In partnership with Sea Bags of Maine for their 12th Annual Cure Campaign with Maine Cancer Foundation, I am sharing Part I of my family’s cancer story. The Sea Bags collection for this campaign is the Pink Dragonfly Cure Tote & Wristlet that I’ve styled below! Seabags will contribute 20% of sales of the Cure Collection to the Maine Cancer Foundation to support prevention, screening, and survival rates in Maine. Click here to shop the collection.
Founded in 1999, Sea Bags started by using reclaimed sails to craft nautical-inspired totes. The sails are sourced from the Old Port district of Portland, Maine. Each sail has a story, which means each artisan item crafted from the recycled sails is as unique as the owner. Sea Bags now makes a line of totes, bags, and home good items, all incorporating the sail cloth. I love that every Sea Bag tote has its own story. You can feel the durability of these bags. They’re perfect for the beach, carrying around town, or gifting!
Before sharing the story of WHAT happened it’s important to me to share the bigger picture of how cancer has changed my life. At the time, my family and I were truly in shock. We were in survival mode trying to comprehend how one day nothing was wrong, and the next day my mom was in the ICU with a machine breathing for her. Thankfully, we had family and friends that fed us, made us go home and rest, and loved us in a time that was confusing, shocking, exhausting, and incomprehensible.
I share this story for two reasons: to bring awareness to the disease of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APML) and how quickly the disease can ravage a healthy body. APML is treatable and curable but comes on as quickly as within two weeks. We are so fortunate of the level care of the doctors we had in Providence and Boston and their ability to balance the dichotomy of disease when it was at its most volatile in my mom’s complex case. And second: despite the grief and heartache, this experience also completely gave me a new appreciation for life. Yes, of course I, and all of us who have in some way experienced cancer, wish it never happened. But we can’t change that it did. To preserve myself and to process the illness it was best for me to find a way to grow from the experience. The experience of a loved one having cancer tested every ounce of strength, faith, and emotion I have in me. It taught me how fragile and unpredictable life really is and how every second is valuable.
Cancer has completely changed my life. The tragedy of cancer and watching a loved one suffer is beyond comprehensible. I don’t think I will ever be able to justly articulate the pain, suffering, an emotional exhaustion that cancer brings. The shock factor of cancer in my story is difficult to stomach. Almost four years later I find that I still have moments (fewer and further as the years pass) that I find it hard to believe this happened the way it did.
I introduce my story in this way because, although the most difficult time in my life, I have come out the other side with a new perspective on life. It sounds a little crazy, a little preach-y, but it’s true. I can’t say that I wish this didn’t happen, but I can say that it did, and we made it through the worst. I can also say that my empathy for others and my appreciation for small moments in life has completely changed since that day.
“Before cancer” I appreciated a good meal, my family, fresh air, and a warm home. “After cancer” I feel that appreciation in my heart, body and mind.My body moves every day, and I move with gratitude that I can walk without difficulty let alone run, drive, and lift heavy things. I appreciate the smiles of loved ones so much that when I think about it, it brings me to tears. I smile at strangers in a way that says “I understand you may be going through something” we cannot see with our eyes.
The story was much more raw when I wrote it as you read below. I’m sharing the story how I wrote it then. I never consider myself a “journal” person, but at the time it was therapeutic to put a pen to paper. If you are going through something similar, you may relate to the bewilderment and confusion I felt at that time. Please know you are not alone.
April 3, 2015 is the day life as I knew it changed forever. I frantically pulled in to work at 8:22 that Good Friday morning with a to-do list 5ft long. Large coffee in hand, and I was already mentally prepped to crush my to-do list for the day so I could be out the door by 6pm and on my way to my parent’s house for Easter weekend. I don’t know why I remember it was 8:22, but maybe because that’s the last minute I remember seeing the clock before life changed forever.
At 8:22 my phone rang. Dad. Weird. Dad never calls on a work day, especially not in the morning. I answer: “What’s up, I just got to work I’ll call you when I’m on my way tonight”-one sentence, rushed, not paying attention.
Dad: “ I need you to come home. Something’s happened to Mom. She’s not well.” Dad also never asks me to do anything, let alone demand I do anything. He would never ask me to leave work.
Let me back up by saying I’ve never in my life worried about my mom. Healthy, stable, the caretaker, bill payer, grocery runner, organizer, non-drinker, early to bed, early to rise. She hadn’t been feeling well for about a week. As we discovered, a week or two is all it takes. I honestly hadn’t talked to my parents that much that week because I knew I was seeing them for the weekend so I didn’t have an idea of how sick she was or how she had been feeling. She had gone to the doctor Thursday, and they sent her home with an order for blood work. She couldn’t be THAT bad if they sent her home from the doctor, right?
It was Good Friday which is significant because my dad had the day off. He didn’t have plans to golf. It’s a rare occurance he’s not out the door by 7am. That’s the only reason my mom didn’t die at home that day. Someone, somewhere, made him stay home that morning. He must have sensed how horrible she felt, so he was planning to take her for her bloodwork that morning. She showered, got dressed, and put her shoes on. Her shoes were on the wrong feet.
She walked to the stairs and walked down one step. She froze on the top step and couldn’t move, speak, or express why. My brother woke up at this point and helped my dad guide her back to the bed. They called an ambulance and that’s when the day from hell began. They sent her to the local hospital, ran tests, and immediately put her back in the ambulance to go to Providence. That’s when my dad called me. He was in the ambulance with her. Little did we know he was on the way to our new life of hospitals, wheel chairs, canes, medicine, speech impairment, rehab facilities, blood counts, hair loss.
I leisurely left work and went home to pack a bag. Little did I know these were my last few hours of life as I knew it. Life before cancer had just ended. Sometimes I wish I could freeze those hours and relive them. Just to remember what it was like BEFORE.
I got to the ER and she had one of four beds. Come to find out, that means there’s something seriously wrong. I removed her earrings, held her hand, and told her she was going to be okay when she asked. Also, I lost one of those earrings that day. I don’t lose things, let alone valuable things. We had no idea what was to come, but I could tell it wasn’t good: her right hand was weak, and when she was asked what a “watch” was, she answered with difficulty “latch.” She also answered her height was “1 foot 2” and answered my dad’s birthday when she was asked her own. Little did we also know those incorrect answers were the last words she would speak for months.
The hours that followed were some of the scariest, worrisome, and emotional hours of our lives. Machines, MRIs, catheters, machines beeping, buzzing, the hospital SMELL. Questions: has she traveled out of the country? Well no, but we went to Puerto Rico in December. Does that count? Is she HIV positive? No? Where the fuck was this going?
By late afternoon, she had a diagnosis. I make that sound like it was a smooth transition from day to afternoon, but it wasn’t. It was the longest afternoon of our lives. The ER doctor sat us down in the hallway. He told us she has Leukemia, which caused her to stroke. She was starting chemo NOW. They were waiting for a bed to open in the ICU for her. The oncologist was on his way to speak with us. At that point I was so oblivious I didn’t know oncologist meant “cancer doctor.” Nor did I know that ICU meant, for my mom, weeks of fighting between life and death.
The weeks to follow were hands down the most difficult, exhausting, overwhelming, horrifying, shocking , the list goes on and on…weeks of my life. I’m ending here today with a reminder that you are not alone. I’m also ending here today to let you know my mom defied all odds and survived this catostrophic illness that consumed her body. She was not left unharmed and lives with impairments, but she is currently cancer free. The way people came together for us was truly remarkable and my family, and most likely my mom, would not have made it if it wasn’t for the overwhelming support we received from our family, friends, neighbors, hospital staff, and strangers.