“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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