Tag Archives: MD Anderson

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 THAT’S a paradigm shift.

Remember how I said in a previous blog entry that ‘I heart M.D. Anderson’?  Well, I’m saying it again, this time with resounding emphasis and fervor:  I heart M.D. Anderson!  Why?  There are various reasons but this past weekend really swept me off my feet.  I am now officially head over heels in love with this place.  This is serious, people.  We’re talking true love here.  What epic event caused this sudden influx of ‘that lovin’ feeling’?  The M.D. Anderson Cancer Survivorship Conference.

This two-day weekend event was exactly what the doctor ordered.  It was food for my mind, my body, my soul, and my spirit.  This conference was a major turning point in the way I view this whole situation.  It caused a much-needed paradigm shift in my brain, an a-ha moment if you will.  Oprah would be proud.  I’d seen the pamphlets and posters around M.D. Anderson announcing this event for the past few weeks and it seemed interesting but I wasn’t sure it was something I should go to considering the word ‘survivorship’.  Why is that, you ask?  Because up until this weekend, I didn’t consider myself a survivor.

The American Cancer Society defines a person as a cancer survivor “from the time of diagnosis throughout the balance of his or her life.”  I always had a problem with that definition.  It’s the reason why I didn’t consider myself a cancer survivor.  I’d been told time and again that at the very moment I was given my diagnosis, I was a survivor.  I guess it’s really the last part of that definition that was my problem.  That pesky “balance of his or her life” part.  There’s always that fear of ‘what if’ in the back of my mind throughout this battle.  Yeah, I’ll just say it.  What if I don’t make it?  What if I never get to hear the word ‘remission’?  It doesn’t mean I believe those questions but, nevertheless, they’re always looming.  Always present.  If I don’t make it, am I not a survivor?  The people that have lost their lives to cancer, are they not survivors?  The word ‘remission’, to me, was synonymous with ‘cancer survivor.’

You can see my problem with this definition and why I was having trouble applying it to myself.  How was I to consider myself a survivor if I wasn’t in remission?  I thought attending this “survivorship” conference would be rather weird considering I wasn’t a survivor.  I got the push I needed to go when a good friend in the media department sent me an email suggesting that I attend along with all the information I needed to sign up.  Talk about a push in the right direction.

I rearranged all my medical appointments for that Friday and signed myself up along with my husband.  We arrived bright and early the first day of the conference and walked up to the registration table to get our name cards and swag bag.  “How long have you been a survivor?” the volunteer asked.  This question perplexed me because I wasn’t in remission and I felt like an impostor.  ‘Great, now they’re gonna know I don’t belong here.’  I must have looked very confused because then she asked me when I was diagnosed and proceeded to hand me a yellow lanyard for my name card.  Apparently, yellow was for first year survivors.  ‘Ok, if you say so,’ I thought to myself.

The first session I’d signed us up for was not what I signed up for.  It was called ‘Yesterday, today and tomorrow: Strategies for long-term survivorship.’  I thought I’d signed up for diet and relaxation tips.  I was absolutely wrong yet pleasantly surprised.  There had been other sessions to choose from in the same time slot but I had chosen this one.  This session was meant for me and it was meant to be the first one we attended.  The speaker came to the podium and the first question (I kid you not) was, “When did you first consider yourself a survivor?”  She wanted to see a show of hands and declared that she wanted us to share our experiences in reference to that question.  I thought, ‘Great again, dummy.  You signed up for the wrong session.’

Wrong again.  As people began to share their experiences, I found myself nodding in agreement.  I could relate to these people.  The speaker then brought up the definition of a cancer survivor.  Survivorship did not mean ‘remission’ and it did not diminish the battle of those that had passed on because of cancer.  She said that the battle, the daily struggles against cancer, made us all survivors.  Death is not a loss to cancer and it did not belittle the battle so bravely fought.  It was at that moment that the light bulb turned on in my head.  My a-ha moment had arrived.  I began to cry as a lady talked about when she had realized just that because it was like she was inside my head, saying the very thing I was feeling in that moment.  Over and over, people stated that they hadn’t felt like survivors until they realized that concept and I instantly felt complete knowing that I wasn’t alone.  I wasn’t broken after all.  I was only human.

My love for M.D. Anderson grew that day with their definition of a cancer survivor.  Even if I never hear the word ‘remission’ or even if cancer takes my life, I will always be a survivor.  I will never forget all of the survivors that I had the privilege of meeting that fateful weekend, my new friends for life.  The girl who’s fought brain cancer for 9 years straight and who continues to fight.  The guy my age who’s ‘watching and waiting’ his prostate cancer.  The twenty-something woman who beat brain cancer at the age of 9.  The young woman who had her leg amputated due to bone cancer at the age of 13 and is now a nurse on the same floor at MDA.  The talented violinist at our banquet dinner who was told she would not survive seven years ago.  They are beating the odds and so am I, regardless of the outcome.

The rest of the conference served as therapy for my husband and I from that point on.  Compliments on my ‘do’ or newly resurfacing hair were abundant and very much welcomed.  Our many new friends including a few that work at M.D. Anderson as volunteers and a whole group of young survivors just like me.  My joy as my husband told me how he felt a huge weight off his shoulders just by meeting other husbands who have walked in his shoes.  Our excitement as we got to meet and snag a photo with Dr. Ronald DePinho, the president of the cancer treatment center second-to-none other in the world.  In the words of Ron Burgundy:  that makes him kind of a big deal.  And the best part?  I know with absolute certainty that, no matter what, I AM A SURVIVOR.

I HEART M.D. ANDERSON.  Sigh…l’amour.

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Don’t wanna be your monkey wrench.

A lot can happen over three days.  Three days, that’s all it took.  I’ve been here in Houston for those three days and it’s been a whirlwind of news, change, and emotions.  I knew it was going to be a bit overwhelming but it’s turned out to be more of a game-changer than anything.  I could never have predicted what has transpired over the last 72 hours.

When I left my hometown of Corpus Christi three days ago, I was a month out of my tenth round of intense chemotherapy.  I was heading back to MD Anderson in Houston to see if I was in remission yet to be able to receive my stem cell transplant.  My one and only sibling, my little sister Carolina, had been tested to see if she was my perfect match for the transplant.  I’d been told that she is not my match and they would have to begin the search for a donor through the national bone marrow registry.  I received the call on a Friday  while I was driving and I barely made it home.  I was crying so hard I had to hang on to the back of my dining room chair to try to catch my breath and to keep from crumpling to the floor.  Both my sister and I had been so hopeful that she’d be my match, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the news myself.  My husband had to call her and give her the news through tears and heartbreak.  The three of us were heartbroken yet again.

Despite the setback, I set off for Houston with my parents this time with positivity and no tears.  I didn’t cry when I told my friends and family goodbye, when I hugged my dogs, or even when I waved to my husband as I slowly backed my car out of the driveway.  I left in complete peace, in stark distinction to the last time I’d left for Houston.

Upon arrival, Monday was more of a ho-hum day at MD Anderson what with the usual tests done to check if I was in remission.  I spent all day there with blood work first thing at eight in the morning, then a PET scan, and finally a CT scan.  My parents and I left the hospital at 5pm tired and hungry yet hopeful for good news the next day.

I should have just stayed in bed on Tuesday morning.  Our first stop was with my lymphoma doctor for the much anticipated results.  I’ll call him Dr. L for lymphoma.  And for privacy reasons, duh.  Dr. L walked into the exam room and got right to the point.  Bad news:  I was not in remission.  He explained that although the tumor in my chest was still there, it hadn’t grown.  It hadn’t shrunk either.  That was monkey wrench #1.  Monkey wrench #2?:  I now needed radiation and lots of it.  They were changing treatment since the cancer hadn’t responded to chemotherapy.  I’d been hoping I would be done with all this cancer junk at least by Christmas this year but with 4 weeks of radiation being thrown in before the transplant, that was no longer going to happen.  This monkey wrench is gonna have me spending my Christmas in a hospital room this year.

I now have a 3rd doctor to add to my roster at MD Anderson:  my radiation doctor.  Let’s call her Dr. R for radiation.  I think you’re getting the picture now with the doctor aliases.  I was sent down to see her immediately after my visit with Dr. L.  She’s very beautiful and very pregnant.  I instantly liked her.  Although I’m not looking forward to radiation in the least, I’m happy to have her as my doctor for this very scary part of my treatment.  She greeted my parents and I warmly and she calmly explained everything that was about to happen to me over the next few weeks.  They would work to shrink the tumor with radiation in order for me to have my stem cell transplant.  Dr. R showed me the pictures from the PET scan the day before and I was able to view the tumor in my chest for the first time ever.  It was eye-opening to say the least.  I had been pointing to the wrong spot on my chest this whole time when people asked me where the tumor was.  What a colossal dummy.

Dr. R went down the list of the possible short-term and long-term effects and described everything down to the last detail.  Skin redness and increased risk of heart problems and breast cancer are just a few of the lovelier side effects.  She let me know that I’ll be having radiation there with her for the next 4-5 weeks, Monday through Friday, and that I’ll be able to go home on the weekends.  That sounded like a good thing in the grand scheme of it all.  But wait, here comes the REALLY good part.  I predict you will say to yourself, “WHAT?!”  Then, I will say I told you so in just a little bit.  Go on, keep reading.

I left MD Anderson with my parents feeling good despite the news I’d just received because I felt like all my questions and concerns had been addressed.  I knew what to expect.  I left in anticipation on my way to a local Houston television news station for an interview.  I’d been contacted by them a couple of weeks before my visit that they’d picked up my story and wanted to help me in my new passion of promoting awareness among Hispanics about the importance of registering on the national bone marrow registry.  They were excited and so was I.

I arrived at the station and as I sat in my car powdering my nose and touching up my non-existent eyebrows, my cell phone rang.  Here comes monkey wrench #3.  I should have known something was up when I saw it was from MD Anderson.  I didn’t think anything of it as they were supposed to call me that afternoon about my future radiation appointments.  Wrong.  It was Dr. L’s physician’s assistant.  “Cristina?”  (Because I’m now on a first name basis with everyone at MDA.)  “Yeah bud, what’s up?” I asked.  “Um, are you still here at MDA?”  This was getting weird fast.  “No, I’m at a news station for an interview.  Why?” I replied.  “We looked at your CT again from yesterday,” UH OH, “and we found a blood clot in your lung.”  Say what?!  I told you so.  Wait it gets better.  “How long do you think you’ll be at your interview because we need you to come back to MDA for medication.  Do you know how to self-inject?”  WHAT?!  Heck no, I don’t know how to self-inject!  He proceeded to tell me that I would have to self-inject a blood thinner every day for the next SIX months.  I could not believe my ears.  My mouth dropped open and a fly could have made his home in there without me noticing.

“Wait a minute.  Friend, did you just say SIX months?  You’re joking right?” I pleaded.  “I’m sorry but yes it’s for six months,” he replied.  Here I was nervous already for my impending interview in the next 30 minutes and another bomb had been dropped right on my head.  I didn’t have time to process it.  I had to gather my thoughts and get my head together for this interview.  I had to put on my big girl pants.  The bone marrow registry needed my attention more at that moment than my own health problems.  I think God planned it perfectly this way.  It made me see that there is always something bigger and more important than myself.  I had to be the best that I could be in that moment and be able to articulate the message I so needed Houston’s Hispanic community to hear.

I walked into the news studio, took my hat off, and proceeded to do the interview cue-ball bald.  I felt liberated and the words flowed as if God was right there in my ear, whispering them to me.  Before I knew it, it was over and I quickly said my thank-you’s and goodbye’s.  I had to get back to my own reality, after all.  With my medication in hand, Tuesday was finally over.  Little did I know what Wednesday would bring.

Wednesday.  Today.  Today had another monkey wrench in store for me.  What number were we on?  Oh yeah, number 4.  I had an appointment today with my stem cell transplant doctor, Dr. S (S for stem cell, you got it).  At this point, we all knew my sister was not a match but here comes the clincher:  Dr. S said that they had done a search on the national bone marrow registry but no match was found for me.  Wow, another punch in the stomach.  He explained that my genetic make-up is very ‘unique’ and it’s going to be difficult to find a match.  I mean, I always knew I was weird but now it was being genetically confirmed.  Dr. S turned to my parents and informed them that if a match was not found by the time I needed it, we would have to settle for a half-match, i.e. one of my parents.  If it turns out this way, one of my parents will have to give me bone marrow instead of stem cells–a more involved process.

By the time we all knew it, we’d been sent down to the lab for both of my parents to have their blood drawn for HLA typing.  Results won’t come in for at least another seven business days so we’re bracing ourselves for a long week.

Three days was all it took.  Three days for a total game-changer but I’m putting on my game-face.  Game on.

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For more information on becoming a bone marrow or stem cell donor, visit www.bethematch.org.  Be a hero.  Save a life.  Be the match.

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Chemo Session #10: Are You the One?

Its 6am and I’m in my hospital bed but I can’t sleep.  The hospital never sleeps.  There’s a constant stream of shoes squeaking up and down the hall, nurses coming in at all hours of the night to check my vitals and change out my IV bags of chemotherapy.  They’re just doing their job but it’s messing with my beauty sleep.  The steroids they give me are messing with my body and my sanity.  They make me so jittery like I just drank 10 cans of Red Bull and so my mind begins to race with all sorts of nonsense.  Some of it is silly like I was contemplating asking for another blanket on the intercom in a British accent. Should I use a cockney accent or something more regal like the Queen of England?  Or maybe something like Merry or Pip from Lord of the Rings?  I watched it before I came to the hospital so that explains that.

Anyway, there’s also more important things my mind begins to run away with.  I can’t stop thinking about this chemo session.  It’s the 10th cycle and the most aggressive one I’ve received to date called R-HyperCVAD.  Woof!  It sounds like a part for Artoo-Deetoo.  That’s the little robot from Star Wars and now I’ve made references to not one but two ultra geeky movies so now you know I’m a full-on geek.  I’m going to get on with what I’m trying to say now.

Preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.

You’ve heard that expression before, right?  That’s me right now.  Preparing for the worst but placing hope against hope for the best.  You see, doctors are vouching that this session will finally put me into remission which will then allow me to receive my life-saving stem cell transplant at MD Anderson.  If I’m not in remission after this, then I don’t get my transplant and God only knows what these doctors have planned for me next.  I hate to think about it but its an inevitable possibility staring me right in the face like a snarling, salivating pit bull.  I have to clarify something. Just because I’m preparing for the worst doesn’t mean I don’t have faith and hope in God that I’ll be in remission.  It only means I’ve learned that I don’t know what God has planned for me.  Too many times in this journey have I not prepared for the worst and the worst happened. That can’t be good for anyone’s sanity.

Still, I hope and pray with urgency to God that this be my ticket to the Promised Land of MD Anderson where it floweth with stem cell transplants and world-class doctors.  I plead with Him day in and day out that this be one of my final hurdles in this never-ending nightmare they call non-Hodgkins lymphoma.  And so I ask:  Chemo #10, are you the One?  Are you gonna be the one to grant me the news I’ve been waiting for?  Will I hear the ever-beautiful word ‘remission’ soon?  So many questions but I try to pace myself.  I try to remind myself that this is not about me.  There is a plan for my life and what it is, I still do not know.  My goal right now is just to take all this one day at a time.  Like that old PSA said, “The mind is a terrible thing to waste,” and I don’t plan on wasting it on the could have’s and would have’s of life.  That’s for chumps.

Instead, like I said, I shall look forward and prepare for the worst but hope for the best.  There’s a hurricane a’blowin’ in the gulf of my life and I’m sure as heck gonna board up my house. Hopefully, it’ll pass by my house unscathed.

Hurricane Cancer

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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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