“Holding space for another person is incredibly profound. When you hold space for someone, you bring your entire presence to them. You walk along with them without judgment, sharing their journey to an unknown destination. Yet you’re completely willing to end up wherever they need to go. You give your heart, let go of control, and offer unconditional support. And when you do both of you heal, grow, and transform.”
I’m not sure when it happened, but somehow our oldest daughter, Olivia, has grown up enough to start working out with me. She’s 10 and very active with dance classes, so I know she’s in decent shape. On Monday as I was leaving for the gym, she asked if she could come with me. It caught me off guard, but I realized it sounded like a great idea. So off we went- we walked/jogged the track together; we played racquetball together (Sorry, Ms. Jenkins for forgetting the rules you taught me in gym class); and we did stretches together. She was leading me in the stretches getting a kick out of watching her mom try to do a split. And she definitely has more range of motion in her arm for a solid racquetball swing. As she’s getting older, she’s not as playful at home like she was when she was younger. Her downtime is typically filled with cartwheels or DIY crafts (which she really does herself without our help). But on Sunday, I felt the joy of playing with her again… in new ways that I didn’t even know she was ready for… or I was ready for. I think she’s growing into a pretty cool kid. I’m so thankful for our time together, and hope to spend many more years keeping our bodies and minds healthy together.
This date last year was my first chemo treatment. I’m so grateful to be on this side of it and be able to say that it’s over. But, man, that was the beginning of something so much harder than I anticipated.
As usual, this morning started out busy getting the girls off to school. I had a meeting and then had a chance to work with a boy who makes me smile and laugh for a full hour. Then as I had my first moment of reflective downtime, I noticed the sweetest text on my phone from my friend- which totally reminded me of how lucky I am to have such great friends; to have a God who has carried me through this; and to be here today to be able to reminisce. The timing of the text was perfect. Just like the timing of a phone call from my sister while I was having a little meltdown in the middle of the gym earlier this week. (I’m ok now, but those moments of feeling upset and not like “myself” still happen.)
This afternoon I was able to volunteer in Olivia’s classroom for her Valentine’s party. Again- it left me feeling so grateful to be able to be there and participate this year. And as I sit here reflecting on how this week went, I realize that’s pretty much the emotional roller coaster that is my life now. Mostly grateful, very sentimental, sometimes sad- and constantly reminded that I have never, and will never, be alone in this life- even when no one is around.
What a difference! The girls’ dance studio performs at the halftime show at a basketball game every year. Last year, it happened to be on the evening that I got my port placed. I remember going there with my arm bandaged up and only a handful of people even knowing the road I had started down. I remember thinking how lucky everyone else was because they didn’t have cancer and they weren’t going through what we were (I now know that perspective is skewed.. because everyone is going through something challenging- different but sometimes just as hard). Olivia performed so well last year and I was so proud… and scared to be uncertain of how my own story was about to play out.
Last night both of our girls performed together in the dance. I know I’m biased, but Liana’s little hips shaking were just about the cutest thing I had seen all week (and I witnessed a lot of cute moments at work this week). I felt joy in my entire body watching those girls dance. To say I was beaming would be an understatement. It was only 3 minutes, and it was probably a pretty average dance number. But it felt so good to be sitting there seeing it through these eyes again.
This entire year, my friend Hannah Springer shared a gift for reminding me how my girls were doing. She texted me many times when she knew I was struggling… and she would tell me how she noticed Olivia smiling with her daughter, or heard Liana laughing with her friends. She would remind me, when it was most appreciated, that my girls were ok. And she’d remind me that she was praying for them and our God was keeping their hearts safe. (Side bar- I know so many of you prayed specifically for them like this, and it has been appreciated more than I could ever say.) Last night, she compared them to the bible story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego- three men who were thrown into a fiery furnace but came out unscathed because they were protected by God. In a most meaningful way, she compared our two little girls to those men- because those sweet souls have walked through a fire this past year and they are thriving and doing so well now. Deep in my bones, I hope that they are unscathed and unharmed. I know they cannot be same as they were before it all… none of us can. But I’m so hopeful that the changes within them are positive and not negative- that they are more brave, determined, faithful, appreciative and loving than ever. We all find ourselves in a fiery furnace at different points in our lives… and we have a God who will be right there with us through every step. I’m so thankful He has been there to protect my little dancers.
Diagnosis day (recalling this day from 2017): It’s fascinating to me that words (sound waves that our auditory nerves perceive and interpret) can become so ingrained in our memories that we never forget them. Of course, I remember the day my girls were born and the dr saying “It’s a girl!” I remember when my mom called me in March 2007 and said “Amy’s gone.” And I still remember back in February of 1996 when Rob first said “I think I love you.” I can hear each of those phrases so vividly in my mind. This day last year is when another one was added to the list. “Dr. Fenton wants to see you this afternoon.” And just like that… my. world. stopped.
Remember that earlier in the week I told the doctor that it was ok to call me if they got the biopsy results on Friday. I was at work and missed the call, so there was a message to call Lisa at Dr. Fenton’s office. I honestly thought that it was going to be a quick phone call to tell me I was fine. Then Lisa said those words- “Dr. Fenton wants to see you this afternoon.” My stomach dropped lower than I knew it could. I can’t imagine what my face looked like. I knew what that meant. All I could say was “Ok.” Lisa, this woman who works for the dr office, has an impossible job… and does it so well. She knew that I knew. And simply said “Do you want to know what it is?”
“Invasive, poorly-differentiated ductal carcinoma.”
Ok. Can you say that again so I can write it down? (I couldn’t even process that she was saying “poorly”… i thought she meant “pourly”- which isn’t even a word.) Once I got it written down, she told me to come in at 3:15 to meet with the doctor. She started telling me that I would meet with a nurse navigator who will help me through all of my appointments. I could not even process what she was saying to me, and she knew it. So she told me to call my husband and she would see me in a couple of hours and the doctor would explain everything then.
I hung up and stared at the phone. What just happened? What are these words scratched on this post-it note? That’s not me. That’s not my diagnosis. This isn’t real. What do I do?
I called Rob, shaking, crying, in shock… somehow I guess I told him the news. In a matter of a couple of minutes he knew and was on his way to come to my work. Wait… I’m at work. I have a student coming in today. I have patients to see and work to do. There was only one other person at work that day who knew that I even had a biopsy- Kristen Lautenbach- so I called her and asked her to come to my office. I told her and she hugged me and I cried… a lot. Thankfully, she said she would handle everything at work- she would find the student and make sure she had someone else to go with that day. She would handle canceling my patients. Honestly, I don’t have a clue what else she did… I just know she handled it. She was sitting next to me when I sat at the computer to google these new words that would become part of my vocabulary. And she wisely told me to stop. Her advice, which stuck with me through so much of my experience- “just be a patient”. It was against my initial instinct- I wanted to look this up and learn and analyze and figure it out. I needed to know facts. I needed some numbers. She knew better. She had me close my laptop. And she gave me a hug while I cried until my best friend came to the door.
Rob has always had an amazing ability to keep me calm. Seeing him walk into my space in that time of uncertainty for both of us was a different feeling. I’ve been hugging that man since I was 15 years old. But the hug in that moment carried more meaning than any other embrace we’ve had. It immediately reminded me that we were a team… we would get through whatever was about to happen. I am loved. I am supported. This guy is here to do it with me.
And then, I remembered that I had to call my sister. She knew I was about to return that voicemail to the dr office. She’s been waiting for me to call her back and tell her. She would know the second that she heard my voice. And she did. The conversation was mostly one of disbelief- on both sides. And ended with her saying she was leaving PA then and she’d be in Ohio in a couple of hours.
Rob and I left to go home for those couple of hours until the appointment. Just enough time to get some things taken care of around the house and eat some lunch (though I don’t think I ate anything). Olivia had plans to go to PA for the weekend, which we wanted her to keep. So I packed up her bags so she’d be ready to go. I set out some stuff for dinner, as my friend Carrie King Donnell would come to the house and be here for the girls when they got home from school- she would get them dinner then take them where they needed to be.
Two hours has never gone so fast, nor so slowly, in my entire life. Eventually it was time to go see the doctor- Trisha and Rob were with me in an appointment i’m sure none of us will forget. The nurse navigator came in first and handed me a bag with a pink pillow and breast cancer items and information- it was like a weird goodie bag that I got for having the diagnosis. It was full of random things that I wanted nothing to do with. The doctor eventually came in- straight faced as he read that pathology report out loud. He explained the terminology well and gave me a synopsis of my treatment plan… which included chemo. I had known several people with breast cancer who had surgery and radiation and was so hoping that would be my plan as well. There’s something about the idea of chemo- getting so sick (and looking the part) that is so upsetting. Skipping over some of the details here (because this really isn’t meant to be a novel), we finished up with his appointment and he was able to schedule me to see an oncologist at the same hospital right away. So we got my “breast cancer goodie bag” and headed across the street to meet the person who would save my life.
Dr. Rehmus- my oncologist. I vividly remember meeting her, too. We were sitting at a round table, but she pulled out two of the chairs, faced them toward each other and said “let’s talk.” We sat face-to-face for a few minutes while she gave me the overview of what was about to happen. I’ve heard that when a person experiences trauma, their cognition level typically reverts to about a 4th grade level. After this experience I can say that is definitely true. She was explaining cancer and my pathology in such simple terms so I could understand them… she did it perfectly. She was serious and smart, and I knew I liked her. She’s a no-nonsense kind of doctor and that’s what you need in this kind of experience. She is also extremely knowledgable in research, which I appreciated.
When the appointment was over, Rob picked up Olivia and took her to meet his parents in PA. Trisha and I were at our house- processing what just happened then planning to make the next hardest phone calls- to tell my parents. Let me say that as hard as it is to hear bad news, it’s harder to be the one who has to say it. To know that you’re about to cause heartbreak. To know you’re about to ruin someone’s day. It’s an impossible thing to do. Thank goodness Trisha was here- I made her do the hard part. She broke the news initially, then I talked to them and shared what info I knew. My brother wasn’t home, so I would try to call him again the next day. And that was enough for one night- time to wrap up this terrible day.
Dr. Rehmus had prescribed Ativan for me that night… and it was very helpful. It helped me to fall asleep which my body desperately needed. The next morning, there was a split second when my brain was awake but my eyes weren’t even opened yet, that I hoped it was all a bad dream. And just as quickly as that moment came, it was gone. And I was about to wake up in my new reality- as a cancer patient.
January 17, 2017- the day of my biopsy last year. Remember when I said that a mammogram doesn’t hurt? A biopsy does. It’s not bad- comparable to a bee sting for the shot to numb the area. But it’s a sensitive area so it’s not comfortable.
Then they insert a needle instrument that grabs a microscopic piece of the mass and removes it from the breast. And they leave behind a tiny metal pin so that they know where they removed the piece from. It’s a quick procedure, but unnerving nonetheless. As with the ultrasound, I was trying my hardest to read the doctor’s face as she was doing it- looking for any eyebrow raise or head tilt or even a deep breath that would indicate if I was in the clear or not… but nothing. She was perfectly poker-faced in the nicest way. She had a calming voice that you’d imagine being the voice of the “nice friend” in a Pixar movie. She’s the perfect person for that job.
The results of the biopsy would come in 3-4 days- which meant either on Friday or Monday. I already had a follow-up scheduled for that Monday. The doctor gave me the choice to automatically wait until Monday follow-up to discuss the results in person. Or they could call me with the results on Friday if they came in early. Tough call- if it was good news, I’d love to hear it on Friday so that this weight would be off my shoulders over that weekend. But, man, if it was bad news I would not want to hear it over the phone on Friday. Remember the previous appointment when my surgeon said he was “optimistic”? That’s what I used to make my decision. I told them to go ahead and call me if the results came in on Friday… I wanted this over with so I could enjoy the weekend… at least that was the plan.
And this day last year… (I warned you these posts would be coming).
It was a Friday and I was finally scheduled for my diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. Cleveland Clinic/Akron General has a wonderful breast health center that coordinates all of these appointments, so that they can be done efficiently- which is very appreciated when you want information yesterday.
I had the mammogram first and it was not bad at all. Women friends- if you haven’t done one because you’re afraid of the pain I’m here to tell you to scratch that excuse off of your list. I wouldn’t even call it pain, just discomfort- and you can tolerate a few minutes of discomfort to save your life. Because I was “on the smaller side,” it ended up being more like a yoga session with bending and contorting different ways to get the clearest images of the mass (the mass was on the outer quadrant of the breast). But it was pretty simple.
Once the mammogram was done, they took me into the ultrasound room. First, let me say that the color of paint on the walls in that room is my least favorite color. Its was a tannish/mustardy/brown- probably someone’s idea of a nice neutral. Not mine. And now that I have associated the color with an unfavorable experience, I’m sure I’ll never like it even just a little bit. Anyway, the ultrasound tech quickly got me positioned and started the scanning. She showed no emotion AT ALL. I know that’s her job, and knowing that she probably suspected it was cancer I can see why she was so stoic. She said she got all of the images she needed and I just needed to wait there for the dr to review them. He would be in in just a few minutes.
As much as I tried to relax, I couldn’t. Was someone going to come through that door and tell me I have cancer? Or that I don’t? Or that I’m going to die in a few months? Or that I have a benign cyst? What if it’s bad news? Is it ok to cry right away? Rob had taken me to the appointment but was waiting in a room a few doors down. Who would go get him? Would I be walking out of here in tears like I had seen a woman do at my very first appointment? It’s amazing how many questions a brain can wonder in a short amount of time.
The song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” was playing over and over in my head. My friend, Julie McKeand Black, had just sung it in church the prior Sunday and it was comforting to hear her voice in my head singing truth during a stressful time. Alone and nervous, I couldn’t help but muster up the cheesiest and most comforting “Jesus thought” I’ve ever had. I closed my eyes and pictured Him sitting there with His arm around me. It was so vivid that I leaned to my left just a tiny bit- like you lean in when a loved one puts their arm around you. I don’t know how long I was like that or what I looked like when the dr came in, but he did. And he did not have any answers for me. His exact words- “Sometimes we can look at an ultrasound and know for sure that something is cancer; and sometimes we can know for sure that it’s not. But in your case we cannot tell for sure either way.” Yep- inconclusive… BS… not helpful. Of course it would be. That’s what so much of medicine seems to be sometimes. Looking back, I know I was mad because I didn’t get the “all clear” that I wanted. Sigh.
My next step was to schedule a biopsy where they could do a pathological assessment of the tumor cells and know for sure. And that would be scheduled for the following Tuesday. You know what that meant- another agonizingly long weekend- waiting for the next appointment so that I wouldn’t have to worry about this anymore. I know, I know… in the big picture and relative to most other peoples’ experiences with diagnoses, it was actually happening very quickly. It was hard to be patient, as I still didn’t realize it was just the beginning of the longest year of my life.
January 11, 2017… I was so scared because I knew I had a lump in my breast but was still waiting to have a biopsy. Those days feel like eternity when you have to wait. But then my world stopped and my concerns were overshadowed by my friend’s sudden grief- for her daughter had just passed away. It was sudden and unexpected and shocking when I heard it. And my friend dealt with it with an amazing demonstration of grace and love that I admired so deeply (the kind that we think of when we read about Jesus). I cannot imagine the pain of losing a child… I am so sad for my friends who have carried that in their lives. You know who you are… and I pray for you often. It was a strange thing to go a funeral of a young child- so peaceful but so sad for us on this side of heaven. I remember her sparkly shoes and painted fingernails… striking me uncomfortably close having my own girls close to her age. Perhaps it put me in the right place mentally- about to deal with my own challenge that would never seem as hard as what I had just witnessed. Hug your babies a little extra tonight. And say a prayer for my friend- God will know who mean. 💕