Monday, October 8, 2012

My Normal Day

Today was a completely routine and normal day.  I woke up, got ready for work, stopped at Starbucks, and headed to the office.  It was a typical Monday filled with emails, a few phone calls, and teaching my weekly classes for work.  Today was October 8th.  I know this because I glanced at the display on my office phone multiple times today that has a digital clock and the date "10/8/12."  I also wrote the date on various notes throughout the day.  After I finished teaching my evening class, I returned to my office to finish a couple of things on my computer, and I turned on the radio to KSBJ in the background.  As I sat busily typing at my keyboard, the Kari Jobe song "Healer" started playing... the lyrics alone are moving for any cancer survivor, but for me the song is extremely significant because it was literally the first song on my playlist at every chemo treatment.  The song got me thinking about my cancer journey, and suddenly the tears started to flow with the song playing in the background as I again glanced at my office phone and it hit me... "Today is October 8th!!!"  It doesn't sound like an extraordinary date, but on 10/08/09 I sat in a chair at the oncologist's office with that Kari Jobe song playing in my headset as the nurse accessed my port for the first time and the infusion of toxic chemicals (chemo) began to enter my body... killing the cancer cells, and radically changing the landscape of my definition of "normal."  I couldn't believe that such a significant date in my cancer treatment and journey had suddenly be transformed into just another routine Monday... that if I had not heard the song on the radio, I most likely would have gone to bed tonight without it even dawning on me that it had been an anniversary date.  During the many steps of my treatment I tried to keep tough days in perspective by telling myself, "one day this will all be just a chapter in my past... something that I only think about occasionally"... and praise God Almighty that day has come!!!

Friday, June 1, 2012

The New Normal

I can't tell you how many times over this span of almost 2 years now that I have attempted to write another blog entry.  I managed to complete a couple of sentences or at times maybe even a little over a paragraph, but then would give up out of frustration, feeling overwhelmed, or the tears would start to flow.  And this process would frustrate me even more... after all, I am a SURVIVOR, therefore I should want to now live life to the fullest, seize the day, etc.  And there is a part of me that desperately does want to embrace life in a way I never have before, but the last 2 years have instead been spent primarily attempting to define what oncologists have termed the "new normal."

I will let WebMD explain this term for you.  "After a marathon of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment that may last six months to a year, you can hardly wait to get back to a normal life again.  But the day of your last radiation treatment or chemotherapy infusion doesn't mark the end of your journey with breast caner.  Instead, you're about to embark on anther leg of the trip.  This one is all about adjusting to life as a breast cancer survivor.  In many ways, it will be a lot like the life you had before, but in other ways, it will be very different.  Call it your new normal."  Some well-meaning professionals and organizations even encourage accepting or embracing your "new normal" as a survivor.  I reflected upon their tips as well as their testimonials and interviews with other survivors. And in the end, I say screw the "new normal!"... I just want my life back!!!

One of the main reasons I have been so reluctant to write about this leg of my journey is fear.  I don't want to seem ungrateful for my current health.  I also don't want to be perceived as being over-dramatic, negative, or as someone who is stuck playing the victim role.  The reality is that some of the women who sat beside me in the chemo chairs are no longer on this earth, yet I am alive with "no evidence of disease."  And while I am humbled by God's healing in my life, I feel compelled to honor a promise I made to myself at the beginning of this journey to be candid and honest about all of the highs and lows along the way.  I am choosing today to write again because it is an important step in my being able to live beyond cancer, and because I know that there will be other survivors in the future who will read this blog.  I owe it to myself and to them to "be real."  So, to those of you reading who have not yet experienced a major illness or crisis in your life or family, some of what I have to say may not make sense to you.  I just pray that God can use my willingness to be vulnerable and transparent as a way to encourage and comfort others.

Now that you have been given some context for this posting, I would like to share with you some lessons I have learned as a cancer survivor. Lesson 1:  Chemo brain is very real and can last long beyond the final chemo infusion.  I will be the first to admit that I have never possessed a stellar memory.  However, I did notice a significant change in my brain and memory during and after treatment.  I have joked several times with my friends by saying "my memory is like Swiss cheese, there's holes in it everywhere."  Many of these memory gaps are during the span of the last few years after my diagnosis.  Some of my cloudy memories have been improved by friends and family filling me in on the gaps and details.  Other memories I am learning to accept may need to be let go.  I don't mean to give the impression that I can't find my way home, or that I am incapable of functioning in life.  I have just learned that, at least for now, I have to afford myself a little help with some tasks like keeping a calculator nearby to do even simple math.  I also continue to need to make notes in my phone of the names of new people I meet and to review those or else I have a tendency to give a new name to new friends, and sometimes even to people I have known for a year or more.  Luckily everyone has been gracious and had a good sense of humor about it, but it is important to me to continue to build friendships which requires learning names and remembering significant events in people's lives.  (P.S.  to all of you whose birthdays I have neglected or completely forgotten the last few years, I sincerely apologize... I am working on it.)

I know that as you read this, some of you will hesitate to believe what I am saying and will think to yourself, "it can't really be that bad."  I have experienced this from others before.  As my hair was growing back in under my wig, I was the only person who knew what I REALLY looked like at the end of the day when the wig came off, the fake eyelashes were peeled off, and the drawn-on eyebrows were washed off.  I told my friends and coworkers that my hair was coming back as "a gray fro"... and I would see it in their eyes... they were thinking that I must be exaggerating.  So, I showed them the photographic evidence which I will now also share with you...

The Gray 'Fro on the day I went to the hair salon
My new hair after Lisa worked a miracle

With my hair dresser Lisa right before
 she shaved my head (at my request)
So, now do you believe me!!???  Just think... if THAT is what chemo did to my hair, imagine what it did to my brain and the rest of my body.  Even though going bald and then having old lady hair grow back on my head is not necessarily a pleasant experience, in a way I am grateful for all of the hair changes that occurred.   My absent or greatly transformed hair always served as a tangible reminder to me of the ordeal I was experiencing.  So, while I absolutely refused to let the Gray 'Fro be the new look of my "new normal,"  I did appreciate that it reminded me why my "new normal" was so challenging at times.  On a side note, after finishing chemo it is advised to NOT put any color or chemicals on your hair for 6 months because the lingering chemo can cause a reaction.  So, 6 months after my last treatment, I eagerly went to see Lisa Harris at Shag Spa & Salon in The Woodlands.  (Lisa was the sweet woman who shaved my head when my hair began to fall out.)  When I sat down again in her chair less than an hour after taking the photo above, I said to Lisa, "Don't worry, if my hair turns purple or falls out, I won't blame you... don't be scared of it, if it turns out bad, we'll just shave my ahead again... I still have great wigs I can wear!"  So, she bravely took on the challenge of taming the Gray 'Fro and made me look human again.  I will be loyal to her hair dressing skills always!

Lesson 2:  Post-Cancer Fatigue is no joke!  During the "big" treatment interventions like surgery and chemo, I helped myself to cope by envisioning my "finish line."  To me, this would mainly happen after I finished my final chemo treatment, and then the remaining reconstructive surgery and a little pill called Tamoxifen would be "no big deal".  So I clung to the idea that once I completed chemo I would quickly begin to feel like myself again and have the energy and desire to go out in the world and live my life.  And while I did feel somewhat better immediately after chemo ceased, my dream of bouncing out of bed and running toward my new life was not realized.

Through the cancer experience, I have been exposed to a variety of types of fatigue.  There's the physical fatigue from stress and major life changes, emotional fatigue from the shock of a diagnosis and the ramifications, and the mental fatigue from trying to make treatment decisions while still juggling a life outside of cancer.  Then of course there is the physiological fatigue from multiple surgeries, chemo, fertility treatments, hormone therapies, etc.  Let me just tell you that dealing with a marathon of fatigue is exhausting!  There were SOOOO many times I wanted to scream from a rooftop "I am so tired of feeling tired!!!!!!!"  The good news is that it has been my experience that the fatigue does improve over time... it just happened at a much slower pace than what I wanted.  Even once I was "healthy," there were many days I came straight home from work and went to bed before 7pm.  And many weekends that in my heart I wanted to be out with friends or working on a project at home, and instead found myself napping frequently.

My FAVORITE part of my job-
holding newborn babies!!!
When you read books and websites on cancer survivorship, you will discover that chemo-brain and fatigue are common issues.  And there are many tools and suggestions given for ways to cope and compensate.  I still use some of them.  I also came to a point in my personal journey when I had to make a very difficult decision.  In January of 2011, I decided to make a job change.  This was a heartbreaking transition for me because the doctor and staff I worked with for the previous 4 1/2 years had become like family to me and had stood beside me through all phases of my cancer battle.  "How can I abandon them after all they have done for me?" was the question that tortured me.  The truth was that I was physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted and depleted. I could still perform my job effectively, however doing so took 2-3 times the energy that it did prior to cancer, and I found myself feeling that a change was necessary.  So, my boss and coworkers were sad about my departure, but gracious in wanting what was best for me.  I then started working with newborn babies and their parents, which was the absolute best way to restore my soul.  Aside from spending time with God, nothing fills my heart more than holding a little baby. I am grateful God provided the opportunity and timing, and I am continuing to work full time with The Motherhood Center and really enjoying it.

Lesson 3:  NEVER underestimate the power of hormones.  There are several, but for the sake of keeping things simple let me just say that too much or too little estrogen can greatly effect the day to day functioning of any woman.  Of course there are the famous mood swings and weepy tears, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.  Hormones also greatly influence memory, mental clarity, and energy levels.  One of the last steps of my recommended treatment regimen was to complete 5 years of anti-hormone therapy by taking a once a day pill called Tamoxifen.  I didn't think twice about it or hesitate to begin treatment.  After all, once you have been through the scarier steps of surgery and chemo, taking a little pill can seem as easy as taking a multi-vitamin.  So I was surprised by how much the side effects of Tamoxifen impacted my day to day functioning and life.  I worked closely with my doctors and treatment team to try to manage the side effects enough to reach a level that I felt I could sustain for the following 5 years.  But after a year and a half, I chose to discontinue the Tamoxifen.  Now, I want to be crystal clear in saying I do not believe Tamoxifen is in itself a bad medication or treatment option.  If the side effects had not been so significant for me, then I would have completed the recommended 5 year course of treatment.  There was a part of me that didn't even want to mention my Tamoxifen chapter.  However, just in case there may be another woman also struggling as I did with side effects, I decided to share this so that you can know you are not the only one.  Yes, many women take Tamoxifen or other anti-hormone therapy drugs and have minimal or no side effects, but there are women who notice significant changes on theses medications.  If you are struggling, please pray about your options, ask you family for their input and any changes they have noticed while you have been on the meds, and carefully consult with your doctors before making any treatment decisions.

Lesson 4:  Delayed grief often occurs in cancer survivors or people who have experienced a major crisis. The analogy that I most like to use for my diagnosis is that the moment I got the call that I had cancer felt like someone pushed the eject button on my life... and then I began to fall from the sky, with a parachute, but with no idea where I would land.  Eventually, I did land... but was left feeling a little disoriented and trying to make sense of what just happened.  Yes, I did experience a variety of emotions, tears, anxiety, and even laughter during every step throughout treatment.  However, there were deeper levels of processing and understanding that I simply did not have the time for in the first several months.  Therefore the first calendar year of anniversaries became especially significant for me, as it apparently can be for many cancer survivors.    For example July 14th, August 17th, September 23rd, and February 26th would never again be random dates to me on the calendar, but instead the dates of my diagnosis, surgery, egg retrieval, and final chemo treatment.  When each of these one-year anniversaries hit, I felt thankful to be one year past it, but also experienced some of the emotions as if it was happening in the present.  I didn't want to live in the past, but I also recognized the importance of allowing myself to feel, or grieve, or whatever you want to call it so that I could eventually move on with life.

A  more recent photo from Feb 2012
Lesson 5:  Moving beyond cancer is a choice.  Several months ago I watched the movie "The Terminal" with Tom Hanks (as Viktor Navorski) which I had seen before, but this time I cried through half of the movie.  I so related to poor Viktor who found himself, not by choice, in a mandatory waiting area in his life.  He did manage to make the best of his time in the terminal, and he even made some friends.  However there was a life outside the terminal for Viktor, and everyone cheered when he finally was able to pass through the doors and claim it.  This story of cancer will always be a significant chapter in the story of my life.  I am forever grateful for the many lessons and blessings God provided in a season of chaos and uncertainty.  I will never be the same person I was before the word "cancer" entered, nor do I want to be.  To quote Kelly Clarkson, in many ways it has been a "beautiful disaster."  However, I have had to make a conscious choice to not automatically answer the question "How are you?" with lab results and doctor reports.  Yes, being a breast cancer survivor is a big part of the landscape of my life, but it does not define me.

The most important lesson of all:  God is the constant throughout my cancer journey and my entire life.  When I hung up the phone after my doctor gave me my diagnosis and fell to my knees in my office, I began crying and praying "God, I trust you... no matter what is ahead, I trust you."  I have been fortunate to have wonderful friends, coworkers, and family who cooked meals, drove me to appointments, cried with me, and prayed for me.  I could not have had a better support network.  But in the lowest, darkest, most overwhelming moments, my true source of comfort was God alone.  Although there may be suffering, disappointment, and losses in this life, I can honestly say that He has never failed me.  I may not always understand His plan, and I certainly have a tendency to be impatient and struggle to wait patiently on His timing.  Despite my weaknesses and foolish attempts to try and control my life, He remains faithful.  And so I now look with hopeful anticipation toward the future and life beyond cancer, and I say, "Lord, I trust you... no matter what is ahead, I trust you."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Becoming Boob-a-licious: A Year in Review

Exactly one year ago today my alarm clock went off in my apartment, I got ready, and headed to work.  It started just like any other day, until...

Well, to really tell the story we need to back up a couple of weeks to June 23, 2009.  Do any of you know the significance of that date?  It was epic... my 35th birthday.  How did I handle it?  I was freaking out!!!  No, really... I'm serious... I was FREAKING OUT!!!!  So, Mr. Wonderful has not showed up and I'm 35 and single... oh well.  I've never been anything but single, so I suppose I can manage.  While there was a small pity party I threw for myself, that wasn't the trigger for my tantrum. 

You see, it all goes back to nursing school.  I remember sitting in class and the Obstetrics professor repeatedly telling us about the increased risk of birth defects, Down's Syndrome, and infertility that warranted the label of "high risk pregnancy" to women of the advanced maternal age of... you guessed it... 35!  Those of you who know me well know that I LOVE working with kids and have always wanted to be a mom.  So, my nursing-trained brain could not let go of the mental image of my uterus being stamped with "Expires on June 23, 2009"!  That, my friends was the source of my potential break down.  I was, in fact, so concerned that I really might fall apart that I took an entire week of vacation time from my job in order to spare a display of weeping at the sight of small children in our waiting room at work.  I didn't actually go anywhere during that week off.  I just tried to relax, do some shopping, and take care of some things on my to do list like going to the dentist, the doctor, and getting a routine mammogram. 

When the day of my actual birthday came, my mom was in town for support (being the Superstar mom that she is) and we "celebrated" with a dinner at a Mexican restaurant with family and friends.  It was more of an "UnBirthday" party since I gave very strict instructions:  no cake, no singing, no cards, no presents, no balloons, and no mention of the word Birthday.  Now, I realize this might sound extreme, but it was for the protection of all of those involved... in my fragile state I didn't want an innocent attendee to hand me a singing card and subsequently watch me potentially spiral downward into the "ugly cry."  So, I protected all of us from the "my uterus is expiring today and I'm freaked out about it" melt down by setting rigid boundaries.  And we all survived the week of my birthday.

Then it was July 4th and life was back to "normal."  I celebrated the holiday with my best friend Alyson and her family.  We all watched the fireworks from the top level of a parking garage in The Woodlands.  I remember taking a couple of really cute pictures with her two girls Katie and Gracie... the photos were great to have because both girls were smiling and actually looking at the camera at the same time... that's quite an accomplishment with a then 3 and 4 year old.

So, after surviving a monumental birthday week, and after celebrating a national holiday... it was Monday July 6, 2009 and time to start another work week and get back into the swing of my routine.  And that brings us back to my apartment with the alarm clock, the typical morning routine, and the start of just another day at the office... until my lunch break. That's when I checked my phone for facebook updates and noticed I had a voicemail.  It was someone from TOPS Comprehensive Breast Center informing me that my mammogram results were abnormal and I needed to contact them immediately to schedule a second look.  I tried to think positive and be brave.  I called mom that night to tell her and we both held the opinion of "It will be fine... lots of women have to do a repeat mammogram, and it turns out to be nothing."  But it turns out it was the start of the biggest, scariest, most awe-inspiring year of my life.  Exactly a year ago today I drove to work with my original boobs still attached, and my thick, long blond (with the help of highlights) hair that was so hot and sweaty in the Houston humidity of summer.  I started the day oblivious to the storm of cancer that would enter my life and test the limits of my body, my strength, and my faith. 

The day after that voicemail came another mammogram and ultrasound... then a few days later multiple biopsies.  And on July 14, 2009 the phone call from the doctor that took me to my knees... my diagnosis.
And so the whirlwind began.  Multiple doctor's appointments followed in the next few days.  Then one week after my diagnosis was the break-in at my apartment (see the postings from 8/09 for more details), and my subsequent move into the home of my best friend Alyson Pope Miller.

Then July 23, 2009 exactly one month after my birthday, I found myself sitting in the office of a fertility specialist talking about freezing my eggs! Next came my bye-bye boobies surgery on August 17th.  I recovered for a few weeks, and we all prayed for my period.  That started the hormone injections in September, which was a wild ride... my estrogen level went from 35 to over 5,000 in less than 10 days!!!  Then on September 23, 2009 Dr. Timothy Hickman (the fertility specialist) retrieved and successfully froze 17 of my eggs which will forever be the young and healthy age of 35 even if I don't carry them until my 40's.  (FYI- chemo causes premature ovarian failure, aka "chemopause", or chemo-induced menopause.  I may never ovulate on my own again, but the doctor's can give me hormone injections one day that will prepare my uterus and allow me to carry a pregnancy using IVF with my thawed eggs.)

Next came October starting with Race for the Cure and a huge showing of support from my church Bible Study Class "Wellspring" complete with custom-made "Team Mer Mer" T-shirts.  My parents, my brother Nathan and his wife Kristen and their 2 kids Ellery and Price also participated.  Alyson was there with her 2 girls and a wagon they decorated in pink ribbon.  It was a great day and felt very symbolic of the love and support around me, and also of the long path ahead.     

A couple of days later my port was placed, and I started chemo October 8, 2009.  I had continued to work as much as possible unless I was at doctor's appointments or other treatment, with a 3 week break in August to recover from major surgery.  The original plan was to work on my "good days" and take off for the days I felt sick from chemo.  I managed to continue to function at the office through the first chemo cycle... then things changed.  It became clear that the toll from chemo was, at least temporarily too much for me, and I took a 7 week leave from work and then returned part-time in mid December.  My boss and co-workers were phenomenal in supporting me! I finished chemo on February 26, 2010 and a few weeks later started on Tamoxifen which is a pill I will take for 5 years to prevent a recurrence.  I slowly returned to work full time and started to build up my strength.

Reconstructive surgery followed on May 3rd... and let me just tell you silicone is an amazing invention.  For months I had carried the tissue expanders in my chest, which did their job of stretching my muscle and skin as expected... but those suckers were rock hard!  I'm not kidding... they did not move a millimeter... I'm almost convinced they could be used as self defense weapons.  I couldn't sleep on my stomach or side for months with those bricks.  Then after they were removed and the implants took their place I slept like a baby... and for 2 weeks post-op I couldn't get the word "boob-a-licious" out of my head.

The last couple of weeks have been a very reflective time for me.  A little over a week ago it was June 23rd again... I had so dreaded the big 35 and suddenly it was time to say goodbye to it.  This time all things Birthday were embraced: the balloons, a cake, candles, singing, cards, gifts, and most importantly friends and family to celebrate with me.  Then 2 days later on June 25th was another year anniversary... one year since my mammogram that set this journey in motion.  The timing fell so that this June 25th was my 3 month follow up with the Oncologist... the blood work results were good... my tumor markers are clear and I AM IN REMISSION!!!  Praise God for being my Healer.  After the appointment with the oncologist, this monumental week was marked by an amazing, joyful, miraculous gift that comes only from God who holds every desire of my heart.  Mom and I went to the home of Chris and Ivonne Pena and I held in my arms their precious twins who are the first babies in Texas history to be born from once frozen eggs.  (Ivonne was in the ABC news story with me.)  The twins are perfect with all of their fingers and toes... and they are warm and snuggly at room temperature now.  They are living proof of the promise that one day I will be a mom. 

People, I pray that the love and incredible grace of God is evident to you in what you just read!  Before the word cancer was even on the radar, I was heartbroken about turning 35 and fearful that my chance at mommy-hood was slipping away... and now through this amazing, and at times terrifying journey I am certain that I will be posting baby photos for you in the future.  I am also waiting with confident expectation for the day when I post the blog entry titled "Mr. Wonderful."  I don't know if I have already met him, but I know he exists... and that he will be an amazingly patient man who loves God and thinks I'm beautiful.  What an awesome day of celebration it will be when Mer Mer finally walks down that isle in a white dress... I expect you all to be there with tissues in hand for the tears of joy and ready to celebrate!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Wig On, Wig Off

When you transition from being someone with cancer to a cancer survivor, you survey your life and think about doing some things differently. I want to live this next phase of my life with less fear. I want to be more adventurous. So, in that spirit... here is a little game I think of as "Wig On, Wig Off."

I can hear what you're thinking... Oh no she didn't!....Oh yes I did.

It's ok for you to think that. I remember when I first got diagnosed and started web surfing for wigs and scarves... I stumbled across some photos of women completely bald and thought to myself, "I would never do that! The world doesn't need to see that! Bald is not beautiful... it's just bald!" It's amazing how much can change in just a few months.

MerMer as a 2-year-old Diva
So why did I decide to do this now? We'll get to that. First let me tell the story of letting go of my hair, since it's been one of the more frequently asked questions. As women, we link a lot of our identity and beauty to our hair. I have to say that my hair, at least in my teen and college years, was my "signature." I had a love-hate relationship with my hair at times, but also appreciated a few very memorable rockin' hair days. So, after the word cancer officially became a part of my life, one of the first things I did was go wig shopping. Mom and Alyson went with me a few days before my surgery to Gayla Wigs in The Woodlands... if you know anyone in the market for a wig, she's the lady to talk to! We were all surprised when she measured my head and told me that due to the size of my big head, there were only about 4 wigs that would fit me out of her entire inventory. Luckily one of them was the one I had spotted in the showroom and really liked. At the time I still had my own thick hair, which we clipped down and put one of those stocking caps over, but it only added to the bulkiness of my large cranium, so when we tried on the wigs they didn't really fit. I realized that I wouldn't be able to wear my wig until I was bald... in other words there would be no test drive, I would only have the option of debuting the new me on game day.

The day my hair started to fall out
Then I talked to the oncology nurse. With my particular kind of chemo, they told me from the start my hair would fall out around day 14. So chemo started Oct 8th and I did the math. There are some kinds of chemo that are less prone to alopecia (hair loss), but with the adriamycin, it was close to a sure thing. After beginning chemo, I started to feel some changes in the texture of my hair that wouldn't be noticeable to anyone else, but my hair had become my friend over the years and had the courtesy to give me some notice that it would be moving out. Then it started to happen... after being at the oncologist's office one day, Alyson and I stopped to get lunch... I stepped outside to check my phone and the wind blew my hair, which is not an unusual event, except this time it HURT. My scalp had become extremely sensitive and any movement of my hair was uncomfortable. The next morning I wanted to wash my hair, but realized I couldn't because when I barely ran my hand through my hair, it came out in a big chunk (see photo.) I immediately knew I would have to just have dirty hair for the remaining time it lived on my head.  Can you imagine shampooing and having tons of long hair totally clog the shower drain and fall all over the bathroom floor? ... yuck!

With Alyson the day my head was shaved
My entire head of hair on the salon floor
Trying on my wig for the first time
Every woman is different in how they want to handle the hair loss issue, and it's important to let them do it their way. For me, I realized that I didn't have a choice IF my hair was going to fall out, but I could decide WHEN and HOW it happened. So I made an appointment at the hair dresser- Alyson came with me for support and I got the GI Jane buzz cut for the first time in my life (don't have a photo of it.) And yes, I cried the first time I looked in the mirror. My scalp continued to be really sensitive and it hurt to wear my wig at first, so I stepped out on the back porch and rubbed my head with my hands... and the hair fell off. Then I was bald. For the next few weeks when I would walk into the bathroom and catch a glance of myself in the mirror, I startled myself several times. It takes time to adjust. Then it got to the point that the person I recognized most in the mirror was the bald one or the one in the cotton cap.

My "slumber party" with Katie & Gracie in our matching pj's and pink caps

Gracie in my wig
Katie's handprint
Alyson, Wayne, Katie, and Gracie were all very supportive of me and my big bald head. Humans lose alot of heat through our head, so my cotton night caps were crucial during the cold winter nights.  Alyson had ordered pink caps for the girls to match mine, and we had matching pj's, so of course we had a slumber party one night to make it fun for them. The girls had a great time trying on my wig... this photo is of Gracie.  Then one day when Katie came home from school the girls wanted to paint, and an idea struck me... how often to you get to paint someone's bald head? That would be a fun first for them... so they put their hand prints on my head... Katie's is the orange one and Gracie's is red.

Gracie's handprint
When I started wearing my wig I got tons of compliments on it... I still do. The highlights in it are awesome. And the best feature is that synthetic hair does not frizz in Houston humidity. It's also cut way down on my get ready time in the morning to be able to throw on the wig and not have to deal with shampoo, conditioner, blow-drying, and a flat iron. A couple of weeks ago I was in 5 o'clock traffic on Beltway 8 while on the phone with my mom. The cars were barely moving, and in the lane next to me was a truck full of guys that I'm guessing were in the landscaping business based on their trailer. They kept looking at me and whistiling, etc...which was encouraging to hear in a way, then I said to mom "hey, do you think I should rip the wig off and see if they keep whistiling?" I refrained from doing it, but it would have been funny.

The wig in alot of ways is better than my natural hair. People constantly told me during chemo how great I looked, which is a compliment I always appreciate. However, there was a part of me from time to time that felt like an impostor. There were a few moments when I wanted to rip the wig off and show the world what was really going on with my body, but of course I was too embarrassed to ever follow through with that impulse, and I didn't want to make anyone else feel uncomfortable.

When you think about it, don't we all play the "Wig On, Wig Off" game? Do you find yourself putting on some form of "disguise" for the world? It may not be a wig, instead it may be a brave or happy face, or the facade that you have things under control and in order. Maybe sometimes you get tired too of the illusion and have the urge to show the world what's really going on in your life.

This brings me to answering the question of why show my bald head now. After all, these pictures I've posted are a couple months old and my hair is now starting to grow back. The reason I'm doing this is because I want to embrace this "do-over" chance I have in my life with bold honesty. We are all, at least at times, broken, hurting, and scared people. None of us really have it all together, at least not for very long. And that's ok because God is in the business of broken people. Even on the days we skillfully cover our flaws, He still knows exactly what scars, bald spots, and insecurities we bear. And sometimes He allows us to encourage and bless others by enduring suffering in order to inspire hope, to say to someone that we've been down a path they're about to face and can provide some insight. Because the main message that we want to hear is that we are not alone.

So, there you have it America. Mer Mer's bald head. With a wig, some make-up, and a pair of upgrades on my chest, I'm kinda cute. (And yes, I do know that inner beauty is more important than the outside appearance.) I am sooooo far from having it all figured out. And some days I'm just a big hot mess, with or without a wig. I hope that my admission and vulnerability in this blog sends the message to you that you are not alone. God has been ever-present with me through every breath of this crazy journey, and I'm so grateful that He is the constant that never changes, regardless of my many changing hairstyles in life.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Tomorrow is a word that can hold so many emotions, expectations, possibilities, and defining moments. Remember some of the fun ones with me: Tomorrow I graduate from high school... Tomorrow I start my new job... Tomorrow I leave on vacation... Tomorrow is our first date...Tomorrow I move into my first house...Tomorrow is Race for the Cure. Tomorrows can also instill less pleasant emotions: Tomorrow is the big deadline at work... Tomorrow is the licensing exam... Tomorrow taxes are due... Tomorrow we get the test results from the doctor.

Over the last 9 months I have had some noteworthy Tomorrows: Tomorrow I turn 35...Tomorrow I get my mammogram... Tomorrow I'll tell them that I have cancer... Tomorrow is the surgery... Tomorrow they extract my eggs... Tomorrow I start chemo. The word tomorrow, at least for me, is one that is pondered most at night. It might be thought of some during the day, but the majority of the anticipation for tomorrow happens once I'm in my pj's and working towards going to sleep. That's when the excitement, or butterflies, or stress, or worry is at it's purest. My thoughts of tomorrow are often based on what I know, or at least think I know and what I need to do to "be prepared" for tomorrow to the best of my ability. I believe God has a plan for each of my tomorrows, so my prayers are for strength and comfort in the situation; and that God will guide me, teach me, uphold me, and use me to serve others in the midst of whatever tomorrow holds.

So, now I'm in my pj's sitting on my bed thinking about another milestone: Tomorrow, Friday Feb 26th, I finish my chemo. Tomorrow my perspective shifts from bracing myself for the biggest test my body has ever faced to instead throwing my arms up and saying "I made it!" There are still some steps ahead including more reconstructive surgery, 5 years on Tamoxifen (an oral medication), and follow up appointments to monitor for recurrence. While tomorrow isn't the "end", it will be a day that I stand in awe of God's provision for my every need and how far he has carried me.

One of the lessons that has been reinforced for me along this journey is that no matter how huge, intimidating, life-altering, or frightening my tomorrows may be, God is ever-present to hear my prayers, comfort and calm my anxiety, and assure me that He has a plan for my life. Since June my pj's and I have contemplated some major "tomorrows", and there have been many nights that my pillowcase was drenched with tears. It has been hard. It has been overwhelming. Most importantly, it has been a beautiful lesson in faith that I will be thankful for every day for the rest of my life. Hebrews 11:1 says, "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." Every tomorrow has been an opportunity for me to choose faith, to believe God is good even when my circumstances include suffering, to trust in my heart that His plan and timing are best for me, and to be certain that the coming tomorrows will hold all the things I have hoped for.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Are We There Yet?

We've all been there... the ridiculously long road trip, the one that feels like it will never end.  You try to be a good sport about it... you pass the time reading, napping, maybe even singing silly travel songs, but eventually after miles and miles the question that continues to dominate your thoughts can no longer be ignored:  ARE WE THERE YET?!

There is a countdown happening this week... countdown until Friday, Feb 26th which is the date of my final chemo!  It's the finish line and it's within reach.  I want to be excited about it... I am absolutely grateful for it.  However, if I'm being completely honest with you in this moment, I just feel like a whiney kid on a long road trip.  My body is tired from this journey.  And I got my booster shot today to help keep my counts up, so currently I'm aching from my teeth down to my toes. I want to be positive and keep things in perspective, it's just hard to write when all I want to say is "I don't feel good."

There is a bible verse that I was taught at a young age, it says "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,PATIENCE, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." (Galations 5:22-23)  Patience is not a strength of mine.  God has been trying for years to give me lessons in patience, and I try for  a while to learn, but then get frustrated and impatient.  At the beginning of my diagnosis, I thought that this whole cancer thing would be a great opportunity for God to work on helping me to grow and finally change.  And yet, here I sit months later with one recurring question:  ARE WE THERE YET?!

Please don't misunderstand me... I have learned many things in this process, and my life in many ways has been enriched by it.  I think the reality is that the trait of patience will always be "under construction" when it comes to me.  And that's okay.  Because one of the things I did manage to learn is that God uses us in spite of our weaknesses.  He is able to take us as broken people and mold beautiful stories in our lives.  I'm just so grateful that He is incredibly patient with me.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Return of Meredith

Before you get started... I know... it's been a couple of months since I've updated my blog and you've been anxiously awaiting to hear how I'm doing. Some of you have even passed messages through my mother to tell me to get back to blogging pronto! I've wanted to write, but haven't had a brain that would let me until now.

What took me so long? Chemo... it's powerful... the best way I can sum it up is to quote what my best friend Alyson has told people when they have asked her, "she looks like Mer, and she talks like Mer, but she's not really."

I haven't felt like myself for several weeks. It's not like in the movies... I haven't been vomiting at all (thanks to the anti-nausea meds)... on my worst days I'm just in a deep fog, with no energy, laying in bed all day. The best analogy I can give you is Houston weather... there are lots of days with sunshine, and those clear weather days represent getting to feel, act, and think like the person you and everyone else knows you to be. Everyone's experience with chemo is very different. For me, it's been like a huge storm front with the potential for hurricanes rolling into my life...many days have been at best overcast and dreary as far as the way my mind and body felt... and there have been days here and there with major storm activity... but also days where things seemed to settle down for a bit.

I wish I could articulate it better. I don't want anyone to get too worried... I'm doing well overall and experiencing the side effects that the doctor prepared me for. And I have continued to fully trust God's plan and provision for me... I know I'm going to be okay.

I started chemo on October 8th. I'm on a very common "dose-dense" chemo regimen. For the months of October and November I received Adriamycin and Cytoxan every 2 weeks. Adriamycin in the world of oncology has earned the nickname "The Red Devil" because it looks like red kool-aid (and makes your urine red), and tends to have some of the most bothersome side effects, including hair loss. I started out strong and healthy, so round one was better than I thought, then round 2 was more intense... then round 3 more intense... then round 4 was a doozy and kept me in bed for over a week. It's intentional that they order the strongest rounds of chemo in the beginning... and luckily 4 rounds was all they had planned for me. Then in December we changed to another type of chemo called Taxol, which I was scheduled to have once a week for 12 cycles. Taxol in general is better tolerated by patients... it's main side effect is fatigue. Any form of chemo can linger in your body for up to 6 months, so at first the "leftovers" piled on top of the Taxol, and I continued to spend lots of time in bed. Also, as the weeks progressed, my blood counts continued to drop, which is part of the goal in treatment, but you don't want them to get too low.

We did have to postpone my chemo the week of Christmas to give my body some extra time to bring the counts up and back in the range where chemo is allowed. Although a delay in treatment is not ideal, it turned out to be a great Christmas gift... I started to feel a glimmer of hope about returning to my pre-chemo self. Going back to the weather analogy, it was like glimpsing a few rays of sunshine and being reminded that the storm will eventually clear. So, the next week we resumed chemo and I'm now back on my normal schedule of chemo every Friday. We also this week started "booster shots", which are injections that help to stimulate the production of white blood cells, and therefore bring my counts up. These injections have made a HUGE difference in my energy level this week and I'm so grateful that they are available and covered by my insurance.

So, now I only have 5 more rounds of chemo to go... my last treatment is on Feb 26th. Tears are coming to my eyes all of the sudden as I see that date in print... it's my finish line and I can finally see it in the distance.

So, that's what I have the energy to say for now. There's so many more stories I need to tell. I had hoped that I could keep my blog in chronological order, but storms make big messes sometimes. Then when the storms start to clear the news is filled with updates on the damage caused, but more importantly the stories of survival, inspiration, and people serving one another start to pour in... those are the are the stories I want to be sure to tell in the days ahead. Please pray that I'll have the energy and mental clarity to do so... and that there will be minimal technological challenges when I attempt to upload photos and videos.

Thank you all for your continued support and prayers. As I fix my eyes on the finish line, I feel 2 things: Jesus by my side and all of you cheering from the sidelines, "Go Mer Mer... Go Mer Mer...Go, Go, Go Mer Mer."