A Prayer for a Friend

For the first time in my life, I’m struck with how “not okay” cancer can be.  Not okay cancer is cloaked in a dark robe of inoperability.  Inoperable and metastatic. Inoperable, metastatic, and stage IV. Inoperable, metastatic, and stage IV at 32 with a bleak prognosis.

Please pray for my friend as he starts chemo next week.  Two days ago he was blissfully ignorant of the journey in which he’s about to embark.  I hope the reason I’ve had my path is to be a source of strength and honesty in times like these.

Cancer does not play fair and seems to prey on the brightest lights of all.

I Run Because I Can

One does arguably stupid things when recovering from surgery. Namely, I do stupid things when recovering from surgery. After my first I partied my ass off, and after my most recent I made another idiotic, albeit vastly different decision: I signed up for a marathon.

When people ask if it will be my first I tell them, “Yes. First and only.” “Oh, is it a bucketlist type thing?” they question. “No, not really,” I respond. I then proceed to tell the tale of how I got myself into this little six-month, bone-pounding, tendon-tearing predicament. It goes a little something like this. Four days after surgery I was beyond bored, tired of an endless blur of daytime TV, coloring books (yes, coloring books), and Lonely Planet Costa Rica, which I never did manage to finish but made it there and back having an amazing time. I turned to my dear old friend facebook to pass the time. Glancing at the endless feed of friend content a post grabbed my attention: “I just registered for the Nike Women’s Marathon.” Huh, how about that? I guess we can blame our friend word-of-mouth marketing for the outcome of this story.

As I sat at my mom’s computer I quickly ran a pro/con analysis through my head. Pro: I’m bored as hell and this will be something badass to do. Con: It’s in San Francisco, those hills will murder me. Pro: the race is in October, that gives me a sun-filled summer with long days to train. Con: I hate running. I decide to click on the link to find out it’s a raffle. I don’t even have to commit to running this race to make myself feel better – glorious. I won’t get selected and I’ll at least feel great about myself for attempting to run. Hmm, half or full? F*&% it, no one is impressed witha  half marathon, let’s go big. Full it is. I’m playing running roulette even though I hate gambling.

I enter my registration information and credit card payment. Apparently Nike wants to ensure you’re committed before the raffle. Bastards. I continue with the registration. “In one word finish this sentence….I run to be_______.Dominating.  Badass.  Because I survived. (darn that’s three words), carefree. Seemed appropriate at the time but in retrospect I should have put “Alive.”  I’m running because I can. I’m running 26.2 miles because for the sixth time in seven years I’ve survived cancer. I run to prove to myself that I can do something extraordinary. I run because my desires and aspirations have no bounds. I run because I put marathon on my mini-bucket list this year. I run because I’m young, my body can handle it, and if not now, when? I run to be alive. Also, the Tiffany’s necklace at the finish line isn’t a bad incentive either. 😉

Needless to say, my name got pulled and I committed to training for the past five months.  There marathon is this weekend. See you on Sunday morning, 26.2.

Wear Your Diamonds Today

In a word, my grandmother was fabulous.  She and I were woven from the same hilariously inappropriate, sparkly-thing-loving cloth. Upon her passing last spring, I took time to reflect upon the incredible memories we shared together.  Amidst the memories, a handful of lessons – which until recently didn’t realize we’re truisms sewing together the patchwork of things I hold dear. The most vivid of values inherited is entwined with my sixteenth birthday gift – a beautiful opal and diamond ring passed down that she had received from my great-grandmother on her own sixteenth birthday.  A few months after giving it to me, she asked if I had worn it. I indicated I hadn’t yet had an occasion to do so.  “You don’t need an occasion. Wear your diamonds today,” she said.  And she did. She wore her diamonds everyday.

Live in the moment, be present, this year I will…there seems to be recurring themes in what I’m posting these days.  Once more feel like I’m jumping to the lessons I’ve learned before unraveling the whole story (also – good Lord, I didn’t realize how many metaphors I attach to my pieces of jewelry).  Yet, if I wanted to leave readers of this blog one lesson it would be this – tomorrow is not promised and live today as fabulously as if it were your last.

I was wine tasting this weekend and had a conversation with a PhD student in our group.   We were talking wine collecting (which I don’t do), and mentioned she had received a nice bottle as a gift.  She didn’t know what constituted a special occasion to drink it.  I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother, and shared that to me a “special” day would look something like a Thursday evening and home-cooked meal with someone I care about.  If we are too faint-hearted and save special things for something or someday exceptional, we may let the wine spoil, our diamonds get tucked away, or our love lost.

My grandmother was an inspiration. She raised three children after my grandfather passed in his 40’s (both pictured above at the Walker Cup in St. Andrews),  overcame alcoholism, and enjoyed her life with more exuberance than anyone I’ve known. In her memory, I say go ahead and enjoy that expensive wine, wear your diamonds, and say the words or sentiments you save for special occasions today. Every day is extraordinary, after all.

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This week marks the one year anniversary of my grandmother’s passing. As such I thought there was no better time to share her pearls of wisdom…or diamonds, as it were.

This Year I Will…

“Your past is important, but it is not nearly as important to your present as the way you see your future”

                                                                                                                               – Tony Campolo

I’m a planner – guilty, party-of-one. I make lists, I check things off the lists, add more things to said lists, and so continue the vicious, virtuous cycles.  Life often becomes a “to-do.” I’m envious of European countries, which take time to enjoy, abating daily demands, or letting strive toward achievements dictate the manner in which one runs the hours in their day. Italians call this “dolce fa niente” – the sweetness in doing nothing.

There is a healthy tension between living in each moment and setting sights on experiences to achieve.  Being a Libra, my daily struggle is maintaining balance around what makes me feel complete.  The irony of juxtaposition in my desire to live in each moment contrasted with my planning nature is not lost upon me.  As such, when my cousin gifted me a simple Kate Spade bracelet before my latest surgery I found a way to maintain balance. Inscribed on the inside of the bracelet a phrase, “This year I will…” Written on the outside are a handful of commitments. Perfection – a tiny bucket list that will help me live moments with purpose for a defined amount of time.

Her gift began turning the cogs in my mind. What would I want to write on the outside of my bracelet if I could? I created a short list of what makes me happy or something I’ve always wanted to achieve.  This year I will…

  • Run a marathon (Nike Women’s Marathon in SF, October 16th)
  • Travel somewhere requiring a passport (Costa Rica)
  • Visit two places in the US I’ve never been to (The Hamptons and Chicago)
  • Fall asleep staring at the stars
  • Set aside time for photographic excursions
  • Sing in the shower
  • Continue to share my story and discoveries with whoever wants to listen
  • Contemplate the heavens
  • Make people feel special
  • Contribute time toward a cause that moves me
  • Say “I love you” everyday

Bucket lists are often created in a last ditched effort to squeeze the joy and magic out of life when running on borrowed time.  When faced with our own morality priorities become lucid– you hear stories of people making amends with estranged loved ones, quitting jobs to spend time with family, or taking audacious worldly excursions.  We no longer live cautiously, plan for a retirement that may never come, or give a damn about how people perceive our actions. We throw caution to the wind and sprint toward the end of life’s finish line in an attempt to make those last few days, months, or years feel like we’ve truly lived the life we were intended to live.  My favorite organization, the Make-a-Wish Foundation, has built a nonprofit around this very concept – giving terminal children one final wish before their short lives are stripped from them.

Yet, I challenge, why don’t we live everyday like we don’t give a damn? As if every day is truly a gift?  We all have our bucket list – places we hope to travel, accomplishments we aspire to achieve, memories to experience, milestones to meet – with the hope we will get to check these things off “someday.”  But what happens when someday never comes?

Life is a never-ending to-do list. If we don’t take the time to do what makes us happy, we’ll end up never truly living.  Perche la vita e bella.  Because life is beautiful. So live it.

Batting .750

From a young age, I’ve had a biased toward overachieving. In third grade, I’d set my sights to attend Stanford, in sixth I was beyond thrilled to attend GATE (Gifted And Talented Education), and in subsequent years medaled twice at the Volleyball Junior Olympics. That is not to say I believe I’m exceptional – I’m not –rather, to illustrate that I set high expectations of myself. [In fact, I failed to get into Stanford and was cut from my Junior High Volleyball team]. Everything has always been a competition with my number one competitor: myself.

Last week, when my Endocrine surgeon told me two of the eight suspicious lymph nodes removed on March 31st were cancerous, I quickly sized-up myself. Two for eight equated to one-quarter cancer. Seventy-five of what was taken from me wasn’t infested with the malignancy pervading both my body and spirit. Seventy-five percent translates to a solid C. In other words: average. Not passing. Not failing. Just there.

As I enter into year six with disease, I can’t help but think this will be a recurring theme: not disease-free, nor cancer-ridden, simply present. It is a black mold -unseen and barely detectable, but omnipresent – chipping at the edges of my rose-colored world. It’s my duty create an exceptional personal outlook in a less-than-exceptional situation. At least by doing so I can control the status of my mental malignancy – a term I created referring to the degradation of your positive attitude while dealing with cancer. If I can maintain my mental malignancy tracking at and 90%, even though my body is telling me we’re at 75%, I’m confident I’ll be able to rid myself of this bastard eventually – but maybe that’s just my Santa-Cruz, Secret-loving, “if-you-believe-it-it-will-happen” side coming out.

On the whole, the surgery was my most pain-free yet. Is it sad that I can now am able to compare surgeries to each other? The consultant in me wants to create a cancer scorecard and regression analysis, but maybe I’ve just been working too much the past week. One solitary night in the hospital, five days at home, four bouquets, three-dozen cards, three new pieces of jewelry, two snuggly presents, one new drug allergy, one gardenia tree, and one giant box of titillating games probably sped up the recovery – well, aside from the drug allergy. Thanks to everyone for your support, kind words, emails, texts, phone calls, facebook updates, visits, and gifts.

Here’s to hoping the next round of tests is an A. Truthfully, I’m sick of being average.

Surgery Week – Volume III

After a month and a half of waiting, surgery week is finally here. Thursday around noon I’ll get my throat slit for the third time in six years.  Unlike the first go-round under then knife, I opted for putting this one off a bit.  After all, that cancer bastard (yes, this is how I now refer to that little fucker…yes, it is a fucker too) has interrupted my life more times than I care to count.  This time I wanted to finish up some vacations and travel I had planned.  The last month has been a whirlwind, with traveling to Seattle, Austin, and two ski trips to Tahoe.  I am lucky enough that my surgeon accommodated my scheduled and didn’t let this little malignant bastard ruin my fun! But alas, nerd spring break, the Rainy City, and infinite runs down Gold Coast have come to an end and it’s time to face the realities of dealing with the pest once more.

One thing I’ve learned from previous surgeries is this – recovering is boring as all get out.  Visitors come and go, but most of the time its drugs, sleep, repeat.  I only pray that I’m not allergic to the drugs this time around, it does mix things up a bit but not in a good way.  Being the planner I am here’s what I’ve got in my hospital bag so far:

  • Coloring book & crayons – you won’t be laughing when you have a spectacular picture I’ve colored you while high on Percocet
  • Lonely Planet Costa Rica – I’ll attempt to at least highlight this for an upcoming vacation
  • InStyle – because being in a hospital gown makes me want to dress fabulously when I reappear into society
  • Made to Stick – A business book I doubt I’ll crack
  • Silicon scar therapy patches – I’m determined to diminish the scars because I’d prefer to not look like I was attacked by Edward Scissorhands.

Countless hours of TV and movie marathons are on the horizon. I’ll be at the UCSF Mount Zion hospital at least overnight, then back recovering at my family’s house for the following two weeks. Here’s to hoping they get that bastard out once and for all and for a smooth recovery! Visitors welcome.

Surgery Date Set

March 31st chapter 6 unfolds. This is how I feel about that…

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile

That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile

Shaken, Not Stirred

Clearly I’ve not abided by my commitment to post weekly, but would like to get back to it. Another one of my rules I’m going to break – keeping a chronological order. When (if) the day comes I end up putting all these thoughts into a book, I’ll go back and sift. Until then I’ll make sure to denote if the story/thought is past or present so I don’t cause the waves of panic like I started with a facebook update today. Yes, unfortunately, the one I’m about to share is very much present.

I suppose I really shouldn’t feel like I was hit by a semi after unfortunate doctor’s visits anymore. Good visits the past two years have become an exception; not the rule. Apparently this semi was carrying two trailers, when I thought it was only the one that nailed me last August.

I’m back to my old stomping grounds in Northern California, which also means my “old” (read set two of three sets) of doctors.  I was due for a follow-up ultrasound at UCSF from the first trailer last week.  The typical lube and press uncomfortably on my neck took a standard 40 minutes. I was stoked when released without being biopsied because, as I’ve learned, biopsies mean abnormalities. Biopsies mean something is amiss. Biopsies are not my friend.

Given the breezy test, I assumed my endocrinologist appointment today would be another medicine level adjustment, fondle of the neck, and I’d be on my way. I should have picked-up that in the week in since, I’d been referred to and taken-on by a semi-retired-works-one-day-a-week-takes-on-very-few-patients-one-of-the-best-neck-surgeons-in-the-country doctors doesn’t speaking to a promising outcome. But nope, I just thought, “Wow, that will be so wonderful if we need to do something in the future.” I didn’t think the future was now.

So what did we learn today? We learned about calcification. Calcification: the reason we didn’t need to biopsy, as the lymph node showed cancer and needs to be gone.  Since I’m pretty damn close to my maximum on radiation, we get to do the good ole fashion slice and remove. As one of my friends said today, “It’s okay, you’ve been here before. You know the drill.” Looks like surgery is on the horizon. Joy.

Another friend, who is always overly concerned about my happiness in everything, asked how I was feeling. Mad? Sad? Scared? I’ve decided on shaken. The best way to describe it is as if someone took me by the shoulders, tossed me around like a ragdoll then expected me to walk normally.  It feels pretty damn close to how I felt after the 1989 earthquake – shell-shocked and wanting to speak to no one. Mute.  My insides are shaking and I’ll cover my eyes in RayBans to avoid anyone reading through my eyes to see what’s actually going on.

When does the end of “everything will be okay” ever happen?

The Aftermath – Telltale scare, brittle hair, and me minus 30 pounds

My post-surgery scar emanated a fluorescent neon sign screaming an advertisement of “I’m not normal!” While some of my courageous co-ops mustered up the nerve to ask what had happened, most avoided the elephant that was my sudden change in appearance.  Instead I’d hear the musings and speculation from third parties. In fact, there was a rumor going around the younger generations at Aptos High that I had died.  That was a fun Thanksgiving reunion to come home to.

Clearly alive, I’d been coveting a necklace made of shells that wrapped tightly around my neck to drape over the area home to my emotional baggage. I wasn’t embarrassed; I simply wanted to be a normal sophomore girl.  I didn’t want everyone take pity on me after explaining why I looked the way I did. I didn’t want to explain myself.  My change in appearance made me uncomfortable, especially when the reactions I would hear included some variation of, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” How do you respond to that? It’s just awkward for everyone involved, so I tried to avoid it.

About a month post-surgery

To top off the train-track bandages that laced my neck, I had also been whittled down to looking like a heroin-addict due to my allergic reaction to pain medicine and lack of nutrition for a week.  I cinched my pants to keep them from falling off my hips, but the excess cloth that became my saggy derriere was just embarrassing.  Luckily my fellow 5’ 10” roommate was, and still is, healthily model thin.  I borrowed her size two, small (but extra lanky) clothes for a few weeks while my body filled back out.

My hair slowly turned to long strands of straw, falling out in clumps every time I brushed or ran my fingers through it.  For those who don’t know, the thyroid regulates the metabolism.  Once it’s removed your body progressively begins to slow down including the functions that make your body, skin, hair, and nails lubricated. My face plumped and eyes bulged, while the rest of my body remained gaunt as I prepared for radioactive treatment.  I looked outright sickly.  My coach commented on my appearance in Volleyball Magazine a few months later, “Ali still showed up to practice even though she was literally turning green.”

Although I felt and looked like hell, I maintained the attitude that I’d tackle the life I was meant to lead head-on and not let this hiccup slow me down.  I was ready for my next hurdle.

This Some Bullsh*t

One year. I would just like to make it one goddamn year without having a test come back positive. I haven’t been cancer free since I was eighteen. I haven’t made it cancer free for one year the past six years. I’ve long been regarded as an optimist, finding the silver linings in my unfortunate situation. Over the past two years that optimism is waxing thin, sanded down to an opaque membrane exposing a jaded skeptic with each reading of test results.

I’ve come to expect this annual as normal, as part of who I am. Every fall I received a new adventure to figure out.  How bad will it be this year?  Potential lung mass? Liver mass? Treatment? Radiation?  Low iodine diet?  Surgery? Five day hospitalization? Isolation? Modified radial neck dissection? Nope, this year it could be an ethanol injection. Hell, who really knows?

I’m in an abusive relationship with UCLA medical facility. I love them because they find the cancer when others don’t know what’s wrong. I loathe them because they tell me they found the cancer when others don’t know what’s wrong.

Last week, the Chief of Radiology at UCLA gave my annual ultrasound. After pushing on my neck for a few moments he informed me my left side was clear. I was relieved but still felt some trepidation as he proceeded to the right.  A few moments later, “I’m sorry, but it has returned. This is an irregular node. It’s the exact same thing we found last year.”  How? How after I’ve had seventy-nine lymph nodes removed from my neck, can this be returning?

A biopsy later and I was out the door. We’re still waiting on the final report, but the biopsy shows the results are indeterminate – medical speak for “it depends.”  Indeterminate – the word no one wants to hear as they’re trying to figure out if their world is going to flip upside-down once again. Cancer is one pesky little bastard.

As my dear friend, Christine, said when I told her the news, “This some bullshit,” because, quite frankly, it is.

Party Like a Rock Star

Four days post surgery I made the all to familiar drive from Westwood to Malibu.  It’s pretty bizarre how your life can flip entirely in a matter of days. In those few weeks and years to come I became much wiser than my years, and learned lessons most don’t until much later in life. But those are tales of posts yet to come.  The only thing that was on my mind by this point was I had survived, I was free from the obligations of volleyball from a few weeks, and I had a best friend who was over 21. I did the only thing any mature 18 year old would. I partied my ass off.

It didn’t hurt that I was friends with the men’s water polo team, which as any collegiately savvy person knows is the epitome of Animal House come to life, second – of course – to frats.  As luck would have it, the guys were throwing the first annual Labor Day White party. I believe the tradition carries on to present day. At least I was still getting facebook invites after I’d graduated, but I digress.

Throw about sixty athletes whom to don’t have practice the next day in with a couple boxes of Franzia, bottles of Finlandia, and a slip-and-slide into a mud pit, and you have Labor Day 2004.

Ah yes, the mud pit. (Mom, you might want to skip over this part).  My surgeon made a fatal error in telling me “you can’t hurt the wound,” which at this time consisted of steri strips and black thread that made me look like the Bride of Frankenstein.  To me this squarely translated into “go do whatever the hell you want.”  So when people started slippin’ and sliding into the cellophane wrapped rocky terrain we called the mud pit I thought, “Hell yea!”  Surgery had given me one hell of a bikini body, the alcohol gave me the courage to shed to my suit, and simple life high (or stupidity…jury is still out on that one) gave me edge to dive. The bandages and still healing wound were doused in Escondido (name of the house) goodness.

Every night for the following week I was out at some party or bar, with my trusty girlfriends in tow.  Back then I called it a celebration or liberation from looking death in the eye and getting away with it.  However, in retrospect, I think it was my own attempt at repression, a psychology theory meaning that when traumatic events occur the human mind blocks out the memories.  I was repressing the trauma and celebrating life all at once, and to me that worked just fine.

I Will Remember You

This is for my family…

I’ll remember visiting you as a kid, riding in you White ’93 Explorer chewing Double Bubble piece after piece. I’ll remember the hot Augusts spent with Kelley, Hannah, and Jack out in the pool. I’ll remember the skits we’d put on while dancing to Britney Spears in your bedroom. I’ll remember your affinity for Wedgewood. I’ll remember you teaching me how to knit, and how I picked out the gaudiest yarn in the store. I’ll remember the 75+ hours you spent knitting my purple afghan I begged you for. I’ll remember Salvador Molly’s, and your love for their coconut rice and jerked chicken. I’ll remember the rack of lamb that ended up on your white coat at my graduation dinner. I’ll remember your and Gramma McCourt’s inappropriate comments too. I’ll remember you telling my friends and I to go to sleep at my 10-year-old birthday slumber party. I’ll remember your Christmas gifts, wrapped in gold paper and red wire bows. I’ll remember your beautiful cursive. I’ll remember your Mexican room, and trying to find stuff to put in it. I’ll remember the hot summer nights, sleeping with the widow open and hearing the breeze. I’ll remember the squirrel who’d run the wire and steal nuts from the tree. I’ll remember the yellow jackets that would find their way into the pool. I remember Hannah throwing sand to illuminate the spider webs in your backyard. I’ll remember riding our Razor scooters down Admiral. I’ll remember riding our suitcases on the iced street too. I’ll remember the merry go round at Kelly Park. I’ll remember our trips to Hollywood video. I’ll remember your “fancy” Internet TV. I’ll remember how I tried to steal your fashionable Tommy Hilfiger shirt. I’ll remember giving you that God-awful purple Tahoe oversized sleep shirt too.  I’ll remember your iced tea, your hot tea, your lemon tapioca pudding with crème – two pans, one for Dad, one for the rest of us. I’ll remember your French toast, with real maple syrup. I’ll remember your melon salad, Cornish game hens, and killer chicken salad. I’ll remember our love for all things that sparkle. I’ll remember you calling yourself part gypsy. I’ll remember your obsession with getting your new skylight in the redesigned kitchen. I’ll remember you always cursing your “horrible” hair. I’ll remember your horse shampoo. I’ll remember the giant bible in the dark hallway. I’ll remember Mabencha. I’ll remember me tapping you on the head once I surpassed your height. I’ll remember you shopping at Gap kids, fitting into the boy’s jeans.  I’ll remember calling you because Mom made me ask you what horny meant. I’ll remember Gramma Carmelita’s house, and your love for the ocean, sailing, and Tales of Balboa. I’ll remember your cackle. I’ll remember you calling me baby-doll. I’ll remember when you taught me how to tap dance, and we’d practice in the garage. I’ll remember when you were vibrant and weren’t sick. I’ll remember you forever because you’re my gramma and I love you.

Gramma passed peacefully at 7:50am this morning with my Mom, Dad and Aunt by her bedside.

I will remember you.

Gramma Tita’s Post

I apologize for the month long hiatus. Yes, I’m sure I’ve been missed since my follow-ship is all but fifteen – but an important fifteen they are. It’s been a rough few weeks. Yep, you guessed it Cancer…with a capital C.

I’ve been blessed to attend only two funerals thus far in my life.  Cancer has only touched me, and my best friend. Even so, I was still too young to consider that “knowing someone with cancer.”  Aside from that, my mom had a brain tumor when I was fourteen, but again I was still quite young to grasp any severity.  That changed this week. This week, my beloved Grandmother was diagnosed with a lung mass and cancer spread throughout her bones. She’s not expected to live much longer, but I’ll be blessed enough to pay her a final visit this week.

Unfortunately, I’m now experiencing what it’s like to be scared for someone you love.  It’s much different when it happens to you. When it’s you, you will yourself to put up the best damn fight you have in you. The only thing you’re scared for is figuring out how to put family and friends at ease. That’s what you try to control; you try to control how other people feel about you.  When it’s someone you love, it’s out of your hands.  It’s not your battle to fight.  So you spend hours wondering what’s next. Waiting for your phone call down the telephone tree.  Getting swelled with emotion at the most random of times.

I got to talk to my grandmother yesterday, Mother’s day.  Gramma grew up at the beach, and would check Tales of Balboa daily from her Portland home. Yesterday she asked me about the gorgeous fog that would sit heavy in the coastal air, and said, “I miss those diamonds of light that sparkle on top of the ocean.”

I don’t think she realized she’s been the diamond of light in ocean that is our lives. I’ll miss her. I hate cancer.

Spirituality, Surgery, & School

The good thing about having surgery immediately is it doesn’t give you a lot of time to stew in your worries. It took less than a week from the time my doctor told me I needed surgery until it was preformed. The week between was a blur.  It felt like I blinked my eyes, and when I opened them I was being rolled out of ICU.  I wasn’t scared; I wasn’t worried.  I had a calm about me because I knew I was going to be okay.  Any rational person would think this was crazy – going so quickly into surgery for cancer should have you concerned. I had no doubts in my mind that I’d be completely fine.

Call it divine intervention if you’d like. That’s how I refer to that week.  It was the first time in all my eighteen church-going years that I believed my own spirituality. Every sermon, homily, and “miracle story” I’d heard up until then had been words and doctrine.  They didn’t feel real. Sure, I considered myself a Christian, but there was this nagging feeling that although I said it, I didn’t really believe it. That week all that changed.  I felt “it” – whatever “it” may be to you.

My three-hour surgery took one and a half.  My thyroid was removed entirely, which means a lifetime of synthetic hormones to regulate my metabolism. I also had four lymph nodes involved, which meant the cancer could possibly have spread or could come back in the future.  I quickly learned I was allergic to not only general anesthesia, but also a few variants of oral narcotics. It was all morphine for me. This also meant I spent four days in hospital hell.  The morphine made my eyes rollback when I wanted to visit with my friends, nurses woke me up at all hours of the night to take my vitals, the woman who shared my room kept me awake talking to her family about her gastric-bypass surgery, I was freezing cold, and I was paranoid. My poor mother spent nights on two chairs pushed together.

In between those minor annoyances I was getting sick every hour. Yes, vomiting after having your throat slit open the day before is beyond horrifying.  I’ll spare you the rest of the unsavory details, but that was the most hellish experience my body has ever gone through.

Once released from the hospital, I recovered at the hotel across the street. After all, sophomore year was starting Monday and I needed to make an appearance as a seasoned college veteran.   My surgeon strongly suggested I take a semester off. I thought he was crazy. I had a life to live, volleyball to play, things to learn, and parties to attend.

I did the only thing I knew how to – I kept moving forward.

“I’ll be okay”

One of the most deeply moving moments in my journey was when I realized I wasn’t alone. There were millions of other people out there experiencing the same internal conflict too. However that moment didn’t come until four years later. The moments leading up to that point were quite different.

Each day I woke up, shrouding myself in a coat of arms, letting the emotion fester on the inside.  I had to be strong for my friends. I couldn’t handle talking about what I was going through because I would see the pain and tears streak their face.  If they were hurt, I would lose it.  So when asked how I was doing, I’d crack a joke, and say, “I’m fine, everything will be okay.”

Lies. These are the little lies we tell ourselves to make everything feel better. You don’t know if you’re going to be okay. I felt this cancer growing in me was my burden to bear.  So I kept the emotion in, keeping the tears hidden even from my family.  You so badly want to shelter everyone you love from the pain you feel because you don’t want them to hurt. You don’t want them to feel the same way you feel about yourself.  So you constantly make sure they’re okay, and reassure them everything will be fine.

I didn’t realize this was how I tried to protect my loved ones until I had an epiphany watching a dance competition portraying a woman’s battle with cancer.  Not only did the dance move me, but the critique (fast forward to minute 6:25) so accurately captured the emotion I felt when talking to my friends, “How many millions and millions of people if they haven not experienced cancer firsthand have known someone to either fight it or not fight it. And the journey that you go on with them, because everyday they want to believe they’re going to beat it. And that’s the hardest thing and they always want you to be okay. It’s always about you being okay as they try to keep that focus that ‘I’m going to beat this, I’m going to beat this.“

And so I told my friends, “I’ll be okay. Please don’t worry about me.”

The First Few Told

I didn’t show a shred of emotion for a few hours after hearing the news.  It was an evening when I should have been showing up to the last practice of double days.

The first person I told was my coach, Nina Matthies.  Like any normal person, she was incredibly concerned about the outcome of my doctor’s visit.  I was still in my “I’m invincible, nothing can harm me” phase.  To this day, that phone call haunts me. It was the first time I “got it.” I remember her voice on the other end while trying to make out her words between the crashing waves at Sunset Blvd and Pacific Coast Highway. I’d simply called to say I wouldn’t be at practice that evening due to the visit to UCLA.  As a D1 athlete you simply don’t miss practice especially during double days, so Nina had a hunch something was up.  She asked what happened.  I just flat out told her: It’s cancer.  “Oh my god, Ali.”

Nina helped me snap out of the cloud I’d been floating on the few hours prior to the diagnosis. I bit my lip, fought the tears, and sucked it up. I assured her I’d be fine. I spent the ride to my dorm room in silence.

It didn’t get any easier when I had to tell my best college girlfriends. I vowed to stop by their room as soon as I got back. When I walked in the door, I remember my best friend Kristin looking at me with an all too concerned look I would see many more times in the years to come.  Her and Sophia knew before I could say anything.  I received bear hugs until I stopped crying.  I gathered enough air to crack a joke.  Humor is a nasty little thing.   It fixes things for only a moment.  It allows your soul to hide behind its shield, and that shield that blocks out all real emotion. Humor is only a Band-Aid. In the end the hurt is still there.

I wish I could say there’s a good way to break the news to those you love – that there is some magical step-by-step here’s how we’re going to get through this without tears guide. There isn’t. It’s an emotional thing to do. And I think that’s okay. I think it’s okay to be scared when faced with your own morality.

Welcome to the Cancer Club

The strange thing about cancer is it doesn’t hit you right away.  It took a solid six months for the reality of my new life to settle in.  The next series of posts can most pointedly be described as going through the motions.  I didn’t understand the significance of how my life would change until years later. Let me start at the beginning.

The drive from Northern California to Malibu would be one I’d never forget. Collegiately seasoned, I packed the car with the anticipation of the upcoming volleyball season. Bitter my summer would always be shorter than my classmates, I anxiously set out to begin the fall semester – new crushes, classes, and the drive to be a part of one of the best volleyball teams in the nation.  After all, we’d been 4th in the nation the year prior. I was ready to begin my sophomore season at Pepperdine by putting all my energy into volleyball and school.

While I was driving, I found a bump on my neck.  I showed my mother, who happens to be a former nurse. The moment she put her hand on my throat, felt the hard lump, and I saw the overwhelming look of concern on her face, I knew a trip to the doctor would shortly ensue. Luckily, volleyball physicals were the next day.  Concern mounted when I wasn’t cleared and was immediately referred to the Lead Surgeon of Head & Neck at UCLA.

The next two weeks was a blur of tests.  I continued to live like whatever was going on in my neck would subside. Doctors can fix everything.  Bad things only happen to people when they get old.  And cancer certainly wouldn’t happen to me – my childhood had already been plagued when my best friend beat leukemia by age 7.  At least these were the falsities I repeatedly told myself, while I continued through double days, fitting in doctors’ appointments as my busy NCAA schedule would allow.

Biopsies are not fun. As someone who’s had more than five, I can say that with confidence. Biopsies are not fun.  With my father and mother’s hands in each of mine, I endured the extraordinarily thick needle, and prayed that would be the worst of it. I told the doctor, “Just call my cell when we know the results. I’m in the middle of double days, so my schedule is pretty tight.”  He called me a few days later, and told me I needed to come in.  “Can’t you just tell me now? I’d hate to come all the way to LA just for you to tell me what’s going on when you already know.” He said, he’d prefer if I saw him in person. Red flag.

The room was sterile, and I anxious.  I wanted to get the rendezvous over with; I had to get back to practice.  I don’t remember the first five minutes of the conversation. It was all fluff to the nail that was about to pierce my consciousness.  Now this part I remember vividly.  His sad eyes portrayed sympathy, “It’s cancer, so we’re going to do surgery ASAP. We don’t know how fast it’s growing, so we need to get in there.” “Wait, so I have cancer?” “Yes.”

The words and processes that ensued after that fell upon deaf ears. I have cancer. That’s all I need to know.

I joined my best friend.  Welcome to the cancer club.

Every Story has a Beginning

Donum of vita means “the gift of life.”  I’ve been given a gift to live.  I’ve been given the gift to survive. I’ve been given the gift to appreciate life so early in my journey upon it.

This week a dear friend inspired me, to start something I’ve been putting off for well near two years now.  A few days ago my “the world is black and white,” analytical, “let’s get the facts,” rational friend wrote something profoundly moving. She shared how my struggle with cancer affected her to view her own life. She shared how holding my hand at doctor’s appointments gave her the courage to bring balance to her life.

So in honor of this factious friend, I’ll begin this first post with some facts about me:

  • At age 18, I was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer
  • I underwent surgery #1 a week later in August 2004
  • I underwent treatment #1 in October of 2004
  • I underwent treatment #2 in October of 2005
  • I underwent treatment #3 in November of 2008
  • I underwent surgery #2 in August of 2009
  • I’ve been fighting a war with cancer for the past five years

What’s the intention of this blog and sharing my story with the world? My goal is to inspire one person to change their outlook on life. My goal is to inspire one patient, parent, sibling, child, or friend to have the courage to make it through the tough time, the treatment, the surgeries, the waiting, the test results, the blood work, the poking the prodding, the crying, the ups and downs of being faced with morality. My goal is to inspire just one life to take comfort in knowing they’re not alone. My goal is to open up just one pair of eyes that the life we’ve been given is precious, and you don’t truly understand that until it’s threatened. My goal is to help teach the lessons I learned throughout my battle to help others take advantage of the life we’ve all been given.

I hope to inspire you.

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