I have cancer.
These are the words that no one expects to say,
well, until they have to.
Those flashes in my peripheral vision had once again begun their light show. I was just six days into recovery after a hysterectomy. It wasn’t the best of times. I’d been having flashes for months, but thought the eyestrain from all of the pandemic-driven computer time had gotten the best of me. Yet something in the quiet of that Tuesday afternoon led me to call my optometrist. Within three hours of the call, I was sitting in a specialist’s office with a cancer diagnosis.
“You have ocular melanoma.”
I braced for impact as I saw the words coming out of the doctor’s mouth, but I heard very little of what he said.
Do you have any questions?
I could muster only one.
“Is it survivable?”
Without a yes or no answer, he simply told me that once they could get an appointment, an ocular oncologist would go over treatment options with me. As I got up to leave, the nurse encouraged me, as hard as it would be, to enjoy Thanksgiving with my family and avoid Google-ing this cancer that I didn’t even know was a cancer five minutes before.
Not letting go of my hand in the car, my sister-in-law drove me to meet my husband, Kip, who held my hand the rest of the way home. I called who I needed to call, and we gathered the kids around the farmhouse table that Kip had given me the Christmas before our engagement. He had told me that he envisioned us filling the table with children. It seemed like the appropriate place for us to gather in sickness and in health.
We had agreed on the way home that full transparency would be the best route for us, in large part because I knew that we would be the ones they would look to for strength, for courage, for hope.
I took a deep breath. “I have cancer.”
I wanted them to know that we would get through it together. We would cry. We would pray. We would tell them everything and try to answer their questions. I wanted them to know that God had been preparing me and that he was preparing them too.
God had never let me down.
Yet the next few days found me struggling to remember my own words. As hard as I tried, I just couldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving the way I should have even though it was crystal clear just how much I had to be thankful for. Kip and I brined a twenty-pound turkey using his dad’s recipe. This would be our first Thanksgiving without him. My mother came over to cook her traditional sides. My kids even unpacked my wedding china, crystal and silver for the table because I had been saying for months that life was just too short to keep the fine china packed up in a cabinet. As we all gathered around the linen-lined table again, I just couldn’t make myself eat. My sickness was far outweighing my health.
What if this were my last Thanksgiving?
Every time our six-year-old slid sock-footed through the kitchen, I sobbed. Would his older brother and sisters tell him just how much his mother adored him? Would he know that my favorite part of cuddling with him was smelling his hair and tracing his fingers with my own? Would all of them know just how completely they each completed me?
First days of school. Swim meets. Christmas programs. Awards Day. College graduations. The thought of the kids looking out and not seeing my face was heart shattering.
I laid in bed each night rumbling through those terrible, no good thoughts that a cancer diagnosis can thrust upon you. What would happen to the mountain of photos and videos that I had never printed or backed up? Who would be able to sort through the newborn pictures and know which one of the seven was sweetly sleeping in my arms? Would they understand that mom was missing from so many of the videos simply because she was on the other side of the lens so she would never forget?
There was the 2:00am urgency to begin sorting, labeling and purging the boxes of mementos in the top of my closet. Would my kids recognize the names, long written on my heart, in the stacks of cards and letters? Would they know exactly why I held on to my dad’s comb and cologne bottle or my mom’s floral 1970’s bikini? Would they know that the stack of fedora hats were worn by my Grandpa Rupert, and the wedding anniversary ring was given to me by my Grandma Elizabeth, who believed I was the pure essence of sugar and spice? Who would turn all of those boxes of baby clothes and t-shirts into memory quilts for each of the seven kids to unwrap at Christmas?
And I wouldn’t even be there to explain why I had held on to my 1989-1990 UNC phone book. To be honest, that one even stumps me.
Legal documents needed to be signed. Passwords and account numbers needed to be written down. I had to get rid of all of the stuff that did not bring me joy, so that there would be less to sort through when I was gone.
Why me? Why now? I thought about how I had both enjoyed and regretted a fair share of vices in my forty-nine years, but none of them could be directly linked to this rare cancer. There is no known cause. There is no known cure. Why? Why? Why?
Yes, these are things that haunted me.
An appointment with an ophthalmologist came just in time. Tear-filled days and sleepless nights were getting the best of me.
The ophthalmologist confirmed that the tumor in my right eye was indeed ocular melanoma. This cancer is very rare, with five in a million odds, but this was not the lottery I was hoping to win. Unfortunately, the odds of it spreading are not so rare.
The doctor explained that he could remove my eye and the tumor, but the risk of it spreading would remain. Considering the size of the tumor and the hope that my vision could be salvaged, he recommended brachytherapy, where a radioactive plaque would be sewn into the back of my eye for five days to shrink and kill the tumor. Then they would monitor closely for metastasis.
The world was spinning off its axis. I just wasn’t sure what to do or even where I needed to be treated. Should I stay close to home, travel two hours away, or be on a plane bound for Philadelphia, the epicenter for treatment of ocular melanoma?
What very little I did know about the cancer was not as optimistic as I had hoped, but I had made note of those who had survived this ugly and aggressive cancer for fifteen and even twenty years.
“Can you help me be one of those long term survivors?” I asked.
“No doctor can promise you that. But we will do our best. If you really want to go to Philadelphia, I’ll help you get there.” He went on to tell us of his close relationship with Dr. Carol Shields, the best of the best at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. He studied under her, considers her a friend, and consults with her almost every week. He then gave us a few minutes alone to make a decision. It had to be a quick one.
But it wasn’t a hard one after all. Hands were held and prayers were prayed as we placed all of our trust and confidence in this doctor and this team, right then, right there. With God’s leading, they would be the ones to save my life.
A plan for plaque therapy was put in motion.
“Would December 14th work for you?” the doctor asked.
“It’s our anniversary, so I can’t imagine a better day,” I replied while smiling at my groom of twenty-four years.
Once back at home, I decided it was time to share my diagnosis with the world. I was going to need every prayer I could get. From the moment I exhaled, pure love, kindness, generosity, and yes, all of those prayers wrapped me in hope. Quite miraculously friends reached out to put me in touch with a mother, a sister, a nanny, and friend all of whom had the same rare diagnosis. Maybe the odds were turning in my favor after all. Several days and phone conversations later, all that hope began to slowly whisper the fear away. These special people, all who had once been exactly where I had found myself, shared their stories and helped me to better understand that…
I would be my own statistic.
I shouldn’t worry about what hasn’t happened yet.
I couldn’t allow the fear to get the best of me.
It was important to stay hopeful.
A week later I had my first set of scans to assess whether the cancer had already spread to other parts of my body. After a long day of tests, prayers, and conversations with my oncology team, Kip and I learned that my scans were clear. Kip only let go of my hand to wipe the barrage of tears, both his and my own. One weight was lifted.
The following days, as family and friends stepped up to help with the kids, especially feeding our house of nine, I made to-do lists. I packed and I prepared. I had a long week ahead of me.
The medical team sewed a 17mm gold plaque with radioactive seeds to the back of my eyeball. I didn’t ask a lot of questions about the surgery itself. My biology degree helped me to imagine the how. My psychology degree helped me to understand that there were better things for me to be thinking about.
It wasn’t easy being alone in a hospital room, having two surgeries in five days, and having a large piece of radioactive metal in my eye, but I got through it. Kip setup video-chats with our kids and read me cards and well-wishes. Friends had Starbucks delivered. My suitcase held some of the reminders, both big and small, of the love that has surrounded with me all the days of my life. Even Mike, my nurse for the week, made sure I was comfortable as he tenderly cared for my eye.
Five days later, I returned home to a family who had never been more precious in my sight. They made me soup and hot tea. They let me binge watch shows on Netflix. They helped to put drops in my eye and left me sweet little notes of encouragement. My mother came by every day to bathe me and wash my hair. I fell asleep at night and woke up every morning with Kip’s hand in mine. My nurses at home loved me well.
And so has my circle of friends, neighbors and coworkers. Some have not been further than a phone call or text away, even at three o’clock in the morning. Some have stopped by to feed us or drop off the most beloved notes and gifts. Others have offered to donate sick leave so I would not have added stress or worry, proof positive that I work among some of the finest. My dearest girlfriends have shown up to pray with, over, and all around me. And friends across the globe have been praying for me literally a day before I pray for myself. The river of generosity has had banks overflowing.
The follow-up appointments have confirmed that my eye is healing. My vision is much better than I ever imagined it would be considering all it had to endure in recent weeks. But the best news was my doctor sharing that the ugly, no good, terrible tumor is shrinking.
Yes, God is with me still.
MRI’s, CT scans and ultrasounds will be my new normal every three months for the next several years. I have made some drastic changes to my diet, and I am exercising every day in the hopes of boosting my immune system to fight off the possibility of cancer rearing its head again. I am still full of hope. I am driving and working and cooking and cleaning and joyfully sorting through those mountains that not so long ago kept me from being me. Fear still stirs from time to time, but it no longer keeps me up at night. Talking to God does. I hear Him best in the dark.
And it may come as no surprise that I have been thinking a lot about words, especially when I find myself wanting to say that I am fighting or battling cancer. Yes, I’ve used those terms before, but somehow now it’s different. In a bold way, I feel the need to love my way to overcoming this diagnosis.
I’m loving this cancer away.
As I recently revisited some things I had written in my fieldsofpoppy blog, I realized that perhaps God has not only been helping me work through the grief of losing some of the people I have loved most in this life, but He was also preparing me for this very moment. Maybe, just maybe, all of those stories were allowing me to see the world much differently long before I had to. I still have stories yet to tell and life I want to live.
I want to hold wrinkly, weather-worn, aged hands at night.
I want to see my kids grow up.
I want to see them fall in love.
I want to see them happy.
And Lord willing, one day I want to cradle a grandchild and let the sound of my heartbeat lull them to slumber.
Yes, there are many reasons I am choosing to love this cancer away and in doing so, loving myself into healing much, much more than my eye.
To all….thank you for all the ways you have cared for me and my family during this journey so far. Kip and our children have witnessed your kindness. They have read your words. They know your names and faces and the stories of why you are precious to me. My family is healing just as much as I am. And one day real soon that river of generosity will flow from our home to another’s, and it will indeed be just as beautiful.