Tag Archives: Houston

Back on the Road to Canaan

The last two days have been great.  Actually, they’ve been pretty perfect and today was just the culmination; the cherry on top.  I’m floating high above the world on cloud nine and I don’t want to come down.

My husband, German, and I left Corpus Christi for Houston on pins and needles on Tuesday night.  We headed there with high hopes for good results from the scans that I was going to have on Wednesday.  We arrived in Houston, checked into our hotel, and made our way out to dinner with a couple of good friends.  We ate dinner, had some pie, and laughed with our buddies to keep our minds off the impending tests the next morning.  Tuesday had ended successfully despite anything Wednesday had in store for us.

Wednesday definitely had it in for us but it failed miserably in stealing our joy.  We made our way to MD Anderson right on time for my first appointment at 9:30am for lab work in the Main Building.  Fifteen minutes later, I was done.  Since my next appointment for a CT scan was not for another hour and a half, I decided to take German on a tour of the MDA campus to kill some time.  We stopped in the gift shop and I got an MD Anderson hoodie that I had been eyeing.  We took the Skyway shuttle over to the other side in the Mays Clinic since I figured we would be back in time for my CT.  Wrong.  This is where Wednesday decided to try to get us.

As we hung out by the Tree Sculpture in the Mays Clinic, I took a look at my schedule just to make sure what time we had to be back.  I noticed that my schedule listed an address that was not the address of the Main Building.  I walked over to the information desk and the volunteer informed me that that address was not the Main Building and that we would have to catch the patient shuttle to get there.  “Oh and it looks like it gets here in three minutes downstairs,” he added.  German and I looked at each other and without a word, we made a run for it.  Unfortunately, we arrived downstairs just in time to see the back end of the shuttle leaving around the corner (insert ‘Saved By the Bell’ theme song here).  We shrugged it off and sat down to wait for the next one that would come around again in about 20 minutes.

It was after about 10 minutes waiting there that I realized that I no longer had the bag from the gift shop in my hand.  I’d left my awesome new hoodie upstairs by the Tree Sculpture in the whole shuffle to get downstairs!  Cue German running back upstairs to see if he could find it.  He came back a few minutes later, bag in hand with my hoodie, safe and sound.  Phew.  The shuttle finally made it’s way back and we almost left the bag a second time on the bench we were waiting on.  Forgetful much?

We arrived 30 minutes late for my CT but we made it.  Still, we were in a great mood.  I drank my berry-flavored contrast, got my I.V. (not without it burning), and got my CT scan.  Three hours later, we were leaving the clinic but not before I noticed German’s wallet on the seat where he had been sitting.  Wow, Wednesday.  Really?  Nice try.  Unphased, we hopped back on the shuttle and went back to the Main Building to get our car.  We spent the rest of Wednesday at the Houston Zoo and went out on a dinner date  complete with live music and great food.  We went to bed completely exhausted yet content from spending the day together.  Even though Wednesday had tried to sabotage our day, it was sadly unsuccessful.

It was unsuccessful in stealing our joy because we’ve learned.  We’ve learned not to worry about what tomorrow brings.  We’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff.  Worry doesn’t change anything but attitude can.  Worrying is a ginormous waste of time and we had instead opted to spend that time enjoying the beautiful weather and each other.  We went to bed fully expecting good results and nothing less.  That’s exactly what God gave us.

My first appointment this morning was with my stem cell doctor, Dr. S.  His sunny face as he walked into the exam room left no doubt this time.  I’d never seen him smile so big.  This time was different.  This time it was great news.  He immediately let us know that the radiation had done it’s job.  The mass in my chest was gone and he could now proceed with the stem cell transplant!  Talk about the weight of the world off of our shoulders!  God has begun to lead me out of my desert and back onto the road to my Promised Land, my Canaan.

My second appointment with my lymphoma doctor after that was more of a continuing celebration rather than a follow-up.  He came in with his assistant, both of them beaming from ear to ear.  They’d never met my husband and after the introductions and required jokes about German being a figment of my imagination, all we did was rejoice and bask in the awesomeness of the news for the rest of the appointment.  His assistant printed out copies of the before and after scans as a souvenir of sorts.

Before radiation: This CT scan view is as though you’re looking through the top of my head down into my chest. The mass is circled.

After radiation: Yesterday’s scan shows the mass is almost completely gone and there is now an empty space where the largest part was. The ‘X’ marks what’s left of the mass.

“I fully expect to see you back here in a few months in remission,” my doctor said as we were leaving.  So do I.

At this point, my father and I are expected back in Houston by Wednesday, Oct. 24th to begin preparations for the transplant.  My father will undergo extensive testing and surgery to harvest the bone marrow I need.  Since my father is a half-match, they need to use his bone marrow instead of just his stem cells to give me more of a chance for success.  Meanwhile, I will undergo chemotherapy that will stop my own marrow production in order to replace it with my father’s.  Dr. S. expects to have the transplant done within the next two weeks.  I will be spending at least the next four months in Houston starting Wednesday.  Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s will be spent there but I’m ok with that.  What comes next is not going to be at all easy, but it’s a means to an end.

After being on pause for almost two years for this, I’m on fast forward all of a sudden and it is WEIRD.  German and I cried tears of joy and almost disbelief at our good fortune as we drove away today from MD Anderson.  I will enjoy every minute of my last weekend back home with my husband, my family, my friends, and my dogs.  I am back on the road to Canaan.  I better pack my big suitcase this time.

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Now it IS me.

Defeat.  I thought I knew what defeat felt like before but I had no idea.  Not even close.  When the doctor said that he would be unable to proceed with the stem cell transplant, it felt like I had been broken into a million little pieces all over the floor.  So many pieces that they would never all be found and there’d always be pieces of me missing.  I felt like Humpty Dumpty and I’d never be put back together again.  The stormy, thrashing weather on the drive home from Houston after this news mirrored my insides:  a torment of tears and lightning pangs of hurt and anger.  An inescapable flood of defeat.

I’d initially left my hometown for Houston in a sea of tears as well.  Crying because I would be homesick for two months but also crying because I was headed for salvation.  Or so I thought.  Houston was my promised land.  It promised just one more round of hideous chemo and my lifeline:  my stem cell transplant.  Two more months until I would be able to join the elite circle of cancer survivors and enjoy the rest of my life cancer-free.  I was ready to cross my desert and enter Canaan.

But in true Moses fashion, it was not to be.  At least this time around it wouldn’t be.  Victory had slipped through my fingers the way sand does when you clutch it too hard in your hand.  The harder I had tried to hold onto it, the faster it had slipped away.  I felt like a failure.  I’d failed God, I’d failed my family and friends, and I’d failed myself.  I hadn’t tried hard enough and now I was sent back home with my tail between my legs.

My PET/CT scans had shown that although the mass in my left hip had disappeared, the mass in my chest had done the opposite: it had grown.  Despite high-dose chemo and my efforts to remain positive, the stupid thing had grown.  What the heck??  I was supposed to be in remission and ready for one more round of chemo before my transplant and now I had to go back home empty-handed with nothing to show for it?  How was I supposed to face everyone?  I’d said my goodbyes, said my ‘I love you’s’, and left everyone with hope and expectancy.  How was I supposed to explain why I was back and starting again from square one?  This was so unfair.

Now I’m back home and its been a couple of days since this news.  I’ve been in hiding and refuse to answer my phone or see very many people.  I don’t like to see pity in anyone’s eyes for me or have to explain a hundred times over why I’m back home and not in Houston.  Its selfish, I know, but I have to do it or I will go clinically insane.  My sanity at this point requires selfishness.  I’m now waiting for a panel at MD Anderson to review my ‘aggressive’ case this coming week and make a recommendation as to what type of treatment should be next before trying again for the stem cell transplant.  In the meantime, a blood-typing kit has been sent to my only sibling, my little sister, to see if she is my perfect match.  A week will tell us whether she is or not.  The search for my perfect match has begun.

Oh, the irony.  To think that I’ve been campaigning for people to sign up for the bone marrow registry saying that it could have been me that needed a donor when all the while, unbeknownst to me or anyone else, it WAS me.  Now it IS me.  It feels like a sick joke.  Note to el diablo:  it is NOT funny.

I’m due back at MD Anderson in about six weeks to re-scan me to see if this upcoming chemo has finally done its job.  In a perfect world, my sister is my perfect match, I will be in remission in six weeks, and I’ll be able to get my transplant.  But I do not live in a perfect world and although I am optimistic (I really am), I’m also a realist.  I’m a realist in that nothing ever happens the way WE want it to, it happens the way God wants it to and His way is never easy.

Although this is one of those major setbacks, I know I have to keep on and keep trying.  Life is all one big struggle anyway but its also beautiful, no matter what.  Every day that I get to breathe is a gift and I am grateful still.  Today my struggle is with cancer, who knows what struggles tomorrow will bring?  Everyone has their own desert to cross at one point in their lives and this one is mine.  My time is now.  Now it IS me.

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I heart MD Anderson.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been traveling back and forth three and a half hours each way to Houston.  MD Anderson has been my destination and in that short time, has literally become like my second home which is the biggest surprise for me.

When my oncologist told me he was referring me to MD Anderson, he might as well have said he was sending me to Auschwitz for all I cared.  I thought to myself, “MD Anderson?!  That place is all cancery and sad!”  I knew for sure it was going to be depressing, smelling like a hospital, and white-washed walls and floors from top to bottom.  There would be mean nurses with squeaky white shoes and way too many sad patients with bald heads and sunken faces.  I knew this for sure.  It was definitely gonna be horrible.

My first contact with anybody from MD Anderson was by phone.  She called me to schedule my first appointment with my new specialist.  To my surprise she was super sweet and super helpful.  She was the one to break the news to me that I’d be spending at least a week or more in Houston for my initial evaluation.  “WHAT?!,” I exclaimed.  “Are you serious?  Why?!,” I asked her.  Turns out, I’d be going through a variety of lovely medical tests so my new doctor could make a more informed decision on how to proceed with the best treatment and the results would take at least that long to come back.  They basically needed me at their beckon call so I needed to stay in Houston.  Fast forward two weeks later and I’m still not done with tests but at least they prepared me for the wait.

I received an email shortly after that call with all the information I would need to get to MD Anderson and my medical record number which I have found out since is basically your second name at the center.  They always ask me to verify it and I can never remember it.  Go figure.  I then received a call from a nice young woman from Patient Services to let me know she’d be the first person I’d be meeting face to face when I arrived at the center.  Upon arriving at MD Anderson with no problems because of the excellent driving directions, the valet greeted us with a smiling face and happy attitude.  To my father’s pleasant surprise, they all spoke Spanish.  As I stepped foot for the first time into MD Anderson, I instantly noted the feel and the atmosphere in the lobby.

There was a cheerful lady directing everyone to the right elevator and floor and she immediately came to my aid after seeing the big question mark I so obviously was wearing on my face.  She asked me what area I was looking for and she knew without hesitation where to direct me.  The lobby smelled of fresh gourmet coffee from the cute, little cafe and smelled nothing like a hospital.  It smelled of mouth-watering food and I later found out it was the Starbucks and Chik-Fil-A located right down the hallway.  There was not a white wall or floor in sight.  Instead calming shades of blue and aqua colored the walls, lush plants adorned the lobby, and there were sofas everywhere dotted with cushy, inviting chairs.  There were huge, beautiful aquariums filled with silly tropical fish entertaining the children.  Most of all, I noticed the people, the patients sitting and walking around.  These people were LAUGHING.  Smiling faces, no frowns, nobody sad.  Sure, lots of them were bald as I expected, but they wore their baldness loud and proud; a symbol of their fight and determination.  Letting their freak flags fly, so to speak.  Right on.  I instantly felt a unique sense of belonging and comfort I hadn’t felt since I started this battle.  Suddenly being among so many people who knew what cancer “feels” like made me feel proud to be a part of this club.

I took my designated elevator up to the sixth floor: next stop, the Lymphoma/Myeloma Center.  More aquariums, cushy chairs, and smiling people.  I made my way to the reception desk to check in and I heard him first.  I heard a man loudly singing a jolly little tune and I think my mouth dropped when I saw him.  I hope it didn’t but I think it did.  My mouth dropped because this bald, older man sitting in a wheelchair, with the frailest frame I’d ever seen was SINGING.  His skin was a sickly shade of green and he had a few lone white hairs sporadically sticking out of his head here and there yet his giddy attitude and presence put a huge smile on my face.  I smiled one of those stupid, mouth-open, toothy smiles that you smile when you see a cute baby or something.  He was patiently waiting for his turn in the line to speak to the receptionist and had no idea what an impression he’d just made on me.  I realized this was the place I’d been looking for and I’d finally arrived.

They didn’t take half as long to call me back as I’d expected and my dad barely had a chance to try his hand at one of the many half-started puzzles on the coffee tables.  My doctor’s nurse was not mean and did not have squeaky, white shoes.  She was a breath of fresh air with a warm smile and a very infectious laugh.  It was apparent that she genuinely loves her job and was happy to be there.  My doctor’s assistant was the next person to meet and he was equally as pleasant.  He asked me all kinds of questions and took notes furiously like he was studying for his final exam.  Everyone from the receptionist, to the nurse and the physician’s assistant repeated to me how amazingly talented my doctor is.  I took comfort in the fact that, apparently, my doctor is not only the head of the lymphoma department but he’s the head of the lymphoma department of the best cancer treatment center in the world and that makes him a pretty big deal.  I had the best oncologist in my hometown and now I had the best lymphoma doctor in the world.  God had provided me with only His best.  My doctor turned out to be just as intelligent as they’d all made him out to be.  He was genuinely concerned with my well-being and spoke to me with all the honesty and clarity I so desperately needed to hear.  The biggest plus was he also spoke fluent Spanish and was able to answer all of my father’s questions with ease.  This was huge for me since its hard enough for me to understand what’s happening let alone translate all the medical jargon for my parents to understand.  Amazing.

I left that day with a completely new outlook on MD Anderson.  Not only had I been completely wrong about what it would be like, I found myself liking being there.  I was actually looking forward to the next time I’d get to visit.  I was looking forward to being among “my people.”  Looking forward to having Starbucks and Chik-Fil-A at my disposal.  Looking forward to the beautiful outdoor patios and gardens on every floor that need exploring.  This was definitely a very far cry from Auschwitz.  Its turned out to be my safe haven away from home.

Did I mention the free, high-speed wi-fi great for blogging on the go?!  I heart MD Anderson.

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