I remember the first time I realized that those number signs on the side of the highway were mile markers. I don’t recall how old I was, but it must have been on one of those rare vacations for our family when “Are we there yet?” was a constant refrain. I suspect that my frazzled parents thought that having me count them would keep me occupied, focused on the destination, rather than how long before we arrived. I don’t doubt that whomever came up with the idea of such road decor had children of his own.
But what has been interesting to discover is the fact that the official term for them is milestones because when the ancient Romans first used them on their dusty roads, they were, quite literally, made of stone. It’s a cool bit of trivia. Hey, you might find yourself on Jeopardy someday.
Now, of course, there is a completely different connotation to the word. It marks a significant change, direction or development in one’s life. And focusing on the positive, we reserve the designation for happy times. Yup, we celebrate and cheer for the milestones.
And so, is it any wonder that I pause now to look at the significant moments on this journey? Sure, I have had flat tires and gone off the road, landing in a ditch every once in a while, but I have stayed the course and kept the faith. The Lord is my traveling companion, which gives me confidence. So far, so good.
The doctor who presented me with the news of my stage 4 diagnosis, gently explained that I would probably have a few months at best, and although he referred me for treatment, he was quick to add that my cancer was far too advanced to merit a positive prognosis. I think he was trying to help, to not build any false hope. But I learned quickly that if I was to survive, I had to be stronger than I ever thought possible. And in the process I have discovered a great deal about who I am, both physically and spiritually. It has been eight months, and I am still here, grateful for each day I get to enjoy.
And truth be told, the time since receiving that initial verdict has been a blur, like the road as you whiz by in a speeding car. The scenery has been varied and ever-changing, the appointments and tests never-ending, with each new experience providing a lesson. I learned that the image difference between a PET scan and a CT scan is like that between a black and white and a color TV. The former requires that you sit totally still for 45 minutes as the radioactive dye courses through your veins. And for somebody with ADD, that is no small feat. The imaging tube is a bit claustrophobic, but it helps to mentally sing little songs or recite that poem you were forced to memorize in the seventh grade. Praying is a real plus, the spiritual medicine as important as the pharmaceuticals.
I was drained twice, with three liters of malignant fluid removed from my swollen belly at each. The second time, a few weeks into treatment, I made friends with the ultrasound tech who measured my tumor when the doctor left the room even though she wasn’t supposed to, and then prayed in gratitude with me when she announced that he was down from 10cm to 8.
I had a biopsy, a tiny scalpel inserted into my abdomen to take a sample of the alien. I worried that he would release millions of toxic cells in response, but that didn’t happen, much to my relief. Two days later, I had a port inserted, the tiny tube threaded through my veins under local anesthesia. I was nervous about that one, but a two hundred and fifty pound male nurse, who seemed better suited for the NFL than the ICU, held my hand the entire time. The doctor, asked me about books and how to get his son off of technology long enough to read more. I was flattered that he thought me expert enough to seek my opinion.
And then there was chemo, nine weeks of long infusions with all of the predictable, difficult side effects, including a nasty blood clot that had dangerously lodged in my jugular vein. I was fortunate that was caught in time. But I responded well to the poison and weapon of choice in the battle against the alien. When the results for the third scan came in. we all cheered that the mass had been significantly reduced and surgery was scheduled. My wonderful doctor chose someone equally skilled to perform my surgery. And he worked alongside him for the hours that it took to painstakingly examine every bit of tissue, removing as much of the disease as they could. “Optimal,” they called it. And when I saw him three weeks post op, he reviewed that pathology report and delivered the good news: with the exception of a few residual spots on my colon, the surgery was a success. He hugged me as I cried. Three months ago, I learned that mine was his last surgery. He retired shortly after my office visit. I guess not all milestones are happy ones, but I am thankful that our paths crossed, grateful for his skill and care.
Five weeks post op, I was back in the chemo chair for another nine weeks, one last sweep, to rid my body of the remaining residual cells. And yes, I am once again bald, having proudly sported a little bit of dark hair for a month or so. I also developed a sensitivity to the infusion drugs, which packed 26 pounds onto me. Yeah, that was an unexpected detour…. to buy pants that fit.
Whew…. That’s a lot of milestones.
For women with ovarian cancer, there are few tests to measure progress in the fight. But the CA-125 is the standard, a report card of sorts as it serves to measure a specific protein present in the blood. It is referred to a tumor marker. Normal is between 0 and 38. At diagnosis, mine was at 1650. Two weeks into chemo and after the two fluid drains, it was 975. Three weeks before surgery it was down to 91. And this week, it was 8.5. I cheered loudly on hearing that beautiful number, the most significant milestone of them all.
I pause to study my map: I can see the destination in the distance.
Following chemo, I have yet another scan, just to see how it all worked. I joke with the technician. I am certain that my body glows in the dark from all of the radiation and poison injected into my veins. And then comes the moment of truth as I meet with my new gyno oncologist, who happened to have done my surgery. His nurse is a miracle worker. She has managed to get a copy of the report, even though it was ordered by the chemo facility 60 miles away. He clears his throat, looks me in the eye and smiles. “Paula, you are NED.” My heart skips a beat. I know full well that means “no evidence of disease.” I ask him to repeat it. “You are in remission and free to live your life again,” he simply says. This is the biggest milestone of them all. I weep for joy, swept up in a feeling of gratitude that can’t be explained in something as simple as words. My mind begins to race. I have been granted a miracle. It takes a moment for the enormity of that to settle into my heart, for my perception to shift, like the tectonic plates. And for me, the earth has indeed moved a little. I thank him, my new doctor… but more importantly, I thank Him, the Lord above, to whom all glory is given. God is good. Always.
Am I cured? No. Cancer doesn't carry that kind of hope. I have fluid on my spleen, which we will watch and then, there is osteoporosis, a gift from the chemo fairy. But the doc didn't seem concerned about those, so neither am I. The recurrence rate for this disease can be as high as 90%, according to some sources. Regardless, it is a pretty sobering statistic. My BRCA test is negative, which eliminates some of the genetic predisposition for other related cancers. There a new drug, a parb inhibitor that can possibly reduce the time between battles. That lies down the road since I am not eligible for it yet. I pray not to be stuck in a roundabout, or worse, headed in the same direction from which I came. But this is not the day to worry about such things; besides, optimism has become my middle name. And this new doctor has assured me that he is prepared to fight for my life with the most current weapons available. I am encouraged. Comforted. My faith is strong. I continue to repeat a newly coined word I recently read as it pertains to this disease. Ovacome. And indeed, I intend to do just that.
Honestly, to appreciate the journey, you must look back at how far you have trekked, at the markers placed by each significant moment, lined up in an inanimate salute. I have traversed a long and winding road, and while I have no idea what waits around the bend, but that is true of most travelers, who find themselves on an unfamiliar path. But I am no longer afraid. I am of good cheer, filled with joy, and most certainly led by the most Divine Guide of them all, who has been by my side every step of the way. And onward, we go. Except now, I am headed toward an oasis… And it sure is beautiful.