Holding Space

With Shelly Vaughn


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January 17, 2017

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.


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This day last year…

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.


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25 down…

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!!!! 


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Peace out, cancer.

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.


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Motivation

This afternoon I was blessed to meet a few wonderful people at a cancer awareness luncheon in Cuyahoga Falls. One of whom is Tiffany Baumann Cantelupe– a fellow breast cancer survivor (5 years out) who is a mother of two kids close in age to my girls. She understands, relates to, and shares in her testimony the way that her diagnosis affected her life with young children. And she motivated me with her resolve to fight, endure, and survive through this. Two points were made during her speech that I needed to hear today. The first is her commitment not to just walk with God through this, but run. And I relate to that as a runner (more like “jogger” ) and as I have compared this treatment to enduring a long race. I need to hold onto Him and run- quit looking back and totally focus on every step being further away from that unwanted starting line.

The second point that I want to share with all of you is the scripture she shared at the end of her speech.

Romans 5:2-5(ESV)
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

What a beautiful verse. I know I needed to hear it today. As always, I’m impressed at God’s timing for placing the people and His word into my life at just the right moments. Today was no exception.

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FashionFusion

This picture means so much to me. Last night I was invited to participate in a fashion show in my hometown of Greensburg. It was fun and different and a really great experience. This picture represents the part of the evening that meant the most to me. The girl on the left is Kelli Brisbane, who organized the show! She has such a sweet soul and she knew my cousin, Amy. My mom is next in the picture- one of the strongest survivors I know. Next is Wendy Bell. She used to work for the local news station in Pittsburgh… with Amy. Prior to the show backstage, I saw Wendy sitting in her dressing room and timidly introduced myself. I wanted to remind her that I had met her a few times back when Amy was sick and last saw her at Amy’s funeral. I said “I’m not sure if you remember my cousin, Amy.” She paused for not even a second, put her hand up to her heart, and said, “I will never forget that girl. How is her son, Michael?” She told a few stories about Amy and the impact she had on her life. She genuinely cared to know how everyone in the family was doing, especially Michael who she remembered holding as a baby when he started crying during the funeral. It felt so nice to talk about Amy again and hear others talk about her. It reminded me that my own struggles are just that- my own. And each person has their own. They may not seem comparable to each other, but the effect they have on our lives can be comparable. Wendy has gone through some very public struggles recently, leading her to reflect differently on life and family. Kelli has been through her own as well. Their struggles aren’t cancer, but they’re just as powerful in their lives. And they can be used just as strongly to shape these women into role models for others. The way we respond to the challenges we face can be such an opportunity to teach grace and love to others… and be a testimony of our faith in Christ. I pray that I can use my experience to show others how God has carried me through the fog… especially as I feel closer and closer to coming to the end of these treatments. And I feel so lucky to have had Amy as such a strong role model to me- in her life and especially as she faced her passing. Missing her dearly today.

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