We have had many local friends show love to us by providing meals and gift cards. (Someday I will eventually get caught up on “thank you” cards for all of you.) The time and money that we saved is immeasurable. There were many days that I felt too sick or tired to even think of food for the family. And there were other days that I felt pretty good, but because meals were coming I could spend time enjoying other things (like time relaxing or going somewhere as a family) instead of worrying about what to make for dinner that night. We will forever be grateful for everyone’s help with this. Our dear friend Jeanine Muller organized the “Meal Train” and kept it going for us when we needed it. This Tuesday’s meal from Jen Wedo included a beautiful bouquet of roses to mark the end of treatment. And tonight’s meal (the last on the schedule probably until reconstruction in the summer) was brought by Katie Ruhl and was surprisingly celebratory! Thank you to Katie for recognizing that this was worth celebrating- with sparkling grape juice to toast with the girls, a full spread of snacks and dinner, and delicious food to eat together as a family. We feel very blessed to have been shown love and fed by everyone so well over the last 10 months- our bellys and hearts are full.
No better way to celebrate a milestone like yesterday than to mark it with some permanent art!
I got an open heart on my wrist with a few layers of meaning in the small symbol. Love God, Love People. Colored in with the birthstone colors of Rob, Olivia, and Liana. It’s “open” to remind me how many people have opened their hearts to help our family get through this experience and to always have an open heart for others. And I got it on my wrist because that’s where everyone wore their bracelets to support us. So where yours came off, my mark went on… forever. (Side note- the owner of the tattoo shop heard why we were getting them yesterday and humbly offered to do mine for free… his own gesture of an open heart.)
Trisha showed up and got one too! A similar heart, also on her wrist, but open in the opposite direction- the other/opposite half of me.
And Rob’s… well it’s pretty much the best tattoo I’ve ever seen. It was like the grand finale of the night. Take a look and be inspired. It was the absolute perfect way to end a perfect day.
Yesterday- 11/20. Exactly 10 months to the day from my initial diagnosis. I finished my treatments and walked out of radiation for the last time!
Today- 11/21. My first day without treatment. A new beginning of healing and recovery and moving on from this. No coincidence that it’s my grandmother’s birthday. I feel so lucky that I can celebrate her life and my “renewed” life in a special way this year. Miss you grandma. You made so many wonderful people to walk in the world. This year they all walked beside me beautifully. I can picture you sitting at the head of the table, eating saltines and chipped ham, wearing your humble smile as you watch everyone share love and define family in the most perfect ways. #caldwellsrock #peaceoutcancer#birthdays
I have 22 seconds of treatment left… ever… forever. This cancer is gone; everything I’ve done is enough, and tomorrow I close the book on this chapter. I will go in for my last radiation at 2:00. Sometimes it takes a while to wait my turn to go into the room. Then I get situated on the table while the x-ray techs line up the radiation machine with the tattoos and marks on my body. And then they all exit the room to officially start the treatment. It’s always a little strange at that moment because the “buzzing around” and chit-chat is suddenly gone- leaving me alone in the silence until the machine starts. I do, however (since I have done since my first MRI) imagine that I am not just holding onto the bar above my head, but holding Jesus’s hand… and it gives me a sense of peace in an otherwise sterile and unnerving environment. Then once that machine starts it radiates me for 22 seconds. For these last 8 shorter “boost” sessions, I’ve laid there and counted so that I know. Slow and consistent… 1 Mississippi… 2 Mississippi… 3 Mississippi- as the daughter of Larry Caldwell would surely do correctly. The last 2 times I’ve held back tears knowing that I wouldn’t have to do it for many more days. I’m sure tomorrow’s emotions will be too strong to hold back. I imagine tears will roll down my temples for those last 22 seconds of treatment. And if they do, I’ll be proud to have reached a point that I can wipe them away and cross my finish line with my hands held high. I’ve rounded third and am making my way home. I’m attacking the volleyball for one last spike. I’m about to plow through the defense in Bettis-like fashion to score a touchdown. Insert whichever sport analogy you’d like… tomorrow I WIN!
I’ve been obsessing over this song that Julie McKeand Black shared with me. The lyrics are some of the most peaceful words I’ve heard this year. I would encourage everyone to listen… through to the end. My favorites:
Like the frost on a rose
Winter comes for us all
Oh how nature acquaints us
With the nature of patience
Like a seed in the snow
I’ve been buried to grow
For Your promise is loyal
From seed to Sequoia…
… Like a seed You were sown
For the sake of us all
From Bethlehem’s soil
Grew Calvary’s sequoia.
Isn’t it so true- “how nature acquaints us with the nature of patience.” Thinking of the big trees in my life last week… how long it takes for those to root and grow. Watching the leaves around us change color and complete their life cycle as they pile in our yard. Remembering in 2007 when Rob and I saw the Sequoia trees in Yosemite during our “babymoon”. And now reflecting on “Calvary’s Sequoia”- the largest and strongest of all. The One that means the most in our lives; that gave us life; and offers hope for eternal life. Doesn’t need much more explanation than that.
And to think of the “seed in the snow; buried to grow”. Maybe this year was a metaphorical burial for me… a time of cold discomfort and uncertainty, but now with an opportunity to grow into more of the person/mother/wife/daughter/friend that He wants me to be. I don’t know exactly what that will look like, but I know that I will have to be patient with open eyes as He reveals the answer. And I need to continue to be patient with my body as it heals through the next weeks/months even after treatments are done.
“When you’re fearful of change think of the beauty of autumn”. (Tina Heiberg, was that quote from you a while ago? I wrote it in a notebook last year and saved it. Hard to remember where I first heard it, but I love it and I LOVE Fall!)
Sunday mornings- they are amazing. And I don’t mean that I wake up rested and the kids get ready without hassle (those things would add to the amazement though). I mean that my soul gets renewed by going to our church building, seeing my friends, feeling loved by brothers and sisters there, learning from our minister, and worshipping our God who has done miraculous things in our lives. This morning, the day after reflecting on my long-term friendships, my mind couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of need to also acknowledge my “tribe” from church. There are a group of friends who are a huge part of my life and work “behind the scenes” to keep things on track- physically and spiritually. They have hearts bigger than most I’ve ever met. They allow me to be my true self and will pray harder than any other women I know. They inspire me to be a better version of myself. I feel safe with them- all.the.time. Since January, it has been a special thing to watch how they each respond to our needs- some are more prayerful and some are more practical, but they have shown me the love of Jesus so well. They really are His hands and feet. No doubt that they would hear the words “Well done, daughter” if they were to go to heaven today. As would so many of you who have helped. (I apologize if I haven’t been able to publicly thank everyone, but you all know who you are.) Even those of you who are vigilantly prayerful but from other parts of my life; or those who have shown love but may not be Christians… I still see your support as the hands and feet of Jesus even if you do not. So today’s Sunday morning amazement is intense gratitude for my tribe… my sisters… my church family. It’s beautiful to see how God has placed just the right people in my life.
(This picture was taken back in January shortly after my diagnosis. It includes many of the girls in my tribe, though not everyone. Girls, we do need to get together again soon and get a pic with everyone!
One of the things we love about our house is that when we sit outside on the deck it feels like we’re at a campground. There are just the right amount of trees around to make us feel a little secluded, though the visible lights on at the neighbors’ homes so remind us that they are close. For a family who loves camping, but who also loves the feel of a sweet neighborhood, it’s perfect. The trees are one of my favorite things around here- and there are several different kinds. There are smaller ones that are more recently planted and more visible every day. There are four of them in our front yard that are part of our landscaping. We trim them back occasionally and notice them every day when we’re coming and going from the house. Our home would definitely not be the same without them and we love them. But there are also the bigger trees in the back of the house. They are tall and towering. Their roots are deep and sprawling. They are not as noticeable on a daily basis, but stand strong and firm every day. When it’s stormy and windy, that’s when we notice those ones more. That’s when they move and draw attention to themselves. Together, all of the trees are what makes our home comfortable to us, and exactly what we love.
A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to spend a day with 4 of my closest friends… from middle school… over 25 years ago! We met each other when we were 11 years old and we became very close from the start. We have SO many memories of hanging out with each other. Many more people were added to the mix since that 6th grade year, but there is something special that is hard to define when you have the kind of history that we have. As with every friendship, our time together wavered as we went through high school, but the deep roots were planted firm enough that we could withstand everything. They are my “big trees” in life…. they have always been there- strong and steady. Sometimes unnoticed, but they stand out during the storm. They’ve been incredibly present and attentive during my storm this year. And I’m constantly reminded of how wonderfully they’ve held space with me when I’ve needed it.
During our time over that weekend, we looked through a LOT of pictures, had a ton of laughs, and I was so pleasantly reminded why I love these girls so much. I couldn’t help thinking that Olivia is almost to the age that I was when these friendships started. But things are so different for our own kids and the next generation. Our kids and their friends text and Facetime each other. They play the “words with friends” app instead of sitting at a table playing Scrabble. They are entertained by watching the same YouTube sensations at home and then talking about it the next day instead of sitting next to each other on the couch watching tv and taking bathroom breaks during commercials. But I will try my hardest to encourage my girls to disconnect from technology and be present with their friends during this preciously formative time in life. What young girl doesn’t remember the contagious giggles you get when you’re delirious- especially at sleepovers? You can’t “catch the giggles” through texting.
I experienced such sweet memories during this recent weekend- the way Carly Caruso rubs her nose when she talks about things that concern her; Megan Nagel’s impeccably-timed humor; Trisha Brunazzi’s sarcastic tone in her voice; and Mindy Brisbane Vickers’ contagious laughter. Those beautiful nuances are noticed and treasured so deeply. And when Mindy jumped up to give me a hug the moment she saw my eyes starting to well up with tears while telling a story- that couldn’t even begin to be translated through technology if we hadn’t been together in that moment. I’m so thankful to be on the receiving end of love from this crew. Sharing physical space and such sweet memories with my friends since 25 years ago is the reason we still share meaningful emotional space now that we’re older. And reminds me that each of the memories of this experience through cancer- all of the meals, cards, time, messages, donations, and visits- are making the roots of relationships with all of you even deeper and stronger as well- strong enough to withstand any storm.
(Hopefully we’ll see more of those life-long friend at our 20 year reunion. Erin Searfoss, Kaitlin McHugh, Steph Byham, Mandy Daughenbaugh-Smith… and somehow you should be there too, Jessica Wypasek Gregory!)
25 down. 8 to go. It’s so great to think that the end is coming soon. November 20th should be my last radiation treatment. That’s the week of Thanksgiving, which seems so incredibly appropriate, doesn’t it?!?. Radiation is just as exhausting as they said it would be. It’s amazing how good I feel in the late mornings- once I’m up and moving and at work I feel good. (Probably helps that I listen to some great music on the drive to work every day). But by the afternoon and after my radiation every day the exhaustion hits hard. And some days I try to squeeze in too much and hit a wall when I get home (somehow things like getting gas and stopping at the post office have become “too much”). Today was one of those days. Thankful to have delicious leftovers from friends’ meals that the girls could heat up on their own. Though Liana decided her dinner tonight was bread, tortilla chips and an apple. Sounds perfect, honey… go for it.
My skin has definitely reacted, but not too severely. I have one large section that looks like it has a pink rash and is pretty itchy. And a patch under my arm that is dark tan colored and sore inside. My doctor keeps tabs on me every week and assured me today that these are still very typical skin changes and she’s confident I’ll get through to the end of this without much more reaction. I’m applying all of the lotion I’m supposed to use and have been adding fresh aloe from a plant I’m borrowing from a friend (thanks Alli Herren).
The last 8 radiation treatments are considered “boost treatments”. They are focused just on the mastectomy scar and are more superficial than what I’ve had so far. They say that when cancer does recur, it usually comes back along the scar line. So they do concentrated radiation in that area at the end of treatment to make sure they hit it hard. If that prevents recurrence, then it sounds good to me.
And as a “meh” moment, I just feel the need to elaborate on the “reactive lymph node” under my arm that I’ve mentioned before. Lymph nodes often swell in response to different body illness or trauma. That’s why you get “swollen glands” when you’re sick sometimes. They swell up temporarily then go down to regular size on their own. During my mastectomy surgery, I had 8 lymph nodes removed. But there are still a lot of them left in me (everyone has a different amount). One of them that remains in my armpit area swelled up and was very noticeable about 2 weeks after surgery… in August. This is very common for lymph nodes in that area since there was so much trauma to it during surgery. It’s just that it hasn’t gone down on its own. My amazing surgeon has been keeping an eye on it. After a 6-week check-up he ordered an ultrasound to make sure it was ok. The ultrasound confirmed that it’s swollen because it’s “reactive” and benign (hear that as “it’s not cancer”). At my last check-up, he measured it and assured me that it’s getting smaller even though I can’t tell yet. I just wish… like really, really, really wish it wasn’t enlarged at all. If it wasn’t, I think I could be totally excited about the end of treatment. As it stands, and not to be a downer, I feel like I”m 99% excited and 1% scared that there is still something in there. I’ll have another ultrasound on it in December to make sure it’s still showing as benign and shrinking. (If you’re wondering, they can’t do a biopsy on it right now because I wouldn’t heal and would be at high risk for infection if they try a biopsy in the middle of radiation.)
Let me say this- every day I talk myself into the positive. I have a few mantras that I say in the mirror. I remind myself I’m cancer free; that this is just a benign lymph node; that cancer is gone and never coming back. But if there are days or moments that I seem a little unsure, you’ll know why. And if you’re looking for details to pray about, that lymph node would be a good one right now- that it’s 100% definitely benign and that it goes down on it’s own very soon. I’m so tired of worrying about it. Thanks in advance. And thanks again for the local friends providing meals to help us through to the finish line! Almost there!!!!
October- Breast cancer awareness month. I’ve lived through my first one as a survivor. I’ve heard a lot of opinions from other “pink sisters”- some love it, some hate it, and many fall somewhere in the middle. I love that there is such awareness about it and tremendous support. I am thankful that if I had to live through cancer, I lived through one that has a huge financial backing for research and a hopeful cure. This month was a little surreal to participate in the Volley for the Cure with Rob, the Pink Out at Norwin High School, a fashion show fundraiser, and a cancer awareness luncheon- all as a survivor and not just a supporter. Some survivors say that they don’t like to be reminded of their struggles for an entire month. I’m still “in it” so it’s no different to me whether the rest of the world is on board for a month or not. And I feel like the way I’ve seen support from all of you holding this space with me since January, that it’s been a significant part of your life as well. Thank you.
So- my soapbox. Do your self exams… at least once a month. It is so simple, costs nothing, takes a few minutes, and can save your life. Literally- SAVE YOUR LIFE! Why wouldn’t you?! Like, do it now really quickly. A self-exam is how I found my lump. I was always doing exams- multiple times a month. I had an annual check-up on Dec 8 (where the doctor did an exam and there was nothing palpable). I did my own self-exam on Dec 29th… and felt a definite lump. 3 weeks from one to the next was enough to go from “nothing” to “whoa… what is that?!” If I had waited longer… well you could be reading a different story right now. Women already have a 1 in 8 chance of getting this… which means there’s a chance that one of you reading this may someday be in my shoes. And I want you to catch it early and survive with me… deal? Laura Ritter Allio was one of the speakers at the luncheon yesterday and had a fabulous idea. Pull out your cell phones right now and find the 18th (since the ratio is 1/8)- mark that as “health day” and make it a recurring event every month to do your self-check then. Simple enough, right- ladies and men- we all need to do it.
And my last point. As the pink outs and pink socks and pink ribbons fade after this month, please continue to pray for everyone fighting all kinds of cancer. Breast cancer was the kind of cancer I had, but it did not define me and I won’t let it. Breast cancer fits in as a part of my life experience, but it is not ME. I am a wife and mother. I am a daughter and sister and friend. And, above all, I am a Christian saved by grace. That defines me. That is who I am.
Peace out, cancer.