Have Faith, Give Hope
June 18, 2015
Cancer isn't a foreign word to me. Or my family. Or my friends.
It has affected many people in my life including, but certainly not limited to, my maternal grandfather (passed away from lung cancer before I was born), maternal grandmother (passed away from ovarian cancer when I was 5), my brother (cancer survivor), and my best friend.
Can you imagine...23 years old, just graduated from college, newly engaged, moved 13 hours from home to be with her fiancé, planning a wedding, loving life.
Then everything changed.
This is just *part* of a beautiful woman's story and her journey.
When Brittany first asked me to photograph her chemo treatment, I was so happy to be able to document it for her. Then when I asked if I could write a blog on her and her journey, we both a agreed it would be a positive one. Cancer doesn't *have* to be morbid. Yes, we associate it with sickness, hair loss, and death... but the truth is, there can be beauty to it too. For some, cancer can provide a new outlook on life, a new sense of what it means to be *alive*. Many of us take our lives for granted, but for Brittany, she understands and respects the precious gift and second chance she's been given and lives each day with that in mind. With this post, Brittany's goal is to give hope to those who are newly diagnosed, currently fighting for their life, on a maintenance plan, or even in remission.
Please share this blog with anyone you think would benefit from Brittany's advice, positive attitude, humor, faith, and hope.
- Mary Boike Photography
When and how did you first discover you had ovarian cancer?
In October of 2012, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I was shocked to hear that my only symptoms (that I had for about 3 months), severe bloating and indigestion, were not any of the numerous abdominal issues or a pregnancy that I expected it to be. I was initially told that I was very constipated which is hard to believe that that was the culprit since I looked to be 6 months pregnant! I got a second opinion, and after many tests and scans, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer on October 11th, 2012.
9:00am Check-in for appointment and examination.
What were your main concerns after being diagnosed?
Oh there were many... “How do I live life normally? How do I continue to plan my wedding? Should we just postpone it? How am I going to work? How am I going to pay my medical bills? Will Mark still be able to work or will he have to take care of me? Is my hair going to fall out? Will I still be able to have kids?"
The list goes on...
9:30am Port access and pre-treatment saline drip.
How did your life change with that diagnosis?
After coming down from the emotional shock of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 23, my whole perspective on life changed. At that moment, my mindset became day to day. There was no more worrying about what was to come later on with surgeries or treatments. It was just getting through the questions, emotions and uncertainties of each day. As I am going through year 2 of living with “the big C,” I have started to make future plans, live normally, and start to make treatments adjust to my life instead of the other way around!
How did you cope emotionally?
Being diagnosed with an illness where your life is at risk really makes you realize how much you are NOT in control of your own life. It became very clear to me, the separation between soul and body. The phrase “my flesh my fail, my God you never will” rang so true as to how I came to terms with my “new normal.” I grew up in a God based home and stayed strong in my faith through high school and college and into my professional life. Being diagnosed brought me to a whole other level of believing and understanding. My faith became deeper and stronger than I could have ever imagined. It was so clear to me that my body was a vessel, a holding place, for this soul God gave me until I eventually go home. Along with faith, my family and friends were beyond supportive. I became very dependent on others to just get me through the day when I was in the trenches of my treatment. That was a big change for Miss Independent (isn’t that a song?) :) I truly believed (and still do!) that God was making something good out of something so terribly bad. That thought alone, that there was a bigger purpose, helped me fight through each day.
What were the first steps you had to take towards removing the cancer?
I was quickly scheduled for what turned into a very intensive surgery within 4 days of being diagnosed. I went into surgery not knowing the extent of how much of my body was compromised with cancer. After a 7.5 hour surgery, I was left with over a 12 inch scar, the inability of have children, missing organs, and most importantly my life. My recovery was longer than expected; I was in the hospital for 3 weeks due to some complications during the healing process. After everything was said and done, I went home with a colostomy bag attached to my abdomen (which we named Estoman since it’s called a stoma and he was VERY feisty like mexican food), blood thinner shots (a challenge for a couple who do not like needles!), and a chemo treatment plan to start the following week.
What was/is your treatment like?
My initial treatment plan was a three week cycle with actual treatment during two of those weeks. The drugs I was on, Cisplatin, and Taxol, were administered via ports in my chest wall and abdomen. During those first two weeks, I would have one treatment each week. The last week was a week of recuperating which meant a “normal” week! Week 1: Cisplatin and Taxol for 5 hours Week 2: Taxol for 2.5 hours Since some of these drugs were administered directly into my abdomen, I would have to flip from hip to hip every 10 minutes. This made it very difficult, but not impossible, to watch movies during chemo :) The main side effects I dealt with during this regimen were: Neuropathy (loss of/tingling feeling in extremities), nausea, general loss of appetite, and hair loss. During this treatment of about a 6 month time period, my numbers went down into normal range and I was considered “cancer free.” That was short lived however, and not surprisingly, my numbers crept back up but no where to the level they were when I was first diagnosed. Because some of my cancer was resistant to the chemo, I am still receiving treatment.
Currently, I am on a maintenance chemo plan. I have an infusion of Avastin (this time only into my chest wall port) once every 3 weeks. I have little to no side effects; I am much more sensitive to seasonal and indoor allergies. My kidney functioning has also been (minimally) compromised. With this treatment plan, I am able to work full time and live life completely normally without any restrictions!
What advice do you have for women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer?
1. NO GOOGLING. Your doctor will (or at least should) tell you this but actually listen to them! Do not google symptoms, side effects, worst case scenario stories, etc. Especially when you are freshly diagnosed. Get your information from a reputable source, preferably your doctor or a close confidant who has your best interests in mind!
2. Do whatever you need to do to help yourself remain calm. Your body will need to be in a state of calm to help you battle your cancer and/or recover from surgery. I got into yoga and LOVED it. It helped me get my body back after surgery as well as kept me focused (and sane!) while I went through treatment. So whether you need to hit a gym, have (doctor recommended!) glasses of booze, or whatever it is, go for it! No one can really tell you no when you’ve got the “C” card to play!
3. Speaking of the “C” card, don’t be afraid to use it (within reason.) If you have a chance to benefit yourself while playing the cancer card, DO IT. :)
4. NEVER apologize for how you are handling/coping with a diagnosis. Each person, from patient to caregiver, deals with it in their own way and NONE are wrong. Some like to hear testimonies from others, some like to pretend it wasn’t happening. I was the latter and it worked for me. That doesn’t mean it’s what’s best for you! Whatever will give you the strength to get through the day and keep you focused, do it.
5. The biggest piece of advice, though, is find silver linings no matter how thin. Find humor in the day to day goings on of your treatment/battle/recovery. Battling cancer will be one of the hardest things you will encounter in your life (physically and mentally.) If you can keep your spirits high and maintain a relatively positive attitude, that will help your recovery immensely.
9:45am Chemotherapy arrives from the hospital via courier.
How has ovarian cancer affected your outlook on life?
I’ve always been an high spirited, independent girl - almost to a fault! When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, that didn’t necessarily “change.” It was just put on the back burner for a while. Now that I’m back to “normal,” that Brittany can come back. One thing that has changed is that I don’t let things affect me as much and have maintained the mindset of “everything as temporary.” Whether it’s a situation at work or home or life itself (sorry for being morbid!), I know that “this too will pass” and what is waiting for me will be something so much more than I could ever imagine.
What are some of your favorite hobbies, pastimes, life goals?
I really enjoy being outside. Mark and I love to kayak and explore! We’re always taking day trips somewhere and trying to find new places to put our boats in. We have also really gotten into craft beer (consuming it that is!) Michigan has so many craft breweries and we are taking advantage of that. Remember when I said to take in the “doctor recommended” alcohol consumption? :) Now that I’m back to normalcy, I’m really trying to just, without sounding cliche, “live life to the fullest” and not focus on the possibility that my cancer could become a little bit harder to keep at bay. And that means enjoying every second I can of this second chance I’ve been given!
10:40am Chemotherapy treatment completed.
Is there anyone you would like to thank or reach out to?
Oh where do I begin. I don’t think writing this would suffice the thanks and gratitude I have for every friend, colleague, family member, medical professional, and stranger that supported me, loved me, cried with me, laughed with me, cared for me, and saved me. Every single person who has walked alongside of me through this journey has had a major impact on my recovery and return to normalcy. Words cannot express how thankful I am that God put you in my path. Most importantly, thank you for treating me like “Brittany” and not “Brittany, the cancer patient.” Thank you times infinity.
Enjoying a *doctor recommended* beverage after treatment!