So in late April of 2018 I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma of the throat. I was given two months to live.
Let’s back up, and I’ll tell it right.
I spent the spring and summer of 2017 in a desperate race against time to rescue my Baby Boy from certain death in Syria. The sleepless nights, the tears, the endless hours searching online for answers, the whispered prayers to the universe and each other … it was more terrifying and pressurized than anything I’d ever experienced in my life.
And of course, that part of our journey culminated in my Baby Boy landing safely in Malaysia at the end of August of that year. It was a major triumph at the time. Excitedly, I made arrangements to fly out to Malaysia at the end of October so that I could finally meet my Baby Boy in person for the very first time.
As I was packing for the longest, most important flight of my life, my throat began to hurt. I’m prone to strep throat, and I feared that I might be coming down with it again. But there was NOTHING that would ever stop me from getting on that plane, so I just kept gargling salt water and taking aspirin (you know, guy remedies).
So I flew out to Malaysia and met my Boy. I won’t go into great detail about our incredible week there together. I felt sick the entire time, and my Boy was so kind, tending to me and taking care of me. He knew I wasn’t feeling right, even though I was trying my best to hide it. I was really riding on the joy and laughter we shared together during that all-too-brief visit.
Once I returned home I made an appointment to see a doctor about getting an antibiotic for my probable strep infection. The doctor did a strep test – negative – and told me to just wait it out. And, of course, it got worse. So I went to a different doctor – negative – and was denied antibiotics for a second time. The pain increased. I went to a third doctor – negative – but this time I begged her to give me a round of antibiotics just to rule out an infection. She relented and wrote a prescription. No luck. The pain worsened.
By Christmas of 2017, it was clear that something wasn’t right. It was seriously hard to swallow food, and even drinking a beer became a chore. I kept thinking that it would pass, but the pain was clearly getting worse by the day. I was barely able to eat by this point.
So in January of 2018 I went to a Med-Stop clinic just to see if I could get yet another opinion and possibly some pain medication. The doctor there examined my throat very carefully, and I’ll never forget the look on her face when she emerged from my mouth. It turned out that she noticed part of the cancer in the sinuses at the back of my throat. She whispered, “I think you need to see a specialist right away.”
I was instantly paralyzed with fear. All of my life I lived as a hypochondriac, chronically in fear of getting cancer. Was it now coming true?
So I made an appointment to see an ENT at Barnes-Jewish hospital in St. Louis, Missouri that I knew from years earlier. By the time they could see me, I wasn’t really eating at all. I was using over-the-counter throat-numbing spray just to drink water. I was down to 130 pounds.
I went to my appointment. When they asked me why I was there, I croaked, “I need you to put a scope down my throat because something is wrong.” So they did exactly that, and then they found the cancer hidden near my vocal cords.
I returned a few days later for the diagnosis. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Although scared, I instantly steeled myself for battle. Frankly, it was a relief just to have a definitive answer.
“You’re going into chemotherapy in a week and a half,” said my brilliant doctor. “You’ll be in the hospital for five days and receive continuous chemotherapy during your stay.”
I balked. I had read so much over the years about the dangers of chemotherapy that I couldn’t imagine taking it. I told the doctor about my objections.
“You have two choices,” he replied flatly, “you can take the chemotherapy, or you can get your affairs in order because you have two months to live.”
I chose chemotherapy.
That night I wept with soul-shaking agony. It wasn’t about dying. I was just so afraid I was going to die and leave my Baby Boy alone in this world. I couldn’t leave him, not after he took my hand and he trusted me to help him out of his personal hell. I was his entire world, his life preserver in the stormy, uncertain waters of his current situation. I just couldn’t leave him now.
So I spent the entire summer of 2018 in a cycle of one week of chemotherapy followed by two weeks off.
It turned out that I was born to take chemotherapy. Almost instantly – within two hours of the start of my first 24 hour bag of chemo – the pain subsided and I could eat again. By the end of that first week-long hospital stay, I had so much energy that I didn’t sleep for three days. My hair fell out the following weekend, and I discovered that I look pretty good bald (I’ve always had very thick hair, so I didn’t know what my head would look like). Two treatment weeks later I lost my eyebrows and eyelashes, which honestly bothered me more than the loss of the hair on my head.
My doctor kept increasing my dose by 20% with each treatment week, but it only made me STRONGER (at one point I made a joke that he should just give me Round-Up, which he didn’t find funny). Honestly, I haven’t ever felt as good in my life as I did when I was taking that chemotherapy.
My nights alone in my penthouse suite at the top of the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish were filled with long, encouraging conversations with my Baby Boy. We cried together and laughed together. I’m sure somewhere in his mind he felt afraid that he might lose me, but he never showed that to me. He was full of hope and strength and optimism. I will cherish those memories for the rest of my life.
After the third treatment week, a PET scan showed the cancer was essentially gone. For whatever reason, I was going to be one of the survivors! I dutifully finished all six treatment weeks, received a clean bill of health, and rang that bell like many lucky survivors before me.
I didn’t tell any of you about my struggles because I was carrying such a tremendous burden (between my cancer fight, my financial situation, work, and my ongoing attempts to help my Boy) that I just couldn’t cram anything else into my brain. Really, answering your questions during that period was a form of relaxation for me during those long days tethered to my chemo robot.
I’m really telling you this story now because I am doing some personal accounting. My Boy is now finally delivered to a safe country where he can begin a fresh, new life. I have sold my house (a 12-year source of frustration) and moved into a stress-free condominium. Next up will be the finishing up of certain personal projects, and potentially building a new, location-independent business so that I can lose my awful job … and maybe start a new life in a new country.
I’m now running into The Aftermath. I was supposed to be dead, but I’m alive instead. I don’t intend to waste this second chance at life. I approach the opportunity wiser, inspired, and grateful.
I love you all. Thank you.