There was something mystical about 2015. It was a year of personal growth and discovery, but a year of hardship. As my oncology nurse likes to say, “everyone needs a benchmark year”, a year so challenging that no matter what’s thrown your way, you’ll know that you have the strength to overcome.
And so that was my 2015 – a benchmark. I’ve written about my struggles with cancer. But there were other trying moments too; so many that I decided to keep them to myself. At best I feared that in telling them, the stories might perceived as gory and unnecessary; at worst they’d sound like the ramblings of a woman clutched in the grip of Munchausen Syndrome.
I tell them now to memorialize. Soon they’ll be hidden away in the blog’s archives, accessible by a few basic keywords. But I’ll know where to find them, and I’m sure that I’ll be reading them down the road when I need a reminder of where I’ve been. We’re a tough bunch and I see that in retrospect. Amidst each hurdle, we still made room for laughter. Just ask “Grease Witherspoon”, my alter ego, the woman with the oily skin and matted hair who cared less about showering and more about the simple act of getting through each new day.
At the outset, I didn’t intend to hijack the blog’s usual content and replace it with a year of illness talk. But part of having a personal blog – food or otherwise – involves having to own up to life’s struggles. Not the minutia, but the bigger issues, the ones that impact your life in a meaningful way.
We all have good years and bad years. I wanted to paint a picture of emotions that aren’t always discussed: grief, fear, anxiety, isolation. In the process of talking about these difficult subjects, I’ve lost some readers. Not everyone wants to hear about cancer when they’re looking for recipe inspiration. But I was proud to write these posts. I didn’t intend to be so explicit, but the words kept coming, and in honoring them, it felt good to be vulnerable. As my favorite sociologist Brené Brown says, vulnerability plants the seed of true connection.
I’d be lying if I said that publishing these last few posts wasn’t hard. Part of me cringed when I thought about people reading about my intimate and unfiltered moments over their morning cup of coffee. But life isn’t about achieving perfection; it’s about accepting that our roads will travel from sun-strewn peaks to darkened valleys. The internet loves to celebrate the climb, but there’s a place for the other accounts too.
And that was my 2015. A valley so dark that I could barely see the sunlight from above. It filtered through the trees on occasion, but, almost as if I’d been blindfolded, I’d lost my ability to navigate. In June as many of you know, I was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma and underwent lung surgery and six months of treatment. Nothing was immune – my ability to breathe comfortably, eat, and sleep. My mental health took as nosedive as I struggled with anxiety and depression, fearing the most likely outcome: that my cancer would come back. And it did for a time, spreading to my spine where it stayed for several months and then disappeared as quietly as it came.
During this time, other challenges presented themselves.
In late June, a mass was found on one of my ovaries. When my CA-125 tumor marker came back looking like one of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, my doctor told me that we we were dealing with ovarian cancer or late stage endometriosis. I could barely function post-lung surgery and had to sort through the logistics of how I would handle two types of cancer at once. I have a tendency to race online and figure things out for myself and spent the next few weeks jumping down Internet rabbit holes from Teal ribbon campaigns to sites like the HysterSisters and OvarianCancer.org. “Can you even have two cancers at once?” I asked. According to Google you can. By mid-July I was cleared of both diseases.
August was no easier. Lauren came to me with an unusual problem: she’d found lumps in her neck. I felt the base of her skull and my heart sank when my fingers moved over the chains of hard and swollen lymph nodes. She’d had no fever, no illness, no pain. It’s one thing to worry about your own health, but it’s quite another to face the possibility that your child might be seriously ill. After a series of bloodwork panels, ultrasounds, and X-rays, Rodney and I found ourselves leading our daughter past a set of bald children on the second floor of the Hassenfeld Children’s Center for Cancer & Blood disorders. The doctors reviewed her files, a nurse took her into another room, and we sat down to have the discussion that every parent dreads: “it’s likely lymphoma, we’re looking at six months of chemo, maybe more”. She had surgery the following week.
A full week after her surgery, we got the results. Against the odds of her presenting symptoms, the biopsies had, for the second time this summer, ruled out cancer. It wasn’t until late October though, with swollen nodes that refused to heal, that we got our final diagnosis – an uncommon but benign condition, dermatopathic lymphadenopathy. Which, to absolve the doctors from the raging and undue stress that we endured, looks exactly like lymphoma.
I was winded. I’d been dealing with treatment-induced colitis for weeks, and the stress from the summer had been enormous. My yoga teacher once told me that injuries are common when you’re not rested – “listen to your body” she said, if you hurt yourself, you needed the break.