what cancer feels like, part 1

I won’t be able to write all of this in one coherent blog, so I’m going to break it up until it makes sense. It might take me a long time to write it all out, but I want to try. Here we go.
2012 was one of the hardest years of my life. I battled cancer, brain radiation, countless medical complications, and a life-threatening breakdown of the body. The worst part was that it wasn’t my cancer. It was my grandmother’s.

Grammy is my best friend. She has been since I was as tiny as I can remember. She was only 50 when I was born, so I’ve been blessed to have a Grammy (and a Papa) with energy and vigor throughout my life. She has had dozens of health issues, including but certainly not limited to:
Heart attack x 2
Spinal fusion x 2 (might even be 3)
Knee replacement x 2
Hip replacement x 2
Tracheotomy as part of emergency surgery
And all of these have just been what I’ve been around for.
This looks like a list of items you’d receive in a video game. Congratulations! You’ve obtained spinal fusion x 2, a magical fusion spell!

But they’re not magical items. They’re profound health concerns she’s had. Yet, she gets through them. She comes out shining and somehow healthier than ever.
In December of 2011, she was in the hospital with pneumonia. My mom had just recently moved to Austin to be with her friends and pursue a new career in music production. She and my grandfather were to join my fiance and myself to visit mom for Christmas, but it was just a bit too much for Grammy. Little did any of us know she was having a biopsy on her lymph node. I didn’t find out she had cancer until after her birthday. If I’m not mistaken, I found exactly a year ago today. God that feels like it just happened years ago. “Small cell lung cancer.” Okay. Let’s do this. Grammy’s tough as fuck, she’s beaten everything possible, she can get through this. Cancer is cancer, it’s treatable nowadays, we have SCIENCE on our side!

The night I found out she had cancer, I watched 50/50, which, ironically, I had planned on watching anyway. I remember watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt go through these awful treatments and breakdowns but come out with a smile and thought “YES, that’s what will happen, without any doubt.” She hadn’t even been given a Stage (stage I is earliest, stage IV is latest, in terms of when it’s caught) because they caught it so early. Yet, why are we so certain these things will work out? I think we just don’t want to think about the alternative until it’s under our nose, and sometimes that’s where it ends up. It ends up under our nose scaring the hell out of us because we weren’t prepared for anything but a positive outcome.

My mother had only lived in Austin for three months when she moved back to Chicago to be with her parents. My mother was the youngest of three children, but both of her brothers died within a few years of each other (one in 2002 and one in 2009), leaving her the only child when this all started. She packed up what she could, found a townhouse near them on the internet that my grandparents assured her was good, and brought herself back here. She actually had to live with my grandparents for two months exactly before her new home was ready. She slept in the bed she grew up in and did everything possible for her parents. She deserved a medal.

So Grammy started treatment. It started out simple: several rounds of radiation over several consecutive days before chemo. She didn’t have any problems at all; the weeks before treatment we started fattening her up, literally. “Want more ice cream? Let’s go get a cheeseburger! Who doesn’t love Highland Queen, I’ll get us more fries!” She gained 15 pounds, I think, and kept it on during a lot of her treatment. She had the best attitude going into it, and I think that helped tremendously.

Around this time, late February/early March, my Grammy lost her best friend of 40+ years. Grammy said it was kind of a blessing in disguise, because she didn’t want Edith to see what she was about to go through (Edith was also over 10 years older-she passed away at 86 while my Grammy was still 74.) It was a peaceful death and wasn’t horribly shocking, but it came at arguably the worst possible time. I would catch Grammy at certain times in the evening looking at the clock, and I know she was thinking she needed to call Edith, but she couldn’t. Even so, she somehow kept going.


Here we are for Easter, so this is about two months into her treatment. She was still looking awesome and was pretty excited to be bald.

I have to say, the initial radiation wasn’t bad. Even Grammy was pretty okay with it all. It caused some burning on her chest, but it was easily treatable. She didn’t have any real problems. She started chemo around the time this picture was taken and was expected to have 30 rounds, three times a week, for 10 weeks (I believe that’s the exact number.) Unfortunately, a lot of chemo had to be delayed because her white blood cell count was often very low. You need a high white count to be able to go through chemo because it helps fight off infection and keeps your immune system in line.

It was around this time that I heard the word “inoperable” for the first time. The tumor was located in her left lung not too far from the lymph nodes in the armpits. At the beginning of treatment it was 7cm. God that’s tiny. That’s about the 3/4 the length of a credit card. So why couldn’t they take it out? As I learned, with small cell cancer, surgery is usually not an option because of the rate it spreads. By the time you catch it, to put it bluntly, surgery wouldn’t do anything. That’s not to say it’s hopeless, but it would have only put further stress on Grammy. So no surgery.

As I’ve mentioned throughout my blogs, I am an anxious person. I have panic disorder and am often susceptible to some pretty heavy panic attacks. From February to May I really didn’t have any anxiety about the situation. I had a few moments of weakness, but we all did. Of course you have weakness. It’s fucking cancer. But I kept plowing through grad school and went on vacations, hung out with friends, and rang in my 24th birthday.

Around June, things started changing a bit.
More to follow.

One comment

  1. Stephanie Guenther · February 7, 2013

    Love it. You’ve worded it perfectly. ❤

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