Monday, January 30, 2017

CC10: The Final Chemo Down

No written blog post today. The above vlog will speak for itself. Please give it a watch (it's only 2 minutes 30 seconds). 

My chemo support team
(Clockwise from top left: Me ringing the bell, with Nurse Jenn,
with receptionists Clyde and Liz, and with Mal) 
Mom and me 

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

HBA09: Mallory's Reaction

2016 has been such an exciting year. Justin proposed in February. After we wrapped up our third year of teaching, we started planning to buy our first house. We hit the jackpot on our first home. It is an absolutely beautiful house, and we spent the summer busily packing up our lives from the first townhouse we lived in together. We moved into our new house in August and began our fourth year of teaching in an area that we have always loved visiting but can now call home. After our big move, we continued to plan for our wedding next summer. We scheduled our engagement photos, planned to meet with a baker for our cake, began looking into where we wanted to plan our honeymoon, and then all of a sudden in the middle of all of these blissful plans and dreams comes a word that I have feared for most of my life…CANCER.

This word has struck my heart like a dagger several times already in my life and has taken away the people I have loved most in this world. It took away my grandmother before I ever had the chance to meet her. When I was eight years old, it took away my grandfather whom I loved dearly. And during my first year of teaching, it struck again and took away a beloved student. I hate to say this word. I hate to think of it. The very thought makes my stomach and chest tighten and quiver with anxiety and fear. It makes me worry about who else it might affect next. Will it be someone I love? A friend? A coworker? Me?

Never could I have imagined that I would be sitting in a doctor’s office with my fianc√© and hear the words, “Yes, Justin, that tumor that we took out was indeed cancer and it has spread.” I felt the air in my lungs squeeze tighter and tighter until it felt like I almost couldn’t even breathe. It was as if someone had popped a balloon and the all the air and life was sucked out of it. That was how I felt in that moment. How could this really be happening? Why was this happening? This horrible thing once again crept its way back into my life and was threatening to take someone I hold most dear in this world away again.

From the time we found out that this was the monster we were dealing with, we did not have much time to process the gravity of this life-changing event. We went from one doctor’s visit to the next, scheduled appointments and procedures, and in those moments in between, tried our best to just spend time with one another and hold each other close as the world spun all too fast around us. It was then in those moments that we had with one another that I realized, as bad as everything seemed, we would come through it together. Justin would get through this. And in Justin fashion, he amazed me by turning a bad card he’d been dealt into something wonderful.

Through this whole journey, I had a lot of questions about why this had happened. Why is such a big question and not an easy question to answer to say the least. But I think I’ve figured it out. Not so much why Justin got cancer. There is no reason for why that happened. But I’ve figured out why we are going through this journey together and why Justin is taking this journey. This journey has made us stronger than we have ever been. It has taught us to take every moment we have together and cherish it. We’ve realized that the time spent with one another is more important than anything else we may have going on in our lives. The phrase “through sickness and in health” has taken on a new meaning. We know that if we can get through this, we can get through anything because of our faith and trust in each other. The future is not as important as today. I have always been quite the planner, but now I see how important just enjoying today with Justin really is. This whole experience has been eye-opening into how we should live our lives together. Moments together are something that need to be enjoyed to the fullest and not taken for granted.

I believe Justin’s purpose for this journey is to share his compassion and optimism with the world. He has always had such a driving force and light for life. It has been shared with others through his teaching, charisma, and humor. Until now, Justin had always had things come to him easily. I was terrified that this disease may break his spirit and that light that I love so much. His light was what helped my light shine. But despite all the disheartening and upsetting news that he was told, Justin decided to make something good out of it. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Justin has always found a way to make something that I have claimed to be terrifying or awful turn out to be not so bad after all. He amazed me yet again with his strength and fortitude through all of this. I am beyond proud of his strength and passion for creating something amazing out of something so rotten. I have found comfort and strength in his light force and he has shown me that even the things we fear and hate most do not hold all of the power. Justin has shown so much strength and resolve and that holds more power than this disease will ever have on us. Justin is my light, my hero, and my everything. On the other side of this journey lies great things ahead of us, and that is what I’m looking forward to for Justin. I will get to see him do amazing things, and I am blessed to be a part of that.

As you know by now, Mallory is my fianc√©e. We've been together for nearly three years and are due to be married in July 2017. She has been incredible through this experience, and I don't know what I would have done without her. 

Testicular cancer isn’t just affecting me; it’s affecting those closest to me. Every Saturday, one of my friends or family members will be sharing about their reactions to my diagnosis.  I hope these posts serve as a reminder to talk to the men in your life about performing regular self-checks and their health in general. Together, we can lessen the impact of testicular cancer. Check out Healthy But Aware posts here

Thursday, January 26, 2017

TBT09: The Post-Op

“Your X-Ray was clear, your blood work showed no markers for cancer, and your scar looks to be healing really well. The numbness in your groin is normal; it will take a while for that to fully recover.”

On Friday, I had to go for my CT scan and X-Ray. These were to determine if the cancer had spread. The blood work they did showed no cancer markers, so Dr. Dumont seemed optimistic, but these were still necessary tests and would determine the next steps.

Overall, they were uneventful. I was given a wheelchair to help reduce pain in moving, which was a godsend. I had to get another IV put in for the contrast dye and the nurse who injected me was incredible. She said to breathe in and then breathe out hard right as she penetrated me with the needle. I felt almost no pain whatsoever. Where was she before my surgery?

I'm 25 and
have a cane.
Mal truly is
When they were doing basic medical history questions, one of the nurses asked, “Have you ever been diagnosed with cancer?” to which I replied, “Yes, on Wednesday.” She was a little taken aback and apologized. I said there was no need for this, and she commented that I seemed to be taking it well. It all goes back to my mindset - I am going to get better, and being down about it won’t help. I will fight and cope with happy thoughts.

This was also the first time I had left my house in a week. It was extremely exhausting and caused some pain. However, it was a nice break from the monotony of being cooped up all day.

The following morning, my mom went back to Pennsylvania and some friends came to visit. A cane I had ordered to help with mobility was delivered and gave me some more independence. Some of my old co-workers visited me over the weekend, but nothing else eventful happened. The pain was subsiding, but I still had some moments. It appeared things were slowly getting back to normal. Maybe this ordeal would be over soon.

Monday, November 7th brought forth the day of the post-op appointment. It was a day that would prove to continue the trend of the worst of the possible two options becoming my reality.

“Your X-Ray was clear, your blood work showed no markers for cancer, and your scar looks to be healing really well. The numbness in your groin is normal; it will take a while for that to fully recover.”

Why wasn’t he mentioning the CT scan? With the exception of the X-Ray, I already knew everything he had just told me.

He took a deep breath and continued. “You CT scan showed enlarged lymph nodes. The cancer has spread.”

Triple wow. It was the third time a bombshell had dropped since this had all began. At this point, I kept expecting the worst. At first I knew a lump was concerning, and it was. I knew it was cancer before the biopsy came back. Of course it had spread; why would I get lucky at this point in the game?

“One of your lymph nodes was 2.1 centimeters, which isn’t the biggest they can be, but certainly big enough to be concerning.”

“How big are they usually?” I asked.

“Just a few millimeters. Usually they don’t show up on CT at all.” After teaching the metric system for three years, I knew that a few millimeters to 2.1 centimeters was a big deal. Who says school isn’t applicable to real life?

Dr. Dumont continued his diagnosis. “With testicular cancer, there are two types: Seminoma and nonseminoma. Your particular cancer falls under the latter category.”

Although, nonseminoma sounded like it was a good thing, something told me that I was wrong. Dr. Dumont confirmed this.

“Nonseminoma (which is also called embryonal carcinoma) is more aggressive and spreads much more quickly. At this point, you are in Stage IIb cancer.”

Realistically, Stage IIb didn’t mean anything to me. All I had heard was that the cancer had spread. I wanted to know what was next.

“There are two options here. My recommendation is chemotherapy. The other option is major invasive surgery. They would remove your lymph nodes and biopsy those. You would have a scar from your chest to your groin.”

Now, that scar seems pretty cool. I would feel like The Rock in Walking Tall. However, I would also like to avoid being cut open. After further discussion, we found out that even after the surgery, I would most likely still need chemo. Dr. Dumont indicated that the surgery wasn’t a wise option.

My grandfather, four years before
his passing. He really liked cupcakes.
Mallory reacted with emotion and tears, as was expected. Me? I was more or less numb. I know what needs to be done will be done. Grandpa’s mantra echoed in my head, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” My first instinct was to get my action steps nailed down now; process it later. It had been a whirlwind of a month, but the chaos had become my normalcy.

“So chemo,” I started, “What kind? Would it just be oral pills or would it - "

“You would need to go to an oncologist and receive it there. It’s recommended to complete 3-4 rounds.”

Another bombshell. This would mean more time off from the classroom. I know no one would blame me, but I would hold myself accountable for not being there for my students. I also knew this would mean having to tell my students and their families. That was a bridge I would need to cross, but I wasn’t ready to think about that yet.

The bombardment wasn’t quite done yet. “Before you start chemo, you should really bank some sperm, “ Dr. Dumont said. “The treatment sometimes will render you completely infertile. There is also about a 2% chance that we'll have to remove the other testicle if it spreads.”

Mallory and I had discussed children here and there throughout the course of our relationship. We weren’t quite sure what we wanted, but to potentially have that option eliminated made me start thinking more seriously about it. I had just gotten over the shock of losing a testicle, and now my fertility was being threatened. More internal debates. More unanswered questions.

Dr. Dumont answered every question Mallory and I had. Waiting and seeing if anything changed would be a terrible idea, as would homeopathic remedies. I might lose my hair, I might get really sick from chemo, but I might not. The oncologist would be able to tell us more.

I needed to see an oncologist ASAP, but they were having lunch when the urology office called. That amused me; the people would would be taking part of my virility and life from me were off having a delightful lunch. Lovely.

We also immediately started looking into banking some of my sperm. I quickly found out how expensive it was, but I had to think beyond the cost. We decided to bank some of my sperm the following morning, just in case.

“In most cases, this cancer is completely curable and that is a really good thing,” Dr. Dumont shared.

I was well aware of this fact. Dying from this was not something I was worried about, although it was something I had imagined as an improbable outcome. People had been reassuring me (or maybe themselves?) of this fact for the entire time. Knowing you are going to be cured doesn’t soften the blow when the immediate situation seems so dire.

I knew I had to update people. Brian, my principal, for one, as this would mean more time off, especially because once the chemo was completed, I would need to be monitored every few months for the foreseeable future. I know he would never think it, but part of me wondered if he would regret hiring me. My friends and family were waiting with bated breath for results. Those who texted me received a terse reply from me, “It wasn’t good. We’ll talk more later.” Perhaps this wasn’t the best way to handle it, but I didn’t want to ignore them entirely. How Mallory felt was another area of concern to me, albeit a stupid area to concern myself with as I knew she was with me in sickness and in health. I was to be her husband, but with each appointment, my prognosis was getting worse and worse.

As had become the pattern, I had anticipated the worst and it came true. The physical pain from the surgery was improving each day, but the emotional pain was being exponentially compounded each time. I did my best to keep it in, but it was starting to show through. Keeping it in had always been my go-to. I know it’s not healthy, but it’s how I’ve managed.

“This isn’t a hereditary cancer nor are there environmental factors,” Dr. Dumont said as he ended my appointment. “It’s just a bad luck cancer.”

On Thursdays, I am chronicling my journey from discovery to the beginning of chemotherapy. To read through my story up until this point, please click here.

Don't forget to follow and share ABSOT on social media by clicking the icons below!


Monday, January 23, 2017

CC09: BRATman Begins

Disclaimer: this is not going to be a peppy post. In the marathon that is chemotherapy, I’m at mile 23 with a leg cramp, dehydration and an extreme desire to just faceplant on the pavement. Because this week has been so tough, I wasn't able to write as I normally would, so this post was written with the help of my ABSOT partner, Katie. 

When you think of chemotherapy, you probably don’t exactly equate that with a good time, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the two months I’ve had it regularly pumped into my body, it’s that there are different levels of suckiness. Most of the time, I just feel generally ‘off’ but otherwise functional. And at other times, such as this weekend, I vomit so much that rice comes out of my nose.

As I neared the end of my last long week of chemotherapy, I felt tentatively excited. After all, this was (hopefully) the last time I would spend an entire week hooked up to my machine. To make things even better, I wasn’t feeling too bad. A little bloated and reluctant to drink my fluids, but that’s been par for the course for most long weeks.

Flipazoo pets are medically proven to help quell nausea. 
That all came to a grinding halt on Friday night. Up until this point, I had never vomited from chemotherapy. The doctors and nurses had warned me that the anti-nausea meds may not be enough to prevent me from losing my lunch from time to time, but I figured I had gotten lucky (or been blessed with a stomach of steel).

As the evening wore on, I felt increasingly sick as the anti-nausea meds I had received earlier that day began to wear off. To make things worse, my throat began feeling weird as well. It’s hard to describe, but it was a blend of an acid reflux feeling and a precursor to feeling like vomit was imminent. All of this combined together came to a head as I rushed to my bathroom. I made it just in time to engage in an intimate conversation with my toilet as I watched my Olive Garden lunch come back up in a more “abstract” form than its original iteration. Gotta say, their breadsticks taste way better going down than coming back up. Much like the soup, salad, and breadsticks, it felt like my vomit was bottomless too.

I’m not sure if there’s a such thing as a “pretty vomiter,” but I definitely am not one. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that I erupt with impressive force, volume, and noise level. Throughout the rest of the night, I alternated lying directly on the floor (which somehow seemed to help - I don’t question these things anymore) and sacrificing to the porcelain god (or a bucket if I couldn’t make it to the toilet in time). Whoever said that chemotherapy is all fun and games was wrong. Just kidding. No one says that.

I woke up on Saturday with an empty stomach and a resolve to keep food down. I was at the point where I was hungry, but I knew that eating whatever I wanted, which was waffles or an omelette, would be a bad idea. So I stuck to the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast) which is the recommended diet for easing back into food after vomiting.

For the rest of Saturday, I felt marginally better. I ate Jello, canned peaches, toast, applesauces, and various liquids. For the most part, I felt okay. I was hopeful that last night’s vomit party was a one-time occurrence, but alas. As I’ve already foreshadowed, the R in the BRAT diet made a dramatic reappearance that evening. Have you ever shot rice out of your nose? I don’t recommend it.

Sunday tracked largely the same way. I felt okay all day, ate minimal amounts of food and drink, and thankfully rested (this time in bed) for much of the day. As I was getting ready to go to bed, the vomit series decided to become a trilogy. Sigh. I thought I was over this. Luckily, it wasn’t like most third movies and seemed to be the best of the three days...well, as good as vomiting can be.

On Monday, I was scheduled for chemo already, so they brought me in earlier for more anti-nausea meds and hydration. I had lost ten pounds over the weekend (probably mostly in water weight). NP Candace said that the last cycle is always the worst (due to cumulative effects) and I would probably have a few more days of this general feeling. However, each day should be an improvement, with the worst of it hopefully having passed. She was also able to prescribe me stronger anti-nausea medicine for home. I was allowed to have my bleomycin after my bag of hydration and was sent home to rest and hopefully begin feeling better. Unfortunately, as I put the last spoonful of chicken noodle soup from my lunch in my mouth that afternoon, my stomach conducted yet another a forced evacuation of its contents. Can you tell that I'm a little over throwing up?

As much as I’ve tried to stay positive throughout my entire chemotherapy journey, this weekend was by far the worst I’ve ever felt. I would even take the bone pain from the neupogen shots again. It is frustrating to be so close to the finish line and to be hit with such an extreme setback, but it’s an expected side effect. I know that my body is filled with over 30 liters of various drugs that it’s not used to, so it’s natural for it to be a little mad at me. Nonetheless, throwing up sucks under any circumstance. It REALLY sucks when you have cancer.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to feel negative at times. It’s part of the journey. Despite my bleak mood this weekend, I know that ultimately, chemotherapy is saving my life, so I can’t be too mad when I end up shooting rice out of my nose while I puke. It’s just another one of cancer’s indignities, but I am still trying to find the humor in every situation, no matter how badly I feel.

I’m currently undergoing chemotherapy to cure my cancer. Each Monday, I’ll post my thoughts on this experience. These may be reflections on my prior week’s treatments, musings about my newly-altered life, or anything else that comes into my “chemo brain.” Follow along with all of my posts here.

Don't forget to follow and share ABSOT on social media by clicking the icons below!


Saturday, January 21, 2017

HBA08: Tamara's Reaction

“I might have cancer.”

His voice was steady, methodical. Factual information was shared with timelines: when things began, where we stand now. There wasn’t much to share. Just the facts; that’s all I know.

I played the Vox twice to make sure I heard everything correctly. Surgery was urgent. Cancer was probable. Treatment plan uncertain.

Wait. Surely I heard him wrong. I played the Vox again a third time, as my heart sank with shock. It was true. Justin might have cancer.

That was a month ago. Since then we’ve shared countless conversations, snippets of day-to-day normalcy mixed with jarring questions about surgical ports and chemo side effects. I’ve called him a rockstar since our first conversation; he still reminds me that I’m almost old enough to be his mother.

Our friendship is one built in the digital age. I’ve only met him once, but feel as though I’ve known him for years. And now, just like other members of my family, he has cancer and my role is to support him along his journey.

As educators, we talk of learning goals and final assessments. We emphasize the importance of relationships. All those life lessons we want to instill in our students now shine with relevancy as one of our own fights the ultimate battle.

I can already see how this diagnosis is shifting Justin’s perspective on life. He’s called to be a catalyst. An advocate. An inspiration.

He’s already become an inspiration to me.

Tamara was one of the very first people who I ever Voxed regularly with. Although there is a large gap in our age (and she'll kill me for saying that,) we feel more like friends than mom/son.

Testicular cancer isn’t just affecting me; it’s affecting those closest to me. Every Saturday, one of my friends or family members will be sharing about their reactions to my diagnosis.  I hope these posts serve as a reminder to talk to the men in your life about performing regular self-checks and their health in general. Together, we can lessen the impact of testicular cancer. Check out Healthy But Aware posts here

Thursday, January 19, 2017

TBT08: Letting More People In

Now that I had an official diagnosis, I decided to begin telling more people, beyond just my close family and friends. I didn’t want to get pity, but I had already begun toying with the idea of turning this negative into a positive by beginning an awareness campaign, which eventually took form as ABSOT.

I told most people via text message. Overall, I wasn’t ready to verbally discuss this whole endeavor with most people. I wanted to stay strong for others, as to not worry them, and a text allowed me to keep it fairly emotionless on my end. I kept messages straightforward and hopeful. I have cancer, and it is treatable. At this point, I didn’t know the extent of the staging or spreading, so it was easy to keep it positive.

My Google Keep system.
Somehow, I still haven't
ironed those shirts. 
To be honest, at times updating multiple people after each appointment got to be overwhelming. Mal was updating family with phone calls, but my friends were my responsibility. I finally established a system where I would write a text, copy it into Google Keep and then have it on hand to paste when people asked. I also designated point people from each aforementioned group to update others, but inevitably people would still text me to ask. I always was more than happy to respond, but juggling twenty people at once was a lot. Still, I owed it to people to discuss what was going on in order to help raise awareness. A Facebook or Remind group might have simplified this process, but it also would be yet another thing to manage. I didn’t have answers yet for how to best balance talking about my diagnosis while still maintaining my sanity.

Despite all of this, throughout the entire ordeal, I refused to get down about having cancer, and often made light of the situation or joked around about it. To this end, sometimes I would tell a few select people in more joking ways. Obviously, not everyone can handle hearing it like that, so I usually didn’t use this tactic. However, I knew one of my online friends could take it. I messaged him and said, “Let’s play a game called ‘Who has testicular cancer?’” and sent him a gif of Barney Stinson raising his hand. Was that the most reverent way to tell someone? No. Did it help me cope? Yes. Was my friend shocked, yet amused? Absolutely.

To be fair, some people joked back
with me
Often, people don’t know what to say when I tell them. Realistically, I don’t expect any particular response. Cancer sucks, simple as that. Saying things like “You will beat this,” “I’m praying for you,” and “You’re in my thoughts” are sort of expected things to hear. I don’t dislike any of those, but I think there needs to be some way people are sort of taught what cancer patients want to hear. “What can I do to help you?” is something strong. Even if I don’t have something in mind right now, I know I can ask you later. The major caveat is that if you say that, I will expect follow through when I ask. Words can be powerful to a cancer patient; use them meaningfully and wisely.

These are also my own personal views on what I want to hear. I am 25 and will almost definitely pull through this. This is in contrast to the 68 year old woman diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer who is given two months to live. I never went through the supposed five stages of grief. I was told I had cancer, and accepted that. I wanted to know what was ahead so that I could look forward to to putting this behind me.

Sure, I was angry and sad at times, but on the whole my attitude was, “This sucks, but whining won’t do anything. I don’t want pity, I want tangible support. I want answers and I want this to be over.” Each person is different in their level of acceptance of cancer, so it’s important to keep that in mind when talking to any cancer patient. This is just my way.

On Thursdays, I am chronicling my journey from discovery to the beginning of chemotherapy. To read through my story up until this point, please click here.

Don't forget to follow and share ABSOT on social media by clicking the icons below!


Monday, January 16, 2017

CC08: Shot Through The Arm, And Cells to Blame

After having to delay chemo for a week before cycle two began, due to my white blood cell counts dropping lower than the required minimum level of 1.0, Dr. Maurer was not taking any chances of further disruptions. He decided I would get neupogen shots after days 8 and 15 in my second cycle.

Neupogen is a man-made protein that works to stimulate white cell production in the blood and bone marrow. It consists of two shots given over two days. After Day 8 in cycle two, I got them on days 10 and 13, and after Day 15, they came on days 16 and 17. Typically, the nurses like to do them back-to-back like in the latter round, but splitting them up doesn’t hurt either.

Speaking of hurting, surprisingly, the actual injection doesn’t hurt much more than a hornet sting, so the actual shot wasn't a huge production. This wasn't always the case. When I was about 4 years old, I kicked a nurse when she went to give me a shot. In my mind, my foot connected with such force that she went sprawling across the room, a la Chuck Norris. My mom assures me this is not true, but I don't believe her. She also said the nurse shouldn't have come straight at me with a needle, to which I suggested a serpentine pattern would have been better. Needless to say, I didn't kick the nurses this time.

The liquid itself is cold, so that is a little uncomfortable, but any discomfort is gone about five minutes later. Plus, I get a cool Garfield bandaid to cover my wound.

The real pain comes the following day. Aside from recovering from my surgery, I haven’t experienced any significant pain as a side effect of cancer or chemo, for which I am extremely grateful. However, these shots have caused some severe internal bone discomfort, which at times was so intense to the point it immobilized me in bed.

If you’ve ever had the flu, you know how your bones can get achy and sore. Similarly, going outside when it is really cold and you’re not wearing enough layers can cause bone discomfort, too. Take both of these feelings and multiply by ten - that’s how the neupogen made me feel.

I have a pretty high pain tolerance, thanks to running cross country and track for three years in high school. As part of treating the pain of shin splints and knee pain back then, I took some high doses of ibuprofen, which means the same dosage doesn’t seem to be as effective any more. The recommendation to help bone pain from these shots? High doses of ibuprofen and Claritin.

My thoughts about the shots mirrored
Garfield on the right
At times, I physically yelled out - it felt like a shockwave of pain was radiating from my lower back all the way out to my fingertips and toes. Luckily, the discomfort wasn’t constant. It would come and go throughout the day. There didn’t seem to be rhyme or reason to what time or day it hit.

One minute I could be cleaning the kitchen up, the next I would be rushing upstairs to get into bed. However, it did appear to be most severe in the mornings and right before bed. When it did hit, I found lying on my side in bed helped.

Thankfully, the pain only seemed to last about 1-2 days per shot set. So much down time was kind of nice, because it gave Mallory and I a chance to watch Stranger Things on Netflix. I found myself identifying with Eleven - and not just because of the lack of hair. We were both feeling like lab experiments with side effects we couldn’t control.

The big positive is that the shots appeared to solve the problem of lowered white cells and a compromised immune system. By week three in my first cycle, my cell counts had dropped to 0.6. In week three of cycle two, they had only dropped to 2.4. I’ll take 1-2 days of pain if it means staying on track with treatment.

Today, I began my last (scheduled) cycle. Hopefully my cells maintain that 2.4 (or at least didn’t drop below the requisite 1.0). My levels ended up being in the 8.0 range - one of the highest ranges since I started. I’m not sure if we will do shots during cycle three, as I won’t need to keep my counts  up for a fourth cycle.

The most ironic thing I found in all this was my mom wasn’t here during the for the aftermath of the shots, and she’s normally my biggest pain.*

I’m currently undergoing chemotherapy to cure my cancer. Each Monday, I’ll post my thoughts on this experience. These may be reflections on my prior week’s treatments, musings about my newly-altered life, or anything else that comes into my “chemo brain.” Follow along with all of my posts here.

*just kidding.

Don't forget to follow and share ABSOT on social media by clicking the icons below!


Saturday, January 14, 2017

HBA07: Crissa's Reaction

I think I went into complete shock for a few minutes when Justin told me he has testicular cancer.  My first thought was, “how are we going to tell my daughter Katy?”  They are really good friends. My next thought was that he is so young and he and Mal are just about to get married and start their family.  He can't have cancer.  Cancer is scary for me; I lost my mom, my grandfather and my best friend all to cancer.  But, I also have my dad, my sister and other friends that are survivors of cancer.  So as these thoughts flew back and forth in my mind, the question became, “what is the course of action to beat this?  What does he need us to do to help him?”  Because Justin is Justin, he is strong enough to beat this.  He is "my fav" and I am "Mama Bear" and nothing, not him moving to Stafford or even cancer is going to change that!  We will do whatever needs to be done to beat it!

As she said, Crissa is my Mama Bear. At my old school, when I screwed up anything, she'd fix it for me. She also was nice enough to lend me her daughter to do all my paperwork! 

Testicular cancer isn’t just affecting me; it’s affecting those closest to me. Every Saturday, one of my friends or family members will be sharing about their reactions to my diagnosis.  I hope these posts serve as a reminder to talk to the men in your life about performing regular self-checks and their health in general. Together, we can lessen the impact of testicular cancer. Check out Healthy But Aware posts here

Thursday, January 12, 2017

TBT07: The Recovery

As soon as I got home from surgery, I took my first round of Percocet. When I took my Vicodin when I had wisdom teeth, it had a huge effect on me. It killed all pain and also made me loopy. The same was true with the Percocet, which knocked the pain down to a minor discomfort. However, it caused no other side effects. Between the Percocet and the local anesthesia still in my body, for the first day, I was in little pain overall.

Each of the following days had a different level of pain. When the anesthesia wore off, more pain hit me. When I switched to Advil versus Percocet, more pain hit me. At times, the pain was overbearing and hard to manage. You don’t realize how important your core and your groin are for everyday movement until it’s cut open. Sometimes I could walk, sometimes I couldn’t. Mallory had to more or less do everything for me for the first two days. She would bring me food in bed, my toothbrush, change my clothes, help me to the bathroom (or bring a bucket if I couldn’t make it), and literally anything else. Without her, I don’t know what I would have done for this whole recovery process.

I made it a goal to move a little more each day. The day of the surgery, I only made it to the bathroom and back. The following day, I was able to walk around the room. A few days after that, I was able to do stairs. Each day I pushed it further, but I always felt the consequences of that choice shortly thereafter.

I am a fiercely independent person. That is one thing I have struggled with most in this whole recovery process. I like people doing things for me if I so choose, but if I have to be dependent on others, I highly dislike it. I am embarrassed that I had to pee in a bucket sometimes because I did not have the strength to get to the bathroom, but I felt safe and secure while doing so. I always have told Mallory she is the only person I feel I have been able to be 100% vulnerable with, and this experience proved it. However, my experience was not as pleasant as the “bucket filling” (rewards for positive and kind actions) endeavors my elementary school was starting on.

Even though everyone told me to rest up, I wanted to gain back my independence as much as I could. I wanted to walk alone and have my full range of motion, but the pain wasn’t something I could ignore. The two worst moments of agony happened within 24 hours of each other. The first was when I tried to shower. This was 3 days post-surgery and 4 days since my last shower. I’m sure I smelled lovely by then. I hadn’t fully mastered standing for extended periods of time yet, but I needed to shower. I realized all of my strength needed to be spent standing, so Mallory would need to actually wash me.

As soon as I entered the shower, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. The act of standing for five minutes was excruciating, not to mention the heat from the water made everything hurt even more. Somehow, we got through it and I got out to dry off. More pain. Exhausted, I made it back to bed.

In the afternoon on Monday, my mom came down to help out. Mallory was going back to work the following day, and I was not ready to be left alone, as much as I wanted my independence. I will be forthcoming in admitting that without both of them, I would have had a miserable week. Case in point: after Mal went to work the following morning, I had to sneeze. Not thinking, I let it fly and the pressure and sudden body movement produced such a strong amount of pain that I screamed out. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mom move that fast.

Dr. Dumont also prescribed 50 cc of Conner snuggles,
to be taken every thirty minutes
A typical day of recovery followed the same sort of pattern. I would wake up and have breakfast brought to me. After that, I took some sort of pain meds and watched Netflix or a movie for a while. Then, I’d write to my students on Google Classroom. That usually killed about an hour. I really enjoyed and looked forward to writing back and forth to them. I learned a lot about them and forged even deeper relationships with them, even though I wasn’t even in the room. Each and every one of them showed genuine concern and worry for me, even though at that point, they thought I was out for a routine leg surgery. I truly have some awesome students.

Once I was done with writing, I usually tried to get some walking in. Some days would be better than others, but I always needed to ice my incision immediately afterwards. The remainder of the day would be spent resting, reading, watching TV or movies, and playing video games. I read about four books, watched over ten movies, and beat one video game. Under normal circumstances, this sounds like an ideal way to spend a day, but it loses its luster after about five days of being limited to only that. Thirteen days is akin to torture. I tried to spend time sleeping, but pain had a tendency to wake me up in the middle of the night and during naps.

I also spent a great deal of time thinking about what had just happened. Medical professionals have no idea what causes cancer. As I mentioned, this makes it hard to believe in a higher power because it doesn’t seem fair. I know my situation could be much worse and I’m thankful that it’s not. I also know it’s such a cliche to say, “Why me?” But cancer gives a person a lot to process in a short amount of time. However, the brevity of this whole thing has been somewhat of a blessing. I have only had time to act, not to react. On the whole, I deal with life logically. Worrying wouldn’t give me any less cancer, so I didn’t worry. I wondered why this happened, but I know ultimately, I would never know and that speculation doesn’t help.

At times, I was angry and irritable, not because of the pain but for the injustice cancer was to me. However, I also didn’t sink into sadness or despair. I was upset about losing my independence briefly and for losing a part of me, but I was never truly sad. Every time someone asked me how I was doing, they were always shocked at me handing it with humor and positivity. This attitude lends itself to numerous jokes and I would prefer to handle my cancer diagnosis with a positive outlook rather than being downtrodden about it. People might say that’s me masking my pain, and to an extent it is, but this is also how I am choosing to deal with my cancer.

On Wednesday, November 2, five days after surgery, Dr. Dumont called. The biopsy had been completed and it was confirmed - I had cancer. My mom was with me that day, and she asked me repeatedly if I was ok. I was entirely ok; almost relieved. My gut instinct had been confirmed. I was now officially a cancer patient.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how I would have handled it if it came back negative. I had been through a massive surgery and a painful recovery. To do all of that and lose what I did, only to find out it was all for naught, would have been more devastating than hearing the words “you officially have cancer.”

On Thursdays, I am chronicling my journey from discovery to the beginning of chemotherapy. To read through my story up until this point, please click here.

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Monday, January 9, 2017

CC07: A (Short) Day in the Life

My first Chemo Chronicle “And So It Begins” detailed the very first day of chemotherapy, which I have now labeled “a long day” of chemo. My chemo is set up in 21-day cycles. I have 5 long days (which span 3-6 hours) in the first week, and 2 short days (which are less than an hour each) during the following two weeks. Here’s a look at a typical short day from Wednesday, January 8th.

It snowed over the weekend. Has nothing to do with
this post, but I like the picture. 
7:00 am: Waking up in the morning, Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs, Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal. These words from the eloquent musician Rebecca Black summarize the start to the day. However, my breakfast generally consists of a banana (to boost potassium), Activia yogurt (to help digestive health), and a bagel (I just like bagels).

7:45 am: I begin to make pizza dough for dinner. I don’t always have a lot of energy, but cooking is one of my passions so on “good days,” I take advantage of my good days and try to prep something for dinner. It also gives my mom and Mal a break from pampering me. Pizza dough is perfect on a short chemo day - it’s relatively easy, I like making it, and most of the time is spent letting it rise. This particular day, I made mashed potato-based dough.

9:15 am: I apply numbing cream to my port and cover it with plastic wrap.

9:20 am: I brush my teeth and swish with a baking soda/salt water mix. This is to prevent mouth sores from growing. I hated doing this at first, but I haven’t developed any mouth sores yet. Yes, Mom, you may say, “I told you so.”

10:00 am: My mom and I get in her van to drive to chemo.

10:30 am: We arrive at the clinic. I check in with Clyde, the awesome male receptionist. Clyde is also bald, but his hairstyle is by choice, unlike mine. He gave me some advice when my hair started falling out and always has a smile on his face. With his trademark smile, he directs me to the chemo waiting area, where I’m called in a few minutes later.

This would be the breakfast the following day -
I was hungry
10:35 am: After getting my weight measured (which fluctuates a few pounds here and there, depending on my previous day’s eating/drinking), Nurse Jenn accesses my port. This is quite a process. First, she removes my plastic wrap and cleans the area with sterile sponge sticks. Then she sprays more numbing spray on the area. She hooks up a syringe to the needle and flushes it to get liquid flowing through it before it’s stuck into me. The actual penetration doesn’t really hurt; I’m just aware of a dull sensation when it goes in. Some days, the needle does hurt if the spray wasn’t effective, but today, I don’t feel much. She squeezes the syringe in and out to see if it was inserted correctly. If so, blood should come out on the pull back of the syringe. An “out port” is attached to the other end and vials of blood are filled to be taken to the lab to be tested for my levels. At this point, I think enough blood has been drawn for a second Justin to be filled up.

10:40 am: I’m asked for my most recent side effects, such as nausea, trouble sleeping, lack of hunger, or any general malady. Some days I have a lot to report, some days I have few side effects. Today, I reported that I wasn’t in the mood to drink many liquids last night and my stomach felt “weird.” My temperature and blood pressure are taken.

10:45 am: I begin writing back to my students, as I do every day. They have a designated time to write to me around 12:30 and I need to get back to them before then. (On days where my focus is strong, it takes about an hour and a half to write all 28 students back. Sometimes, it takes longer.) We talk about their day, how I’m feeling, their vacation, and any questions they have for me. It’s a good way for me to stay connected to the classroom, even though my return date isn’t set yet. Some days, kids try to sneak on early to “catch me” in the act. Why aren’t you working on your math stations, Andrew?!

10:50 am: My labs come back and I am told the results. On a perfect day, my white cells are above the 1.0 threshold and all my levels are where they need to be. There has literally never been a day yet where everything is fine. My bilirubin, potassium, sodium, and some other random levels have been low or high throughout. As I shared before, my white cells were really low for ten days, but they have been fine so far in round two. Two days after this particular visit, I got neupogen shots (white blood cell growth factors) to help deter this from happening. Cold liquid was injected into my upper arm - ouch.

11:00 am: My bleomycin arrives and is hooked up to me. “Bleo” is the only chemo med I get on short days, and it doesn’t seem to give me many physical side effects. It might be responsible for my hair loss and/or diminished white counts, but the doctors can’t specifically pin it on any of the drugs. I also take a anti-nausea pill in addition to an anti-nausea patch I wear on my arm during weeks two and three.

11:13 am: My machine beeps and says that I am finished. I know this is a lie because bleo takes sixteen minutes. Silly machine, trying to be a human and rush through things.

11:16 am: Now the bleo is actually done. Jenn detaches me from the machine, flushes my lines (which gives me a faint metallic taste in my mouth), and pulls the needle out of my port. Truthfully, I don’t feel that at all. She applies a band-aid and sends me on my merry way.

11:30 am: My mom and I stop for lunch at an Italian place nearby. We both had Italian burritos (most people call these strombolis). My appetite is usually biggest at lunchtime, so I try to eat something I am craving and that will fill me up.

12:30 pm: We arrive back at home. Generally, even though bleo doesn’t make me feel too sick or anything, I prefer to lay down when I get home, just to rest proactively. This is a fancy way of saying I like to take naps, but now it’s justified.

2:00 pm: On this particular day, I have a follow up with Dr. Dumont (my urologist who did the surgery) to check on the healing progress of my incision and to receive another screening of my remaining testicle. I want a soft pretzel from the mall, so we leave at 2:00 to stop there first.

3:00 pm: After examining my scar and my remaining testicle (it had been a while since a medical professional had examined him), Dr. Dumont says everything is progressing nicely from his perspective. He wants another follow up after chemo is completed and my next scans come back, sometime in early March. He reiterates that I needed to continue checking myself, because my other testicle can still develop cancer. Going forward, once this is all over, I will need to do frequent follow ups with him or Dr. Maurer (my oncologist) for the next five years. We shake hands (after he washes them), and my mom and I head home.

3:45 pm: When we arrive home, I begin preheating the oven and pizza stone (I like it really hot for pizza) and resume resting while watching The Dark Knight. I forgot how good this movie is - Rachel subplot excluded. I personally prefer the Ben Affleck Batman, though.

5:00 pm: Mallory arrives home, and I began putting the pizzas together. I chose to make one classic cheese and one barbeque chicken pizza. After we finish eating, I decide to leave the dishes for my mom and Mallory to clean up. It just felt right. Can’t totally pamper them today.

6:00 pm: After dinner, I finish watching The Dark Knight. (I would follow it with Batman vs Superman the following evening to get my Batfleck fix.) When the movie was over, I switched to watching food challenges on YouTube. Exciting stuff, I know. I also spend this time updating the ABSOT Instagram page, responding to comments on it and the blog, and responding to emails I get from all over the world. My evenings are generally spent doing this sort of stuff (watching TV, playing video games, browsing the Internet, or any other number of things I tell my students not to spend their evenings doing) while resting. Truth be told, on most days, I don’t have the energy or the concentration to do much by the time evening rolls around. I would like to curl up with a book, but I have severe headaches some nights and usually can’t hold a good stream of thought. Writing does seem to help keep my brain sharp, though. It may take longer than I’m used to, but it is a good outlet for processing what has happened to me.

8:45 pm: I begin bedtime procedures. This is much more intensive than waking up. I take anywhere from 6-12 pills for various functions (raising levels of different nutrients, staving off nausea, preventing infections, proactively stopping other side effects, sleep aids, etc) and do another mouth rinse. I brush my teeth and get into bed.

9:00 pm: Ambien takes effect, and I am out for the remainder of the night. That’s right - some of my students have later bedtimes than me.

I’m currently undergoing chemotherapy to cure my cancer. Each Monday, I’ll post my thoughts on this experience. These may be reflections on my prior week’s treatments, musings about my newly-altered life, or anything else that comes into my “chemo brain.” Follow along with all of my posts here.

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Saturday, January 7, 2017

HBA06: Sam's Reaction

As I take a look back at the past year, it feels as though I’ve been living in a fairy tale. I got a teaching job in my hometown, I moved in with my boyfriend, Drew, we got a dog, and just recently got engaged. I began my second year of teaching in my new school, and everything was going great. Then one evening I received a text from Justin that we needed to talk about something serious. While it isn’t rare that we talk about serious things, it’s always a big deal when a conversation starts that way. He told me he found a lump that hadn’t been there before and he was really worried. Now, for those of you who know Justin, it’s very rare that he’s actually worried about much, so this was a big red flag for me. We talked through it, and I of course nagged him about not seeing the doctor sooner while we jokingly tried to play it off like it wasn’t a big deal.

I impatiently waited for results, to of course find out that there needed to be an ultrasound (which wasn’t being scheduled nearly fast enough for me). Ultrasound results came back and yet another step stood in the way of getting a real answer. By this point, I was panicking!! I’m also pretty sure I was the most annoying person in the world constantly wanting an update and demanding to know why the doctors weren’t making things happen sooner. Waiting patiently is not a strong point of mine and time seemed to be flying by without enough answers and results.

Finally, one week after his first text, I received the worst text I have ever gotten in my life. “It’s cancer. They have to remove it.” That quickly, my fairy tale was over. Everything felt like it came to a sudden stop and nothing felt real. I read over the text again and again and double-checked that I was texting the right person. No matter how many times I read over it, the text was the same. How could this be happening? My best friend has cancer. The guy I made it through student teaching, moving to a new state, and the first year of teaching with has cancer. We’re 25 and not nearly old enough to have cancer, yet he has cancer. This can’t be happening. I launched into a million questions wanting to know what the next steps were, how soon until anything happened, what are the chances of survival, and so on.

Two days later, he had surgery. I waited impatiently (yet again) to hear how he was doing from Mallory. After what felt like an eternity, she texted saying he was out of surgery, it went well, and the doctors were pleased with how it went. A few hours later, Justin texted me that he was awake. Again we played a waiting game of finding out the results of the biopsy. Finally, he got the official results: it was cancer. About a week later, he discovered it had spread to his lymph nodes and he would need chemo. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he had cancer, he had aggressive cancer and would need intense chemo to help get rid of it.

So his treatment has started, and in true Justin fashion, he took to social media to share his fight. I’ve never known Justin to take any sort of setback without a fight, and now he is helping other people to prevent this terrible disease. While this whole process has been an up and down struggle, I’m happy to say that my sarcastic, inappropriate, and very crude best friend has not lost the things that have always made him Justin (other than his hair, but we don’t talk about that). I hope to continue this fight with him as he overcomes all of the obstacles that cancer has presented him. And kudos to Mallory for taking care of him and putting up with Justin just being Justin!

Sam and I did our student teaching together. Soon after graduation, we both happened to get jobs in the same town, so we decided to live together. Although she moved back to PA (which had nothing to do with living with me), we still have remained very close over the years. 

Testicular cancer isn’t just affecting me; it’s affecting those closest to me. Every Saturday, one of my friends or family members will be sharing about their reactions to my diagnosis.  I hope these posts serve as a reminder to talk to the men in your life about performing regular self-checks and their health in general. Together, we can lessen the impact of testicular cancer. Check out Healthy But Aware posts here

Thursday, January 5, 2017

TBT06: The Surgery

Friday, October 28th was my surgery, just ten days after my initial call to the doctor. If there is one thing that I have learned, it’s that cancer is not always a slow-moving process. In my head, the task of discovering, diagnosing, and treating cancer takes months, if not years. Even factoring in when I made the initial discovery in mid-September, it had been less than six weeks since this all started.

Mallory took off work to take me to the hospital. We arrived around 6:00 am to arrive for prep work. I had to change into a gown, and then they started prepping me. The prior evening, as part of my pre-op appointment, a nurse had drawn blood, and they had to put in an IV line in the morning. I do not like needles. I do not like them here or there; I do not like them anywhere. I especially don’t like them when they don’t work right the first time and they have to put in a second.

Dr. Dumont came in to discuss the surgery with Mal and me, which was called a “radical inguinal orchiectomy.” In layman’s terms, they would be entirely removing my left testicle. Dr. Dumont had told me this when I had initially met with him, but it was still something that I was not fully ready to hear. Why couldn’t they just remove or biopsy the affected area? Due to the anatomy of the scrotum, this was not possible. It would potentially cause even more harm to my body. In nearly 95% of cases, a testicular tumor is found to be malignant. Trying to biopsy it inside me could spread cancer cells more quickly and could leave behind precancerous cells that hadn’t yet been detected.

Halloween, senior year of college.
Quite the ballsy costume, you think?
In addition to internally preparing for the trauma of surgery, I had to grapple internally with the fact that I would be losing 50% of my testicles. Much of my college vernacular revolved around the word “balls.” If you were taking charge of life, you were grabbing life by the balls. You chickened out? You have no balls. Literally now, I would have less balls than most people.

Biologically, there would be no impact. You only need one testicle to produce testosterone and sperm, and it just takes one sperm to father a child. Dr. Dumont did share that there would be a psychological impact. Something that is a direct physical manifestation of my manhood would be removed from me. I hesitated in telling people, because I didn’t want them to think I was less of a man. When I shared that fear with those who knew, they assured me I was more of a man for doing this surgery. I smiled, but deep down, I knew I was literally less of a man.

In deciding to share this news on ABSOT, I knew I had to be… on the ball. Some people may look at me differently now, knowing this information, but I wouldn’t be doing my story and the journey of others justice if I omitted this fact. It is a very common treatment for suspicion of testicular cancer; one that is used in nearly all cases where a solid mass is present. One of my goals with ABSOT is to destigmatize men’s health issues. Losing my testicle was something that I felt I needed to keep hidden at first due to my own personal (and on a larger scale, societal) views, but I know that sharing my story may help others to share theirs and get a conversation going.

Overall, the shock of losing one testicle has subsided. As my father put it, “It sucks to lose one of your balls, but keeping it and letting the cancer kill you would be truly nuts.”

But right before surgery was a different story. Losing an integral part of me still hadn't completely sunk in, even after Dr. Dumont’s thorough explanation, but I knew, as with everything that had happened to me so far, there was only time to act, not react. After Dr. Dumont left, the anesthesiologist visited. We got into a slight argument over if wisdom teeth anesthesia counts as real anesthesia, which apparently it doesn’t. Finally, they took Mallory to the waiting area and wheeled me to the operating room. I remember entering the room, and then nothing.

About two hours later I woke up. There was a nice nurse attending to me. Sadly, there are no funny stories about me coming out of anesthesia. The nurse talked with me a little bit, brought me water and juice, and walked Mallory back. I was told that the surgery went well and the mass had been sent off for biopsy. I got dressed, used the restroom, and was discharged.

The incision one day after surgery
My incision is on my groin and is about as long as my index finger. The pain started almost immediately. We had to stop at Panera to get me some food so I could have my first round of Percocet as soon as we got home.

While the surgery seemed like the biggest obstacle at first, the real pain was soon to begin.

Click here to read the next part of my story, where I begin the long process of recovering from surgery.

On Thursdays, I am chronicling my journey from discovery to the beginning of chemotherapy. To read through my story up until this point, please click here.

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