April 17, 2018
Happy Tuesday, sweet friends!
If you happen to follow along with me on Instagram or Facebook, you know I’ve been on a wedding bender recently… And by that I mean, this past weekend I attended wedding number 4 of 5 in a row down in Baton Rouge. I’ve been back to our hometown, then to Auburn, then Birmingham, and, of course, Baton Rouge.
Amid all that, a bit more has been going on. And so, today’s post will be a little different than most any I’ve ever written.
Today’s post is a glimpse of real life. And not the “my house is actually messy, I don’t really cook everyday, daily routine” kind of glimpse of real life. I’m talking the raw, the heartbreak, the depth of the valley kind of real life.
And before I even get started, I want to acknowledge how hard this is for me to write for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, because I try to keep things light and positive here. We all see enough doom and gloom on a daily basis to keep us to eternity, so I try to keep your time spent with me here to pretty pictures and travel adventures. All of these things are 100% true, but so is this. This is a deeper reality at the moment.
I’ve known about my trip to Birmingham for quite sometime now. Like me, my Birmingham bride, Emily, is a planner. She has had this wedding planned for almost a year, and I’ve had it on my calendar since. It wasn’t until a month ago that this trip would become so much more than a wedding celebration.
You see- in the past few months, my world has been shaken.
My mother called one day in late February to say that while attending a routine appointment with her kidney doctor, she had undergone an MRI. This wasn’t unusual, because she has battled kidney issues for a couple years now, and the tests were mostly precautionary to monitor any changes in kidney function. What was unusual was what had turned up in the process.
While scanning her kidneys, for some unknown reason, the technician ventured over near her liver. Now, I don’t know who this person was, and I don’t know their reasoning for doing what they did, but I will be forever grateful for their timing. Be it stroke of luck, slip of the hand, or divine intervention (and though I’d like to know, it doesn’t even matter), it happened. That’s what matters. They found it.
A mass. A tumor. A life changer.
I’ve always prided myself on rationality and calmness in the face of adversity, and this had to be no different. When I told a few select friends, they asked what I thought about it. What was there to think? At that point, there was just as much to be thankful for as there was to worry about. You won’t find me quoting scripture often, but I’ve always held this one to be true:
“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” – Matthew 6:27
I decided I would worry when I had something to worry about.
A few weeks later, in early March, Mama called again. This phone call was different. This was the “thankful I decided to walk away from my desk to answer” phone call. This was the “find a quiet place to collect myself” phone call. This was the world shaking, lunch plan cancelling, I just need to be alone to think phone call.
The C word.
It was time to worry.
She stumbled through the words – intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma – as I interrogated with the swiftness of a seasoned detective. Rationale. That’s what I know. Give me facts.
I typed that tongue twister into Google as she spelled out the letters knowing I would have a day of research ahead of me. I’d come back to that when I was off the phone. Thanks, technology, you’re good for something.
Within hours, I could spell those two words like I could spell my own name. I read everything I could get my hands on. This was about to be reality. This WAS and IS reality, and I wanted to know what we were up against.
So, after a string of scheduling frustrations with doctors, she landed on an appointment with the medical oncologist the Friday I was to drive to Birmingham for the wedding anyway. I took off a day early to be there with her and my sister as she was given more information about the diagnosis.
Driving across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama Thursday night, there were multiple times I found myself wiping tears. Tears I didn’t even know were coming. Tears for the what-ifs. Tears for a future I couldn’t plan or control. Tears for the unknown. What if it meant I would have kids one day who never knew their MiMi? What about the girls- my nieces? How would they handle this? Can you still call yourself an orphan in your twenties and thirties? Dear God, please don’t put us there. How is this fair? How was I going to deal with this from 6 hours away? The guilt. Oh, the guilt of not being able to be there on a daily basis! I’m not ready for life without her. None of us are. Most all of the loss I’ve experienced has been sudden. Theft, even. Lives taken from us far before their time. Making that drive alone to a future unknown and possibly far different than what I had dreamed of my future to be like was terrifying- the anticipation just as bad as the theft I had experienced so many other times.
And yet, Friday, as my mother, my sister, and I sat and waited for her name to be called, the fear wasn’t there. It was as if the three of us together gave cancer no other choice than to be a minor bump in the road. Another pothole you didn’t see coming, that shook you momentarily and maybe even slowed you down, but definitely didn’t pull you over.
You see, my mama raised strong women. And men. And I often wonder if that was by deliberate choice or merely through an example she didn’t even realize she was portraying. We’ve grown up faster than most. We’ve seen tragedy from an early age. We’ve hit it head on and threw our own punches right back at it. We’ve faced loss, poverty, and adversity, and half of the time, we probably never even realized it. But I’ll let you in on a little secret… it was because my mama didn’t focus on those things. She didn’t let you wallow. Strength doesn’t wallow, at least not for long and definitely not in public. Strength pulls itself together and puts one foot in front of the other. The steps may not be big, and strides probably not long, but the progress is present. So in my twenty-eight years on this earth, I’ve watched my mother conquer things that would have stopped a lot of people in their tracks. Derailed them even. But not Jacque. Jacque wore a tough face. She pressed ahead. And if there were tears to be shed and grief to be grappled with, she never let that show. Friday, April 6, 2018, was going to be no different.
So even when the oncologist said the words – Stage 4 – I stumbled. Internally, of course. Remember, strength doesn’t wallow in public. I had done my research. I knew what that meant. I knew there is no Stage 5. And if you’re going to have cancer, you want it to be Stage 1. I stumbled, but I kept up the interrogation, because this pothole was a big one. We were going to need a realignment, but we were going to do it together. We just needed to know what we were going to be fixing and how long it would take. Give me facts. Give me rationale.
Stage 4 Intrahepatic Cholangiocarinoma – slightly mislabeled, according to the oncologist. She has a tumor that has grown amongst her liver, bile duct, and gallbladder. Excuse my feeble attempt to explain this, but basically the tumor has no choice but to grow amongst these three things, because of their close proximity to each other. And because three different “organs” are affected, the tumor is considered metastasized – meaning growing in multiple areas of the body. Now, typically, if a tumor has metastasized, that suggests it has spread to far reaching parts of the body. Although, that has not been completely ruled out at this point, the oncologist seems to think it unlikely, so we shall stay positive. According to him, this was caught far earlier than most (and so again I thank that MRI technician), and we should be very optimistic. Given her relatively good health, the plan is to be “mildly aggressive” with the treatment.
So what does this mean going forward?
This week, she will undergo a PET scan to rule out cancer cells anywhere else in her body.
If you’re the praying or positive vibes kind, this is where I ask you to employ any such method that could bring good news. I do remain hopeful and optimistic, but anything extra would be greatly appreciated.
After the PET scan, she will undergo the installation of a port through which she will later be administered chemotherapy.
Though we don’t have a date for when that will begin, I do assume that will be as soon as possible. She will be making the 3 hour trek to Birmingham every other week; each visit should last about 4 hours. We are very thankful for that schedule; it could be much more stringent. The chemotherapy cycle should last 2-3 months and will attempt to shrink the tumor to allow for a higher probability of success when it comes time for surgery. At that point, they will remove the tumor, as well as her gallbladder, the affected portion of her biliary tract, and a portion of her liver. The smaller the tumor, the less tissue has to be removed, which means the less reconstruction has to be done.
We don’t know much more at this point. Now, we take it day by day. We focus on her health. We focus on positivity. We focus on the day she gets to ring that golden bell that says she beat it. She beat the C word. She kicked it right in the as….phalt like every other pothole she has faced. Yes, that’s the day we’re going to focus on.
Remember how I said this was hard to write? I stand by that. It’s hard to put this out into the universe and not seem attention-seeking. I don’t want or need the attention, but she does. Need it, that is. She needs your love. She needs your support. She needs your smile in WalMart. She needs your thoughts. Your prayers. And more than ALL of that…. She DESERVES it. She has faced hell and everything between here and there. She has raised 5 kids. Buried her eldest, her husband, her mother and her father. She has sacrified. She has worked like a dog. She has struggled, and she has OVERCOME. She has triumphed, and she has thrived.
This will be no different, but she won’t tell you any of that. She’s not proud. She’s definitely not attention-seeking, but she deserves it. She deserves it all.
So, in an effort to not leave you too downtrodden, I leave you with these images I captured at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens after the appointment. I had some time to spare and some thoughts to work through before moving on to the next occasion. So, I did. I did it amongst blooms and thorns. So fitting. You can’t have a rose (or flowering cacti) without a thorn or two, right? And I don’t know of many roads without a pothole or two.