My sister, Kirstie, was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer recurrence earlier this year.
She is currently undergoing treatment and is doing a KICKASS job of coping with cancer.
I shared my sister’s news about her cancer with our amazing Dirty community a few months ago and the outpouring of love and generosity was enough to take my breath away.
The amount of supportive emails I received after sharing her news was truly amazing. There was one email in particular that touched me in a way that an email never had. This email was a gift and it was from a woman named Peggy. It arrived in my inbox on a day when Kirstie was in the depths of hell. She couldn’t keep food down, she was in excruciating pain, and she was more scared than I have ever known her to be.
I live in Hawaii and my sis lives in Idaho, so I was getting the play-by-play from my mom and dad, who were there with her. On this particular day, Kirstie, who will usually talk on the phone no matter what, did not have it in her to put the phone to her ear and talk, or even to listen.
Peggy’s email didn’t just touch my heart, it went right in and cradled that sucker like a mama lamb. I emailed Peggy back right away and asked if I could share her email with my sister. She gave me permission and I promptly called my mom. I asked her to please put her phone on speaker and make sure it was loud enough so Kirstie could hear my voice.
I began to read the email. My voice was shaky with emotion and I did my best to get through it without crying. At first I could hear Kirstie crying, but as I continued to read it she got quiet. She listened. She relaxed. When I was done, she expressed how thankful she was that Peggy took the time to email with her story and advice. She then closed her eyes and she took a much needed nap.
Peggy’s email was one of those winks from the universe, giving you a little something to hold on to. The timing of it still gives me chills. I asked Peggy if I could share her words on our blog because if they were able to comfort and inspire my sister, they could comfort and inspire anyone. She gave me the green light and today, I am sharing it with you.
Enjoy, my dear.
At the time I was diagnosed with cancer (an aggressive adeno cell carcinoma), I was 24 weeks pregnant.
My obgyn referred me to an oncologist who wanted to take the tumor out PRONTO, which would have terminated my pregnancy. I was 31 years old and it was the first and only pregnancy of my life. I wanted that baby more than I wanted anything, ever. So I said no to the surgery. He said as an alternative, they could do surgery the minute the baby was ‘viable’ (4 pounds), at which time he would do a c-section and then a hysterectomy immediately afterwards. I agreed and I carried on, with the cancer growing, for 6 more weeks. On surgery day, baby weighed 4 pounds 4 ounces, and as a safety, spent 19 days in NICU. That weight fell to 3 pounds 11 ounces on the day we went home from the hospital. SO TINY. Like a tiny, tiny little doll.
I stayed awake for my c-section, saw the baby was perfect (albeit tiny), and then they put me to sleep and did the hysterectomy. I didn’t have any cancer in my lymph nodes and they got the entire tumor with the surgery, so they declared me “cancer free.” That was in April. Six months later, in October, the cancer metastasized. I had an orange-sized tumor on the base of my spine that made it inoperable, and cancer-like fingers spreading to my bladder, spleen, colon, rectum, and hip. It was now Stage 4. They apologized, oops, they didn’t ‘get it all’ after all.
I panicked and thought maybe they didn’t know what the hell they were doing, so I traveled to Houston for a second opinion. I spent 2 weeks there having every test under the sun. Their conclusion: they agreed, no surgery could be done. They wanted me to undergo chemo and radiation, but the difference was that they wanted me to have a colostomy first. At least my own doctors at home were willing to do the chemo and radiation first, and THEN do a colostomy only if necessary. I went to another doctor in my hometown for a 3rd opinion. It’s apparent how differently you’re treated in this kind of seemingly hopeless situation than when you’re a “normal” patient. They took me back to their fancy conference room and the doctor sat down by me and put his hand on my hand and said, “Dear, get your affairs in order.” At this point, no one had given me a “time limit” yet on how long I had to live – I just knew it wasn’t good. So I asked him how long he thought I had to live and he said maybe a year. I went back to my own oncologist furious and shrieked, “Tell me how long I have to live! I’ve just been told a year!” And he said, “We’re going to try like hell to give you more time than that.”
It was during this time that my life was the darkest. I had a six month old baby and Stage 4 cancer. It’s hard to put into words, but here’s about the best I can do: when I thought about the future, the days ahead had a black cloud over them. Like, I could visualize a calendar and all the days were blacked out. I couldn’t think about the future because I didn’t feel like I had one anymore. It’s hard to explain, but cancer doesn’t just mentally rob you of today, it mentally robs you of what time is left, too (if you let it).
My baby was about 8 months old when I started treatment. My oncologist gave me a ton of stuff to read and one study showed that something like 40% of people who took the kind of chemo I was taking didn’t lose their hair in clinical trials, so I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to lose my hair. And I didn’t. My mom was worried because it seemed like whatever I read, I believed, and it became my truth. That was all fine and dandy with the good stuff – but I was reading some pretty bad stuff, too.
I was rocking my baby one afternoon and I was reading a medical publication from the UK about a trial they did on cervical cancer patients who were pregnant at the time of diagnosis. It was a small group because you don’t get a lot of pregnant women diagnosed with cervical cancer DURING their pregnancy, especially not at 24 weeks! Most of “us” who are diagnosed “during” pregnancy with cervical cancer already have the tumors at conception, and most of the time the cancer is detected very early in the pregnancy and then the pregnancy is terminated. So the study was done on a very small, specialized group of women. I was reading the results of their treatment (which would be the same treatment I was to undergo) and after 3 years, 80% of the women were dead. After 5 years, they all were dead. I was sobbing. I was sitting there, rocking my baby, holding that study, sobbing, and my mom walked in the room and asked what was wrong. I told her what I had read and she snatched the paper from me and tore it up and threw it in the trash. “I don’t want you reading ANYTHING that doesn’t make you feel GOOD. Do you hear me? Do NOT poison yourself with that kind of garbage! You aren’t a statistic!” She was pissed. This leads me to my first suggestion:
Do not waste a MINUTE of the precious time you have doing anything that doesn’t make you feel BETTER. Even when I was undergoing radiation, I found a way to make myself feel better about it. I laid there on the table feeling super empowered. Like, “Hell yeah, hit me right there with all that. Yeah, hit me again! Kick ass! Do your thing!” I found it a lot easier to be positive and stay positive once I decided to eliminate the shit from my life that was bringing me down.
For me, it was mostly the literary resources, the clinical trials, the data in general about ‘my’ type of cancer that were available to ‘help’ me. They didn’t help me. They made my circumstances feel more grim. There was also a community member who sometimes visited me and she was SUCH a Debbie Downer so I put an end to her visits. For me, the ‘feel bad’ triggers were the statistics (good and bad) and broody, negative people. For someone else, the triggers could be completely different. If there’s anything in your life that’s keeping you from being positive, man, cut it loose. Even if it’s an important person. You can always have them back in your life at a later time.
I’ll never forget the odds they gave me about my treatment, since surgery was not an option. They said there was only a 50/50 chance that I would respond to the treatment at all. If I DID respond, only about a 50% chance that the treatment would prolong my life more than 3 years, and only a 25% chance that it would prolong my life for more than 5 years. Not great odds, but I had the best motivation in the world: I had a new baby and my husband (now ex-husband) was an alcoholic and didn’t have the ability or facilities to raise our child alone. For the sake of my baby, I HAD to live.
I took the treatment and my doctor kept gently reminding me that when they did the follow up tests, even a slight decrease in the tumor size would be GREAT news because that would mean it was responding, and if it shrunk during treatment, it would likely continue to shrink more, even after treatment. So they were pounding this into my head, “It will still be there when we’re finished, but don’t panic, all we care about is that it’s decreased in size.”
During this time, while I was taking treatment, I got incredibly sick and weak. As an example, I couldn’t sit on the toilet without my mom or sister kneeling in front of me with their arms around me to hold me upright. My sister bathed me and the water in the bathtub turned red. Everything was scorched and sore. My mom had to move in because I couldn’t really care for my baby properly by myself anymore and my husband didn’t help. This brings me to my second suggestion:
While my mom was living with me, she would make me do this breathing exercise that I thought was ridiculous. I was so sick and super bitchy. I would whine and complain – but finally I just gave in because she was relentless. I realized quickly, though, that it REALLY did help me. She would coach me and say, “Take a deep breath in. Breathe in all the good in your life. Breathe in that sweet baby. Think about the sunshine, warm on your face. Think about the birds singing and the breeze blowing. Big breath in. Breathe it in. Now breathe out the bad; all the bad shit. Push it out. Let the bad stuff all go. The cancer, the fear, the worry. Breathe it out, baby. Get rid of it. Now breathe back in, the sun, the moon and stars on a clear night, the ocean, the mountains, hear your baby’s first words, see that first step onto a school bus, breathe all the good stuff in, way deep in. There’s no room for the bad anymore with so much light inside you. Now exhale – and push what’s left, all the bad, push it out.” And so it went. We did this big and slow and deep. And it truly helped. I could relax and let my fears ago, even if only temporarily. With that kind of focus, I could fill myself up with only positive thoughts. We did it a lot. Sometimes I would cry and scream into a pillow. But then I’d stop and do that “good in, bad out” thing and it helped.
Here is my third and final suggestion:
Don’t empower the cancer by seeing it as a separate entity who’s invaded your body and who’s out to get you. My body is my body. My arms are mine, my blood is mine, my cells are mine – even the ones that mutated and turned into cancer. All my parts work together to be ME and all of me wants me to live! Every part of me wants to get well so that the “whole me” can live. I tried to see the cancer as trying to help me win, too. Like, it knew it had to take one for the team and GTFO (get the f*&# out) so that we (all my parts) could go on. Does that sound like crazy talk? Having cancer makes you think crazy things. But it helped me to not view the cancer as the enemy who was desperately out to get me. I knew it was apologetically saying, “Shit man, I didn’t mean for this to happen. I didn’t mean to do this to us.” And that helped me cope somehow.
After I finished my chemo and radiation, I had to wait 30 days to find out if the tumors had responded at all. That’s a hard wait. It’s like sitting around a month waiting to see if you’re going to live or die. My mom and I took the baby on a road trip to visit family. I was pretty sick, but it helped pass the time. I came home and underwent tests then waited another day or two for results. My oncologist finally called me. I remember where I was. I was dusting my bedroom dresser. He said, “I’m a man of science, you know that. But this… this isn’t anything I can explain. We had hoped for some small sign that the tumors had decreased in size, any change at all would have been a victory – but we never expected this… they’re GONE. They’re all gone. There’s nothing left but scar tissue. The cancer has completely vanished. All of it. It’s a miracle.” My oncologist literally used the word miracle. I LITERALLY fell to my knees. They buckled. I fell to my knees and I wept.
I promised myself I would never take this beautiful life for granted and I made some big changes, including divorcing my husband (who I had been with for 16 years), moving houses and eventually moving to a whole new town. I completely changed careers (twice), and I remarried a wonderful man who is truly the loveliest human being I have ever known (and, as a side, one who has wholeheartedly embraced our Whole Food Plant Based lifestyle).
I sit here typing this up, remembering it all and how hard and how shitty it was, and how strong my mom and sister were in helping me through it all. I know now that they were shattered, but they never let on. They were so stoic for me. I never knew they had doubts – and their strength filled me with hope. I thought I might suck all the life from them, but it was the opposite. They filled me with theirs. I still wake up every day and say, “Yay! I’m here and I get to do this thing another day!” Not kidding. I really do that.
If you’re still with me, thanks for reading my story – and I truly hope you can glean something from it that will make a tiny difference in your life.
I have a super easy way of figuring out how long ago my battle with cancer was because it’s the same number as my daughter’s age. She’s 20. Her name is Molly.
Lots of love,
Peggy, I have read your letter 5 times now and I can’t get through it without getting chills and tearing up. I don’t know how I got so lucky to have you share your story with me, especially at the moment you did, but the word that comes to mind is grace.
Thank you with all of my being for reaching out with your words, they helped in a time when nothing else could. I would love to meet you and your sweet daughter one day and give you both a big hug. Life is so strange and hard and magical and I am constantly reminded that none of us are alone. We are all connected.
Deep bow to you, my dear.
For anyone who is struggling with cancer right now, my heart goes out to you. I hope you find some strength in Peggy’s story. Just a glimmer of hope is all you need sometimes to KEEP GOING. You are not alone. We are all in this together.
Plant Based Ground Walnut Sausage
Plant Based Ground Walnut Sausage
- 2 teaspoons dried sage
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder
- 1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups raw walnuts (160 g)
- 1 cup cooked cannellini beans (175 g / canned or made from dried)
Place the sage, thyme, basil, marjoram, fennel seeds, rosemary, cayenne, red pepper flakes and salt into your food processor and process for about 20 seconds, until the fennel seeds and rosemary are chopped up a bit.
Add the walnuts and cannellini beans to the food processor and process until there are no big chunks of walnuts. Don’t over process because you don’t want a smooth paste. You want it to be crumbly. If there are some little pieces of walnut and beans, this is just fine.
Add a bit more salt if you think it needs it and transfer the mixture to a container and store in the fridge just like this.
When ready to eat, heat up in a skillet and add to Tacos, Burritos, Pizza, Pasta, or Salad Bowls. It's also yummy as a dip.
Wishing you a happy week. May it be filled with holding on.