So, it’s only been a dozen or so days since my diagnosis – with much of that time spent holed up in the little sanctuary we call our home – and I’ve already become familiar with the phenomenon I’ll call Cancer Face. Even my husband, who is thankfully cancer free, has already been the recipient of Cancer Face, also known as “the Look”.

For someone with a serious illness, the Look is the expression of pity, sadness and concern bestowed upon you by someone who Knows (about your diagnosis, or your spouse’s diagnosis) and is seeing you for the first time since hearing the news. (At least I hope it’s just the first time…) An added bonus (or not) is when the eyes of the bestower of the Look actually well up with tears as soon as they are laid upon you.

Don’t get me wrong. I have been touched beyond belief by how many people care about what’s going on with my health, and are truly concerned for us and the outcome of all of this. I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around it, actually…the sheer volume of people who have reached out to us during this time. I feel loved, honored, grateful (and more than a little unworthy of all the attention, but that’s my stuff).

The flip side of being the recipient of these strong reactions is the feeling that maybe this diagnosis is worse than I thought. Given the fact that I still look and feel the same (not having yet been sliced open or pumped full of poisonous chemicals), it’s a little surreal to watch friends, family and strangers freak out over the news. It’s like it’s happening to someone else. I mean, people I do not know are running marathons in my name. There is a “community quilt” being made in our honor. Meal calendars are being established to provide food for our family. I’m receiving cards, gifts and e-mails from strangers all over the country. Crazy. Very, very nice, but still crazy.

I feel very detached from all of the hoopla, at least so far. My inner voice is saying that all of this energy shouldn’t be spent on me. After all, I’m going to be just fine. Maybe it’s denial, but right now it’s hard for me to imagine that I might be incapacitated for a period of time at some point. And there are way better causes out there, those with far greater needs. Plus, accepting help is something with which I’ve always had difficulty. It’s clear that my higher power has some lessons in store for me in that arena, among others.

The other thing that has evoked strange emotions (foreign, at least, to me) are the offers to “take” or “keep” my brand new baby girl. She’s just two weeks old – technically not even yet full term – and you’re talking about me farming her out? Hell no. I hate being away from her for even a couple of hours right now. The thought of being away from her for a longer period of time – or for strangers to be taking care of her so early on in her life – is inconceivable to me. This was supposed to be our time to bond as a new little family, and I don’t want to lose a minute of that experience.

I was feeling something I’ve never felt before in the wake of these offers…something on which I couldn’t quite put my finger. Then I realized: this my newly awakened, inner “mama bear” coming out. In all of my 44 years, I’ve never felt anything quite like it. But, all at once, there it was…this feeling of wanting to protect and shield my child, to hold her close and never let her go.

I think there’s also something else at play here – a place to which I can’t and won’t fully allow myself to go at this point – and that’s the urge to spend as much time as absolutely possible with this little girl while I can. I’m feeling something very close to the the same thing about my husband as well. I just want to swallow them up right now. I can’t get enough of either of them.

These feelings made me feel kind of selfish/kind of bitchy until I processed them out loud with a couple of trusted friends and also ran them by my doctor. And what I now realize is that I can give myself permission to be selfish with my time with my husband and baby right now. Also that this little girl, and my fervent desire to be here to watch her grow up, is going to be key to my recovery.

This is a hell of a motivator:

And if you’ve never held a baby skin to skin, you’re missing out on some good medicine indeed (just ask my husband). It’s good for both of your souls.

So right now, that’s my focus….all of the wonderful things in my life that make this fight worth fighting even more. That, and staying as strong as possible so that I can take care of my child and be present for her first few months.

As for getting Cancer Face, I have to realize that this isn’t just happening to me. It’s happening to my husband, daughter, parents, brother, friends and family. And to all of you too. We all process fear and grief differently. My way so far is to just pretend to be strong so that I don’t slip into the territory of wallowing in the “what ifs”. And my discomfort at your tears is very likely because my tears are very close to the surface too.

But we’re going to get through this, all of us, each in our own way. Whether you’re walking through this with me personally, or you’re engaged directly or indirectly in your own battle with cancer or [insert shitty situation here].

Love and gratitude,

Joanna

First, I’ve been totally and completely blown away by the support of so many people – friends and strangers alike – in the wake of our news. The stories of triumph over this disease and the words of encouragement have shored us up in a way we never dreamed possible just a few days ago when we were in a collective puddle on the floor. The more we learn about how many of you and yours have beaten cancer, the more we believe we can do it too.

Second, I’ve heard from more than a few of you that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to you. I’ve heard it said that cancer helped some of you grow up, show up, pay attention, adjust your priorities, and appreciate all that you have. And I totally get that, although I’m not be quite there yet. Right now, I’m still in the process of processing this curveball that has been thrown our way. I’m spending a lot of time bouncing between joy and determination and fear and grief. But I get it. Already I can see how this diagnosis has adjusted my priorities. The things I was worried about 10 days ago seem plain silly now. The list of things that are truly important just got real short, real quick. And that’s not a bad thing.

However, it has been pointed out to me by several of you that I may actually owe a thank you to the cancer that has set up shop inside me. We knew that our little Magnolia Grace was to thank for allowing the doctors to find the cancer when they did. But it seems that we can also thank the cancer for saving Magnolia’s life. If it weren’t for the mass on my Fallopian tube, I would not have ended up in the emergency room on December 1st with pain that I could no longer ignore. And if I hadn’t ended up in the ER, the doctors likely wouldn’t have discovered the placental abruption before it was too late. Maggie would have lost her source of nourishment, and very possibly her life.

So, even though we hate this cancer – really, really hate it – I guess we also have to thank it. Because without it, we very well could have lost our daughter. And already we can’t imagine our lives without her. Me having to fight cancer is a very small price to pay for her presence in our lives and on this planet.

Talk about an amazing chain of events. When I think of all of the elements that had to fall into place for us to have this beautiful being and for my condition to be discovered in the process, it is clear that the universe has a plan in place that is far greater than anything we can imagine. There are no accidents. I just have to have faith and trust the process. And I’m working on that, a little more each day.

Some friends posted this sign today and I have adopted it as my motto, at least for today.

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That, and fuck you, cancer. You’ve served your purpose and I’m grateful, but now it’s time for you to go. Love and thanks,

Jo

Yesterday brought with it a strong dose of reality and reminders of what is to come. I spent the morning doing all of my pre-surgery appointments and tests at Vanderbilt – EKG, chest x-rays, meetings with the anesthesia team, going through the pre-admissions process. It became clear that I am now in “the system”, a member of a club I never wanted to join. It also became a tiny bit easier each time I had to tell the story of why I was there. Writing about it helps too.

One thing I don’t understand – why do people who work in a cancer treatment center greet new patients with the standard, “how are you?”. I have to admit that many potential answers to that question crossed my mind the first few times it was asked, but I was the polite Southern girl and just said “I’m okay, how are you?”. After all, it’s not their fault that I have cancer. And at least they’re treating me normally. It’s better than the pitying, teary eyed, Lifetime-movie-of-the-week look that I’m already coming to recognize.

So, I got through that process emotionally unscathed for the most part; then – this is the silver lining part – went home to gather up our little girl so that my husband and I could take her to a newborn photo shoot we had scheduled months earlier with the amazing Brooke Kelly. For the few hours that we were in her studio, I was able to forget all about the diagnosis and upcoming treatment and just focus on our amazing little girl. She was so patient and willing and warm and squishy…I feel like time stands still when I watch her. I seriously think I could just stare at her for hours. And have.

And since everyone loves a cute baby photo, here are a couple of previews from the shoot.

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Maggie peed on Mark’s mini Maton guitar right after Brooke got this shot. And it is a testament to dad’s feelings about his new little girl that he didn’t mind even a little a bit.

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(Photo credit: Brooke Kelly Photography)

Look at this shit. Seriously. I still can’t believe she’s ours. Sheer perfection.

Magnolia Grace has already become our teacher, motivator and guide. We are so very grateful; so very blessed.

And speaking of gratitude and being blessed, thanks so much for all of the wonderfully moving and supportive messages.

Love,

The Montgomery Three

So how in the hell did I get here? Let me bring you up to speed.

Just this summer, I was doing this:

(Photo credit: Generation Domination)

Marrying my beautiful and brilliant husband, Mark Montgomery….a man with whom I fall more deeply in love every single day. I still cannot believe my good fortune/good karma in having his path cross with mine. (It’s a good story, too…ask me about it sometime and I’ll tell you.) He challenges me, inspires me, makes my laugh my ass off, keeps my life interesting, and is at the top of every gratitude list I make. He was worth waiting for, no doubt about it.

Cut to a few months later. We’re looking at this, on ultrasound:

A gorgeous baby girl with my nose and Mark’s cleft chin. This to the two self-proclaimed DINKs who never thought they’d have children. Amazing.

And even though the pregnancy had its challenges, due in no small part to my “advanced maternal age” (my doctor told us that my cervix was more like the door to an “older, historic home” rather than like a door one would find in a new apartment….thanks, doc) it was and is still the coolest, most amazing thing I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t change a minute of it.

(Photo credit: Brooke Kelly Photography)

Then came December 1, 2011, a little over three weeks before our baby’s projected Christmas Eve due date. I awakened to sharp pain in my left lower abdomen, which continued to increase rather than decrease throughout the day. By early afternoon, I knew something was wrong… something beyond ligament or nerve pain. I called my husband, who immediately came to get me to drive me to the emergency room.

After a high speed ride worthy of an action movie, we arrived at Centennial Women’s Hospital where I was admitted. I was hooked up to fetal monitors and my doctor was summoned. Something didn’t add up – my pain was severe, yet it was clear that I was not in labor. These weren’t contractions. My doctor ordered an ultrasound, which showed a partial placental abruption. The placenta, which had been providing nourishment to our daughter for the past 37 weeks, was starting to separate from the uterine wall. This was not good. They would have to take the baby immediately.

Things started happening very quickly at this point. I was rushed into the OR and prepped for surgery. As all of my plans for natural childbirth and self hypnosis for pain management flew out the window, I was given a spinal block and laid out on an operating table like a frog in high school biology class. Same pose, seriously. Except I was wide awake and scared shitless.

Mark was wonderful throughout the entire procedure, which seemed to take very little time given the magnitude of what was happening. After extricating our daughter from my uterus and handing her off to nurses so that fluid could be removed from her lungs, my doctor started looking around. She found a mass on my left Fallopian tube, clearly the source of my pain. She showed it to Mark, who amazingly was able to look over the curtain and peer into the guts of his bride without vomiting or passing out.

The doctor said that she didn’t think the mass looked like anything serious…rather, it just appeared that the tube had twisted and torqued on itself, causing it to balloon out and become discolored. (Mark said that it was black and about the size of a baseball.) Because my doctor wasn’t concerned, we weren’t concerned either. Our focus was on our beautiful daughter. We could not believe that she was actually here, with us, and that she was all ours. We actually made this perfect, miraculous being! Who would have ever thought? Neither of us, that’s for sure.

Here’s her first ever photo, courtesy of Mark’s iPhone:

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She was born at 6:55p on Thursday, December 1, 2011. She weighed 7 lbs, 9 oz and was 20″ in length. Aside from a tiny bit of jaundice, she was perfectly healthy. We named her Magnolia Grace Montgomery. We call her Maggie. Or Mags. Or Maggie Moo. Or simply the Moo.

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The next few days were spent in a totally blissed out bubble, with Maggie staying in our room with us during the duration of our stay in the hospital. This baby was (and still is) a dream baby. She sleeps soundly for hours….we actually have to wake her for diaper changes and feedings. (This is likely partially due to the fact that she was born prematurely…preemies sleep a lot at first, we’re told.) She rarely fusses. She loves to snuggle. She isn’t bothered by loud noises. She doesn’t freak out over wet or dirty diapers. She doesn’t mind being held by new people. She’s a totally chilled out baby. How two semi-neurotic, Type A personalities were able to produce such a laid back kid is a mystery. Maybe we canceled out each other. However it happened, we are very grateful. Again, we still can’t believe our good fortune.

We were able to take her home on Monday, December 5, 2011.

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Our first night home was incredible. Maggie was unfazed by our brood of animals (two cats and two dogs)…she likely got to know them by their sounds while in the womb. She patiently endured lots of sniffs and licks and even some barks. We lit candles, put on Norah Jones, and just chilled out with this amazing little girl, who instantly seemed right at home. We were already goners, head over heels in love. And how could we not be? Look at this face…

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100% pure love.

So our bubble of bliss lasted about five days. Then, mid-morning on our first day home, I received a call that would forever change our lives. (Okay, that sounded awfully dramatic, but it’s totally true. It did.) My obstetrician called and said that she needed to see us – my husband and me – immediately. That she had something to discuss with us in person. She wanted to know if we could come in at the end of the day. I got Mark in the room and we put the doc on speaker. I told her to just tell us on the phone, that we didn’t want to wait. “It’s cancer,” she said, “I’m so sorry.”

The following days were a blur of tests and consultations, along with a wide range of emotions…disbelief, fear, anger, sadness, and everything in between. I alternated between crying in fear over possible outcomes and all I have to lose, and crying with joy and gratitude as I gazed at our incredible little girl and her amazing father.

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On our daughter’s one week birthday, we spent several hours meeting with the woman who would become my new oncologist, Dr. Marta Crispens at Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center. After answering our questions, she talked with us about next steps.

On December 20th, I’ll undergo major surgery to remove all of my reproductive organs, plus three other questionable spots that showed up on CT in surrounding areas, as well as some exploratory surgery and biopsies. At the same time, they will likely install an intraperitoneal port so that the chemotherapy I’ll receive after the surgery can go directly into my abdomen. The surgery is pretty significant, in that the doctor will be making a vertical incision from stem to stern, enabling her to get a good view of everything she needs to see. The hope is that I’ll be sufficiently recovered in 2-4 weeks so that I can then begin six rounds of chemotherapy that will last 18 weeks. Without question, the next six months are going to be hard…not exactly how I planned to enjoy my maternity leave.

If I said I wasn’t scared, I’d be lying.

Right now, that’s all we really know. The doctor will know a lot more once she performs the surgery and the lab has a chance to analyze all of the samples.

To say that we’ve been stunned by this turn of events would be an understatement. For myself, I’ve been feeling the urge to hunker down during these last days before the surgery and treasure every minute I can spend with Mark and our daughter. I can’t imagine that I won’t be able to be there for every minute of Maggie’s first days, weeks and months. I’m sure I’ll be wrapping my mind around this slowly as reality sets in. It is what it is, and all we can do is deal with each thing as it comes, one day at a time. And enjoy every moment we can. Like the first bathtub bath:

I’ve put a rubber band around my wrist that I can snap when my thoughts start to go in the negative direction. One of my mantras is “savor, don’t grieve”, when I feel myself getting all maudlin about things that I might miss in the future. After all, I don’t want to miss any part of the amazing present because I’m lost in fear over what might happen down the road. Easier said than done, of course. And some days are better than others.

We are very fortunate in that my family lives close by and Mark’s parents are just a direct flight away. We also have a large support network in our immediate area. Mark’s mother will be flying in to stay with us for awhile once I come home from the hospital, and my mom will stay with Maggie while I’m actually in surgery. Also, we’ve obtained permission for Mark and Maggie to stay with me in my room at Vanderbilt as I recover from the surgery. This should make being in the hospital during this time much more bearable. The thought of being away from our daughter for a day much less a week is inconceivable to me right now.

How could anyone be separated from this, especially so soon?

So….that’s where we are today. It sucks. But if I think about the positive aspects of this – the doctors finding the cancer as early as they did, and all of the pieces that had to fall into place for that to happen; our beautiful and amazing daughter arriving healthy and perfect; our wide support network of friends and family; and the fact that we have each other – I know I can beat this. I just don’t believe that I was brought this far only to have everything taken away. I’m ready to fight.

Our theory is that Magnolia Grace chose us as her parents for a reason. She is a little girl with a mission. If it weren’t for her, they may not have found the cancer inside me until it had progressed much further. It may just turn out that she saved my life.

The theme for our wedding earlier this year was “Three is a Magic Number”, a reference to our three years together at that point, plus the anticipated addition of a third member of the family (with a little nod to Schoolhouse Rock). I feel like three may very well prove to be the magic number. I think that the between the three of us, there’s nothing we can’t overcome together. At least that’s my hope and my prayer to the universe.

So, that’s the story in a nutshell. (And I promise that my posts will not be nearly this long in the future…)  In the short time since my diagnosis, we have been blown away by just how many friends we have in our circle. We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support we have received in the past several days. And because so many have asked to be kept updated, we thought that a blog would be the best way to keep those who want to be informed in the loop, through some vehicle other than long and boring mass e-mails. You can subscribe to the blog so that you’re e-mailed whenever there’s an update, or just stop by when the thought crosses your mind.

Mark will be able to post updates as well, when I’m either unconscious from surgery or crabby from treatment. And feel free to post comments and messages to us….we’d love to hear from you. One request: save the stories about your loved one who died of something similar or who has the same thing and it’s come back four times. While I’m very sorry for those with these outcomes, it’s not what I want to hear about right now. But uplifting stories of remission and triumph…bring ’em on.

Thanks and love,

Jo, Mark and the Moo