Charlie.  My angel in the form of a dentist.  He is familiar with my condition and could give me advice.  So we called him on his cell phone and left a message.  He called back almost immediately, and told me to try a neti pot.  It wasn’t until that didn’t work that he called me back again and said he consulted with his friend, a pulmonologist I believe, that he was presently dining with.  Oh no, sorry, Charlie (remember the tuna commercials??). Keep in mind that last year he came to my rescue on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.  Now I’m interrupting his dinner too…over something so stupid.  Luckily for me, he didn’t care one bit. 1 Peter 4:11  Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ. All glory and power to him forever and ever! Amen.  They both concurred that if I wasn’t able to get it out, that it could wait until I saw my ENT.  So, with that in mind, we just called the ENT on duty and explained my situation.  His response was no different and with that I decided to relax and resume with the continuous tissue/nose connection.  As I got up to go to bed, I heard Will ask, “What is this?”  The faint green color gave it away.  It was the culprit we had been looking for up my nose.  On the ground.  We still don’t know if it fell out before all this happened or after.  But the moral of the story remains the same.  Nothing good comes out of putting something up your nose!