“You should talk to Donna House. She started a support group for women diagnosed with Stage IV disease.”
I read this line over and over again. It had been a very long day. My husband and I were sitting in bed in our downtown Houston hotel room. We were both checking emails. His were from coworkers. Mine were from my team of doctors at MD Anderson.
“Wait, what?!” I popped up from under the sheets, my phone clenched in my hand. I read the words over and over again out loud. “I am Stage Four?!”
I looked over at my husband. He had this pained, “I’m sorry” look on his face. Like that face you make when your friend asks why you didn’t tell them that they had a chunk of spinach in their teeth all night. Only his “I’m sorry” face was also filled with fear and hurt and exhaustion.
“There are only FOUR stages, babe. I was Stage 2 last year! What happened to Stage 3??!! Am I about to DIE?” I collapsed in his arms. We both cried. That lose-your-breath, gasping for air cry. That cry that aches in your bones, in your core… that helpless cry.
We had spent ten grueling hours at MD Cancer Hospital Anderson that day. Now, we were in our hotel room. We left the hospital that day without a treatment plan and with many unanswered questions. We had walked several miles over the medical complex that day, all while I coughed up blood from the lung biopsy I had endured the day before.
We were tired and felt so low. We held each other and prayed. Then we went turned off the lights, wrapped ourself in sheets that didn’t belong to us, closed our eyes and each silently begged God for the mercy of rest. Neither one of us slept that night.
How did we get here… again???
Here’s how everything happened.
On March 1st, 2017, I had my final cancer-related surgery. Breast Reconstruction. My tissue expanders (or temporary breasts) were strangely shaped and painful. In the mirror, I looked like someone had stuffed the skin of my chest with Rubik’s Cubes. Rather than the natural, soft curves of authentic breast tissue, I had sharp edges and awkward angles. Needless to say, I was excited to have the expanders OUT and implants in. I had chosen small silicone implants that resembled the size and shape of my body before cancer took over. I wasn’t looking to reinvent myself. I just wanted to look and feel as close to Pre-C Veronica as possible.
Many of my close girlfriends have asked if I felt excited about my new “boobs,” the new “girls,” and all these other silly names our society has for female breasts. Sure, I was thrilled to get the expanders out. But, I didn’t care about the sexual or aesthetic side of “new” breasts nearly as much as I cared that this surgery was the final step. My last cancer procedure. Of course, I wanted to feel comfortable in clothes. I’m a mom with small kids. I have beach trips and tank tops in my future. But more than that, I just wanted to be finished. I just wanted to move on. No more IVs, no more cuts, stitches, scars. I was finished. And, that felt glorious!
The surgery went well. My doctor was precise and careful and amazing. He carefully cut open my mastectomy scars, replaced the expanders with soft, gummy implants, and sewed me back together again. I felt like Corduroy the Bear… all stitched up, repaired, and ready for a new life. I returned home from Houston to heal and celebrate. It was time to officially move on. Cancer was a word in my past.
Then, I was kicked in the crotch. Well…Not really. But, that’s what it felt like. One morning, after running a mere mile on the treadmill and a gentle yoga session, I felt a pain on the right side of my pelvic area—-something that my brother would call being “racked.” It was intense and painful. But, it didn’t concern me too much. After a baby, breastfeeding, six months of chemo, and six more months of stress, my menstrual cycle was just now starting to regulate. That’s probably what it was.
Days later, it began to radiate. My right groin and hip started hurting. The hip and the pelvis and the groin pain had to be related, right? I called my OB and my Crossfit Coach and massage therapist. (I wanted to cover my bases.) After an ultrasound that didn’t show any abnormalities, an educational session on safe groin and hip stretches, a great massage that focused on my lower back, sciatic nerve areas, and hip, I felt sure that this pain would subside.
One night, three weeks later, I soaked in a very hot bath. (I was still treating the hip and groin pain like a sports injury. Heat therapy, Tylenol, stretching, etc.) Lying in silence in a warm tub, I was overwhelmed with a heavy feeling. A feeling of fear and warning. I wrapped myself in a towel and approached my husband who was reading our five-year-old a bedtime story.
“Something is up. I’m calling my oncologist tomorrow.” I whispered.
A few minutes later, our little love was asleep in his arms.
“I just have this feeling, babe. Something is WRONG with my body. I’m scared. I think I have bone cancer. Something bad and real is causing this pain.” Tears streamed down my face. My heart was racing. Just allowing the the words on my lips made me so sad.
“Get some rest, love,” he calmly said. He’s always the calm one. Let’s call your doc in the morning.
My oncologist is wicked-smart. When I write him emails, I quadruple check my spelling and grammar. I want him to think that I’m smart and serious–as if that will make my life worthy of saving. So, I drafted a very professional email detailing the timeline of my groin, pelvic, and hip pain. If I were an English teacher, I would have given my pelvis paragraph a solid A.. Ok, maybe a B (I love fragmented sentences. And, I love starting sentences with “and.” I bet my former English teachers are cringing right now. Sorry, Dr. Barhnill.) Just before pressing the send button, I threw in one more thing—technically, one more paragraph. This is what it said:
“On a side note, I started wheezing today. My lungs feel a little heavy. I’m sure it’s just allergies. I’m probably feeling paranoid.” I had been cleaning house and the scent of the cleaning spray bothered me. It was nothing. But, why not mention it?
Because my oncologist is such a badass, he emailed me back within two minutes. He was out of the country and (God bless him) still answering emails. He totally ignored my C+ paragraph. He wrote back, “get a chest X-ray right away.” That’s it. What?
What about my lady parts and my hip and groin? This chest thing wasn’t even a thing. I don’t know why I even wrote it in the email.
Early the next morning, one of our best friends, who happens to be a doctor, ordered a chest x-ray for me. I was in and out of his office by 9:30.
A couple of hours later, I was standing in the kitchen, slicing an apple for our girls when I saw my husband pull up in the driveway. It was 11:30. He never comes home at this time. He walked in the door and gave me a big kiss, reached over and kissed our big girl.
That’s when I knew.
“Why are you here?! What’s going on? Do you know something?!” I looked at him. My voice was shaking. My entire body was trembling. My legs started to go numb.
Then my darling husband’s eyes started to tear up. He looked at me with such a heavy and heartbroken look and whispered, “Dr. A looked at your X-ray and said I should come home right away—we should be together for his phone call.”
Cue the punch in the gut.
The next part is blurry and choppy in my mind. Dreamlike. I remember Dr. A calling, our kids playing in the next room, and hearing him say, “at least fifty nodules in each lung, some measuring 3 centimeters… I am not an oncologist. But, with your history. This looks like the cancer that has metastasized.”
Fifty in each lung? Metastasized? (That means spread to different organs. It’s NOT good. Repeat, this is a word that we cancer-people and those who love us NEVER want to hear.)
Wait! Stop for a second. Slow down. I was just running a few weeks ago. I had danced for three hours strait at a wedding reception four days before. I wasn’t winded or coughing or in any pain.
I kept pinching myself. I wanted to wake up from this nightmare. How was this happening? It had been one year and five days since I finished my last treatment. It took Will and me at least six months to start working past the Post Traumatic Stress… We had just started exhaling and just started laughing and learning how to not be afraid. We were starting to loosen up, to stop feeling like we were living in a war zone. Life was just now starting to get “normal” again.
What now? Do I start planning my funeral? Do I start “getting my affairs in order?” How long do I have left? Shit. How is this happening?
That was a month ago. The shock has worn off and I am in a much better place. I stopped planning my funeral and I started planning my healing strategy. I have a team of specialists in Baton Rouge, Houston, Colorado, and Massachusetts who are helping me with my plan to treat this terrible disease. I am praying and meditating daily. If I’m going to heal, which I plan on doing, I need to be rested and have my mind right.
For a few days, I felt very alone. I am embarrassed to say that I felt abandoned and forgotten. I desperately prayed for God to come back to me. Why had He left me here hurting and terrified? Why had He given me a taste of health and freedom just to take it away again? I prayed that my perspective would change, that I could feel His peace again.
The prayers worked.
As I let go of the anger, the fear, and the resentment, I was able to make space for God’s presence. God had always been there. I was just so focused on being terrified…too distracted to see. I was so caught up in the despair and trauma that I was in state of frenzy. I forgot that I just needed to be still.
There is something holy about stillness. When the crying stops, and the iPad is turned off, and the phone stops dinging, ringing, and buzzing…The silence is healing. These days, I often slip into another room, close my eyes, and breathe—even if it is just for thirty seconds. This is part of my meditation practice. I have been doing this (almost daily) for a year now. If I can just be still, I can feel peace. I can feel God. Or, I can at least make space for peace and God.
Mediation is not easy. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But it is so valuable to me. It is worth the work and the effort.
This week, W and I will return to MD Anderson for a day full of tests. See, my cancer is crazy and unpredictable. Two years ago, I was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer. This time, the breast cancer is in my lungs and isn’t Triple Negative anymore. It is Estrogen Positive. There is a less than 1% chance that breast cancer comes back with different receptors. So, I am a walking, talking mystery. My oncologist is blown away and doesn’t know, just yet, how to treat me.
On July 3rd, I found another tumor. I had to have it removed and biopsied right away. It was in my vagina. Yeah… Process that. The 3 cm mass passed through my birth canal and I spent the next few days lying in bed with stitches between my legs. The biopsy results were not a shock to anyone. More cancer.
We have sent samples of my tumors to a lab in Massachusetts. This lab runs my tumor sample through a data base of 500 other samples in hopes that we can find an exact match with a successful treatment. This is called genomic sequencing. This, hopefully, will give us some answers and a treatment plan options.
In the meantime, I am taking a daily pill (Tamxoifin) which sends me into menopause. We hope that by stopping the production of estrogen in my body, we can stop feeding all of those tumors in my lungs…and anywhere else they may be.
I have also taken matters into my own hands. I have removed meat, wheat, sugar, dairy, and alcohol from my diet. This is a personal decision based on research and work with an oncology nutritionist. What do I eat? Fish and veggies. Lots of nuts. Yummy fats like olives, avocados, and coconut oils. It isn’t always easy, but I am happy with the new menu. (Yes, I really miss tacos and margaritas. But, I love my family and life more than that stuff. And, I think nutrition is imperative.)
I continue to meditate and focus on my spiritual connection with God. And, I am doing my best to practice intense self care–which is terribly difficult for busy parents. But, it is so important.
I can’t just sit back and wait for the doctors to find some pill or drug to pump into my veins. I don’t have time for that. Plus, I’m way too savvy for that now. This isn’t my first cancer rodeo. I have to approach this situation from every angle. Nutrition, mindfulness, spirituality, purpose.
What can you do? Pray for us. Pray that we remain steadfast and faithful. Pray that we have a successful visit at MDA this week. And, don’t feel sad or sorry for me. This stuff is hard. And, life isn’t fair. But, it has never been fair. And, I’ve been so blessed. If Lady Justice were standing before me, weighing my life’s moments on a scale, the plate with the good stuff would topple out of her hands. I have experienced goodness beyond measure. I’ve never known hunger, religious suppression, or abuse. For the most part, I have always felt respected and safe. I was born into a loving family. And, I get to live in a country where possibilities are limitless. And, I can’t even begin to describe the blessing of my husband and two daughters. So, I don’t want to start complaining now. I have way too much love and goodness in my life to complain.
Yes, I allow myself to grieve. Cancer is complicated, scary, and sad. And, I’m not a robot. And, suppression is unhealthy. I just don’t let the sadness and fear take me on a ride. It is a rabbit hole that I would rather stay out of. Besides, I have experienced enough joy and happiness to fill five lifetimes. That’s my focus. And, I plan to keep living for many, many years.
Please come along for the ride.
Love and Blessings,