cancer: (noun) can·cer \ˈkan(t)-sər\ a serious disease caused by cells that are not normal and that can spread to one or many parts of the body
Cancer is, quite literally, change. Cancerous cells are created from a body’s own cells with two distinct differences. These cells have mutated, or changed, genes. One, the oncogene, pushes the cell to divide much faster than normal. The other, the tumor suppressor gene, has been “turned off”, your body’s natural defense against tumors shut down. The cells may have one or both of these mutations, and they don’t all look the same or stay the same. Cancer cells are your own cells, changed.
But cancer creates change in other ways too. Lives and lifestyles are all changed by cancer – those of the patient, the caregivers, the family. Change is inevitable with this disease, as with most. Schedules must be conformed to treatments, family meals look different because of diet changes, and the dynamics of family interactions can change. Cancer is change, within and outside of the body.
Most of the time, when we think about cancer and change, it immediately brings forth feelings of dread: we see change associated with cancer as bad. Change means more cancer cells, it means more tumors, bad test results. It means its harder to catch, and harder to beat. Change can be unknown and scary. But what if we could create good change?
I often begin my cancer story with the same line: “My life changed forever in a Marriott in Georgetown”. Dramatic, maybe, but 100% true. I was sitting on the edge of the bed in our hotel room, while my parents sat me down to tell me the news that would change me forever as a daughter, a student, a volunteer, a friend, and a person. That was the day I found out, amidst a flurry of texts from friends who were storming the field at Scott Stadium after a down-to-the-wire win against Miami, that my mother had been diagnosed with late-stage Ovarian Cancer. At that point we thought it was Primary Peritoneal Carcinoma – but that changed too.
My mother underwent extensive chemotherapy, more than 5 hours per treatment, every three weeks, for 4 months, surgery to remove her many tumors, and more chemotherapy after that. A one-word text made April 25th, 2013 truly the perfect day. It read simply, “remission.” That remission was the change we had been hoping for. It was the day it looked like my mother had won. That was also the day I finally caught my breath.
However, in August of 2013, my mother’s CA 125 – or Cancer Antigen 125, the blood marker that indicates when ovarian cancer cells, otherwise almost entirely undetectable until they are an even more dangerous tumor, are present in a woman’s blood, came back elevated. Upon testing, we found out that this was a bad change – a new tumor had begun to grow. My mother’s treatment began again on a new cocktail of drugs and our resolve got stronger.
Every chemo drug will cause an allergic reaction in less 10% of patients, and every patient usually has one drug that they are allergic to. My mother’s reaction, however, fell in the 1%. As I watched this so-called “miracle drug” tear apart my mother’s body, I watched her stubbornness grow stronger. It was working, sure. The tumor was shrinking. And my mother knew that. So she downplayed every single one of her symptoms – telling the oncologist that she wasn’t working hard enough to get rid of her own symptoms, and that she would have them gone before the next treatment. Her stubbornness paid off: she was told she no longer needed the toxic drug in her cocktail and returned to a much more manageable regime.
And for 6 months, that’s where we stayed. But then change took over again.
The night of my first meeting as a Relay Exec Chair, I spent my walk home on the phone with my mother. The undertones in her voice sounded weird, and I knew something was wrong. After remembering that she had had a CT scan the past Thursday, I put 2 and 2 together.
“What did they find, Mom?”
So we started again. They reintroduced Doxil into her cocktail, but my mom was prepared this time. But again, her reaction was in the 1%. So we made yet another change.
|I Relay for more cakes that say this.|
This journey has been full of changes. Lots of bad changes. Scary changes. Unsure changes. But what does good change look like?
It looks like the incredible people this terrible disease has brought into my life, namely the nurses who give my mom treatment week after week, who helped me finally realized that I was meant to be a Pediatric Oncology nurse.
It looks like Relay For Life, an organization that has simultaneously consumed and changed my life for the better and given me another family to fight alongside.
It looks like researching my own risk of finding an elevated CA 125, and though its much higher than the average person, knowing what to look for – knowing what that change looks like.
It looks like pouring sweat, blood, and tears into a cause we all care so deeply about.
It looks like seeing a cure for cancer in our lifetime.
Sitting in that Marriott in Georgetown, I knew my life had just changed forever, but I could never have known how or how much. My mom and I always joke that she’s the optimist and I’m the pessimist, but if there’s one thing that she has taught me through her incredible resolve, bravery, and gracious fight, its that “every cloud has a silver lining”. For all the changes in her life, she has found a silver lining to them all.
So I Relay for good change. For positive change. For the chance to be the generation who sees the end of cancer in our lifetime. I relay for everyone who Relays and helps finish the fight. I relay for caregivers, who make the fight a little bit easier. I relay for survivors, who fight every minute of every day. But most of all, I Relay for my mom, her incredible fight, and her immeasurable strength.
So here’s to you, Mom. I love you.