So this was my week to get back on the chemo train, full throttle. Two days of back-to-back chemotherapy, Day One through an IV, and Day Two through the IP port directly into my abdomen. The hope was that this time my body would have healed enough from the surgeries to withstand and retain the massive volumes of fluid being pumped into it. I was more than a bit apprehensive, I’ll admit. Because the thought of not being able to receive the form of treatment that would give me the best chance of beating the cancer did not sit well with me. I’ve been sold on this treatment plan as being the one with the best odds for my survival, you see. And I do not want to have to accept a less aggressive treatment as a Plan B.
Day One of this cycle started off with my weekly labwork. As part of the extensive monitoring of this and that, my CA-125 protein levels are checked every third week. This is the most anticipated test of all, as the CA-125 serves as a marker of sorts, showing how or if the cancer is responding to the treatment. My levels were checked immediately after diagnosis in early December so that a baseline could be established. They were checked again after surgery, and we were all disappointed and a bit surprised to learn that my levels had actually gone up after the surgery. I told my oncologist I could not understand how or why the levels would increase after the removal of so much cancer from my body. She explained that often the trauma of surgery causes the levels to spike, and that we would just need to wait and see. So that’s what we’ve been doing.
The next time my levels were checked, they had gone down slightly, but were still not even to the point where they were pre-surgery. My oncologist was encouraged nonetheless, that the numbers were moving in the right direction…down.
I went into the lab this week hoping that the downward trend was continuing, especially since my original treatment plan had been somewhat interrupted. I’d been warned that sometimes one’s CA-125 levels will actually rise during treatment. This would be an indicator that the regimen was not being effective, and that the cancer was continuing to grow and/or spread…a frightening thought.
Given the stakes, we were all thrilled and relieved to learn this week that my CA-125 levels had decreased by 70% from three weeks earlier…..70%! A huge drop by any standards. The doc encouraged us not to overreact to any news – good or bad – during this process. However, as conservative as she is, she was clearly pleased. This means that the treatment is working. It’s working…! And this is what I have to keep in mind when I get overwhelmed by just how far I have left to go on this ride. Yes, I’ve only completed four of what will now be 21 sessions of chemo….but it’s working. As I write this I’m feeling like shit, but that shitty feeling means it’s working. And I’ll take that gladly…bring it on. As Robert Frost said, “the best way out is always through”, and I’m right in the middle of it.
And more good news – although there was a slight complication during the administering of the IP chemo which caused them to have to stop halfway through, I was able to absorb all that I received. This tends to indicate that I have healed sufficiently, and that I’ll be able to continue the IP regimen as planned. Another big relief.
I have to say, the week ended on a higher note than it began. You may recall that early in this process I requested stories of triumph and survival, but asked that well-meaning souls kindly save the stories of their friend or relative who died of the exact same thing I had. I just wasn’t in a place where I felt I could hear about such things. What I now realize is that I can’t hide from those stories. I’m now a member of that club I never wanted to join, and the fact is that not all of us are going to make it.
A week ago today, a new friend died as a result of the cancer she had been fighting for a little more than 18 months. And she was a strong, vibrant woman with a great attitude and a huge support network….a fellow ass-kicker. Although I didn’t know her well, we were part of a sisterhood, and her death shook and saddened me. As I watched the news spread across the social media sites, I saw more than one comment asking if the woman who died was “that lady who just had the baby”, and realized they were talking about me. A strange feeling, to say the least.
This was also the third cancer-related death of someone I knew in as many weeks. In taking this in, I realized that I could not avoid the bad news about this disease, nor should I try. To do so would be a disservice to those who fought so hard, and those who loved them. My life has already been touched and enriched by so many new friends who are battling this illness alongside me or with a loved one. I would not want to miss the gift of any of these people and experiences because I chose to isolate and hide.
As I reflected on these latest developments, I began thinking once again of the chain of events that led to where I find myself today. After I reached a certain age, I gave up on the notion of having children. Not because I wasn’t physically able – I was, as far as I knew – but because the circumstances had never been quite right for me to do so. And I liked my life just fine….the freedom of being able to essentially do what I wanted and go where I wanted, without the responsibility of children. It wasn’t something I felt I needed in order to feel fulfilled.
Then, in early 2009, about six months into a relationship with the man who would eventually become my husband, I became pregnant. While on birth control pills. Needless to say, this was quite a shock, and not necessarily a welcomed one. This was a brand new relationship and it was going really well. I didn’t want anything to fuck it up. I had been making a concerted effort to take things more slowly in this relationship than in past relationships, to not jump into anything impulsively. What was this going to do to us? We hadn’t even told each other how we felt about each other at this point….we lived in separate homes and led independent lives. If this relationship was going to be what I hoped it could be, I didn’t want it to be because a baby was driving it. I wanted it to happen organically.
Ultimately, after much thought, discussion and some outside counsel, Mark and I came to the conclusion that the list of pros surrounding the introduction of a baby into our lives far outweighed the cons. And we also realized that for us to get pregnant, at our age, while on birth control, was likely no random occurrence. The stars had to be aligned for all of those things to happen. Far be it for us to interfere with the universe’s plan for us. So, we began making plans of our own, for how this baby would fit into our lives. We let walls come down and became more vulnerable with one another, sharing even more of our thoughts and fears, as well as our true feelings about each other. It brought us closer together. It was a beautiful thing.
About nine weeks into the pregnancy, we took a trip to see some friends in Asheville, North Carolina, and then took a little jaunt over to Bryson City to hole up in a cabin for a few days. While we were there, Mark wrote a song for our unborn child. We started talking about moving in together, and which room would become the nursery. And in the middle of the night one night, Mark woke up and told me that if our baby was a girl, her name would be Grace. I think he was dreaming when he said it…he has no recollection of it. Or maybe I was the one dreaming.
A few hours later, I started cramping and bleeding and began the process of what ultimately resulted in a miscarriage. I was miles from any hospital, and hours from home. The days and weeks that followed were difficult and confusing for both of us. We could not understand why this had happened….why this baby would be brought into our lives, only to leave us right when we were getting excited about the prospect of his or her arrival. Of course, we later came to the conclusion that this event happened to cause each of us to independently realize, before it was too late, that we actually did want to have a baby. With each other. That we wanted to build a life together, and that that life might just include a son or a daughter, if the universe saw fit.
We waited awhile – nearly two more years – before deciding to try. We gave ourselves time to grieve the loss of our child and process what had happened. We also allowed our relationship to further solidify, and worked to build a firm foundation together. We knew we had something special. And part of us didn’t want to do anything to disrupt it. We had built quite a nice little life for ourselves by this point. We were a little apprehensive about changing the dynamic. Plus, what kind of parents would we be?
Then, in October 2010, Mark took a life-changing Arctic photo safari to the 60th parallel near Manitoba, Canada. He traveled with a long-time friend and mentor, and his friend’s wife and two children. They – along with a handful of other guests – stayed in a lodge on the shores of the Hudson Bay, near the Seal River estuary, and spent about 10 days stomping around the tundra, photographing polar bears.
When he came back, Mark had been somewhat transformed. Not just by the beauty of the tundra and having communed so closely with these amazing creatures, but also by having spent time amongst such a close-knit family with an infectious vibe and so much love for each other. He witnessed up close and personal the unconditional love that comes with parenthood, and realized he was ready to experience it firsthand. As we talked, I realized that I was too. And so, the night he returned home, we decided to remove all barriers and make ourselves open to the possibility of having a baby together. Right about six months later, we were pregnant.
And you know the rest of the story. If it hadn’t been for the pregnancy, and the emergency C-section that brought into the world our little girl – the girl we named Magnolia Grace after the little soul we left in North Carolina – the cancer I am now fighting likely would not have been discovered until it was much further along.
I have to continually remind myself that everything that is happening is part of a bigger plan, and that I am not in control of the outcome. I just have to do my part, and that is to make informed decisions about my care, keep up my strength as best I can, and be present for my husband and daughter and family and friends. As my husband has said, this is a marathon, not a sprint, and I am in it for the long haul.
Thank you for being with me on this journey.
Love and gratitude,