Holding Space

With Shelly Vaughn


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Not What I Expected

I was not expecting yesterday to go the way that it did. It was my first radiation treatment and I knew it would take longer than every subsequent one. I had no idea how long it would actually take and I was not prepared for how I would feel during it.

They were running behind schedule so I waited for quite a while before it even started. While waiting, I got a lovely video from our friend to make me laugh, so I’m very thankful for that. When they were finally ready, they took me back to the table and got ready to start. It was freezing in there so they gave me warm blankets to drape over as much as they could. But my chest was exposed (obviously) for a very. long. time. I laid with my arms above my head while 2 technicians and a doctor lined me up just right with lasers and machines. They marked my body up in several spots- making adjustments with a ruler down to the millimeter. Measuring, marking, taking a film, marking again, trying to decide if I should have a custom bolus (a plastic thing they lay on top of my chest that acts as an extra layer of skin). The women were as kind as could be. But the environment was cold and sterile with fluorescent lights that make any place less comfortable. My head had to be turned at a slight angle so I couldn’t move to make eye contact when they talked to me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like such a science project. Three women talking about my body, measurements, angles, lasers… while I laid there unable to move out of that position for an hour. I tried so hard to think of positive things- listening to the barely audible music, praying, meditating, praying more. The hardest part of it was that the machine had a reflective glass that was above my head. Without being able to turn my head from its position I couldn’t do anything but stare at the reflection… the still unfamiliar reflection of 12 inches of scars across my chest. Perfect 6 inch lines on each side. I couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t pretend they were normal. I was literally faced with my new body, with background noise of clinical jargon that didn’t make sense to me. I know I’ve said that chemo and hair loss made me feel like an alien. This was different. This made me feel inhuman. I hated it. I tried to keep a good attitude about it afterward, but it was still bothering me. Until, of course, I could have time to process it and talk about it with Rob. He made me feel better… as he always does.

I had a decent night’s sleep and felt much better today. And today’s appointment was totally fine. In and out within a half hour. Time on the table was just about 10 minutes. Short enough to keep my mind on other things and not stare at the reflection. I’m sure there’s a lesson in all of this. Maybe we all need to spend more time faced with the reflections of our least favorite part of ourselves (inside or out). Maybe it’s a reminder that this is my broken earthly body… not meant to be perfect. Or maybe it was just a really crappy evening that I should stop analyzing.  I wasn’t ready for how emotional that experience ended up being. But I’m sure ready to get these next six weeks over with.


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Grow through what you go through

Today, since I left work, I’ve been strangely hung up on the biological side of cancer and what my body just went through. And it really is crazy. So I thought I’d share a quick biology lesson on cancer (and Jessica Hartman may need to clarify if it’s wrong.)

Everyone has some cancer-ish cells in their body (there’s discrepancy about how to describe and label these cells). The cells need some kind of “trigger” to start dividing and become malignant. Many different factors can act as triggers- chemicals, environmental factors, dietary contributors, etc. And sometimes a person’s genetics dictates whether cells become malignant or not. Once “triggered”, the cancer cells no longer have normal checks and balances in place that control and limit cell division. So they grow out of control and rapidly divide. Chemo is treatment that kills all rapidly dividing cells in your body. So it kills those cancer cells, but also kills normal cells that are naturally rapidly dividing (blood cells; cells in the mouth, stomach, and bowel; and hair follicles). This is why chemo patients have low blood counts, mouth sores, nausea, diarrhea, and hair loss.

A little more info about my chemo drugs: Adriamycin is considered an “antitumor antibiotic”. It’s made from natural products produced by species of a soil fungus (I know… soil fungus?!?). Cytoxan is a drug that interferes with the duplication of DNA and the creation of RNA. And Taxol is a plant alkaloid- made from plants, specifically the bark of the Pacific Yew Tree. Then there are additional chemo drugs that other cancer patients use that are derived from the periwinkle plant, the May Apple plant, and the Asian “Happy Tree”.

So we have this unfair genetic predisposition (some of us), some cancer-potential cells already in our bodies, then an exposure to something that triggers them to multiply out of control. And the only way to stop it is to administer poison- made from plants with pleasant-sounding names like the Yew Tree and the “Happy tree” for goodness sake… can it be any more ironic?

I had something in my body that was growing out of control and could kill me- and I treated it with drugs that kill. It’s like a battle of which can be most deadly. And thankfully the one I was hoping for won out in my body. But the extent to which that needed to happen means that the rest of my body is still trying to recover- even 3 months after my last treatment. It’s a long process that I’m still trying to be patient with. It’s not easy; but after all that time of destruction on a cellular level, I’m thankful to be “building back up” again.

“Grow through what you go through.”


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Deportation Day

“Deportation Day”- it happened today and the port is OUT! I’m so happy that it’s out… and that they let me keep it! If you look at the picture- the purple part was in my arm where they injected needles for every chemo treatment (and any other time I would’ve otherwise needed an IV.) The white part is the catheter that was thread through my vein- up and around my arm then the tip rested next to my heart. The numbness from the procedure is wearing off and my arm is pretty painful so I’m done for the night. Thanks for sharing in my excitement to get this out today. 

 


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Thankful

When I got home from my last chemo treatment on Thursday, I was surprised to see my dad, my sister’s kids, and my 3 closest friends from PA all waiting in the front yard for me- with balloons and signs and arms waiting for hugs. We spent the evening hanging out- reminiscing, catching up, looking at old yearbooks. It was the kind of evening where you wish time would stop so the night would never end. It was lovely and unforgettable. Thankful for such amazing love and support!


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Mo More Chemo!

Thursday was a big day… my last chemo treatment! I still have surgery and radiation ahead of me, so there’s a lot more to go. But chemo is supposedly the hardest part, so marking the end of it feels good!! The nurses in these pictures are such special people. The one in the picture with the cupcake was there for my very first chemo, my first Taxol chemo, and my final treatment. She’s great… they all are.


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Suffering

I suppose it would be natural for anyone going through a really difficult trial to wonder why it’s happening and to think about others who have gone through similar situations. These thoughts bring me to part 2 of my post from last week- to try and put into words some ideas about faith and suffering. I just need to preface this by saying that it is very rudimentary, but it’s therapeutic for me to write it. Besides, questioning/wondering is healthy in developing your own sense of purpose… right.
So why. Why does cancer even exist? Why is this so hard? Why do humans go through tragedy and suffering. These are big questions with bigger answers that I’m not going to be able to answer. But I’ve had a glimpse into this in a way lately that I haven’t had before. In simplest form- after time spent in suffering (on any level), you gain a better appreciation for the good things in life. Your perspective shifts. What used to seem mundane or unremarkable now brings deep joy and appreciation. These aren’t new, huge events around you. They are things around that might have been there all along, but in our fast-paced, technology-filled day-to-day it’s so easy to overlook them. That’s how it’s been with my experience through cancer, and I’m guessing with many other hardships that people go through. I don’t know if it’s the reason we go through them, but it is a benefit of going through them. I’ve never been so appreciative of sunshine, and short walks outside, of sitting with my eyes closed listening to birds, the delicious smells of food (that I couldn’t eat), warm hoodies, energy to get up the steps, flowers, the sound of rainstorms, warm baths, fluffy clouds viewed through a skylight, sitting by loved ones without saying a word, children giggling, wind on my scalp, hugs… lots of great hugs. I am so appreciative of these things lately. And I pray that I don’t lose this perspective of the simple beauty around me even as I come out of (and hopefully far from) this difficult experience.

Here’s the best analogy I can think of: Your bathroom light. it’s an average light that functions fine when you flip the switch on. For the most part, you probably don’t think twice about it. But it’s a different story in the middle of the night. You wake in the middle of the night and need to use the bathroom. After extended time in the dark, you fumble down the hall and reach to turn that switch on (just like you did earlier that day). But now the sensory experience of the light can be overwhelming. It’s the same light and wattage that your eyes perceived during the day. But when you’ve been in the dark for so long, that same light seems so much brighter. We suddenly have a shift in perspective that makes the light seem brighter… the light doesn’t change, but we do. Our suffering is the time in the dark. And after experiencing it, even a small amount of light seems so bright to us. So I encourage everyone this week to “look for the overlooked”- find those things that have potential to be bright lights. They may seem dim now because you’re not in the dark… but hopefully you can appreciate them anyway.

One other thought about suffering: I remember a quote from a show that said “someday this pain will be useful to you”. I believe that my pain has already been useful because of how it’s changed my perspective. But also in that it will allow me to help the next person- the next friend in need or person to get a cancer diagnosis. The next person who I may become close with because we can relate to each other through similar suffering. Some of my greatest comfort since January has been words of encouragement from other survivors. I hope I can be a source of comfort to others moving forward. Because maybe now, that is part of my purpose. Unexpected and undesired- but if I can bless someone in a fraction of the way I’ve been blessed through this, as a person more refined by this fire, then I’m all in. (see that… I even tied in a little Cleveland Cavaliers humor for you all.)