Wednesday, January 22, 2014

happy cancerversary

One year ago today I was diagnosed with cancer.  Cancer!  They didn't know what kind it was when they called me on the phone and said the word, 'malignant', but my final diagnosis was a 'high grade myxofibrosarcoma'.

After a month of testing and a long Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, I found myself in my lab on campus.  Finally the call came that I had been waiting over a week for.  Surely she was going to tell me I was fine.  Surely the bump was benign and I could stick to my scheduled February surgery.  And as you know, that was not the case.  The nurse practitioner whom I have never met called and said that word, "malignant".  I didn't really hear what she said after that.  Something about calling her if I had questions.  Questions?  I had zero questions at the moment.  Should I have questions?  I surely should.  I thanked her… for some reason, and said goodbye.  And then I cried.  I was in my lab on BYU campus full of people that I love.  I went into the back corner by the computer and cried for a bit while I called Julie Hunter, one of my closest friends.  I couldn't quite handle calling my parents until I had myself under control.  I received a few hugs and "I'm sorrys" from my wonderful lab mates.  I called Kaylie and I think my sobbing let her in on the secret of what just happened.  She picked me up from school and just let me cry.  Because I was scared and sad.  The beautiful thing is the trust that I later felt.  Trust in God that I had never so tangibly felt before.  I've before had experiences where great trust in God was required.  I was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I was 17, the only one in my family.  That required a lot of trust.  I served an 18 month mission for my church where I took school off and wasn't able to talk to my parents on the phone but just spent all day serving.  That required a lot of trust.  I've had my heart broken and tried to know that it was right.  That required a lot of trust.  But the trust I felt in God when I was diagnosed with cancer was the greatest trust I've ever felt in Him before.

It's easy to talk about the should haves and the should have nots.  Like I should have been a normal college student continuing in school.  I should have not had to pause life and fight my body's fight against itself.  But, alas, that is not what life is about.  If life were perfect and troubles never beseeched us then it would be kind of boring.  And we wouldn't grow in the way troubles allow us to.
I am grateful for my cancer.  I feel like I can say that because I have lived through it.  It has made me better.  More compassionate, more grateful for life, and frankly a bit more interesting.

Here I am, one year later.  Healthy!  Still going to my 3 month check-ups.  Still a bit frightened they'll find something new.  But a better person overall.  Because cancer definitely changes you.  It may disfigure your body a bit.  And even your mind.  But I have come to a healthy place with cancer where I'm not embarrassed of it (clearly) and where I can see the good it has brought.

So…. Happy Cancerversary to me!  Amy even got me a present to celebrate!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

a life changing week

I really didn't think I would continue this blog.  I mean, my fight is over, right?  Yet I participated in something recently that helped me realize the life of a cancer fighter/survivor doesn't have to be all about fighting/surviving but rather living and I wanted to write about it.

A couple weeks ago I went on a kayak trip with a group called First Descents.  How to describe FD?  I think their mission statement from their website is pretty adequate, "FIRST DESCENTS offers young adult cancer fighters and survivors a free outdoor adventure experience designed to empower them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, defy their cancer, reclaim their lives and connect with others doing the same."

How beautiful is that?  An outdoor experience "designed to empower them".  Wow.  And for free! Before my trip I read somewhere that a First Descents experience would change my life.  Did I really expect this to happen? Certainly not, but I was willing to at least go and have fun and see how I could grow from it.

I was never one for support groups.  I'm still not one to go to support groups.  I know it is really therapeutic for some and, well, supports them through the trials they are going through, but that's not me.  All I can picture is the beginning of Fight Club where Edward Norton's character goes to these groups to cry so he can sleep.  Chairs in a circle, people getting up, saying their name, "hi (insert name)", cry sesh, sit down, go home, sleep.  Not my thing.  And so FD, being the opposite of that situation, was extremely therapeutic for me.

I think the rest of this blog post is just going to be littered with pictures I stole from our First Descents facebook page and a bit about this amazing week kayaking on the Potomac river in DC.

Sunday.  Fly into Baltimore.  Get picked up by one of the camp directors named McStillin.  Get to know a few of my fellow campers, Firefly, Shadow, Quiz, Aloha and Gumbo.  I get my name of 8 Mile and we proceed to where we're staying for the week.  We meet everyone else, namely Patch the other director, Drift, Daizy, Stitches, Turbo, Persimmon, Anonymous, Black Swan, and all the others who helped make the week possible.

Monday. First day kayaking.  I sucked.  I could not go straight.  But only like 3 of us really could so I didn't feel too bad.  Kayaking hurt more than I expected because of my neck surgery.  It's a good thing everyone had plenty of medicine to share.

Tuesday.  We did a little stand up paddle board yoga in the morning.  More kayaking.  I was not as bad as I was the day before.  And it was so much fun.  Also, Patch and our kayaking director, Outlaw, went down a waterfall called Great Falls.  A waterfall! It was pretty nuts.  Some other guy watching from the same outlook we were asked in admiration, "You know those guys?" Yes, yes we do.  To round out the night we had a little dance party on the school bus we used the next day to go to DC.

Wednesday.  We went to DC in the morning.  I have never been this far east before let alone to Washington DC, and it was terrific.  And hot.  So I was glad when we went back on the bus.  We played on the stand up paddle boards all afternoon and just had fun.

Thursday.  Our last day on the water.  We did more advanced rapids than we had before and did our "graduation rapid" by ourself.  We played around at this one rapid just trying to stay up, but we all eventually got flipped over.  There were people there to flip you back so you were just supposed to stay in your boat upside down.  I bailed.  Immediately.  Maybe I should trust more.

Friday.  Goodbye.  Which was a lot sadder than I expected for people I had known less than a week.  We made a little stop by the Washington DC temple and then got some Chick-fil-A on the way to the airport and then I was home in the mitten once more.

If there was not money put into cancer research I would probably still have cancer.  I am so appreciative of the billions of dollars spent to find treatments/cures for cancer.  But it is easy to forget that those that have cancer are people too.  We aren't just a diagnosis.  My name is Katie, not female with a high-grade myxofibrosarcoma.  And that is one of the reasons I love First Descents.  I am Katie and I am alive and really trying to live after cancer! Well actually I guess I should be saying "I am 8 Mile and I am alive.. etc."  But really, it feels so good to not be forgotten after my treatment is over.  First Descents, this beautiful non-profit group, helped to help me to realize how strong I am.  It helped me to know what more I want out of life.  I want to truly be "out living it" not just being alive.  It helped me connect with people that actually know what I went through and what I'm still going through.

So, did my FD trip change my life?  It did.  It really did.
If you'd like to donate to First Descents to help make trips like this possible for other young adult cancer fighters and survivors just click here!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

another mri and some good updates

It seems crazy to me but tonight I had my baseline MRI done.  This is the MRI the doctors will compare all my future MRI's to.  It's kind of surreal to me that I am this far out from when my surgeries were done.  And nearly 2 months since my radiation ended.  Crazy!

This past Sunday my mom and I went to Dr. Ward's home for a dinner with his family.  The dinner was so yummy and a lot of it came from their backyard.  They have a big, beautiful garden.  I hope to have a garden one day like that.  We had such a good night and spectacular conversation.  His family is wonderful and so sweet.  Really, at the end of the night I realized more than ever how much Dr. Ward was meant to be my surgeon.  The Lord aligned our paths.

I recently acquired pictures from my surgery.  Gruesome pictures of my open neck where you can see my skull and spine.  Unfortunately (or possibly very fortunately) I am not allowed to post these online.  Something about "property of the hospital", "patient's rights", "hipaa"... whateves.  So, you want to see these?  You'll have to check them out on my computer sometime.

I'm going to Washington D.C. this August!  There is a group called First Descents and it's mission is to provide a free outdoor adventure experience for young adults who are fighting cancer or are survivors.  It's pretty hard to get into because it is so in demand but I was accepted and am super pumped.  It is completely free because of donations.  I am so excited!  So, from August 18-23 I will be kayaking in that area.

By the way... totally loving the book 'A Game of Thrones'.  I'm officially an uber geek.

Here's a picture of me accidentally hitting One Direction with my grandfather's car.

Friday, June 28, 2013

the benefit luncheon

Last Friday was the benefit luncheon my family threw for me at Outback Steakhouse.  It went so well!  We got there a bit early with all the raffle prizes and helped set up the restaurant.  As guests arrived I stood by the door to greet everyone and then passed them off to my family.  
So many people came.  So many amazing, wonderful people.
My grandparents drove up from Texas to attend and a few of their friends from the area came.    
Old friends from high school and their families came.  
Nearly every member of the Harris family found their way there: aunts, uncles, cousins.  
My sister in law Lauren invited her parents, who invited their neighbors and friends from their church who came as well.  
Many people from my church came even though it was on a busy weekend and during the middle of the day.  Even both sets of missionaries from my ward managed ways there.  
My first grade teacher, Mrs. Prine, who taught Tom, Patrick and I came.  
Many people from the DQ came.  My boss and his boss, even Nikki who hired me when I was 16.
Dr. Ward came!  My surgeon, Dr. Ward, was there the whole time.  My mom had a ton of fun showing him off to people.

Outpourings of love like this make me almost grateful I got cancer.  I have never before seen so many people act so selflessly and give so much.  And for me to be the recipient of this love is pretty astounding.  

The food was so yummy.  Steak and chicken and ribs.  I'm sure there were some vegetables in there as well... but do those really matter?  There were over a dozen raffle prizes donated by local businesses.  
Dairy Queen.  Your Michigan Connection in downtown Northville.  Home Depot.  The Marquis Theatre.  Stingers Bar & Grill.  Salon Unity.  Tubby's.  Tilt & Sons Landscape.

As I was drawing the winners of the raffle prizes I kept drawing the same names.  I was worried people would think that it was rigged.  It wasn't, I promise.

Thank you everyone!  All those that read this blog, thank you, for being a part of this journey.  Thank you for your prayers, they have helped more than I'll ever be able to fully realize.  Thank you for helping me with this financial burden obligate with having cancer.  Thank you to all those that stepped in so selflessly to insure that I don't have to handle this weight alone.  

And finally some pictures from the event....

Th Outback Steakhouse in West Bloomfield where it was held
My cousin Ryan and his wife Lainie, who hosted the luncheon
My Papa Don and Tobias

A picture my grandma took of me greeting people that my mom totally photo bombed

My brother Patrick and his family

Patrick, Lauren and Tobias

My cousin Randy who helped greatly with everything

My brothers and I with Mrs. Prine, our 1st grade teacher

My Aunt Kim and Uncle Jim

My brothers with Tobias and Tori

Erica, me, Matt and Jordan

Tom and Jennifer

My Uncle Randy and cousin Ryan

My Aunt Julie and I
My cousin Alex and Aunt Nancy

This is the hawaiian shirt my dad picked out.  Lovely, right?

I guess I am 'cancer free'.  It's incredible how short this journey was.  6 months!  Only 6 months from finding that pesky bump on my neck, being diagnosed with a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor, being re-diagnosed with a high-grade myxofibrosarcoma, a couple surgeries, 6 1/2 weeks of radiation and a benefit luncheon to cap it all off.  All that's left are checkups.  1 MRI every 3 months, 1 chest x-ray every 3 months (we want to insure it still isn't in my lungs) for about a year.  Then every 6 months.  Then every year.  

So once again.  Thank you all.  I can't imagine doing this on my own and I'm so grateful I didn't have to.

P.S.  I got a call from my genetic counselor and my cancer is not genetically caused.  I don't have Li-Fraumeni syndrome!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

done done done

Today was my last day of radiation.  Can you believe it?  6 weeks are done.  I am done with radiation!

When I first began radiation it was pretty difficult because I wasn't too friendly.  I would go, lay there for the radiation, and leave.  I wouldn't really talk to my techs.  A couple weeks in I changed my attitude and got friendlier and then actually started enjoying my radiation.  Really, those radiation therapists deserve an award because of how they positively changed my life.  I saw them everyday and we would banter and tease one another and what not.  Is it weird that I'm going to miss going to radiation?  Although I'm sure I will be fine soon enough because of the 2 hours I have back everyday.

This morning I woke up to go running and decided to make cookies for my radiation therapists instead. Ian Cookies.  You know the ones I'm talking about?  Oatmeal chocolate chip.  Really yummy.  Well, it took longer than expected so mom and I took the last batch out of the oven, threw them on a plate and rushed to Ann Arbor.

Got changed, went to the waiting room with my cookies, and heard my name called one last time.  My cute therapist stopped by to say goodbye before a meeting and we all got a picture.
It's too bad he had his hair in a ponytail...
Had my session and would you know it, the last song that came on was 'Casimir Pulaski Day'.  Hopefully the story in that song remains the opposite of my story.

When I was fitted for my mask the radiation therapists told me a few things to reassure me... some of those were not true.  Like as they strapped my mask to the table they told me to not worry, if I really wanted I could pull up on my mask and it would detach from the table.  Lie.  I tried this today.  My therapists knew it was coming so they first lowered the table and then let me try.  All I did was increase the noticeability of the waffle marks on my face from pushing on the TARDIS so hard.  I gave up pretty quickly.  Oh well.  They gave me my TARDIS mask to take home.  I don't know what to do with it.  Run over it with a car?  Hang it up on my wall as a piece of art?  I am open to suggestions.

I said goodbye to my therapists and told them that I hope I never see them again.  Had an appointment with Dr. Eisbruch.  Told him how much I enjoyed my radiation experience and he offered me more radiation... I politely declined.  Left University of Michigan Hospital for a long time...

Driving away from the hospital.

Well.. only until Monday when I have an appointment with Dr. Ward.  You can't win everything, right?

Monday, May 20, 2013

a genuine redneck

Today I had my first 3 month follow up appointment with Dr. Chugh, my medical oncologist.  I got an x-ray of my chest and my lungs are still clear!  So relieving.  She's going to set me up with an oncologist in Salt Lake for when I am back at school because I will have to be checked every 3 months for quite a while.  Dr. Chugh is pretty amazing and is going beyond what is expected to make sure the care I get is the best.

After my appointment with Dr. Chugh I had radiation.  This is my sixth week of radiation.  I can't believe it has gone by so quickly.  I mostly see the same radiation therapists everyday and have become friends of sorts with them.  Today we bantered back and forth, talked about the music I have on, my new shoes... They made fun of me for said new shoes.  They asked me to explain hashtags.  Let's be honest, they aren't that much older than me, just a couple of years.  They should know what hashtags are.  One of my therapists is only 29 and he has long, flowing dark hair and rides a motorcycle.  Basically he's a total babe.  Today I was going to ask him if he could take me on a ride on this motorcycle... and I noticed the ring on his left hand just in time.  That could have been embarrassing.  I thought it was only at BYU that I had to be so conscious of married men.

I met with Dr. Eisbruch, my radiation oncologist, and he asked me about my symptoms and neck and what not.  I told him my neck was getting super red.  He looked at it and responded, 'oh, yeah, that's a bit red.'  Not as dramatic as I thought.  But really, I am a genuine redneck.  I may be lacking a car parked in my front yard and a first cousin as a boyfriend, but my neck is very red.  Apparently it will get worse until a couple days after my radiation therapy ends, and then it will decrease in redness.  It doesn't bother me too much because my hair mostly hides it and I'm numb there anyways so I can't feel the burn.

Such a distinctive red line

Dr. Eisbruch's resident, Dr. Shumway, is a BYU grad.  Dr. Eisbruch mentioned today that I am studying microbiology at BYU, and of course Dr. Shumway has taken many of the same classes as I have.  He mentioned in particular Dr. Bridgewater and Dr. Evans having a great impact on him.  So cool that he remembers them and their teaching so long after the fact.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

a bit over... half way there

I'm not the biggest Bon Jovi fan, so I couldn't post this when I was exactly half way there.

Radiation is going well!  4 weeks down, 3 to go.  Every Monday I meet with Dr. Eisbruch and this past Monday he asked me if I was losing any hair yet.  I responded 'no' as I reached up to touch the buzzed part of my hair from my surgery and brought my hand back with a clump of hair in it.  I change my answer to yes.  Yes, I am definitely losing hair.  I recalled seeing little hairs on my jacket and thinking it was dog hair.  I don't have a dog.  It was my hair.  Whoops.  I haven't lost much yet, and hopefully I won't lose much more.  Any hair loss will be localized to where they are doing the radiation, so just the hair that is struggling to grow after being shaved twice.
I expected to have more side effects at this point but I hardly have any.  I have the slight hair loss and then a sunburn/tan in the area where the radiation hits my skin.  So I have a circular tan that covers a bit of my cheek and then most of my neck.  It's so obvious to me, but I don't think anyone else will notice it.
This past week I was babysitting and one of the little girls asked me what happened to my neck.  I told her I had surgery and she asked why and if I was okay and whatnot.  It was so innocent and really quite cute.  Kids are so curious and so accepting of the things they find out.  She just wanted to make sure that I was okay.  It was starkly different from the day I was on BYU campus after my surgery to withdraw from all my classes and take care of other business.  The day a random girl stood behind me and asked "What is wrong with your neck?"  Not so innocent and non-judgmental and cute.  If only we could have the innocence of little children for longer.