It was Monday, April 12, 2010. I was babysitting my two youngest grandchildren while my daughter was at work and my husband Bill, son-in-law Dave and step son Travis were doing spring clean-up at our cabin on Silver Lake near Mt. Baker.
I received a phone call about 9:30 from my doctor’s office asking me to come in, that it was very important. I felt sick – I knew this had to be something dreadful.
My daughter, Kathleen, came home from work to look after the kids while I went to my appointment. My doctor, Dr. Helen Arntsen, immediately came in, pulled a chair close to me and held my hands while she dropped the bombshell – I had been diagnosed with aggressive melanoma!
I was devastated. She told me to cancel my trip to Toronto which was scheduled in 2 days and that I had to prepare for a series of tests, scans, x-rays and visits to the cancer clinic. I was frighteningly numb and felt very alone and vulnerable. When I arrived home and told Kathleen, we both cried and then she pulled herself together to tell me about all the successful cases of melanoma she knew of, and throughout my ordeal this is what we kept clinging to – she was to become like a ‘Mother Hen’. Bill and Dave arrived home and knew something was terribly wrong. Then Bill and I hugged and cried and he became my ‘rock’.
A lump/tumor appeared on my right jaw line in the late fall of 2009 – I noticed it when I was washing my face. It didn’t hurt nor was it uncomfortable in any way – there were no other visible signs. I went to my doctor who sent me to a plastic surgeon to remove the lump. Both doctors made the comment “This is strange” which I heard a few more times during my journey as it seemed to be atypical. Dr. Ukani, the plastic surgeon, removed the tumor on March 22 at the Eagle Ridge Hospital. The diagnosis was delayed a few days due to holidays. So on April 12th I received the horrible news and on April 13th I started to organize this nerve-wracking schedule.
Within 24 days I had chest x-rays, blood work, a private MRI, CT scan, ECGs, Bone scan, meetings with hospital personnel and my incredible Surgical Oncologist, Dr. Don Anderson. Oh yes, an angel in Williams Lake gave up her surgery date for me which was Thursday, May 6th (2 years to the day my beloved sister died from mesothelioma). Dr. Arntsen advised me to keep a journal/calendar to record all of the events I was about to experience.
One of the first things I wrote was how I felt – desperate, scared, gypped, sad, lonely, panicky, resentful, hopeless and hopeful. I was scattered, overwhelmed and full of questions This ‘dark cloud’ was incessantly in my head and on my mind and I felt so sad looking at my husband, children and grandchildren, thinking about what I might miss and how they might miss me. How can I tell my son Chris, his wife Lorraine, my stepson Travis, my grandchildren and my siblings. How can I deal with their emotions while trying to manage my own. I should mention also that I have never prayed so much in my life.
I am a Roman Catholic and I believe that God has a plan for each of us. St. Peregrine is the Patron Saint of Cancer Patients and I called upon him as well as many other angels and saints for health and strength. One cannot underestimate the Power of Prayer – friends and family from many religions were praying for me along with the parishioners of my Church and Sisters of St. Clare. I don’t think I ever really felt alone because of this along with the positive support from my family and friends. I also happened to meet Betty and Rollie Fox at the RCH while waiting for my CT scan. It was a wonderful and touching experience. Rollie gave us pins of Terry for our grandchildren and for Bill and me. I truly believe we met many ‘Angels’ along the way.
On May 18th we got the results of the operation on my jaw and the neck dissection (29 lymph nodes removed) – painful recuperation but optimistic results. Dr. Anderson informed me there was another very small tumor that the Pathologist found and so I had another operation on June 4th. Results on June 21st were good but the margin was narrow. In the meantime, I received good advice from Kathy Barnard to see Dr. Paul Klimo for a second opinion. He insisted that I get a PET scan which of course would be private as, I would have had to wait 6 – 8 months within our health care system – precious time I did not want to waste. Normally people would have to drive to Bellevue WA for the scan, but I discovered a new private clinic opening in Burnaby in July – Premier Diagnostics. I was their very first patient on Wed., July 14th. After working out a few bugs during the process, the results were good.
One thing I will never be able to really describe is the feelings of dread prior to all of these tests and again prior to the results – you need to know … but you don’t want to … but you do want to – such stress! Just when I started to feel somewhat relaxed after all of this, I got a phone call from Dr. Ingledew, Radiation Oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency. She said she had been reading my file and felt I needed another operation on my jaw line as the margin was just too narrow. She asked me to come and see her. I got off the phone and cried – I thought I just can’t do this again. We met, I really liked her, and she told me she had discussed this with Dr. Anderson so another operation was scheduled for Sept. 3. On Sept. 20, I met with Dr. Anderson for the results … they were good and on that day, I felt the burden lift.
During all of this, I had been going to physio because of the muscle issues in my neck, shoulder and arm due to the operations. I don’t really know if it will ever be right or normal; however a small price to pay for what could have been. I will continue to do Yoga, Aquafit, exercises and physio for stretching benefits. Now, it is just meticulous care from a dermatologist. I met with Dr. Anne Davis on Oct 12th – a good visit. She will see me 4 xs per year for a thorough check for the first year, then 2 xs per year thereafter. My family doctor, Dr. Helen Arntsen also wants to see me every 3 months – the care I have received throughout this journey has been amazing.
Things I know: Book private MRI and PET scans – it speeds the process up and eliminates much of the stress. Borrow the money if you need to because you can’t take it with you. 6, 8, 10 months is too long to wait knowing those cancer cells can travel.
Question everything with your caregivers and experts. Stay away from the internet – your situation is completely different from everyone else. This was wonderful advice from my family doctor. Surround yourself with the ones you love. Your family and friends are your most valuable assets. There are those in your family you could not have survived without – they know who they are, but you can always tell them.
Deal with the pain intelligently – it won’t last forever. Make sure the people around you stay positive and can bring your spirits up. they can be honest with you when needed. Don’t stop living, laughing and loving. Pray … every chance you get. Get a second opinion. Don’t put anything off when it concerns your health. Help others whenever you can, especially if they are in a similar situation. The BC Cancer Agency is not a scary place. Cancer is just a word. Miracles happen every day. You will always encounter blessings along the way as well. Take someone with you to your tests and appointments. You need someone to really hear what is being said, you need the support, you need someone to talk with and cry with and vent to.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a loving and caring partner to be with you during all of it like I do, well it’s just one of the precious blessings to get you through.