Cancer Helped Me Find My Way Home

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When I started receiving chemotherapy for stage 3B lung cancer, I initially felt hopeless.

Illustration of a woman with shoulder-length hair with round glasses.

I felt a change in my outlook on life just a little bit at first.

After a night of sleeplessness, vomiting and diarrhea, I was far beyond fatigued. I was debilitated. How would I even be able to get out of bed in the coming days? Weeks? Much less likely, how would I survive my treatment journey with stage 3B non-small cell lung cancer?

And yet, over three years and three weeks, I would become a more confident, loving and content person than I had ever been. Frustration and hopelessness, stemming initially from a difficult childhood, would become a part of my history. Relationships with my father and siblings, my stepmother, aunt and two cousins were growing — at times even thriving.

However, even in the movies, life-changing events seldom happen overnight, and neither did mine.

As part of my treatment for lung cancer, I received the first session of cisplatin chemotherapy on a Friday in September 2018. The following Tuesday morning, I felt sicker than I had ever been before. Might the chemo kill me? I was scared I wouldn’t make it, and anxiety gripped me as I called my oncologist. My husband drove me to the cancer treatment center, but the car’s motion was too much; I vomited on the way. Clinging to my significant other, I was just barely able to walk the short distance from the parking lot to the center. A medical assistant took my vital signs; an oncologist examined me and then said, “You are dehydrated. All your symptoms are normal.”

The doctor didn’t tell me I had to gain weight, but I knew I needed to; I weighed 103 pounds, and I’m 5 feet 6 inches tall. Nothing had tasted good, but I had an idea: possibly I could eat a soft baked potato, with a tiny bit of cheese. I tried one, then two and then three of those potatoes. They tasted good and helped me gain a couple of pounds. One day, I cut my hot spud in half and as the cheese melted, I topped the potato with chopped turkey and canned green beans. Those potatoes gave me hope. I started to believe I could get well. Sometimes, I even added chopped ham or canned corn.

There was nothing magical about baked potatoes, but my hope grew as I ate them, and I started to consider that I might become a survivor in the future.

The nutritional drink, Strawberry Boost, with extra protein, helped with dehydration and nutrition, of course. Strangely, it tasted good, even as I continued to have a hard time drinking anything else.

Before even completing my final session of chemotherapy treatment, I listened as my oncologist strongly encouraged me to move forward with treatment: radiation and immunotherapies. Consultation appointments were already prepared for me for the week after chemo. On that Tuesday, I met with my soon-to-be radiation oncologist, and on Thursday with a prominent immunological oncologist who would help me decide whether to complete a year of Imfinzi (durvalumab) immunotherapy after radiation.

Thursday was a case of being in the right place at the wrong time. I was feeling exhausted: totally burned out, physically, mentally and emotionally. Knowing that I would have to be prepared to make a major decision in my cancer treatment, I debated canceling my appointment at the last minute. But life is strange, as it turned out it was absolutely worth taking on the additional fatigue. The immunological oncologist was an impressive woman and led me to a wise decision. I would take on another year of treatment.

Coming soon after immunotherapy, the term “remission” meant little or nothing to me early in my lung cancer journey. At that time, I hadn’t understood the concept of the milestone, reaching a season of knowing that the cancer was no longer growing in me while waiting to see if it would return. Yet, by early January 2020, I completely grasped and even celebrated the event.

Theoretically, my small party for a few friends and family members would ease me into normalcy, a term that became quite meaningful to me. However, my celebration took place on March 1, 2020, and by then, normalcy in our society had been delayed indefinitely by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just four weeks later my father passed away. I lost my father so soon after I fought the cancer that takes the lives of more patients than any other cancer. It was hard. I looked for a new normal, but nothing was normal in 2020.

Then my small business was also a victim of COVID-19. After months of frustration and depression, I didn’t know where to go or what to do.

I ended up at my primary care provider’s office. Despite my fondness for Dr. C, I entered his office shaking like a leaf. He told me he would write me a prescription for a sedative. I responded, “I don’t need a sedative. I’m fine.”

The doctor then talked to my husband. As I listened to their conversation, I realized I was anything but fine. I started talking to a therapist and met with my Botox doctor who treated me for dry eyes. I had totally neglected my eyes — as well as my mental health — since my cancer diagnosis.

Prevailing issues from childhood led to family struggles between my siblings and me, especially in the last two years of our father’s life. Those family issues came to a head in connection with planning for Dad’s memorial service and celebration of life, a year later. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, my brother and sister had agreed that I would serve as event planner, and emcee at the funeral home and picnic reception. It was an appropriate role for me, the lone churchgoer in the family. Yet, there were still issues among us — even once the special day was fully planned, even within weeks of the ceremony.

However, there were no challenges on Oct.16, 2021, and the turnout to honor our father was fantastic! Friends and family from far and wide were with us to celebrate Dad. So many of them spoke so highly of him. That day, I felt only joy, sensing Dad’s spirit shining down on us; and knowing that I would be a better sister, daughter, niece and cousin, from that day onward.

Those baked potatoes led me to healing and that healing of my physical body led me to the awareness and desire to reunite with my family. I found my way home!

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