Tuesday, May 5, 2009

10 Years Ago...

May 5, 1999
I was walking through the parking garage of the Cleveland Clinic when my mom's cell phone rang. We just spent the entire day at the Clinic, going from Dr to Dr to see if anyone could diagnose those lumps in my neck. My blood pressure was taken four times throughout the day and not surprisingly, went up each time. And now Dr. Esclamado was on the phone and wanted to talk to me.

"You have Hodgkin's Lymphoma." He said quite factually.

"What's that?" I asked. Completely naive.

"It's a cancer of the lymphatic system..." he began. I'm not sure I heard much else. Something about some tough days up ahead but a 97% cure rate for this type of cancer.

With my mom in tears and me in a complete state of shock, we got in the car and headed home. I didn't know how something like this could happen to me. I was 25 years old. And I was the healthiest person in that whole damn hospital.

Four days earlier, wetsuit on, I had been in Lake San Antonio waiting for the gun to go off, signaling my wave start at the Wildflower 1/2 Ironman Triathlon. My neck was lumpy and swollen and kinda sore. A doctor told me just before we left for the weekend race that maybe I had mono... we wouldn't know for sure until the test results came back. I told him I couldn't have mono... that he didn't understand my lifestyle. Mono wouldn't fit into my summer racing plans of three half-ironmans and and my third full Ironman. He replied to me, "No, you don't understand. If you have mono, we jump up and down and clap our hands." I had no idea what that crazy doctor meant when he said that but I didn't ask for clarification. I just stomped out of his office, determined to go race the half-ironman I'd been training for.

May 1, 1999
I crossed the finish line at Wildflower in 5:41, a disappointment at the time. My first thoughts after crossing the line... I just didn't have it today. No race gear. Looking back, knowing what I know now, I'm not so upset about that 5:41.

Back in Cleveland at my mom's house, the first thing I did upon arriving home from the hospital was to go for a run. I know my mom thought I was crazy. I'd just been diagnosed with cancer an hour ago and now I'm going to go for a run?? But it was the only way I knew to clear out my mind and figure things out.

45 minutes later I calmly re-entered my mom's house. My summer was planned out in my head. I would go back to my one-bedroom apartment in Tempe, AZ, find a doctor there who would do the staging Dr. Esclamado talked about, and figure out my treatment plan. I was going to continue to live my life as normally as possible throughout this whole thing. I was going to be just fine. Shoot, maybe I'd even do that next race in Lubbock, TX that I was signed up for.

June 1999
The Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale had accepted me as a patient. The numerous tests and scans I went through called my Hodgkin's stage 2a, meaning it had spread down my neck to my chest and armpit, but that other than the lumps, I was symptom-free. It had not passed below my diaphragm, which was good for my prognosis. I would go through four months of chemo followed by a month of daily radiation.

I cried as the first bit of chemo was injected into my i.v. I felt like I was joining a club that I did not want to be a member of. But now that I was a member, I could never get out of the club.

My treatments were every two weeks, usually on a Friday. With that schedule I was able to alternate bad weekends with not-so-bad weekends. That first not-so-bad weekend was the weekend of the Buffalo Springs Lake Triathlon (1/2 Ironman) in Lubbock, TX, I was entered in. I asked the doctor if it would be ok if I still did the race, even though it was after my first chemo treatment. He told me that I could if I felt like it. I think he figured I wouldn't feel like it. But you know what? I felt like it.

June 27, 1999
I flew to Texas with my friends, unpacked my bike, and started swimming when the gun went off. That was a cool race for me, because it was the first one I'd ever done where I seriously did.not.care. about my finish time. It was just about getting to the line that mattered to me. I wanted that finisher's shirt. I wanted to wear that finisher's shirt at my next chemo treatment. To impress the nurses.

Somehow I got to that line in under 6 hours which was a complete shock to me since I walked so much of the 1/2 marathon. It was actually kinda cool being in the back of the pack. People were way more friendly on the run course and there were lots of people with great attitudes to talk to as we trudged along toward the final timing mat. It gave me a whole different perspective on triathlon.

June 30, 1999
At my second chemo treatment. Notice that cool shirt.

That was the end of any more triathlon racing for the year. I pleaded my case with the race directors at IM Lake Placid to roll my entry over to the following year, which they flatly refused to do. That was, until Scott Tinley somehow heard about my request and did whatever he had to do to make it happen. NOT KIDDING- Scott Tinley called me up on the phone and told me that my entry to Ironman Lake Placid had been rolled over to the following year. He is awesome. He didn't know me from anyone and totally didn't have to do that, but he did. And I'm forever a fan.

July 2, 1999
I cried again, but this time it was watching Lance Armstrong win the Prologue of the Tour de France for the first time. Having just completed my second chemo treatment, Lance was my hero. So even though I will be eternally bummed out that he divorced his awesome wife, his accomplishments post-cancer have been an especially personal inspiration to me. I can't help but cheer for him at the Tour again this year.


September 1999
I had my hair cut short because it was all falling out. Eventually I shaved my head. There's a picture of me bald somewhere... just one picture... It's not digital and I'm not sure where it is right now, so you'll just have to use your imagination on that one. Unfortunately I didn't have any cool boyfriend who would shave his head with me. No. My boyfriend at the time broke up with me and started dating one of my training partners. It was after a big fight we had. I was leaving the emergency room at the Mayo Clinic, where I'd been because my red blood cell count had dropped so severely that I couldn't stand up without getting dizzy and feeling like I might pass out. They were talking about giving me a blood transfusion. The BF showed up to be with me a few hours later, with wet hair and goggle marks. Then as we were leaving he asked me if I was going to go to the Triathlon Club meeting that night. Um, no. I think since I spent the whole day in the ER, maybe it would be better if I skipped that meeting and went home to rest. He then said that he didn't like it that my whole life was about cancer now. Um, yeah, it was. So that was the end of that.

Onward and upward...

November, 1999
After 4 months of chemo and plenty of complications that I won't go into right now, it was finally time to move on to radiation. I was looking forward to this because I'd heard that radiation was easier than chemo. Just a daily blast that lasted like 15 seconds. How hard could that be?

I guess it's different for everyone, and of course depends on the area of your body that they are radiating. In my case, they aimed the lasers at my neck and chest, which unfortunately burned my throat in a way that cannot be explained in words. One nurse compared it to getting a blistering sunburn on the inside of your throat. And then being re-exposed to the sun over and over again everyday so it just keeps getting worse. Yeah, something like that. Like I couldn't swallow my own spit because it hurt so bad. And the pain meds they gave me made me nauseous so I threw up 3 to 4 times a day. Acidic puke was not good on my burnt throat. I didn't eat or drink much for the four weeks I went through radiation. In fact, I slept alone in my dark bedroom for something like 18 hours a day just willing this time of my life to be over. At one point, even willing my whole life to be over. I told my doctor, in the last week of treatment, that I would rather die than go in and be blasted by that radiation machine again. Her reaction surprised me. I thought she would force me into the room and make me do it. Instead, she treated me like the adult I was and told me that it was my choice. She told me the statistics on survival rates based upon the total amount of radiation patients received and left me alone in her office to think about it.

Those were possibly the worst 30 minutes of my life as I cried (again) and argued with myself about whether or not I would choose to continue on. It reminded me of being at mile 22 of the marathon in an Ironman. How miserable you can feel at that point, yet being so close to the finish line. Sitting in that doctor's office, I felt like I was there. At mile 22. And there was a bus offering to drive me the rest of the way. But then there would be no finisher's medal. And I would have to explain to my mom and everyone else why I quit. Ok. I could not quit. I was not going to explain to anyone that I quit. Radiate away. I'll just keep sleeping. And puking. And feeling miserable all the way until the end.

December 3, 1999
It was the last day of radiation. Officially the end of my cancer treatments. I drove myself up to the clinic, stopping once on the side of the road to puke out my car door. Puked again in the bushes on the way into the building. I forced myself to walk in and let them zap me one last time. I was so skinny and sick and dehydrated and grey by this time that afterward, rather than letting me go home, they sent me back up to the chemo unit for an i.v. of fluids and electrolytes. Being in the chemo unit made me feel even worse. Especially since I was too dehydrated for them to start an i.v. My veins kept collapsing, and after three tries, I took the power away from the failed vampire and walked myself out to my car, promising that I would drink a bunch of gatorade instead of letting them try with that needle again.

December 10, 1999
After another week alone in my dark bedroom, I emerged with a slightly better ability to swallow. I walked into my bathroom, opened the medicine cabinet, removed all the pain meds and anti-nausea meds and other meds to combat the side effects of all those meds and dumped them all down the toilet. Flush. Ok, I know. Not the most environmentally friendly thing to do. But cut me some slack. It was a monumental moment in my life to get rid of all those meds. Time to let my body heal on its own.

And heal it did. Our bodies are amazing in their abilities to heal themselves.

May 6, 2000
I finished Wildflower 1/2 IM again. It was a huge celebration for me to complete the course again one year post diagnosis.

So if you've ever read this blog before, you know this story has a happy ending. Now I have an awesome husband who has his priorities straight, and the chemo didn't impact my ability to have kids after all. Ten years later... Life is good. :)


Molly said...

Holy crap, Michelle! I had no idea! My sister was diagnosed with cancer when I was 13 so we basically spent my high school years in the hospital for surgeries, chemo, radiation, bone marrow transplant - the works. So anyway, been there, done that. I am practically teary seeing how well you survived it all and how wonderful life has turned out now :)

cat. said...

michelle, i just love you to pieces. i think you are amazing. i already thought that, but now sitting here in a puddle, i am an even bigger fan. you're an inspiration in so many ways and moana is so lucky to have you as her mom!! thanks for sharing all of your journey. here's to lots and lots and lots more!!!

Beth said...

Wow Michelle! What an amazing story! You just never know the pain and challenges people go through in life... You are such a strong and amazing person! Thanks for sharing!

The Chapples said...

Wow, just wow.

As if you weren't my hero already.

Angela and David Kidd said...

Crap, you've almost got me in tears here at work. You are an amazingly strong woman. Moana is lucky to have such a tough mama. I am in complete awe.

Kate Parker said...

Amazing...just amazing. I am in awe.

Rebecca DeWire said...

Thanks for elaborating on your story. After reading your comment on my husband's blog I was in shock that you previously had cancer. You are so strong!

Mnowac said...

What a story! Thank you so much for sharing, you truly are an amazing woman and I am so happy I stumbled acorss your blog (or yours mine, I can't remember!). Congrats on being a survivor and such a warrior. Moana is lucky to have such a great role model as her mamma.

IronMatron said...

Having a baby after having been through that must have been an absolute piece of cake.
Maybe the only people tougher than moms on the race course are moms who have also survived cancer?
You are an amazing person.

IronMatron said...

I also wanted to tell you that I'm running for TNT for a fall marathon (maine or dublin). I think I may want to coach for them eventually, and so I thought I should try doing a run with/for them. I was talking to my fundraising coach yesterday, and she asked me if I knew anyone that had had leukemia or lymphoma. I said no.
and then I read this today. funny how the universe works that way.

kerrie said...

wow - i had no idea! what a truly amazing story! i am so moved. wow. congratulations on your 10 year anniversary!!

Polka Dot Girl said...

Michelle, thanks for sharing all this. I remember hearing some of this, and witnessing it from a distance through the family grapevine - but I so appreciate hearing it from your point of view, looking back on it with what you know now. I remember spending Thanksgiving with you in CA that year -- and being so thankful for you then...and just as thankful for you now. Many hugs from my part of the family to yours...

xo, erin

Sara said...

I seriously have tears in my eyes right now! Congrats on being a survivor!! :-) You're definitely an inspiration!

Lizzie said...

My dad's god daughter had the same form of cancer. She had to drop out of the dance troupe she had been performing in around the world to start treatment. Her grandma was diagnosed at the same time and passed away a couple of months later. She was told she probably wouldn't have kids. She now has a gorgeous 12 year old son and is an athletic trainer and DIY legend!

And speaking of legends - I would never, ever have guessed your story. It's amazing. You have such a strong spirit and I suspect an inspiration to everyone reading this blog. You get the notion that we don't HAVE to do something, we GET to do something. Thanks for sharing!!

Marit Chrislock-Lauterbach said...

Oh my gosh Michelle - I had no idea...absolutely no clue. I hope that you realize how absolutely incredible and amazing you are... I'm sitting here, sobbing, but smiling - because YOU DID IT, you made it... and I couldn't be happier for you and your family. What an inspiration...so touching. Congratulations on 10 years! You inspire me!! Thank you for sharing your story :)

cherelli said...

wow. that was one tough time you had. thanks for letting us in on that; one of my good male friends was set to become a military jet pilot at 21 and got diagnosed with the same thing. 15 years later he says it is one of the best things that ever happened to him - yes it turned his life around but with good effect; he has a great job, appreciates life, and has a wife and two great kids. But it wasn't an easy ride - well done to you for completing that tough journey...

keep on running said...

i would like to thank you for sharing your story, your husband and daughter are so lucky to have you in their lives. It really puts everything into perspective.

Scott DeWire said...

An absolutely amazing and inspiring story!!! Thanks for sharing it.

H said...

Michelle you're truly inspiritional. Huge admiration for your drive, stubborness, gutsy attitude and most of all the strength to keep fighting. There are few people in the world with that special talent, Lance Armstrong is one of them, it sounds to me like you were carved out of a similar stubborn mould. Never giving in, always striving to move on and very talented. Here's to the future good health of you and your amazing family...x

jessica said...

Thanks for sharing this -- really. I lost my mom to cancer when I was a teen, and I can't tell you how transformational it is for me to hear a happy ending like yours. It's just too easy to have such a tragic view of cancer, so I hope people dealing with it manage to find this.

You are one tough Mama :)

Oh, and I totally want to kick that ex-boyfriend in the shins.

Christina Catalanp said...

You are an amazing woman and thank God you found an amazing man to share your life. A true inspiration. Thanks for sharing.

DC Running Mama said...

Wow, Michelle, thank you for sharing your story. I had tears in my eyes reading it and it made me so much more in awe of your strength. Your story is also a cautionary tale against making assumptions about people. Looking at someone's life from the outside (even with insider blogger knowledge) is only a superficial understanding of who a person is. It puts a new perspective on everything I have learned about you in the past few months....and only makes me admire you more. Congratulations on making it through that life struggle and creating such an amazing life.

Angela said...

Out of the bad come the great! Thank you for sharing your story.

Jennifer Harrison said...

GEEZ, it sure makes all you do now EVEN that more amazing. I had to step away from the computer during reading your blog. TRULY inspiring!! WOW you are really really an amazing person and now mother and wife!!! This Triathlon is nothing compared to what you went through! Cancer hits close to home for me too as I spent weeks in the hospital w/ my dad and his lung/bladder cancer in the past few years.
What an inspiration!!

Kathy said...

Hey Michelle:)

It was so wonderful to read your 'entire' story. I only knew 'bits' and 'pieces'; not an easy topic to talk about.

I feel so fortunate to have had our 'paths' cross at sanofi-aventis training.

You are a true inspiration....in so many ways. Thanks for sharing and please know how blessed I am to have you as a friend.

much love,


N.D. said...

You are amazing. That was incredible to read, I never knew the whole story, and you are just amazing. I cannot believe you went through that. And here you are today. Such a great success story.

Charisa said...

So inspiring and amazing! 10 years - what a HUGE milestone! And what a happy place you are in now. So so so glad you hung in there. I could not be happier for you that things turned out the way they did!

Alicia Parr said...

Michelle, you have so much to be proud of. It must have been pretty emotional for you to write that post. Congrats on your 10 year anniversary!

Regina said...

Wow. I just stumbled into your blog and read this post. You embody the spirit of triumph, no doubt. Ironically, I am participating in my first triathlon this summer with TNT. I have a friend who had two bouts with Hodgkin's Lymphoma and has been in remission for 7 years now.

I am so pleased to see you have a lovely husband, adorable baby and you get to live in Hawaii?! I'm hooked. I'll keep coming back. Congratulations! Good on ya!

Kiet said...

Way past my bedtime but I had to stay up to read this entire post. I had no idea Michelle, you fucking beat cancer! I'm just thinking Wow over and over right now.

Unknown said...

As a journalist, I don't usually like blogs, but not only are you a great writer, your words are incredibly inspiring. Your family is beautiful and you are a fantastic fighter and competitor; so glad you got your happy ending. I was just stand-up paddleboarding on the Ironman swim route on my honeymoon and am now back in NYC, debating whether or not to start training for the Ironman now that they have them in NYC. But I figure I should do a marathon first :) It's amazing you survived cancer (and a toxic narcissist apparently) and you have a well-deserved dream life.