Sunday, November 15, 2020

ANSWERED PRAYERS – Part 1 (of at least 2 more!!)

 


Reading the title of this chapter, you might have conflicting thoughts when I tell you that 2020 hasn’t been my best year.  In fact, it sucked.  It’s funny really, that when I pulled up my running blog document, I noticed that my last entry, “Hope in Affliction”, was originally called 2019 Sucked (the optimist in me found a nicer way to say it, thank goodness J). I see a trend, however.  It’s been a rough couple years for me, but despite it all God has answered so many prayers.  The timing may not have been when I wanted, or the answers may not have looked like I thought they should, but God showed up, and will continue to do so, even when things suck…

 Part I: Infection…Again                                                                                                                                            

The bulk of the last 18 months has been filled with more pain and aggravation than most people experience during the holidays with their in-laws.  OK, that’s not a fair comparison, since my in-laws have always been great, but I know there are others who at least giggled at the recollection or anticipation of such irritation ;)  But I digress. 

This year alone, due to severe infections and a surgery, I have spent upwards of an entire month(over 3 stays) in the hospital (and that’s just since my last blog in April!!).  I may have just heard a distant collection of sighs and maybe even a few ‘oh no’s’ under the breath.  Oh no is right!! Sigh away.  Try to imagine spending that much time in the hospital.  Now imagine that month spent entirely alone due to COVID.  You might cherish your alone time; even pray for it.  Heck, I might have even wished for it.  But this is not the type of answered prayer I was talking about in my intro.  In fact, it was devastating.

There are many people out there who have felt isolated due to COVID, and I don’t want to give it more time than it deserves, but it is stripping people of precious time.  As I was stuck in the hospital room, without my family or friends, I realized how sad it is for the elderly population that have been held hostage due to COVID.   They are spending their last months (or God forbid, years) without physical touch, without family gatherings, without birthdays, without church.  And don’t even get me started on church.  But I digress.

I was alone, with no family and no friends.  Taken to the hospital where Will twice had to kick me to the curb of the ER, unable to even help me through the door.  OK, he didn’t actually kick me out, but I felt kicked in the gut nevertheless, by a policy and a system that hurts the same people they’re trying to protect.  It was just me, Bucee and Hottie (my faithful stuffed animals), and a suitcase that was packed by an overly optimistic self, as evidenced by the only 5 pairs of underwear.  Are they underwear or panties when you’re a 51 year old woman?  Sorry (very sorry actually), but I digress.

This first trip to the hospital finally ended after nearly 2 long weeks of time served (4/20/20-5/6/20).  However, my underpacked suitcase left me with the aforementioned underwear and only 2 pairs of leggings, a couple t-shirts and a cute pair of pajamas (you won’t catch me dead in a hospital robe).   Not enough for much more than 4 or 5 days at most.   I kept telling the Infectious Disease nurse that if they didn’t get me out of there soon I was going to run out of chonies ( J Laura W.).  She actually offered to go to the store to get me some.  She was so sweet that it wasn’t quite as weird as it sounds.  I told her that if I was there much longer I might have to take her up on that offer…and unashamedly, I did.  It was actually pretty hilarious.  Just picture her calling me from Walmart asking me what kind of underwear I wanted (LOL).  That was a strange conversation!  My level of embarrassment clearly not as high as it should have been.   Since she was already there I asked if she would pick me up some yoga leggings and t-shirts too (and don’t forget the shampoo and conditioner).  The next day she showed up in my room, Wally bags in hand, with enough to get me through another 3 or 4 days.  Let’s pray it would be enough.   She was probably glad when her rotation was over ;)

That 3 or 4 more days came and went, and the once clean clothes were now placed in the plastic Walmart bag marked ‘Dirty’.  My sweet Infectious Disease nurse must have sensed what was coming, and her rotation ended, sparing her the humiliation of another trip to Walmart for the crazy lady in G2020.  But my sweet friend and neighbor, Janie called her daughter in law Christine, who lives in Houston, to see if she could assist me with my laundry.  When she didn’t answer, Janie (leaving no stone unturned) called Christine’s best friend Jennifer(which horrified Christine BTW), who happens to work in the Head/Neck department at MD Anderson to see if she could help.  Jennifer took Janie up on her request, without hesitation, and came to pick up my laundry.  Since she is an employee, they didn’t question her when she entered the hospital.  When she entered my room, a light seemed to shine on her familiar face (I had met her once before), and I could hear choirs of angels singing ‘Halleluia’.  OK, I might have taken some creative liberty with the above set scene, but that was literally how I felt.  I gave her a big hug as if we’d been dear friends forever, seeming to forget for that split second that we just broke the 6’ social distance rule.  Remember, because of the COVID restrictions I wasn’t allowed ANY outside visitors, which can weigh on your psyche.  Jennifer seemed like an angel to me.  She brought me Starbucks too, which was like hitting the lottery (hospital coffee sucks almost as bad as this year)!  Jennifer took my laundry home, and brought it back a couple days later, with a few extra articles of clothing she thought I might like that she no longer needed.  The running leggings fit my growing torso not quite as well as they did her Ironman figure I’m sure, but I was happy to have them nonetheless. (Why am I the only person who can gain weight in the hospital??)  The next day she returned, clean clothes in hand, with another Starbucks, and a sweet gift…a journal.  She had read my blog about the guardian angel, and the cover of the journal was an angel, and mixed in the blank pages were scriptures.  It was such a beautiful and thoughtful gift, and one I desperately needed.  On my next hospital stay, I would finally fill my first cancer journal after 7 years of appointments and disappointments, memories, fears and joys all written within its pages.  I liked that I would be turning a new page with my guardian angel journal, thanks to one of my newest guardian angels.  But she wasn’t the only one.  Halleluia.  Answered prayers.

My husband, Will, is definitely one of my guardian angels.  Not the type that shows up at some predestined moment to save the day, or that has come for a period of time to fulfill one specific need.  His angel wings might not be pristine, but he has been a constant support throughout this cancer journey, missing maybe a handful of hundreds of appointments over 7 ½ years time.  He has endured the pain and sleepless nights, the illness, the treatments…he has endured it all right by my side.   He is an answered prayer! 

So when we discuss the impact of COVID on me as a patient, imagine what it was like for him to watch me walk into the hospital alone.  It must have been like slow motion for him, as I wheeled my suitcase towards the front door and turned around to wave goodbye.  The tears I had in my eyes were met with the glassy stare of his, and I turned back towards the door, that I wouldn’t pass through for another 17 days.  Imagine what it was like for him to know that I was there for that long without any support other than the Zoom calls with friends and family.  But I didn’t even have my computer with me since I wasn’t planning on being in the hospital more than a few days.  So those Zoom calls were on the screen of an old IPhone 8S, with poor speakers and a small screen.  But it was the only connections I had with the outside world. 

Since Will couldn’t visit me, there was no point staying in Houston, but his heart wouldn’t let him leave for a few days.  He went home and about a week and a half into my stay, he called my dear friend Chris, who put out a message to my friends that he was going to return to Houston to drop off some things for me (including my computer). If they wanted to put a note or a little gift in to lift my spirits, he would deliver them all.  He drove the 3 hour drive from Austin to Houston just to drop off a bin full of goodies for me at the hospital entrance.  I wasn’t even allowed to go to the entrance to wave at him.  But it’s probably better that way, because that physical wave would’ve turned into a wave of emotion heightened by my loneliness and fatigue.  But I still had Bucee and Hottie, my faithful stuffed animals, who were introduced to a new rainbow unicorn (only Vale J), a Snoopy and an adorable bear.  There were flowers and other beautiful, thoughtful gifts, that made me realize how truly blessed I am to have such an amazing support system.  The most important gift, a 5x5 canvas with a guardian angel painted by my precious Molly.   I looked at that angel every time I could, seeing in it the face of my sweet girl, who just recently discovered she could paint (a talent she must have gotten from her Grandma and Nana, because I certainly can’t!).  Seeing that bin full of goodies made my heart full and the tears fall...the wave of emotion inescapable.  That bin full of goodies also made me the envy of G20.

While I had plenty of stuffed furry friends, the isolation and lack of real human contact can make you do crazy things (like doing a stuffed animal photo shoot!).  However, not only was I in isolation (being away from everyone I loved) but I was also in contact isolation.  In hospital talk that means special garb that the staff had to wear (as did I) if I left the room, which I did faithfully almost every single day (in my new workout clothes).  Trust me when I tell you with 100% certainty that I was probably one of the only patients to ever walk 3 miles EVERY DAY through the hallowed halls of G20.   When I hit my 9th day I realized that I had already walked a marathon in the hospital (approximately 550 laps around all 4 wings of G20).  How many people can say that?  I must admit that I probably only did it because I had already promised myself that I would do a 200 mile in 90 day walking challenge and I wasn’t going to let a hospital stay, COVID, or contact isolation keep me from that goal.  I’m nothing else if not determined.  My masked face became a staple to the nurses on the floor as I passed by time and time again.  I finished that challenge, at home, on time, using a portable IV, with Christine and her daughter Maddie, who were visiting Janie from Houston.   In all this, I realized that God probably nudged me to do the 200 mile challenge, as HIS way of getting me in shape for whatever treatments were to come my way.  Even extra weight can be an answered prayer.  But I digress.

My inpatient infectious disease doctor told me that I was ‘The only patient he’s ever had that’s been in the hospital this long, that he hasn’t worried about getting worse.”  Most people that are in the hospital that long couldn’t walk a lap around the entire floor, but then again, who would want to.  My hospital stay kept getting extended because they were trying to treat 3 bad infections, which had become immune to most of the antibiotics that would normally work.  They were trying to figure out a way to get me home on a series of IV antibiotics that they would normally never, and have never, sent someone home on.  Imagine dealing with the inpatient hospitalist, their fellow, the inpatient Infectious disease doctor and their PA, the inpatient pain management doctor and their PA.  Then imagine inserting all my normal outpatient doctors into that mix.  I’m so grateful that MD Anderson has such a multidisciplinary approach, but this was getting crazy!  So many opinions to deal with…and let’s be honest humility is not most doctors’ strong suit.   

Luckily, I have learned how to advocate for myself over the last 7 ½ years.  I know my body and I know what I’m capable of doing.  The first week of this 17 day stint, was filled with naysayers telling me that the only way I was leaving the hospital would be to go to a long term skilled nursing facility.  Did I hear them right?  They wanted to send me, a healthy (well, besides the infection, cancer and all) 51 year old woman to a long term facility where COVID was running rampant and where the majority of the deaths were coming from??  There was NO way I was accepting that and I told them that I had done my job, and it was time for them to do theirs.  I don’t think they are used to patients advocating for themselves like that or questioning their decisions.   When the doctors said I would have to get stat bloodwork every other day, I called the home nursing agency and blood labs to see if it could get done.  I set my weekly hearing appointments.  I even got the inpatient hospitalist to agree to check my reports if they came in on the weekends (that is not even remotely their job).  But, like I said, I did my job now they needed to do theirs and get me out of the hospital and home with my family, whom I missed terribly.  My texts and Facetime calls with Meghan and Molly made me miss them even more, but they made my days bearable.  It was time to be home.

The doctors had finally come up with a plan, and I was set to be released.  While the adjustable bed had made for a better night’s sleep (well at least 2 hours at a time), I still woke up early and showered in anticipation of my release.    I did my hair and makeup.  I packed the room which had become quite cluttered and was beginning to look like a gift shop (whose flowers were beginning to wilt, but whose stuffed animals gained prominent placement at the foot of the bed next to Bucee and Hottie).  I was ready for the rainbow unicorn to start pooping skittles (or whatever it is they do when all is right with the world).  This was the day I had been waiting for.    It was time to rejoice.  All the pieces had fallen into place and I would be going home…until I wasn’t.

The pieces had fallen, but not into place.  They came crashing down like someone pulled the wrong piece from the Jenga tower.  I couldn’t believe it when they told me that the 6am bloodwork showed my liver #s were off the charts.  They wouldn’t be able to release me from the hospital until they came back down.  They day before they tested in the 40’s and 50’s, while on release day it was in the 400s.  I’m not sure why, but they changed one of my antibiotics the night before, which could have affected my internal organs.  Ironically, the medicine was still on my list to take.  I told the nurse that I refused to take the drug, because it was the only factor that changed in between the 40’s and 400’s reading.  Unless they could prove it wasn’t the drug, then I wasn’t taking it.  By process of elimination it had to be.  Once again, the nurse was not accustomed to a patient refusing a drug.  Her confusion led her to question me: “Did the doctor tell you to stop it?”, “What do you mean you stopped it?”, “So you don’t want to take it?”  That’s right, I refused to take the drug.  Thank the Lord that  I happened to be paying attention when they went to give me my nightly meds and that particular drug was still on the list.  Either by divine intervention or by stopping the medicine, my next day’s bloodwork showed the #’s starting to fall.  It would appear to be both.  Answered prayers.

That next morning, with the bloodwork heading in the right direction, I saw hope that my release was imminent.  With the clock ticking down, the ID team sent in Carlos, the poor NP to try to convince me that I would be better treated and cared for at a skilled nursing facility (my Grandma had been in one for a long time…how skilled were they really??)  Unfortunately, Carlos proved no match for me. I was quick to explain the truth that if anything went wrong, I would still have to head back to the ER at MDA, so that argument didn’t fly (thanks, Chris!).  I also asked him (in possibly a more irritable tone) why they are still pushing this agenda, when I told them the first time it was mentioned in week one, that I ABSOLUTELY would not be going to one, even if that meant having to stay at MDA long term (which they didn’t want).  We already had a plan, and the meds had already been sent to the infusion pharmacy.  He walked away, message clearly received and I walked out of the hospital later that afternoon.  Later that day, before my release, my Hospitalist said, "If ever there's a patient up to the task, it's you."  Now they understood me.  Answered prayers.

When I left the room, they had to bring a UHaul instead of a wheelchair, to get all my suitcases, bins and goodies down to the car.   Will was to pick me up outside the doors of the atrium lobby.  Trying to coordinate a hospital release and time the pick up just right, is near impossible in the era of COVID, since he wasn’t allowed to come to my room, or even wait in the lobby.  But somehow we managed to make it happen, without a wait for either of us.  I hadn’t been outside those hospital doors, or off floor G20 for 2 ½ weeks.  As the glass doors opened I was greeted by the smiling face of my husband, a beautiful contrast to the sadness and desperation I last saw in his face when he dropped me off.  It reminded me of the lyrics from a favorite song at church. “THIS is the day that the Lord hath made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  And rejoice, we did.  Hallelulia!

The next eight weeks were filled with lots of phone alarms, to coordinate the 3 different IV antibiotics that all had to be taken on different schedules. Most of the day I had a portable IV antibiotic ball attached to my arm, that deflated as the medicine flowed through the tube and into my body, healing me from the inside out.  It was a difficult regimen that required a lot of assistance.  But with my family by my side, we made it through.  But it isn’t the medicine that makes me whole.  My body is broken, but it’s the precious blood of Jesus running through my veins, filling in the cracks.  That is where true healing comes from.  And in the midst of all the troubles, and there will be many (we are promised that), this is the truth I need to cling to.  Jesus answers prayers.

A few weeks after being released, I went to my first follow up appointment with my dear friend Melinda.  We drove down planning to go to my appointment (well, me anyways…remember our friend COVID) and then enjoy a nice lunch in Rice Village, followed by whatever our little hearts desired.  But God had his own plans for us as we were about to find out.  As we drove down the familiar path from Austin to Houston, I had a text from Janie (remember her from earlier?).  Janie was friends with a police officer (Kyle) that worked in Wallis, TX, who knew my story of the Guardian Angel Catholic Church.  After many calls by him and Janie, we were told that they would leave the church open for us (even though no one would be there) if we wanted to drive home that way to see the inside.  Melinda and I were both so excited to finally experience the church, from the inside out.

We drove back to Wallis through the old (now familiar) one stop sign towns, that make up such a large part of good old Texas charm.  As we pulled into the parking lot to the outside of the church I’ve now visited several times, I felt a sense of excitement running through my veins.  Was that my blood or the blood of Jesus?  Both, I believe.  I felt the Holy Spirit with me as we opened the red door that I’d only seen from the outside.  There on a table in the narthex, was an envelope with my name on it!  A book with pictures and the history of the church, compliments of sweet Debbie (also a cancer survivor) in the office who helped coordinate my visit.  Even before seeing that envelope, I was immediately in awe at the beauty of this old, historic Catholic church.  The stained glass windows, the statues of saints, Mary, Jesus and the Guardian Angel (of course) was art that ranked up there with the best Museums that I’ve ever been to.  The beautiful deep jewel tones gave it a regal feel.  The ceiling had an intricate gold pattern and arches that looked like something out of Old World Italy, not little, old Wallis, TX.  It was simply stunning, to say the least.  We had been transported to another place. 

As Mel and I sat together in a pew, praying and thanking the Lord for bringing us here, I caught myself thinking I never wanted to leave.  If this was even a small glimpse of what Heaven will feel like, then I wanted to stay!!  I am not overstating my feeling at all here.  It was real.  My mind and my soul were at peace.  I’ve experienced the peace of God that transcends all understanding before, and this was it.  If you never have, it’s hard to explain, but you know it when you feel it.  I’ve held fast to these verses and I hope you will too.  Philipians 4:6-7  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Upon leaving the church, the Bell tower rang twice.  Both Melinda and I were taken aback at the exact timing of the bells, and we both knew God was sending us each our own personal message.  What a gift we had been given that day.  Seeing that church was an answered prayer.

Ironically, my Facebook memory from 7 years ago that day, after just being diagnosed with cancer for the first time, just two weeks earlier, was this:  It is not God’s will for you to suffer, but in your suffering you can find God’s will.   And I believe I have.  It is sharing my journey with you.  What a gift I was given 7 years ago.  I couldn’t know then the extent of my journey with cancer, or with God for that matter, but I’m grateful for both.  This is one of those answered prayers I was talking about 7 LONG, treacherous pages earlier…lol!  And now, part one is complete.  See, God answered your prayer J

 

Part 2: Radiation and Infection…Again

Part 3: The Surgery that Wasn’t (and the Trial that might be??)                                                                                                      

Sunday, April 5, 2020

HOPE in affliction...


HOPE in affliction…
In this time of uncertainty, people are searching for HOPE.  We are seeing it in so many different ways, all across the world.  People helping people.  It seems simple enough, but right now I’m not able to help.  Me, the helper, the advocate, not knowing how to help.  I’m in that ‘At Risk’ category that shouldn’t be out in public, and that’s been getting me down.  But in the last several weeks I’ve had four different people comment on my past blogs.  This may not seem like a big deal, but I haven’t written in over a year, so I was a little surprised to see the notifications. It wasn’t just my blog though.  Someone also commented on a Facebook Live video that was taken of a conference speech from 2016.   It seemed strange to me that all of a sudden more people were finding me, and my past messages again.  They had to search to find them...and I’m so glad they did.  God works in mysterious ways, and this time HE seems to be working through Google searches and social media.  The comments, on both my blog and the video, filled my soul as I read how my message resounded with them.  Seems that I AM able to help, not physically, or in person (maintaining social distance and all), but through my words.  The comments revealed how my words had given them hope and helped them deal with whatever battles they or their loved ones were facing.  Then I realized that I needed a little bit of that help and hope again myself. 

After reading all the comments, I was humbled by their kindness, and replied with whatever resounded in my heart at that moment.  As I did, I noticed some past comments which somehow went unseen before, and I replied to those as well…some replies nearly a year late.  As I was writing to each person who had so thoughtfully reached out to me, I hoped that the lapse in my response wasn’t ACTUALLY a year too late.  Several of the comments were written by cancer survivors or their families.  I crafted my words, with prayers, that the recipient was still alive on the other end to receive it…a sobering reality in the world of cancer.   When I started writing my ‘blog’ (which is more the beginnings of my book than a blog), I never realized that my message would circulate around the world.  I wrote it with the intention of sharing with my family and friends the trials and tribulations of my journey.  The fact that God has allowed me to help others find hope in their own situation is not lost on me.  HE has repurposed my pain for the sake of helping others.  But sometimes, we have to help ourselves too.  And y’all are helping me do that!

I took the opportunity, after seeing the comment on my conference speech, to watch it.  I’m not sure I ever HAVE watched it, because I don’t like the way my mouth looks when I speak (a result of my tumor and treatment). I know that in the grander scheme of things that may sound silly, and maybe it is, but that’s just me.  As I sat in the comfort of my brown recliner and watched that 2016 conference speech on my phone, I had no idea the emotional journey it would take me on.  I saw a bold, confident woman up there, sharing both personal stories and medical information related to her disease.  I didn’t see the wonky mouth I so worry about.  I saw hope and faith, and the power of proton therapy.  It was like I was watching someone else speak.  When I watched that woman remove her palate obturator during the speech, tears started streaming down my face as I heard her powerful, bold voice become unrecognizable (like a deaf person trying to speak).  I couldn’t help but feel such heartbreak for her, because I realized that the woman whose speech I could no longer understand, was ME.  And even now as I write this, it brings me to tears.

I try to live my life so normally, that even though the pain from my disease is never gone, I tend to forget all that I’ve been through.  Or I prefer to, and CHOOSE to, remember what I’ve still got.  But there are certainly times, like some of the last month, and even many parts of the past year (if I’m honest), that the pain was overwhelming.  And I didn’t take the time to write about it.  Today I think God is using the power of my own words to motivate me to continue fighting, to not lose hope and to persevere, like that woman in the video.  If I can do that, then I will be able to continue sharing and helping others.  I think HE was ever so gently, but with authority, kicking me in the butt (I wanted to use another word here J).  God is telling me once again, to get busy, because my work here is not done yet.  Get writing.  Start sharing.  Be bold.  Your story matters.

Yesterday God was browsing Facebook with me (He was too!) when I came across a post from a dear friend, Jim Murphy, who some of you might remember me talking about in blogs past.  He showed me what it looked like to go through a cancer diagnosis and treatment with faith, courage and dignity.  He shot a commercial for the City of Hope Cancer Center a few years ago and has recently been diagnosed with another cancer.  His commercial from several years ago, was put in circulation again, and he was surprised to see it on his feed (like I was with my speech).  There was awesome footage of Jim on his mountain bike in the trails.  Jim never stopped riding during his treatment, even riding his bike to and from treatment (not around the corner either!).  All I could think about was the fact that maybe God wanted me to tell him what I had been feeling myself; that seeing your past self can remind us of how strong we can be.  I don’t know if Jim needed to hear that message or not.  Maybe it was just a Godincidence that the commercial recirculated now (like my video), but I wanted to tell him, that it’s ok to be momentarily weak.  Or maybe, that’s just what I wanted to tell myself.

A few weeks ago, on my daughter Meghan’s 21st birthday, I felt that momentary weakness.  You see, Meghan goes to school in Arkansas (Woo Pig Sooiee) and I wouldn’t see her on her birthday.  The last 2 years I’ve been able to see her the following week for Mom’s weekend and we would celebrate then.  But this year, a trip to the Bahamas for me (more on that later), and a trip to Austin for Meghan with her boyfriend Austin’s fraternity (of course when I wouldn’t be home) meant that we wouldn’t be together for Mom’s weekend.  I did what I could to make her birthday special, purchasing a fun martini cake for her and giving her money to go out with friends.   I even spent 10 hours (no joke) making a picture slideshow to music that I posted on Facebook. But my heart was aching inside that I couldn’t be there.  My heart was aching realizing that time, which is so important to a cancer survivor (well, anyone, really), has passed me by.  My little girl was a 21 year-old woman, but the mom in me wants to hug her like a 3 year old little girl. 

My friend, Alice, sends an email every day with different devotionals.  This particular day, on Meghan’s birthday it was about joy in suffering.  OK, I get it God.  It’s sad I can’t be there, blah, blah, blah.  Get on with it (me, not God!).  So, to take my mind off things I curled up on the couch with our bunny (yes, bunny!) and started to watch that week’s Greys Anatomy. That’s always happy, right?  Not.   As they always do, the narrator (Meredith this time)  proceeded to start the show by saying this:  “A survey says that a typical adult says ‘I’m fine’ 14 times in a week, but less than 1 in 5 of them mean it.  Our default is to put on a brave face.  But sometimes it’s braver to admit something’s wrong.  Because pretending everything’s fine eventually catches up to you…”

Wow!  I heard those words and felt like I had been slapped and dragged through the mental mud pits (and I’ve done Tough Mudder).  I started to feel the tears welling up and before I knew it they were rolling down my face.  So many times in a normal week I would say the same thing, “I’m fine.”  But all I could say right then, was “I’m not fine.”  Living with pain, day in and day out, is exhausting.  Life as I knew it has changed so much, and sometimes something like missing your daughter’s birthday can trigger other deep rooted emotions.   

To make a long story longer (sorry!), this past year has been extremely hard on me and my family.  To say that I’ve dealt with excruciating pain, would be a monumental understatement.  So many nights I’ve woken myself up moaning in pain.  So many 3am mornings, awake for hours, just waiting for relief that wouldn’t come.  So many times it was so hard for me to eat even the simplest of meals because I couldn’t open my mouth or even chew soft food.  So many times I felt like my brain was going to explode.  So many different pain medications, to get only minor relief.    Last year was hard.  And it’s OK for me to sometimes say, “I’m not fine.”  But do you really want to hear that from me?

I’m not fine.  Last year was hard.  We lost my mother in law on January 31, 2019, and as we were driving home from the hospital after she passed, we saw a huge sign on a building that said FINALLY.  Pain Free.  We had driven this route many times before, and I had never noticed it.  But this time God wanted us to see it.  Sheron had passed away, but FINALLY, she was pain free.  Her severe COPD could no longer cause her pain.  Her lungs were clear.  She could FINALLY breathe.  FINALLY!  I am so thankful for our God, who comforts us when we need it most.  Even if it’s from a sign on the side of the road.  I felt a wave of relief pass through me as I read that sign.  I think it was Sheron reassuring me that she’s OK.  Now, I could only hope that I too would be FINALLY, pain free.  But the doctors were going to have to figure mine out! 

I’m not fine.  Over the course of the past year I was also diagnosed with additional metastases to both my lungs, liver (again), sacrum (had to look that up) and presacral space (is that where your sacrum parks?!?).  I can joke about it now, but I remember getting a call last April from Leah (Dr. Hannah’s sidekick) with the CT results which confirmed the lungs and liver were indeed ACC.  I was so surprised.  I thought I had opted out of the lung mets portion of this disease.  My liver was the problem, not my lungs.  Most people get either/or, not both.  I couldn’t believe what she was telling me.  For a moment the fear and doubt just overwhelmed me and I couldn’t do anything.  Luckily, Molly had to leave for dance while I was on the phone outside.  I just cried, came inside and turned on the television.  I don’t even think I was watching really.  I just needed a distraction.  Will was grocery shopping when I called to ask when he would be home.  He asked if everything was alright (remember our song…Everything’s Gonna Be Alright?).  He could hear the tears through my voice and I simply told him “no”.  I don’t remember what else I said, if anything, but he headed home, hugged me and we both just cried.  The television, that I hadn’t really noticed until that moment, showed a father walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding and I lost it.  Once again, like that first diagnosis on May 2, 2013, fear made me wonder if I would be there to see Will walking Meghan and Molly down the aisle.  For an instant I let that doubt and fear consume me.  I was wondering if this time I wouldn’t be so lucky.  But I was quickly reminded that we have a great God who hasn’t let me down yet.  There is no ‘luck’ with God, just HOPE, and I musn’t lose hope. 

The timing of this diagnosis was terrible...but when is it ever good? It didn’t fit in well with my social calendar. I was about to leave the next day for my 50th birthday trip to Vegas, with one of my best friends Shelly, whose 50th we would also be celebrating (don’t tell her I told you!).  Even through the turmoil of the newest diagnoses, there was not one moment that I considered canceling the trip.  Will agreed that I needed this trip; to go have fun, to get my mind off doctors and cancer.  We decided not to tell the girls about the newest diagnoses until we had a plan. Funny, it’s almost a year later and we still have no plan.  But obviously the girls know.  And, God’s working it all out in the background.  Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord.  Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans for hope and a future.  (This is my life verse)

I went on that trip with Shelly, and it was the best thing I could have done.  After Vegas, I drove back to CA with her and stayed for a week.  On May 2, 2019 (the anniversary of my first diagnosis and Shelly’s 50th birthday), we ventured around LA with Deb (another one of my dearest friends).  I can’t say I didn’t think at all about the diagnosis I had been given a few days earlier.  But when Deb switched the radio, I smiled an ‘A Ha’ smile, as I heard the words, “It’s your breath, in our lungs, and we pour out our praise…” God’s got this.  Great are you Lord.  It’s HIS breath in MY lungs, and yes, I will pour out my praise to Him for reminding me of that.  There may be cancer in my lungs, but His breath is stronger than any cancer.  Like Sheron, I could FINALLY breathe realizing this.

When we got to the top of the US Bank building, which we decided on after another plan got foiled, I was shocked to see HUGE angel wings painted on the side of the building, just waiting for us to take pictures (I LOVE PICTURES).  There was God, once again reminding me of His faithfulness (remember Guardian Angel Catholic Church?).  As I saw two of my very best friends pose against those angel wings, I realized that they, too, are my guardian angels protecting me and loving me on this journey.  There is a host of both heavenly and earthly angels that continue to watch over me and help me.  And I would certainly need them to help get me through what would be a very hard second half of 2019.

 In between all the appointments for pain management, and the back and forth with Infectious Disease, I was prepping for a clinical trial specific to my cancer(Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma).  I had been waiting and praying for so long for something systemic that might help treat the cancer, and here was my opportunity…FINALLY.   The trial, a combination of Axitinib and Avelumab, has shown promise in helping to stabilize ACC.  Every time stabilization has been the goal of one of my treatments, my cancer has gone away!  So, I’ll take stabilization and be thankful for anything that can keep the cancer from growing.  Dr. Glisson had run the litany of tests to preauthorize me for the trial.  I had the scans and the bloodwork.  I had filled out the paperwork.  I had signed my life away (LITERALLY!).   I knew that I could get off the clinical trial train at any time, so what did I have to lose?  Well, as it turns out, it could have been a lot!

I was set to start the trial on 9/24/19, after having one last appointment with my oncologist (Dr. Glisson).  I had mentally prepared for this day.  I was IN.  I was at peace with my decision to start the trial.  The fear of the unknown was gone, and I was 100% ready.  I had that peace that surpasses understanding.  I would head to the infusion area to start the immunotherapy portion of the trial, as soon as that appointment was over.  But as we were talking about my A.M. scans, and she answered some further trial related questions, I heard her say the words, ‘bite the bullet’.  She was referring to the fact that this study could lead to increased osteoradionecrosis, due to the blood vessel inhibiting feature of one of the drugs.  That could then lead to a massively debilitating surgery IF I were to have any further bone loss.  This wasn’t new information to me, but it was the way she said it that made me pause this time.  The brakes had been slammed on my 100% certainty, and all I could feel was the hand of God on my shoulder telling me “No.  Do not start the trial.”   I told her that I wasn’t ready.  I thought I was, but now I wasn’t.  She told me she understood, but said, “You’re going to expire in 2 weeks.”  She was referring to the pre-authorizations, of course, not me…LOL.  I was having to come back in a week for more appointments, and I told her I would start then.  I just needed to pray more and re-boot.  I’d need that boot to kick cancer’s ass again, right?! 

As I was about to leave, I was holding the right side of my face, as I often do because it helps calm the pain.  She moved my hair to the side, which typically covers the side of my face, and she expressed concern for the deep purple tone.  I had been seeing pain management, and infectious disease, so I really didn’t waste my time discussing it with her on other previous appointments.  We had more important things to discuss, like saving my life.  I told her what’s been said and done about it by the other 2 factions, but she said that she wanted the radiologist to dig deeper into the MRI I had that morning.  It looked extremely concerning to her.  Not even an hour later I got the call that he had indeed found infection deeper in the scans that wasn’t evident on the surface.  Had I started the clinical trial that day, it could have had severe long term consequences for me.  God, when he made me pause, saved my life (again!).

For me to recount further the litany of appointments and diagnoses from last year would take another 3 or 4 pages, and I’m already on page 5(!!).  But I will tell you that the majority of my deep-rooted pain WAS from an infection…or two…or three, that went too long without proper diagnosis.  This is a reflection of one doctor, and one doctor alone (in Infectious Disease) that refused to listen to what I was saying.  Luckily, that doctor is no longer a part of my care team or MD Anderson.  But I had pain so bad I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t open my mouth.  My face felt like the hardened stone of a concrete statue.  My jaw/cheeks felt like a fire was blazing throughout, and the deep purple of the flames were protruding through my skin.  That same purple skin so sensitive that even the soft touch of a sweeping feather would make me drop to my knees in pain.  Shooting ear pain every few minutes, sharper and deeper than your worst dental nightmare.  Pain in the back of my head, behind my ear, that felt like a ticking time bomb in my brain about to explode.   Pain meds, acupuncture, cbd/thc (that’s a really funny story on its own – my next blog) and even a nerve block, which hurt like hell (pardon my French), didn’t help. 

No, I wasn’t fine.  After I had been on antibiotics for a week (for the umpteenth time that year), I sent my new ID doctor a picture of my skin and was happy to inform him that I was already feeling better.  Things were looking up!  Dr. Torres unfortunately, completely disagreed with me, and told me I needed to go to the ER the next day.  The concoction of 3 different drugs weren’t doing enough.  That next morning, after stressing all night about what was happening to me, we drove to the ER at MD Anderson in Houston (3 hours away).  I assumed I would be there a night, they might fill me up with IV antibiotics, and I would go home the next afternoon.  But things were worse than we thought, and one night turned into five.  They sent me home, on a different regimen than before, and I just prayed it would work.

Will, who is almost ALWAYS with me, was out of town for my next follow up, so my dear friend Stacy went with me.  I only had one appointment, it was routine, and would be quick.  She and I would enjoy chatting for the 3 hour drive to Houston, then, after the appointment, we would go to Rice Village, enjoy a leisurely lunch and shop in the cute, little boutiques.  We would be home in plenty of time for her 6 o’clock meeting.  Unfortunately, our plans got foiled, our lunch got spoiled, and I ended up in the ER/hospital once again for infections that were so bad they used the words ‘life threatening’.   Stacy was an angel, another one of my precious ones on earth, that refused to leave my side.  I told her she could drive home; that my parents could get me the next day (or whenever they decided to let me go).  She called her husband, who was also adamant she stayed with me.  Neither of us were prepared for an overnighter, but Stacy headed to the gift shop and bought us matching alligator pj’s (I hate hospital gowns) and some necessities.  We made the best out of it, playing with SnapChat filters and laughing so hard it almost seemed inappropriate for the ER/hospital J 

I ended the year on portable IV antibiotics (that Stacy had to learn how to change) at home for 6 weeks, along with 2 other pill antibiotics, and a multitude of pain meds.  I had osteomyelitis, cellulitis and some other infection (probably also ending in ‘itis’).  The infections were indeed the culprit, causing much of my pain, and as the IV began its work, I felt much of my pain and worry fade away.  The six weeks leading up to Christmas, were still filled with holiday preparations and parties (I love to have fun and no IV was going to stop me).  For the most part, life went on as we had planned.  But remember that trip to the Bahamas (I talked about it an hour or two ago…lol)?  Will and I were supposed to go in December to celebrate our 25th anniversary.  It would have to wait.  I was so upset, but then again, happy to be alive.   We rescheduled for my birthday in March.

The IV was really quite fascinating; it was a ball (no ball and chain jokes, please) that I could hide in the sleeves of my big, comfy winter sweaters (good thing it wasn’t summer) or inside a little purse hanging at my side.  It was hidden so well, that unless I rolled up my sleeve, you wouldn’t even know it was there.  A nurse came weekly to change the dressing, but it was up to one of my family members (usually Will, sometimes Molly) or friends to change the IV daily.  Meghan, who was home for Christmas, was forced to change it for me one day.  She turned sheet white and started sweating.  Good thing she’s a Finance major, not pre-med.

I went through the holidays with our extended family in town and felt better than I had all year.  By the time the IV was ready to come out, I felt like new life had been breathed into me.  He’s the breath in our lungs…I can still hear the song playing in Deb’s car.  The antibiotics had done their job.  My scans this past January showed no signs of infection.  For several weeks I was able to eat, drink and be merry.  My trismus had improved, and my jaw pain better.  I ate, and ate, and ate J And gained ‘ate’ pounds…ha ha.  I was fine.

I started the new year eating healthier and going to the gym.  I hadn’t been able to work out most of last year due to the pain.   2020 was a new start for me.  But as the days and weeks passed by, the pain started to creep up again.  That familiar piercing ear pain had returned, as did the jaw pain that made even eating mashed potatoes near impossible.  We were just weeks away from our Bahamas trip on 3/2, when I reached out to ID again, explaining the symptoms, that I knew to be infection.  Seven years of cancer has created in me a keen sense of my body awareness.  They were reluctant to believe it could be infection, as it didn’t show on my last scan.  But the infections didn’t show on scans most of last year either, until the osteomyelitis appeared later in the year.  I asked if I could take some of the leftover amoxicillin (that they had taken me off to be replaced with stronger meds).  They said it wouldn’t help.  But early in my journey last year, it DID help when my ENT had prescribed it. Normally I would never take something I wasn’t recently prescribed.  But here was the dilemma…we had a prepaid, all-inclusive trip to Sandals, and that meant lots of eating and drinking to be had!  Now, I shouldn’t admit this, but I took the amoxicillin.  And I got better.  We went on that trip and celebrated our anniversary and my birthday in grand style.  I’ve since gone off the amoxicillin, and some of the pain has returned, but not as bad as before the trip.  I’ve continued working out, participating in a challenge to walk 200 miles in 90 days.  I read the Bible in 90 days years ago…200 miles will be a breeze in comparison! 

Next time you ask me how I’m doing, I may smile and say “I’m Fine”, but I may really be wanting to cry out to you, “I’m NOT fine.”  And I know that’s OK.  For so long I was so strong, but it’s OK for me to show when I’m weak.   2 Corinthians 4:17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.   Sure, the pain of cancer can get me down (regardless of its source).  The new ‘normal’ of self-isolation and quarantine from the Corona Virus can get me down.  Not being able to see my friends, who are my angels, can get me down.  Having my daughter so far away in Arkansas can get me down.  Knowing Molly won’t get to go to school or prom because of Covid 19 can get me down.  Yes, I get down.  I’m human. But then God will send me a sign.  And this time that sign is you.  Things are looking up.

As I look back at the comments on my blogs or videos, I forget my pain.  God reminds me how sharing my story might bring someone else a spark of hope.  So many times over the last several weeks that’s been made clear to me.  Just today, as I came close to finishing this blog, a new comment popped up from a man who has ACC (my cancer), now lives in Texas (where I live), and who has been looking for a sign of his own.  Then he found my “Here’s Your Sign” blog. If that isn’t God working, I don’t know what is.  I’ve been looking for a sign too.  And it’s been the many people commenting and reaching out to me lately, that were my sign to keep writing.  Writing heals my heart and eases my pain.  Sharing my story, the good, the bad and ugly cleanses my soul.  It reminds me that HOPE brings light.  I need to remember to be my own light sometimes too.  I’m proud of the lady in that speech who shares her journey with the world.  As I finish this, my tears are now of joy.  Her journey brings me hope.  I pray it does that for you too.  Romans 12:12  Be joyful in Hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.   

On this Palm Sunday, may you and your family be filled with the HOPE that is alive in Jesus Christ.  As he entered Jerusalem amidst people laying down palms, crying out ‘Hosanna in the highest’, He knew what would happen that week.  He knew he would be betrayed, be sacrificed and would rise again.  And he went willingly…FOR US.   That’s how much HE loves us.  HE thinks we are worth it.  Remember, there is always HOPE, no matter how bad things seem, that’s alive in HIM.  God Bless you as we enter this Holy Week.

Cathleen McBurney  (April 5, 2020)

Thursday, January 10, 2019

HERE’S YOUR SIGN…


January 2, 2019 – HERE’S YOUR SIGN…
I found myself in an all too familiar space this morning, both physically and emotionally.  Lying on the acupuncture table, with the last needle placed, I felt the tears start rolling down my cheeks.  I looked out the window at the pouring rain, which always seems to depress me (I could never live in the Pacific Northwest…sorry Gina J).  My eyes started to well up even more as I realized I was crying, and before you know it, I was weeping out loud.  I felt guilty, and burdened, as I wanted to ask God why…why again, and again, and again, and again.  But just like the  time 4 months ago, when I was facing the reality of my fifth cancer diagnosis in 5 years, I laid on that table, tears rolling down my face(except this time my mascara wasn’t waterproof), and I asked God for a sign that I was going to be OK.  When I paused for a moment, I once again turned my attention to the rain.  A Ha…healing rain.  There it was.  God’s tears falling with mine. Years ago, my dear friend Gina sent me a link to the song Healing Rain.  And here I was now, seeing it fall, knowing that God was saying…Here’s your sign.

I suppose I should rewind a bit, and tell you how I came to this point.  Without too much detail over the last couple years that I haven’t written about, I will say that my doctors have had to play (as Dr. Hanna described it), whack a mole with my cancer.  After my liver surgery in 2016 (Same Name, Different River), I faced two additional cancer metastases to both my liver and kidney.  My doctors have been watching me closely, and this time the tumors were small enough that they both could be treated with microwave ablation (a one-time buzz that only required an overnight stay each time).  So, one week before hosting 14 people at my house for Christmas in 2017, I had a kidney ablation.  And, like always, I somehow managed to rise to the occasion.  Then, in January of 2018, I had a liver ablation, which didn’t quite go as easily or smoothly as the kidney surgery did, but I managed to make the best of it.  Life goes on…until it doesn’t.

I was back on a 3 month follow up, and my April scans showed that the ablation procedures had done their jobs and I was back on the mend.  They don’t ever say the words cancer free to me, and I doubt they ever will.  The most I can hope for is a dance with NED every now and again.  NED isn’t some mystery man waiting to give me a twirl, but it means No Evidence of Disease.  But there is a NED, one that would sweep my best friend off her feet. 

Terry and Ned’s wedding was over Memorial Day weekend this past year, and I was so excited to be giving  a reading.  But the weeks leading up to the wedding left me wondering if I would even be able to attend, let alone speak to their love.  You see, I had started to experience intense pain in my jaw that emanated through my teeth, and through the lower branch of my trigeminal nerve (the only branch not affected by my original cancer).   Brushing my teeth had become a burden, the pain so great that it would bring me not only to tears, but to my knees.   My jaw had become so tight, that getting my obturator in and out was becoming almost impossible.  So, while I could, I took it out so I could properly irrigate all the nooks and crannies that make up the inside of my mouth...like the deep, dark tunnels inside a cave left from my first tumor and treatment.   But, what I didn’t consider was that I wouldn’t be able to get it back in.  Without this device, speaking is very difficult for me, and understanding me even more so.  Not only was I dealing with incredible pain, but now I was facing the very real possibility that I wouldn’t be able to get it back in by Terry’s wedding.  But, I was going to go to that wedding and do that reading for Terry and Ned, regardless. 

Multiple rounds of antibiotics, visits with my dentist, an oral surgeon and more, and the answers just didn’t seem to add up.  After trying acupuncture once before at MD Anderson, I decided to bite the bullet and see if it could help with my pain.  After several rounds, my pain started to get better, and I was able to open my mouth wider than I had in over 15 years.  I made it to Terry’s wedding and I cried as I read the words…tears of joy for my best friend and for the fact that I was there to share it.  I may not be dancing with NED, but Terry was, and that was enough for me.

Another one of my dear friends, Deb, came out for a visit to Texas, just a week after I returned from Colorado.  I’m lucky to have such great friends, with such unshakable faith.  They remind me during those times where I didn’t think I needed to rely on HIM, that there will never be a time that I don’t.  Deb and I started new daily (OK, maybe not daily) devotionals, mine being ‘How to pray for healing’.  I didn’t realize at the time how prophetic that choice would be.

After these two amazing visits had come and gone, I had a feeling (and quite frankly, a fear) that the pain of the previous months was something more than a tooth problem.  I’ve always tried to keep the  fear and anxiety that come with cancer away.  But pain has a way of wearing you down, and I became fearful that the cancer was back.  One thing fear does do, is motivate you.  I called MD Anderson and told them that I wasn’t comfortable waiting until September to have my Head/Neck annual scans.  Ironically, last year was the first time they put me on a year follow up cycle.  I had been scheduled for every 6 months for the last several years, but since I hadn’t shown any signs of a local recurrence, they thought I should be fine waiting the extra six months.  During that call, my doctors immediately scheduled me to come in and on June 25th, I had an MRI of my head/neck, and a CT of my abdomen/pelvis/chest. 

As Will and I headed to MDA on the 26th to get word on the scans, we heard the song, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”.  I felt a sense of relief and simply said to Will, everything IS gonna be alright.  It just so happens my Facebook memory from 7 years ago to that day, was a video of Molly (my youngest daughter who was 8 at the time) playing Amazing Grace on the piano at our old church, Placentia Presbyterian Church…the church where my faith was anchored; the church where I read the entire Bible in 90 days; the church where I was married; the church where my entire family, including myself was baptized.    I thought to myself, these are Godincidences…reminders for me to rely on HIM; His way of showing me that He has never left my side.   I went into my appointment with Dr. Hanna, ready to hear the scan results, knowing ‘everything was gonna be alright’...David Lee Murphy and Kenny Chesney told me so it had to be true!  Here’s your sign…

After all the usual chit chat with Dr. Hanna about the girls (Meghan at University of Arkansas and how he had roots in Arkansas working at UA – Little Rock until 2004), Molly’s dance and my new Patient Engagement job, he said to me, "Five years."  He emphasized it with a pregnant pause.   He was excited about me hitting the five year survival mark and wanted to recognize that.  In my mind, it wasn't five years cancer free though, so I wasn't quite as giddy as him.  But then,  he smiled at me his sweet smile, and said with all sincerity, “I’m proud of you.”  But there was something in the way he looked at me this time that made me get a sinking feeling in my gut, that maybe David Lee Murphy and Kenny Chesney were liars.   Despite the songs directive not to, I started to hit that internal panic button.  When he called in the Head/Neck radiologist, I knew it wasn’t good.  They both began to explain that the pain I was feeling and the MRI imaging was concerning for recurrence.  The host of medical bystanders from around the globe simply watched our communications.   He wanted me to have a CT the next day to further assess the situation.  He tried to put me at ease by saying he was paid to be suspicious.  That anything out of the ordinary is guilty until proven innocent.  I sure hoped the CT would clear it of all charges…but it didn’t.

Two and a half short weeks later we were on that same drive from Austin to Houston that we’ve taken too many times to count.  I’m not superstitious, but did I mention that this was also Friday the 13th? We had a very early 4:30 am start, and once the sun started peaking through, I read that daily devotional I had started with Deb just one short month earlier.  It told me to pray with an expecting faith.  Pray in faith and do not doubt.  Pray with eager expectation and unwavering assurance that God is with you.  He is listening to your prayer and will respond with a miracle.  I know it’s possible…I’ve been the recipient of His miracles.     Mark 5:34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.  Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.   Another verse quoted during that devotional was Mark 9:23  And Jesus said to him, “If you can, all things are possible for the one who believes.”  Don’t think it’s coincidence, because it’s so much more, that this is the same verse Terry had read to me the night before when she called.   And, as we entered Houston, 3 hours into the drive, guess what song came bursting through the radio? David Lee Murphy and Kenny Chesney would not let me doubt, telling me yet again that ‘Everything’s gonna be alright.”  It brought me to tears this time as I was headed to MDA for my biopsy.  Here’s your sign…

I don’t believe in any power other than that from the Lord, however, this Friday the 13th wasn’t going very well.  Conscious sedation was an epic failure.  I was in a light sleep, eyes closed and I felt something hurt.  I’m not a doctor, but I know I shouldn’t be feeling ANYTHING.  Yet all of a sudden I felt pain.  I heard someone say, “She’s out, right?”  One more prick and my eyes popped open and I yelled, “No she’s not!”  It made me think of some scary zombie movie when they pop back to life. I bet they still talk about that (it had to be pretty funny).  They used more local to try to ease the pain.  It felt like a chisel and a hammer, but these weren’t sculptors, and I was certainly no masterpiece (although God would beg to differ…aren’t we all his masterpieces?).  Recovery that day went as expected though, until the last final dose of dilotid.  The nurse decided to mix it with an anti-inflammatory this time and I immediately felt a wave of nausea come over me.  That feeling never ceased, and as we drove the long 3+ hours home, I was dry heaving the whole way.  That is until we finally hit RR 620 in Lakeway (where we live).  It was then as we passed the high school that I started puking.  Seriously?  We were in the car for more than 3 hours and it couldn’t wait until we got home in 6 minutes?  Maybe it was the traffic on 620 that made me sick…locals know what I mean.  Luckily I had my puke bucket with me, which sloshed the remnants of the gingerale and two small bites of graham cracker that I managed to get down in recovery.  I felt better after tossing my cookies, just like after a good night of drinking, but without the fun.  A two hour nap at home, and 11 hours of sleep that night and I was almost back to normal.  Biopsy results in 3-5 days.

It was Monday, 7/16 at 1:27PM when I was working on Cancer Survivorship Care Plans for work, that I got a call from an all too familiar 713-745#.  My heart skipped a beat as I answered, and it was Katie from Dr. Hanna’s office.  I told her I was surprised to hear from her already…it hadn’t even been one working day since my biopsy.  I think I went to another place in my head as I heard her say, “the pathology did unfortunately show adenoid cystic carcinoma.”  Uggghhh…here we go again.  Quick results are NEVER good.  

Will was on a ride when I got the call.  The tears and cries of disbelief were once again overwhelming me.  I left him a message and told him to call me or come home ASAP; that Dr. Hanna’s office had called and it wasn’t good.  He didn’t need to hear me say the words.  He could hear it by the cries and the cracks in my voice.  I didn’t tell ANYONE else, even though my heart wanted to for support.  I didn’t feel right about it without not yet having told the girls.  There is never a right time to tell them, but today was not the day.  Tomorrow night after Molly gets off work at 8.  Meghan just got home from a trip to Little Rock and Molly was in a dance intensive all day.  I didn’t want to add to their physical exhaustion, with the mental exhaustion of having to tell them for the 5th time that their mother had cancer.  I wish that conversation on not even my worst enemy (not that I have any ;)

After hearing that news, all I wanted to do was lie on the couch and cry.  I watched the Ellen Show, which I hadn’t seen in years.  You know how she is always playing these funny games with people in her audience?  Well today she had a Kicking Boot game.  This was not lost on me, as the theme for my journey has always been a boot and to Kick Cancer’s Ass.  Here’s your sign… That same day Will got a random email from his company about their employee cancer group’s fundraiser.  And, after Ellen I scrolled through Facebook and saw that a friend and fellow survivor had posted a YouTube video of Matchbox 20’s song 3AM.  I thought this an odd match…my 70 something British friend posting Matchbox 20.  But I’ve always loved the song.  When I watched the live video of him playing the song and explaining the meaning, it all made sense.  He played it slower than usual, and with only the piano, explaining that he had written the song about a time when he was 12 and his mother had cancer.  He wrote it so its meaning was open to interpretation, but hearing it again through my survivor’s ears made me understand its true meaning and love it even more.  “I can’t help but be scared of it all sometimes, but the rain’s gonna wash away I believe it.”   Healing rain.   Here’s your sign…

That night I took the girls out for yogurt and Meghan took control of the tunes, which is something Molly has started doing as well (as if I’m so old that I can’t possibly play good music).  We took the Camaro SS convertible (my dream car that I got after my liver ablation in January), top down and blaring some tunes.  I told her to play some good old 90’s or early 2000’s(which by the way was the music they grew up on and now love…my taste in music not so bad after all).  The first song she played was 3AM by Matchbox 20.  I could hardly believe it.   I hadn’t told her that I watched that video earlier in the day. Here’s your sign… 

As I sit here now listening to the rain as I write this, it’s a good reminder that it’s OK to be scared and tired, but God’s going to wash it all away.  That was, and still is, a fact that I need to cling to.  You see, playing Whack A Mole is much easier, to an extent, when there is a metastasis to another part of your body versus a local recurrence.  Having already had radiation to my head/neck, it’s highly unusual to have additional radiation to the same location (even if my first radiation was proton therapy, which spares healthy tissues).  So, having a diagnosis, did not immediately equate to having a plan, which made the conversation we needed to have with the girls even more difficult.  I wanted to sit both girls down together, like we had most of the times before, but getting two teenage girls together in the same room, at a designated time, without making it seem like our motives were questionable, is difficult.  We decided it would be worse to try to make a production of it.  It somehow seems more devastating sitting them down together like they were witnesses to the crime of the century.  No, we would just tell them each individually.  We told Meghan a little earlier in the day, and you could see the exhaustion and fear in her eyes.  She’s strong, and said with a crack in her voice, “You just can’t get a break!”  Writing this right now brings tears to my eyes.  It was such a genuine response, and so damn true.  But the sad thing is I feel the same way about them…my family…they just can’t get a break from this either.    Meghan asked about treatment options and plans, and we simply told her they were trying to figure it all out.  This wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t actually the truth either.

Molly was at work until 8 (her summer job at the swim center), so we just waited.  Moments pass ever so slowly when you are waiting for anything, but imagine waiting to tell your kids you have cancer…again.  As we waited for her to get home, we passed the time, doing what any normal family would do.  We watched Family Feud (oh wait, that’s not what normal people do? LOL).  I don’t understand my obsession, but when we were little my cousin Bridget and I always wanted to be on the show with our moms and our Grandma.  We never did (Fun Fact:  I was a contestant on Price is Right though!), but I still yell at the TV and contestants who miss the most obvious answers.  I sometimes even call them morons (not nice, I know).   Anyways, I digress, but it’s important to the story.  Molly got home from work, and we all were sitting awkwardly watching FF.  I was waiting…for what I don’t know.  But the words didn’t want to come out of my mouth.   Then, Steve Harvey started talking to one of the contestants.  It was a man my age who told Steve that at the age of 29 he was diagnosed with cancer being told he had two months to live.  There he was 21 years later doing great.  I could hardly believe what I was hearing.  This was my opportunity to tell her, with a positive spin, that yes, I had cancer, but I would be OK.  I got the courage and told her, and her response was a very quiet “OK”.    I could see in her eyes the questions that she didn’t want to ask, for fear of the answers.  She was stoic as well, but I know this stirs up fear and anxiety.  And the last thing I want to do is add to that more than I already have. 

The next few weeks stirred up some fear and anxiety of my own, as I struggled with the reality that I had a disease that had very few treatment options left (which is something we never told the girls).  On July 31st, I had a meeting with my medical oncologist, Dr. Glisson, where I asked if Dr. Hanna could surgically remove the tumor.  NO.  I asked about clinical trials (I had done some research and thought I found some viable options).  NO.  I didn’t ask about chemo…I already knew.  NO.   I asked about compassionate use.  NO.  I asked about RNA testing.  NO.  As I worked my way down the notes in my journal, I started to lose Hope (cancer can wear you down, no matter how strong your faith).   I left that appointment thinking there was nothing they could do…at least not now.
Dr. Glisson did give a glimmer of hope, with the news that she was actually writing a clinical trial specific for ACC that she hoped would be available in 3-6 months.   But she wanted me to see Phase 1 clinical trials just to put me on their radar should anything else come available.  I also decided that I would schedule an appointment with my proton radiation oncologist, Dr. Frank (who is now also a co-worker of sorts…we are on the Board of Directors together for the Alliance for Proton Therapy Access and he is a Thought Leader for a project I’m doing with my work).  Even thought I knew I couldn’t have proton again, I trust him and his opinions and it didn’t feel right not having him be a part of the conversation. 

I got appointments scheduled with both Dr. Frank and Phase I Clinical Trials for August 9th.  In the meantime I had to do something to deal with the physical and emotional pain, so I continued with acupuncture.  When I had my first session after the meeting with Dr. Glisson, Gayl (my acupuncturist) asked me how I was doing and what to focus on for that day (she could no longer do focused treatments to my jaw since nothing has been documented on how direct acupuncture might affect a tumor and we couldn’t take any chances).   I told her I was an emotional wreck and could we work on my ‘chi…or whatever it is’.  She placed the needles and left the room, and I felt the tears start streaming down my face.  I lay there looking out the window at the blue skies and clouds, not realizing I was about to start bawling.  Whatever needles she placed turned on the waterworks, and no matter how much I tried to hold it in, I couldn’t.   As I looked out that window, I asked God to please show me a sign that I was going to be OK.  I didn’t know when or where, but I prayed for that sign and I waited.

Waiting seemed to be a theme, as I had been waiting for several months now for a treatment plan.  And on 8/9 I waited 4 hours in a room to see Dr. Frank.  Normally I would be quite irritated with a 4 hour wait, but I knew he was working me in, and waiting is all I seemed to be doing so I was quite used to it.  And, maybe, just maybe, it would be worth it.  As I sat there I heard the familiar ringing of the gong, which made me smile knowing someone else was on their way to recovery.  After finally catching up with Dr. Frank, he told me the same things I had already heard.  I asked him if there was ANYTHING he could pull out of his back pocket.  Then, with a brief pause, he said, “Well…”.  WELL???  That was the most encouraging word I had heard in months.  He proceeded to tell me about a protocol (trial) being conducted at MDA using SBRT (stereotactic based radiation therapy) for re-irradiation.  Typically you cannot have radiation to the same area twice, but they are testing that theory using SBRT, which similar to proton is a highly precise form of radiation that spares most of the healthy tissues.  He was going to confer with Dr. Hanna as well that evening.  And, he would schedule me an appointment with Dr. Phan to see if I was even a candidate.  He seemed hesitant to recommend a trial that may or may not work, and could potentially cause damage to my facial structure which would require major surgery to correct.  But it was a dangled carrot, and today I was a bunny looking to bite.

Since I waited 4 hours to see Dr. Frank, I completely missed my appointment with Phase 1 Clinical Trials.  Luckily, they worked me in as well.  The nurse told me about a couple different trials that she thought I might be a candidate for.  I could hardly believe what I was hearing.  When the doctor came into the room, he babbled off some drug names that I could never remember, let alone spell, so the details are a little sketchy.  But I remember sitting in a room signing a bunch of documents consenting to a trial.  I told them I would have to get approval from all my doctors.  They said my medical oncologist had to sign off on it, since she was the one familiar with my cancer type.  A decision would have to be made within the next couple weeks, since there were only 3 spots available and people were waiting.  I wouldn’t want to keep anyone else from starting a treatment that might save them, but I also didn’t want to jump the gun with an experimental treatment.  They told me that my participation would keep me eligible for other trials as they become available (specifically Dr. Glisson’s ACC trial).  But this could be an option for me in the meantime.  That day, I was finally given HOPE for a treatment, as well as what seemed to be two different options.  Things were looking up!

Will and I left Houston that day, exhausted and hungry.  All the waiting around left us without an opportunity to grab a bite to eat, and we left so early (3:30am) that we didn’t even have breakfast.  Our plan was to stop at Buc-ee’s in Katy (about 45 minutes outside of Houston) and get a barbecue sandwich!   I was so excited about the events of the day, and just as excited to stop at Buc-ee’s (don’t judge…I love it there!).  Traffic was terrible in Houston (what’s new) so Will used WAZE to find the best route home.  We always use WAZE, and it often re-routes us to avoid some accident, but this time was different. It took us out to some country backroads we had never been on (and we have taken that trip probably a hundred times in the last 5 years).  We were driving through one stop sign towns with cute names like Orchard and Wallis.  It was beautiful country, but we had no idea where we were.  And, it looked like we would be dropped back on the 10 FWY in Sealy, well past Katy and our BBQ sandwich at Buc-ees.  It looked like our hunger would too have to wait.  I didn’t mind too much, as I really loved the innocence and nostalgia of these old towns.  Then, as we drove through the small town of Wallis, I saw past the intersection the most beautiful old white church that just mesmerized me.  I said to Will, “Look at that beautiful old church.”  And just like that we had passed it by and I didn’t give it another thought.  A mile or two down the road Will pulled into the parking lot of a gas station/Mexican restaurant.  I knew he was hungry, but I said, “Please tell me we aren’t eating here?”  It was really more of a statement than a question, but no amount of hunger could make me eat there.  He proceeded to drive through the parking lot and said, “No, I’m turning around.  We’re going back to that church.”  Now let me tell you that patience is not one of Will’s virtues, and he was on the verge of hangry.  So for him to turn around to take me to that church was a very unexpected, but sincere gesture.  I know that God tapped him on the shoulder.  We pulled into that church parking lot and it was even more spectacular than I dreamed.  I wanted to take pictures of it, so we got out of the car.  I looked at the historical marker that was placed (I knew it was old) and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the name of the church…Guardian Angel Catholic Church.    There was a beautiful Guardian angel statue and I knew in that instance God had once again given me a sign.  He answered my prayers, but not with some little sign.  This time He hit me on the head with it.  As if he was saying, “Cathleen, listen.  Your hope isn’t in a trial or a drug, but it’s in me.  Look at all the things I did to make you see that.  I used WAZE (yes, even God is tech savvy) to re-route you.  I made sure you saw this church.  I tapped Will on the shoulder and made him turn around, and I made sure you saw Guardian Angel Catholic Church.”    And, for good measure, when Will and I got in the car, you’ll never believe the first song on the radio…”Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”  Maybe Kenny Chesney wasn’t a liar after all J  ‘Nobody’s gotta worry ‘bout nothin’, don’t go hittin’ that panic button; There ain’t no doubt, it’s gonna work out.’  Here’s your sign…

Guardian Angels seemed to be placing their imprint on my life in an ever peculiar way after that point, just as Ladybugs do(if you know me, you understand).   My mom was shopping and looked down and saw a charm bracelet with angels on it.  Of course she had to buy it.  Molly got the part of the Angel soloist for her dance company’s Nutcracker spectacular.  It wasn’t necessarily the part she wanted, albeit one of the major solos, but it was the part I needed to see her do.  Watching her onstage with those angel wings took my breath away.  Here’s your sign…

Now I couldn’t have found that church again if I tried, but once again, a few weeks later, I was heading back from Houston with my mom after a PET scan and we used WAZE again to navigate us.  Of course, I had told her about the church and my prayer.  Once again I didn’t recognize our route…it was definitely not the same route Will and I had taken the last trip home.  But about an hour in, I felt like I was having déjà vu, and then in the distance I saw that church!  Anxiety from another long day of tests, turned to excitement.  My mom and I stopped and walked around.  We walked across the drive to a bunch of large crosses.  It was a park made up of the Stations of the Cross.  I took more pictures and I tugged at the front door of the church, hoping to go in, hoping to be able to pray inside, but it was locked.  So we moved on, with a peace and a joy surrounding us.  Here’s your sign…

The next day Will and I drove back for my consultation with Dr. Phan, the radiation oncologist running the SBRT protocol.    We were sitting in the near empty waiting room when the nurse came out and called for McBurney.  Will and I stood up.  And so did the only other couple in the waiting room.  We all looked at each other completely confused, and the nurse said Elizabeth McBurney.  Elizabeth?  What?  I have never met another McBurney that wasn’t family.  Will had heard them talking about Proton Therapy.  When we realized what was happening, I had the urge to give her a hug, and give her my Alliance For Proton Therapy Access card.  We chatted real briefly before she headed into her appointment.  Not only was it strange to meet another McBurney in the waiting room, but the fact that it was the same day, same appointment time, with the same doctor.  Here’s your sign…

Dr. Phan was very excited about the possibility of treating me with the SBRT protocol.  He didn’t sugar coat the treatments.  He was very honest that the goal would be to stop progression of the disease;  that would  be what dictates success.  Of the 140 cases he treated with this protocol, there was an 80% control rate.  Of course, he was hopeful it would shrink the tumor, but didn’t want me to put all my apples in that basket.  I asked him about potential harm to my facial structure, and he was honest that there is a possibility of damage that would require major reconstructive surgery.   I asked him if we could wait until Dr. Glisson’s clinical trial was available, and only do SBRT if that didn’t work.  But the answer was NO again.  He wouldn’t be able to do SBRT on my tumor if it grew another 25%.  Was that a chance I was willing to take, for a treatment that wasn’t even available yet?  NO.  I told him that I wanted to talk to Dr. Glisson and Dr. Hanna again before agreeing to the treatment.  He scheduled an appointment for a mask fitting just to get it on the books, and they also got me those appointments with my medical team, that would help me decide if this was the right thing to do. 

I was so happy to get an email from Elizabeth McBurney on 9/2.  The similarities and coincidences continued to present themselves.  Elizabeth would also be treated for a tumor in her jaw, using SBRT and would be getting her mask fitting on 9/20, the same day that Dr. Phan scheduled my appointment.  When I responded to her email I told her about my family, as she had shared about hers.  I told her Meghan was a sophomore at the University of Arkansas and that Molly was a sophomore in High School and a dancer.  The story gets stranger though, when before I even got a reply from Elizabeth, Meghan texted me a picture of an Instagram message she had gotten.  It was from a girl, Morgan, who told her that her grandmother (Elizabeth) and Meghan’s mom (me) met at MD Anderson and both have cancer in their jaw and are being treated by the same doctor.  And, she too happens to go to the University of Arkansas!!  Morgan found Meghan’s profile based on what I told Elizabeth.  I hadn’t even told Meghan about Elizabeth yet!  They ended up meeting for coffee too.  What a small world.  Here’s your sign…

I met with Dr. Glisson and Dr. Hanna the following week, who both concurred that right now, the SBRT protocol was my only real choice for treatment and control.  Dr. Glisson’s trial was still being written and it wouldn’t be smart to wait.  She would recommend Cisplatin (chemo) concurrent with the SBRT to help weaken the cells (chemo alone will not kill my cancer).  Cisplatin is the same chemo I had during my proton treatment 5 years earlier.  Dr. Hanna put me at ease saying that he could “put humpty dumpty back together again.” if that was necessary.  He explained the reconstruction and how it would work.  He said it’s an easy surgery for him, but a difficult surgery for the recipient (which hopefully won’t be me).  When I asked if he thought the treatment was worth the risk, he replied with a resounding “Yes.”  I had the answers I needed…I would proceed with the protocol.  Here's your sign...

September 20th came, and another early morning drive to Houston was on the docket.  I was scheduled for bloodwork before getting my mask fitting.  As we entered Garage 10, I was checking my email and I once again heard the song, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”  The email I was reading was from my old friend Teresa(who was my maid of honor way back when).  Every year she walks for the City of Hope to raise money for cancer research.  She was asking for support, and wrote about her father who passed away from cancer, her sister-in-law, and me.  She was walking for us.  I was humbled and felt a tear roll down my cheek.  Here's your sign. Then after they pricked my arm and we walked out of the main lab, a lady approached me and handed me a scripture page.  She said she was a Missionary for Jesus.  She was sitting on a bench and didn’t approach anyone else.  Here’s your sign…

I knew that Elizabeth would be at MDA that day, but I didn’t realize our mask fittings were one after the other.  Rose, the nurse, asked if we had met ‘the other’ McBurneys.  They happened to be in the room across the hall at the same time.  I laughed when I saw the NAME ALERT on the door.  We said hello and gave each other hugs and went on with our appointments.    We bumped into Sonny, Elizabeth's husband, in the proton waiting room.  When Elizabeth came out, it was my turn next.  The mask fitting was definitely more constricting than I remembered, and I wasn’t convinced when Chris, the med student, called it a weird spa day.  Weird, yes…spa day was a stretch.  He had already helped with Elizabeth’s mask and said to me, “All the McBurney’s seem nice.”  I answered, “So far so good.”  He laughed and noted that Elizabeth said the exact same thing.   Gotta love a McBurney J
Elizabeth and Sonny would become very special to us over the course of treatment.  While Elizabeth only had 3 treatments compared to my 5, we enjoyed learning more about each other and bonding over this strange journey that would bring us together.  The day of our second radiation treatment, she brought me a “Happy Bag” with a HOPE cross and a journal (very fitting for me J).  The journal cover said, “I’m Fine.  You’re Fine.  We’re all fine.”  Love it.  It's a saying we have said to each other multiple times since.  Our treatments were always one after the other, and I was so happy that I was able to watch her ring the gong after her third treatment.  When I finally rang my gong after my last treatment, I sent her a picture of that moment.  We had gone through it together, and I wanted her to feel a part of it on that day too.  It’s odd the way God brings people together.  I know this was not a coincidence.  Here’s your sign…

Treatment itself was pretty uneventful, so I won’t bore you with those details…just radiation, chemo, radiation, radiation, radiation, chemo, radiation.  Although,  I did cause a frenzy during my first chemo, with my Buc-ee’s theme (doesn’t everybody have themed chemos??).  The night before I left for Houston, Chris and Robert came by to see me and brought me an entire gift bag of Buc-ee’s goodies.  If you’ve read my story from the beginning you know what a special place Buc-ee’s holds for me.  It’s the good we experience between the bad on our trips to Houston.  All my closest friends get my obsession; so much so that Chris and Robert drove 45 minutes to the Bastrop Buc-ee’s at 10pm to make me smile.  And, it worked.  I got a Buc-ee’s t-shirt (the leopard print boasted his wild side), a Buc-ee’s puppet (everyone should have one), socks (leopard, that say “Buc-ee is my spirit animal”), bumper sticker and more.   It made me happy and I have to admit, I kind of liked the looks of curiosity and judgment.   My second chemo was dubbed an Arkansas theme, with my Razorback shirt and blanket (which I stole from Meghan).  Of course, Buc-ee was still there, hanging on the IV rack, ready to kick some cancer’s ass.  And when I rang that radiation gong I mentioned before, Buc-ee was right there ringing it with me.   

Now, three months since that first treatment, I prepare for my follow up appointments, hoping and praying that the treatment has stopped the tumor and that nothing has spread.  I don’t want to play Whack A Mole anymore.  I’m tired.   And during my last acupuncture, I walked in a little weary from all the pain, looking for more relief.  I told Gayl how I felt better, both physically and emotionally since that last treatment (that I mentioned at the start of this entry) when I asked for a sign and saw God’s healing rain outside that window.  I told her I started writing again, and how that helped clear my head and form a release for my emotions.   What she told me next would bring a tear to both my eyes and hers.  When I walked into the room, she said she saw a white light surrounding me, which she believed to be an angel.  She had never seen it over me before, but it was at that moment that she believed I’d truly be OK.  My guardian angel.  And if that’s not enough, when I told my mom that story later in the day, she told me this: When my mother in law was in the hospital a few months back after losing consciousness (due to her COPD), I was there at the foot of the bed.  When she first woke up and saw me, she saw a white light surrounding me.  My guardian angel?  Yes.  I get it.  Here’s your sign…

Addendum:
January 9, 2019:  An early morning at MDA today but happy to see Elizabeth and Sonny again!  We had a chance to meet their son and daughter in law later in the day as well which was great.  Fun to meet even more McBurneys J  We spent the better part of 10 hours running from appointment to appointment(I closed all my rings…Apple watch folks get it ;)) , and I’m happy to report that my tumor has shrunk.  Results were substantially better than Dr. Phan expected for my three month follow up.  There is no sign of any new metastasis.  Our prayers were answered yet again.  You can’t imagine the relief and gratitude I feel right now:  Relief that my family can breathe easier knowing that God is once again performing miracles in my life. Gratitude for God’s amazing grace and the multitude of people around the world praying for me and my family over the last 5 ½ years.  I WILL be cancer free, whether they ever use those words or not.  God is good…all the time.  Here’s your sign.