On Valentines’ Day 2001, I was heading home from my Silicon Valley dot-com crazy job. My plan was to cook dinner for my husband of one year. I was 28-years-old and had recently run a marathon for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program. I felt fine, great actually.
Then, wham! I was in a car accident. A cute little old man turned left from a side street and whacked right into me – he was on his way to buy Valentine’s Day flowers for his wife. I was not really hurt, but the seat belt caught me hard and I was completely out of breath. I had broken a rib snowboarding a couple of years prior, so I thought that was probably what was up. The next day, I headed into the doctor to get it checked out, knowing they wouldn’t be able to do anything for a cracked rib, but documenting it for my insurance records from the accident. I had actually had an appointment with a doctor already for that day, because I had noticed a mysterious lump on my neck, a swollen lymph node and was slightly concerned. When I got to my appointment, the doctor I saw (I didn’t have a primary care physician at the time – after all, I was 28 and in perfect health! No need, right?) told me that I needed to chose what I wanted to be seen for – the lump or the car accident cracked rib (and by the next morning, serious case of whiplash). I asked him which he thought was more important and he refused to give me any advice. I am normally a pushover when it comes to medical stuff (whatever….), but for some reason, something told me this was NOT right. I left – really pissed off – and headed to urgent care. I was determined to see a doctor that day for both issues.
When I got to urgent care, I was seen right away. The doctor I saw there felt the lump and ordered a chest x-ray. I remember reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (which I was never able to finish after this day) and waiting for the doctor to come back and tell me that I had a cracked rib. I actually remember imagining him coming in and telling me I had cancer and then dismissed it as ridiculous and going back to reading. Minutes later, the doctor did come back in and showed my the x-ray. My chest was full of tumors – surrounding my heart and lungs. He told me he thought it was likely Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and quite treatable with chemo and radiation. I didn’t really hear anything except that it was cancer. How could this be? I was stunned. Absolutely stunned. I had just run a marathon. How could I have tumors filling up half of my chest.
I got in my car and sobbed. I drove home, hardly seeing through the tears. I called my husband and told him to come home right away. I beat him by a few minutes. When he walked in, I told him that I had really bad news, that I had cancer. We cried. He asked for details. I told him what I knew and gave him the pamphlets the doctor had given me and the schedule of tests I was undergo to “stage” the cancer. I started making calls. My parents – it was very tough to tell my dad especially, who had heard the news about my older sister’s breast cancer just 5 years earlier (she has been in remission now for 13 years!). My twin sister – even tougher, as we are so close and she had just moved away to Newport Beach a few months prior. My older sister who had been though treatment for her breast cancer gave me hope. She told me not to think the worst. She gave me perspective. My husband and I started doing research and learned that this was a fairly treatable cancer. I started to feel lucky.
The next day, I went to work and told my team. My boss’ brother-in-law had recently been through treatment for Hodgkin’s. I called him and he gave me hope. He sent me a bunch of books. I will forever be grateful for that first conversation with a recent survivor who sounded so strong.
The next 3 weeks are a blur of staging – needle biopsy (inconclusive), bone marrow biopsy (ouch! but luckily negative), biopsy on the swollen lymph node on my neck (I almost died on the table when the surgeon rested an instrument across my neck on the corroded artery, he luckily realized his mistake in time…), a PET scan during which I had to lay perfectly still for hours (talk about having time to think). A work colleague had connections at Stanford and got me in quickly to their oncology department. I met with them and immediately decided to do treatment there. The same day I went upstairs to the fertility center where I met with the woman who would 3 years later become my fertility doctor – we discussed the possibility of freezing my eggs (I was 28 and a newleywed, after all!), but due to where I was in my cycle and the size of my tumors, my oncologist recommended strongly against waiting to start treatment by the 4 weeks it would take to harvest the eggs and extract them. If I had not been in that car accident, my disease would likely have been much more progressed by the time it was diagnosed. I found out that it is actually pretty common for Hodgkin’s to be diagnosed via an accident like this, because you are usually talking about young active people who have few symptoms other than a swollen lymph nodes, which they think nothing about and can be caused by so many things, that doctors often tell people to come back in 3-6 months if it the swelling has not reduced.
I was officially diagnosed at Stage 2A “bulky” (meaning that over half of my chest was filled with tumors) Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I promptly started 12 weeks of weekly treatment on the Stanford V chemo protocol. This protocol was designed to try to reduce the nasty long-term effects of the traditional chemo protocol for Hodgkin’s, which works, very well, but has large risks associated with heart and lung damage later on down the road, as well as sterilization. And, since this disease largely affects 18-35 year olds, these long term effect are pretty significant to quality of life later on down the road.
I remember my first chemo treatment. I was scared. Very scared. The nurses wore special suits and gloves while they dispensed Nitrogen Mustand into my veins – the stuff that was used to gas people in long ago wars. But…I ended up handling chemo very well. I had side effects, but they were manageable. I took many, many drugs to counteract all the side effects. I suffered pretty extreme insomnia, which I managed with Ativan, that lovely sleeping pill. I chewed gum to hold off mouth sores. I drank prune juice, ate whatever fiber I could and went for daily walks, sometimes even runs if I felt good enough, to reduce the extremely painful stomach pains. I shaved my head when my hair started to fall out – it hurt at night when it fell out and pierced my head on the pillow. That was actually empowering – the head shaving. I made chemo buddies – especially one guy who was also newly married. We had chemo together every week – my husband and his wife would go to the cafeteria and get us french fries. Sometimes, one of us was too sick to eat. Over time, we both became weaker. I had a PICC line put in (I hated this), because my veins were finally becoming extremely inflamed and red. I actually have very good veins, but that toxic chemo gets almost everyone’s veins in the end.
I finished chemo and had a party. A big party. I was so sick and tired of chemo, I didn’t think I could do any more. Those last few treatments had been the hardest. In a few weeks, I started daily radiation. 5 weeks long. That was no big deal for me. I had no side effects at all, barely. I had a PET scan and was declared to be in remission. Success! It was over. But…I still had to process things. It took a lot of time to let go. I think it is something I will always deal with. My dark moments were there, but overall I was very positive during my treatment and I think that helped me a lot in my capacity to cope with side effects.
I remained very involved with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training and ran another marathon 4 months after finishing chemo, 2 months after finishing radiation. I was very, very, very slow. But I finished. And my husband and 2 friends ran it with me. My twin sister came and ran the last half of the marathon with me, talking me through that last, long 13.1 miles. It was a huge accomplishment and I am so thankful for the people at the Society for that community support.
Two years after I finished treatment, I asked my oncologist for “permission” to try to get pregnant. The chance of a recurrence of Hodgkin’s go down dramatically after 2 years, so I was given the go-ahead. We tried, and tried, and tried. Eventually, we were back at Stanford, back in that fertility clinic. This time, it was for happy reasons and we became pregnant with twins after doing injectable fertility drugs and an IUI (intra-uterine insemination). Wow! Now we felt really lucky. And my oncologist and nurse at the Stanford cancer center were ecstatic. Even more happy was the day, 19 months later that I found myself with a late period, and an unplanned surprise pregnancy without any fertility drugs.
Last week, I celebrated my 7-year anniversary of finishing chemo. This summer, I will celebrate my 7th anniversary of finishing radiation, getting a clear PET scan, and hearing the word remission. Being so busy with my three small kids now, it is hard to remember the “bad dream” of cancer. It seems very far away, yet so close, because without it I am not sure where I would be in life. I certainly have changed my perspective on life in general due to my cancer diagnosis and treatment and my relationships with people have forever been altered. Life after cancer is full. Very full. And I treasure every moment I have to live it.