Celebrating One Year 'Cancer-Free'

The beautiful flowers Christopher gave me last year for finishing chemotherapy!

The time has come to write this post, and I cannot believe it came up so quick. Exactly one year has passed since that marvelous voicemail on my phone revealed the breath-stopping results of a clear CT scan. I can't exactly put into words how I feel writing this reflection, but I sure can try.

On Nov. 8, 2017, I drove myself three miles down the road for my first ever CT scan while conscious (apparently I had one in the hospital last July after post-surgical complications, but all was/is well).

The scan wasn't the bad part; drinking the dye beforehand and waiting for the results after were definitely tied for the worst part of the process. I was given two big bottles of contrast that were to be consumed on a certain schedule. This allowed the body to adequately "show up" in the scan before my body absorbed and digested it. It tasted awful and I 0/10 recommend to a friend.

I stripped down into a patient gown as I sipped the last of my contrast 15 minutes before my scan. Once called back to the room, I was weighed, hooked up to an IV for more contrast, and laid on the table to be pushed through the big donut.

From here, the medical professionals exited the room as the voice in the machine began to administer instructions. I moved at various times through this donut, as it spun around my body. CT scans are essentially X-rays taken at different angles to see cross-sections of bone, blood vessels, and soft tissue. This allows them to quite literally see inside tissues and organs without having to operate. The contrast is what makes the images visible and the extra contrast administered through the IV is felt as a warm sensation in real time, going from the tip of your head to the tip of your toes. The scan for me was only ordered from chin to knees as they were only concerned with examining my pelvis, abdomen, lungs and chest. It was a quick appointment and I was only advised to drink a lot of water after the test and return to my daily schedule. Of course without school or work, that meant the Christmas festivities and Family Feud marathons resumed. I was real productive, I know.

Two very long days later, on Nov. 10, 2017, I missed a phone call from a strange number. A few minutes passed and I found myself listening to the best voicemail still saved on my phone today!

The CT scan revealed no evidence of disease, or NED. In the cancer world, I prefer to celebrate NED instead of cancer-free as cancer cells are present in everyone's body at all times. The difference is, they're not dividing and metastasizing. Another reason I refrain from "cancer-free" is due in part from the constant paranoia that cancer could return at any time, as much as I'm trying to prevent it. With such a rare diagnosis, my team of doctors and I can't really say for sure if/when this could return, and how it could come back should it, unfortunately, do so. We don't dwell in that mindset, but it is something very important to just always be aware of and realistic about.

After 50+ trips to the hospital, I no longer felt a prisoner of the infusion center. I didn't feel like a burden to my family who was driving me to each appointment and tending to my every need. I felt free. But more consumably, I felt ready to go. But perhaps the most important lesson I've learned from this disease, is that I need to slow down. I swear I belong in fast-paced New York, but I also swear that that would be the worst thing for me.

I knew I had one surgery left: to remove the port. And after that, it was, Cancer who?

I wanted to go, go, go. I re-enrolled in school, signed up for classes. I bought Christmas presents and school supplies and an outfit for Thanksgiving. But really, this was just the beginning of realizing I needed to pump the brakes. My body had just gone through hell and back and what I refused to tell myself for a bit is that I needed to heal.

I also didn't realize that I still had a lot ahead of me. Cancer doesn't end once treatment stops. I was monitored every 3 months by my oncologist, and I still am today. I had a mini cancer scare before this summer started, causing me to need another CT scan. Probably overloading my schedule too much again. It showed I had a cyst on my ovary, fluid in my pelvis, a polyp in my gallbladder and mass in my lung. Now, I didn't have cancer again, but this was a very real reminder that our life doesn't snap back to normal immediately.

Cysts are common in women as they are produced with each cycle. It's when they burst or don't go away that they become a problem. I was ordered an ultrasound for 3 months later to see if it went away along with the pelvic fluid that was probably related to it. (Spoiler alert: the cyst was still there 3 months later, but there's no telling that it was the same exact cyst. So I have another appointment coming up very soon). I ended up getting a second opinion on the polyp, which consisted of a gallbladder ultrasound. It revealed that it was so tiny and without symptoms, it was fine. I go back soon to monitor that as well. And the blob in my right lung was apparently present in my last CT scan and hadn't changed size or shape so no one was concerned. Also to continue to be monitored on that as well. With all of these moving parts, slowing down only naturally seemed to be the answer.

I needed to focus 100% on myself, my health, my mind, and my priorities now more than ever. Of course to this day, I still find myself piling way too much on my plate as my subconscious is probably living out its evil plan to make up for lost time during treatment. But slowing down is key. I find myself more at peace in those moments that I follow through with restoring and recharging, and it allows for more successful days in the end of it all. If you're struggling with this too, I highly suggest planning some me-time, saying no to others for once, and recharging yourself so that you can have a more productive day tomorrow. You can't pour your energy into whatever you're trying to accomplish if you don't recharge yourself first. I cannot tell you how fantastic and life changing this year has been since slowing down and listening to my mind and body.

That's not to say I haven't celebrated my accomplishments, both big and small. Since jumping back into the swing of things, I have really come out of my shell and now take advantage of every opportunity I receive. Any and all connections I have made this year has led to jobs, internships, and even some pretty cool research projects in the making. I'm still my introverted self, but those who don't see or talk to me often will notice I am more comfortable in my skin and content holding a conversation with everyone I meet.

This fall semester is coming to a close now as I wrap up my first full semester as managing editor and also as I finish my minor! I started two new research projects along with launching this blog and I can't wait to see where it all takes me.

Life post-treatment has had its ups and downs like any other girl chasing her dreams. I'm still trying to find that balance between patient and person. I visit my oncologist every three months, and the only lingering symptoms are terrible memory (chemo brain) and decreased physical strength. I'm not reminded often that I once fell victim to my own body's wrongful turn of events, but I still listen to my body each day as if I were catching my own cancer again. My hair has grown back, so that's been a treat.

There is a lot to be thankful for that I still can't quite put into words, but sometimes words aren't always the medium to display our gratitude. I'm still figuring it out. I really cannot thank my mom and dad enough, along with Christopher and his parents and grandparents. From the absolute smallest signs of support and affection, to the largest acts of kindness, not a single event will ever be taken for granted and I could only hope that I could repay them for all that they have done, been through, and sacrificed.

My friends and family on social media have shown nothing but love and support and it took me a long way through everything. My professors continue to challenge and inspire me, and my coworkers are always there to teach me and make me laugh. My sweet clients are the best friends I could have right now, and I'm happy to work under supportive bosses as well. Even on the worst of days, I know I have a big network of love surrounding me, so if you're reading this- THANK YOU!

Cancer is life changing and its a hard, long road for some. But it also doesn't have to be a death sentence for all with the help of revolutionary science, advanced medical teams, and undying love and support. I can't tell you how grateful I am to be sharing this milestone with you and I hope you'll share in my joy as we continue to reach new milestones along the way.

Up next, I have a fundraising event tomorrow for cancer research (updates to follow) and an appointment next week Wednesday with my oncologist for my one-year check-up.

Take care of yourselves,

Abi

A Day in the Life of a Cancer Patient

Hey all!

I thought for this next post I could share with you my typical "routine" during treatment. Around this time last year, I was finishing up the last of my chemotherapy, which is crazy to think a year has already gone by. It seriously feels like only two months ago that I was dragging myself to the hospital. But, a lot of people are still unaware that I had to go through chemotherapy for three or four months straight and went to the infusion center/hospital almost every day, so let me explain what my days looked like.
My first day of chemo, almost a year and three months ago.

My chemotherapy treatment was on a three-week cycle, meaning that my three chemo drugs were administered on a specific schedule that spanned over three weeks. I then would repeat this three more times, given that my blood counts and lab work came back with clearance. A lot of three's, I know.

Often times, however, I was too sick and weak to proceed. My blood pressure refused to rise above a low reading (I'm talking 75/49) and my white blood cells or platelets were always messed up. These speed bumps from my lab work stretched out my timeline further than expected, so my nine-week treatment actually ended up being a three and a half month scramble.

Either way, the schedule generally looked like this: three infusions on Monday if blood work was fine, two infusions with fluids on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Saturday's were for blood work, and Sunday's were for coming back to get a shot of Neupogen to help increase my blood counts. Safe to say I was at the hospital for a solid 105 days straight, with most days being in the hospital from 8am-5pm. Totally not the full-time job I envisioned at this stage of my life.

My days all started out the same: I woke up feeling tired and used just about all of my energy to get my feet on the ground and my body off the bed.

I would put on the most basic clothes: yoga pants were comfortable and kept me warm, fuzzy socks were a must and a V-neck shirt was necessary for easy access to the port in my chest. A zip-up sweater was thrown on top, and eventually, a hat once my hair decided to move out. Y'all, let's be real, I could land a spot in New York Fashion Week with this look ...

Next, I would drag myself to the bathroom four feet away from my bed, and when I finished this marathon, I made sure to avoid the mirror as I brushed my teeth. My lips were constantly chapped, eyes constantly dark, skin always pale, and my body thinner than normal. It wasn't something my eyes needed to see first thing in the mornings.

By now I felt as if I was washing my face and about to crawl into bed. It felt like the day was ending when really it was just beginning.

I would then crawl down the stairs (literally scooting on my butt, on step at a time, like a child) and find a seat on the second-to-last step. I put my shoes on here and would force myself to eat a toaster waffle with syrup that my mom made me most mornings, with or without the appetite for one. During chemo, I skipped coffee altogether since I slept more than 20 hours a day.

The next part of my 'routine' was close to my least favorite: sit in rush hour traffic as the rest of the world heads to school/work and my driver and I head to the infusion center.

At the hospital, I would get dropped off close to the door while my driver parks so I don't have to walk that far. I walked slowly like a grandma and barely had the energy to make it past an eighth of a mile.

Next, I waited for my driver to come in, to which we would then check in at the front desk and wait in the infusion center's waiting room for well over an hour past our original appointment times. Oh, it was fun.

Shortly after the hour or eternity we waited, we got called back by a nurse to check my weight, which usually dropped every day. I was more so concerned about losing balance on the scale, but all was well in the end.

The separated areas in the large room we would sit in for treatment were referred to as "ponds" in this infusion center. Ironically, they were named after local lakes in the Atlanta area. My favorite was Lake Burton because the infusion nurse that manned this lake knew how to make my life better more than I think I did myself. He entertained any guest I brought and always make me crack a small smile, even when I felt like garbage and didn't want to move my face. (Still relatable today, but we'll move on.)

No matter how kind the nurse was, each pond had me answer the same 20 questions every day. This was easily the biggest nuisance of my everyday routine because I liked to focus all my energy on staying alive, not answering the same obvious questions every 24 hours. "Rate your appetite/energy, anyone outside the U.S. in past 21 days..." and then take vitals.

And then the worst part of my day: the port. First, the nurse would clean the port area on my chest with a wipe. So cold. I would close my eyes in preparation for sticking the needle through the skin of my chest and into the port sitting above my heart. Next, the real worst part. I would try to hold in my waffle as they flushed the port with saline (you taste it in your mouth in a matter of seconds). Getting nauseous thinking about it now...
For those of you who are not familiar with a port, it is a medical device placed under the skin and attached to a catheter. The catheter is threaded to a large vein above the right side of the heart. A needle is inserted through the skin, to the port, to draw blood or give drugs/IV fluids.For me, it was surgically placed in August and surgically removed in December of the same year. It was flushed (cleaned) before and after each treatment to sterilize it.

Then I sat in that chair for the next 6 hours receiving 1 of 3 chemo meds at a time and getting up every hour to pee out the fluids they give me alongside the medicine. Most of the memories I remember during treatment are waking up from the machine beeping that my chemo/med bag was empty and also waking up to wheel my tree of meds along with me to the bathroom as everyone stared at me on the walk there. I was cold, half asleep, had low strength to walk and was usually the youngest person there so I turned a lot of heads.

From there, I would wrap up my time at the hospital and mentally prepare to be back in 12 hours! My nurse would detach me from the machine, flush my port (try not to puke again), remove the needle, slap a band-aid over my chest and off we went to sit in rush hour traffic.

At home, depending on the chemo schedule/time of day/energy level, I would either go sleep until the morning, or I would sit in my living room and watch Family Feud. On any free days I had (which I had maybe less than a handful for the duration of treatment) I would watch more Family Feud (obsessed), the Packer games, or help (watch) my mom put up decorations for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

The majority of my days were tough and the few hours a day I happened to be awake, I would hardly eat or even speak. I created my own version of sign language and most of the time no one knew what the hell I was trying to say. Chris was my translator most of the time since we're basically the same (not) person, but it worked.

I hope this gave you a little insight as to what I went through, but remember treatment is always different for everyone. Different drugs on different schedules react with different bodies and different diagnoses. I am always fascinated to hear the differences in others, so let me know your experience, too.

If you have any questions about chemotherapy, my experience, cancer or myself in general, please never hesitate to leave a comment, email me, text me or find me on social media. I am always happy to share my experience with others as I always find out people don't know that much about these topics.

Take care of yourselves,

Abi

Where in the World Have I Been?

Hey guys!

Welcome back after my four-week hiatus. It was a much-needed break as life still refuses to slow down while the semester moves forward. I still haven't gotten into the swing of things this semester and so a break from the blog and a few of my other projects was the best temporary answer.

My sweet baby Darla, who keeps me sane on the tough days!
I wanted to come back from this unplanned break with some extensive message about all I've learned from this series of unfortunate events that has been happening this past month or so. But the truth is, a lot of the times I fell flat on my face were the resulting consequences of my own actions. Nonetheless, old lessons were reiterated and the messages were heard loud and clear.

For the sake of giving off good vibes and productive energy, I'll spare you most of the details of the rut I've been in. Instead, I'll fill you in and mainly focus on the highlight reel that social media usually consists of.

(Side note- when people hear I've been having a hard time, they hit me with the "I didn't even know!" or they'll roll their eyes and think, yeah okay, your Instagram looks like you've been real "sad" ... but honestly who shares their difficulties in a daily status update? Who posts selfies on Instagram of a face of defeat, exhaustion, and crazy busy schedules? Certainly not anyone who gets positive feedback.) Let's carry on.

So what have I been up to on top of my full class schedule, job as a travel nurse, and job as managing editor of my university's newspaper?

  • Schedule permitting, I have been trying to attend all of the home games as our football team is 7-1 and I get to see Christopher on the field each time! (See sappy appreciation post on my facebook here

  • Christopher accepted a position as Baseball Operations Intern in Casper, WY this summer. We will be making the 3-month move in early May and will return to Atlanta in August to finish our last year of undergrad together. (Yes, my graduation got pushed back for the fourth time)

  • I took my first freelance gig for the Marietta Daily Journal and simultaneously dipped my toes into the world of photojournalism. I photographed and wrote about a big event on campus for KSU's Coles College of Business and it was very exciting to capture and share those moments. You can see my article and photography here
  • I started the early stages of some very cool research, in my opinion, involving cancer. I hope this blossoms into something greater than I am currently imagining and my goal is to present it at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research this upcoming spring.

  • Of course, my mama and I decorated our house for Halloween on our down time!!! 



  • We (all) witnessed the rise and fall of the Brewers' post-season. I have never been so excited and sad in my life. Well, maybe that's extreme but it was heart-breaking to miss the opportunity to go home to Wisconsin this weekend and see a World Series game with Christopher in the stadium that held our very first date almost a decade ago.

  • Christopher and I found a free day to go "apple picking" in northern Georgia. I put that in quotes because there were no more apples on the trees, but we still took the trip up there, went to a fall festival, and bought some apples & pumpkins!

  • Christopher and I also went to Owl-O-Ween, a Halloween celebration held at our school's football stadium each year with various vendors, food, entertainment and hot air balloons!


  • Last but not least, Darla Jean won second place at a Halloween Costume Contest!


So that was my past month in a glimpse of the good. Each defeat made all of the above highlights worth it and appreciated. Through each exhausting day, I have learned new lessons, and through all of the crazy schedules, I have persevered. I am happy to be writing again for the blog and I have a more creative piece for you next week that I'm looking forward to sharing. 

I hope you all have had a nice October, and as always...

Take care of yourselves, 

Abi

Changing Seasons and Letting Go




As the first weekend of fall rolls in, I thought it would be timely to share how the 'trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let things go.'

The change of the seasons is the perfect time to change your mindset and let things go.

We can all benefit from ridding our house of unused items and clearing out our minds of insignificant worries. But if you are like how I was pre-diagnosis, you would agree that it can be easier said than done.

The phrase "let it go" used to really irritate me because I didn't know exactly how to do it, and sometimes I still struggle with doing so today.

As an analytical person, I need visual aids and practical steps to help me understand and accomplish something. It's the 'Virgo, college student with a type-A personality' in me.

My preference of concrete ideas tells me that to let go is to take your hands off of your child's bicycle when teaching them how to ride without training wheels, making it very difficult for myself to detach my mind from the negative thoughts lingering in my head.

The kind of letting go that involves a conscious choice versus a physical action, however, can be extremely challenging and scary at first.

But holding on to pain doesn't fix anything, replaying the past over and over again doesn't change it, and wishing things were different doesn't make it so.

Truthfully, you can only accept how it is/was and then let it go, especially when it comes to the past. That's how everything changes. Thoughts are only thoughts and what you chose to do with them can make or break you.

The more we watch our thoughts come and go without attaching our identity to them, the easier letting go will be. Even if it feels impossible, your new reality is just around the corner.

This first year after treatment has really taught me a lot and changed me as a person. My internal dialogue and external conversations have changed. My values, morals and aspirations have shifted. What was important to me before is not was is important to me now.

Let me also say, I am not an expert in letting go whatsoever. Most of my readers have a few more years on me and could've been practicing the art of letting go well before I was even thought of. To be honest, the paranoia of cancer recurrence is on my mind quite frequently. I can sit there and question why so-and-so got cancer, or why I lived and this other person didn't. But you know what? I try my best not to ruminate and instead let it all go. Can you imagine the life I'd be living if I harbored all of those thoughts every time they popped up?

Nonetheless, after all that has occurred, I can honestly say that with or without a significant lifestyle change, anyone can live their best life if they change their mindset  it all starts with understanding how to let go.

Letting go is releasing all doubt, worry and fear about a situation, person or outcome.

It's releasing anything or anyone that disrupts your peace and no longer serves you or your happiness.

Letting go is making the choice that you will no longer ruminate on what you cannot control, and to instead channel your energy toward all that you can control.

Letting go creates space for fresh beginnings: stripping you of what happened yesterday and opening the doors of new opportunities right now.

It involves much more than just saying you have to let go. It's an internal process that must happen for you to truly feel better and get on with your life in a healthy way.

Whether it is a physical task, emotional thought process, or a lingering friendship, letting go of what no longer serves you or improves the quality of your life can be one of the most liberating gifts you can give to yourself.

Lately, I have been decluttering my room, bathroom and closet of all the items that no longer bring me joy. Cleaning and decluttering is a cathartic process for me, and the end result of a clearer space helps me appreciate what I already have. (Let's be real, I need the room for fall decorations, too!)

Having the ability to express your emotions in a healthy way is key whether it is for physical or emotional purposes.

For me, decluttering my mind and letting go of stress and toxic behavior looks like putting all my thoughts on paper to help process them before deciding to let them go. The same goes for friendships and relationships with the outside world. As a writer, this is very important to me because writing serves as a form of catharsis and creative release.

It's all about finding what works for you, and then following through with it.

Talk to a friend. Chat with me! Donate your unused clutter. Learn to forgive others who aren't even sorry. Accept the apology you are never going to get. Journal your stream of consciousness. Accept the past and stay in the present. You owe it to yourself to be more kind to yourself.

Start small, and let your progress snowball. Leaves are just as pretty when they let go!

So tell me, what will you do to let go?

Take care of yourselves,

Abi



Teal Trot 5k Walk/Run


This weekend, my dad and I participated in Georgia Ovarian Cancer Alliance's Teal Trot 5k walk/run.
The Survivors' bell

The event raised over $65,000 with 1005 participants and 628 people walking and running overall.

As one of the largest ovarian cancer awareness events in the Southeast, its goal was to provide a morning to celebrate, honor and remember ovarian cancer survivors and patients, their families, caregivers and friends. Proceeds from the event went to support and expand the statewide GOCA Education & Awareness and Patient Outreach programs.

My dad and I chose to walk the course, which I'm glad we did because it was very hilly and walking let us see the beautiful park it was hosted at. The dogs in attendance and festive participants were fun to watch too!

As I was walking with my event shirt on and the teal 'survivor' sash around me, I saw a few people who looked and even mouthed the words "wow" as if I was too young for such a diagnosis. Scary enough, I actually saw a girl younger than me - maybe even younger than a high schooler.

Nonetheless, there were kind souls there that day cheering others on and celebrating with all they could. One woman pat me on my back saying, "Yay, survivor!" and another man, a police officer directing traffic around the course, nodded at me and said "Glad to have you here with us today."

This walk was the first cancer-related event I had ever been to, even counting support groups. I had never been in the spotlight or surrounded by others with a similar diagnosis like mine. The event was an eye-opening and fun experience that put personal faces to the statistics and helped me feel the connection to local families going through similar experiences.

My one regret is not being my creative self and coming up with a more festive look. Various people and teams were wearing teal tutus and tiaras with teal nails and shoes. There was even a teal Wonder Woman!


Overall my first walk for awareness and fundraising opportunity was a huge success. I want to thank my boyfriend's parents and grandparents for donating to my team, Abi's Allstars, and also my dad for attending the event with me.

As far as future events go . . .

In October I will volunteer as a model for Best Strokes- Hadassah Bares All for ART (Awareness, Research, Treatment), an event put on by Hadassah Greater Atlanta, the metro Atlanta chapter of Hadassah. The event has local artists body paint the torsos of breast and ovarian cancer survivors, with the finished masterpieces photographed and auctioned off at a later event to raise money for research.

Members of HGA come together to raise funds in support of their projects in Israel and the United States to promote issues of women's health and family well-being, to study, to educate, and to have fun. Future blog posts and pictures are to come!

For now, enjoy some of the other photos from the event, and as always . . .

Take care of yourselves,

Abi

My dad and I mid-course
Festive tutus!

The finish line!
1 mile down
Teal Trot registration


Celebrating One Year 'Cancer-Free'

The beautiful flowers Christopher gave me last year for finishing chemotherapy! The time has come to write this post, and I cannot beli...