Kelly Irvin is a multi-published novelist and former newspaper reporter who worked in public relations for more than 20 years. She retired from her day job in 2016 after being diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis, a degenerative motor neuron disease, and stage 4 ovarian cancer. She spends her days writing and loving her family.
Some patients refer to this as their cancerversary. With two years in the rear-view mirror, I’m calling it my Everything-From-Here-On-Out-Is-Gravy Day.
Jan. 13 was the second anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. To be more accurate, it was the day my oncologist told me I had ovarian cancer. A biopsy on Jan. 8, 2016, revealed I had cancer, but the chest CT scan and subsequent biopsy of a mass in the pleural lining of my lungs didn’t allow the doctors to see where the cancer originated. A PET scan was needed to nail down the exact diagnosis.
Some cancer patients refer to this as their cancerversary. With two years in the rear-view mirror, I’m calling it my Everything-From-Here-On-Out-Is-Gravy Day. I didn’t realize this until just now — not until I contemplated how far I’ve come in two years. This month, I will celebrate my 60th birthday. Next month, my husband and I will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that possible. I’ve traveled down the road from a stunned, grief-stricken, fearful, and yes, darn it, angry woman to a joyful, hopeful, blessed person who has learned to treasure time minute by minute, day by day.
Right before my diagnosis, I took a two-week Christmas vacation. I came back to work three days into a brand-new year to find a message on the voicemail from Dr. Kazhdan. Something about masses in the pleural lining. Lung biopsy.
“We don’t know what it is. No one knows.”
I still have that sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach when I remember that message. My heart pounded. My stomach roiled. My hands were sweating around the landline receiver. Then my WebMD degree kicked in. False positives happen with CT scans all the time. They could be benign. Anything’s possible. Until it isn’t.
Then came the biopsy on Jan. 8. The PET scan on Jan. 11. The appointment for the results on Jan. 13. The medi-port surgery and chemotherapy on Jan. 19 and 20. My 58th birthday was spent in the hospital completing chemotherapy.
I look back at that woman, numb with grief and fear, who accepted a hug from Dr. Kazhdan, walked through the front door, and burst into sobs in the parking lot in little Boerne, Texas, and my heart aches for her, what she didn’t know, couldn’t know. She couldn’t know how hard it would be. Nor could she know how blessed she would be by the journey upon which she had embarked.
I actually told Dr. K that I felt relieved after she told me it was ovarian cancer. I was. I’d been terrified it would be colon cancer or pancreatic cancer or lung cancer. I knew enough to know those cancers were almost impossible to beat. I thought ovarian cancer—no problem, they can have my ovaries. I’m not using them for anything anymore. Get rid of them, get rid of the cancer. I didn’t understand the true nature of the beast. I knew the cancer had traveled to the lining of one lung, but I didn’t understand the word metastatic. In other words, it had spread. In several directions.
Dr. K said it was highly treatable. I heard “highly curable.” It took months for me to realize that we might be able to manage my cancer like a chronic disease such as heart disease or diabetes, but it couldn’t be “cured.”
People always say everything is a blur. It’s not for me. It’s so etched in my memory. Every little detail, snippets of conversations, and how bright and beautiful the days were, how they seemed to be slipping from my grasp. Sitting in my car in the parking garage after the PET scan, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and reveling in the taste of the grape jelly. I’m talking to my husband on the phone. He says, “Just don’t let it light up like a Christmas tree.”
Which is exactly what it did. I had so much to learn. We had so much to learn. And we have. And we’ve survived. We’ve thrived through chemotherapy, surgery, more chemotherapy, a period of NED (no evidence of disease), another round of chemotherapy and now, a second NED period just beginning.
I thank God every morning for my English muffin and coffee, for peanut butter, for sunshine, for being able to live my dream of writing fiction full-time. I couldn’t imagine two years ago that I would still be here now, doing this. I was afraid to be hopeful. Afraid to be disappointed. Many women do not make it this far. They don’t respond to chemotherapy or their cancer is simply too advanced, which often happens with ovarian cancer. I’ve here by prayer, the grace of God and good medical care.
My husband and I are planning a trip to some place “that requires a passport” for our 30th anniversary. We also plan to see Bon Jovi in concert in Las Vegas in February. I plan to visit my daughter and grandchildren in Virginia for her birthday in March. I’ll attend a readers’ event in Amish country in Ohio in June. Tim and I will go on a research trip to Montana in July, if my new proposal is accepted by my publisher. If I get that contract, I’ll have books to write through 2022. Two years ago, I was afraid to look past 2016. I didn’t know whether to sign another contract I might not be able to honor. Then my Sunday school teacher reminded me that people make commitments one day and die in accidents or weather events or have heart attacks the next day. All the time. Life is like that for everyone, not just cancer ninjas.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have dark days or moments of pure fear. I do. I’m human. But I cling to my faith and do my best to fight them off. Life is too short to spend it cowering in the corner.
Not everyone gets the answer to pray that they want. I have. So, I owe it to those who don’t get their two-year cancerversary to work hard, play hard, and treasure every moment of everyday. I owe it to them to overcome my NED fears and enjoy my chemotherapy-free time. I owe it to them to make a difference while I’m here. I owe it them to stave off the negative and embrace the positive.
I don’t know what year number three will bring, but I do know I will continue to live and love freely as possible for as long as possible. It’s all gravy.