Tag Archive: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

A close friend of ours was recently diagnosed with cancer.  She’s a farmer’s wife who has always been good to us and treated us like family.  She’s a second mother to me and the news hit with a ferocity unmatched by my own diagnosis.  I say that because, as with most things in life, we know what we can handle, but when the same infliction is paired with someone else, the doubt we shelved on our own behalf is more easily recovered.  

And then there’s an anger that resides in the memory of what it was like to survive cancer.  The horror of it, the fear that will emerge and the knowledge you can’t fight it for them.  At the same time, the experience of cancer can draw out strengths we didn’t know we had and it’s a comfort to know our friend will experience, in her hardest battle, a courage that everything else will, eventually, surrender to.  

When you are diagnosed, your battle isn’t to fight the disease, but to fight to remain in the moment; to stave off the need to know what lies ahead, to find solace supplied by each breath unaware, as we all are, whether ill or healthy, of what future we’ll meet around the next corner.  That is primary.

Secondary is our need to survive by whatever means we find acceptable.  And for those co-survivors, there are no sidelines.  It’s our duty to our loved ones that helps us focus on the here and now and survive alongside them.  We find our own courage – a word that reflects a strength that does not come from muscle or brawn, but from the heart.  And again, as I discovered emerging from my own illness, we find ourselves feeling fortunate having come to some understanding that we are all in this together.  And that is something cancer will never destroy.

Today is the last day of my twenties; tomorrow I turn 30.  I used to dread growing old, but in life post-cancer, growing old is a goal.  I thought the urge to reminisce would catch me off guard last minute; threatening to enact some hint of regret, but instead I feel content and satisfied in reaching my thirties.  

I’m also very glad to be in Michigan at this time in my life.  Two years ago on my birthday we took a trip to Mackinac Island.  I looked out over the bow of the boat at rainbows forming in the freshwater spray.  The wind whipped through our hair and out over the straits of Mackinac, the iron bridge took on a soft look in the bright sunlight.  It was a moment so well-engrained that while my body was secretly host to a silent mutation, I dreamed of my good-byes to family.  Each time I said goodbye in dreams, I walked into the spray and knew then I was passing into a new realm, though at the time I didn’t even believe in Santa Clause.  I discovered the lump two days later and my life was forever changed.  

In a way, being up here feels like the closing of some loop.  Like I’ve been here before, but my path has changed.  Left untreated, NHL kills within two-years.  Most recurrences take place within the first two years into remission.  Whatever the significance, this experience has completed a two-year cycle.  At a time when I believed I would regret the turning of a decade, I am elated to put my twenties behind me; to embark full-throttle on a new adventure; to leap into the next phase of my life uninhibited; to count rainbows on the spray and to take on the softer look wisdom grants us as we age.

I met with both my new cardiologist and oncologist today.  I am both impressed with their empathy and confident in their knowledge.  The cardiologist spent an hour explaining how my heart functions and potential treatments, all the while keeping in mind I’d like to get away from my reliance on the medication.   Instead of a pace-maker, there’s a procedure- a type of ablation, where they cauterize a line inside the atrial wall to disrupt signal interference.  My doctor suggested this may help enough that I could discontinue the medication.

In oncology news, I received a small blow to my confidence when my doctor informed me a recurrence would mean a complete stem-cell transplant.   When I asked about a regiment of Rituxan, he said the drug would only be effective with an indolent or slow-growing form of lymphoma.  The survival rate for a transplant is 40%.

My PET scan is scheduled for Monday.  And if I’m clear, that’s good news; the further out, the better.   Still, I was shaken by news of the transplant because I’ve been telling myself cancer is no big deal with the right drugs.  The fact is, cancer’s a bitch.

That said, I eat right, exercise daily, and laugh often – the best defense against a recurrence.   And the great news is that I’ve met three wonderful doctors who are managing a game-plan for my continued good health.

And completely unrelated, I’m considering making the switch to a digital Cannon (40D).  Anyone have an opinion on this?

For those of you who don’t know me well, I spent a year working on an Honor’s project for college on the topic of increased incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) and agricultural practices in Northern Michigan in 2005.  The project, More than Cherries, was inspired by the story of a young woman who died in early 2005 of diffuse large b-cell lymphoma, an aggressive form of NHL.

One year after the publication of my paper, I was diagnosed with the same form of lymphoma.  And weeks into my diagnosis, I was introduced to Lauren’s family for
the first time.  After our introduction, we were amazed at the strange coincidences that seemed always, something more than just coincidence.  It was as if Lauren was looking out for all of us on our journey through cancer.

The more I learned about Lauren, the more I felt like I had known her and at times, I had to remind myself that we had never met.  And yet, there was no doubt she was influencing my life.

Lauren’s mom shared a wonderful story about an eagle that kept appearing after Lauren’s death.  People said eagles had never been sighted near her house, and yet every time Dawn thought about Lauren, there was the eagle.  It even made an appearance at Lauren’s memorial service in town, where other people witnessed it.

A few days ago, I was driving out to Elk Rapids, passing along the open stretch of East Bay, when I saw two eagles each perched atop a rock along the shore.  Immediately I thought of Lauren and her mom and pulled over to allow the girls a better view.  I kept thinking, “These are Lauren’s birds, why am I seeing them right now.”  As one of the large birds lifted off, it seemed to disappear into the sky.

The following morning, I emailed Lauren’s mom and told her about the eagles.  She emailed back immediately and reminded me, “Yesterday was the anniversary of Lauren’s death!  The “coincidence” is not lost on me.”

I’ve always been cyncial, certainly agnostic and I’m likely better described as atheist, but when it comes to Lauren, I can’t help but feel she is real and present in our lives.  And so when I see Lauren’s bird, I see a sign of hope, of peace, of a reality that stretches into the spiritual experience.

Yesterday I met with Dr. K, my oncologist. He’s my hero for not only was he mindful of my treatments and care, but he was always careful to remember things about me as a person first, patient second. His honesty could be brutal at times, but this I value still for it allowed me to forgo unnecessary worry.

After my blood-work, in which they found a vein successfully the first poke (and in my arm)! I talked with Dr. K about how I’ve been feeling and what lay ahead. I told him I’ve been well and he checked me for the usual lumps and bumps and listened to my heart and lungs and then smiled his broad smile and said everything looks as good as I feel. We talked about my plan of action once I move down to NC and then he shook my hand and said, “Goodbye and good luck to you.”

I thanked him, but it didn’t seem enough just to say thank-you when the person standing across from you has saved your life. And yet, I know he knows how grateful I am for all he has done. When he asked about my heart, I retorted, “Have you considered cardiology as a side career?”

Yesterday was about more than Dr. K. It was about walking away without scheduling another scan. It was the certainty with which Dr. K said “No” when the nurse inquired about a CT scan for January. It was like I had been set free and my life lay ahead of me in long beautiful years that stretched out infinitely. For a moment, I forgot about vulnerability and disease.

Yesterday I said things like, “I feel good.” “I’m well.” “No night sweats, no fatigue.” “I can run and it feels great.” And when Dr. K asked whether I “felt like I had returned to all normal day to day activities,” I happily answered YES! And then some.

I know I’ll never completely let go of this experience. There is a scar still visible to the naked eye and medication I now rely on to some degree and there are times when I must just let myself cry. Along this path, I’ve met and loved some remarkable people who unfortunately succumbed to this disease and even a part of me and who I was fell away as I continued on along my own path. So, in that sense, I still grieve. At the same time, I celebrate each small victory in my return to normalcy.

I will always remember the kindness others bestowed upon me, often by strangers united by the same cause; to beat this disease not with drugs, but with love, compassion, patience and attitude. No matter what happens moving forward, I/We have won over cancer.


Photo by Dianna McPhail