Cancer Action is such an important agency to our family. I’ve been involved with them for almost 9 years, and last year, I was asked to speak at their annual Champions for Survivorship Breakfast. Here is the speech I gave about my personal cancer story and my love for Cancer Action.
When you decided to attend this morning’s breakfast, you probably weren’t expecting to hear someone tell you a love story. But something you should know about me is that I love big, and I love hard. So a love story is what you’re getting this morning.
I met my husband, Chad, when I was 19 years old. The night we met, he asked for my phone number, but the screen on his flip phone was cracked, so he asked me to write it down on a piece of paper he pulled out of his wallet. The piece of paper had two other girls’ names and phone numbers on it, so I threw it in the trash, wrote my name and number on a paper towel, and said something really smooth about how it was the only number he would ever need. That night, I knew two things: 1) neither one of us had any game, and 2) I was in love. That second thing took some more convincing on his part. (Probably because I do things like tell embarrassing stories in front of a couple hundred strangers.) But eventually I did, and we were married in June 2007. I was 24 years old.
Shortly after our wedding, we bought our first house in a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where we were both born and raised. We were so excited and couldn’t wait to entertain in our new home. At the beginning of November 2007, we threw a big housewarming party and invited all of our friends into our new home. We had so much fun…maybe a little too much fun. The next morning, I had a terrible headache, but I assumed it was from all that fun I mentioned before. But it didn’t go away. For several days, every day, I had a headache. And not just your typical, “I can take some Aspirin” type of headache, because believe me, I tried that. It was debilitating. It was hard to focus; it made me nauseous; I could barely make it through the day at work. But like so many of us have done before, I tried to power through, thinking it would get better. Finally, on a day off from work, I decided to go to the doctor. He asked very few questions and determined that I was having migraines. Made sense to me, so I took that answer, filled the prescription, and felt satisfied that I would wake up the next day feeling better. But I didn’t. In fact, the headaches got worse, and I was nauseous all the time. I would somehow make it through the day at work, come home, and immediately go to bed. Not a great way to spend our first few months of marriage.
I would call the doctor’s office almost every day, and I would get comments about how the medicine takes time to work, and if I didn’t feel better in 6-8 weeks, I could come back to explore other options. One day, I couldn’t handle it anymore, so I walked in the doors of my doctor’s office with no appointment, determined to get answers. I was told that my doctor was not in, but the Physician’s Assistant would be able to see me if I was okay to wait for a bit. It didn’t take long before I was in an exam room speaking with a nurse and eventually the PA. We went through my symptoms, and I finally felt like someone was listening. And then she asked, “Have we done a pregnancy test?” My first reaction was to laugh, but I said, “Oh no, I’m on birth control, and we just got married. I’m not pregnant.” Apparently I slept through middle school biology with that answer. Thankfully she persisted with having me take a test, “just in case.” A few short minutes later, she came in the room, smiling, “Congratulations!” But she must have seen the look of confusion, or fear, or whatever, on my face, because her smile faded. She told me that my test was positive, and I was pregnant. Of course Chad and I had planned to have children, just not this quick. But my bigger concern was the effect the migraine medicine might have had on this surprise of ours. Thankfully, the doctor shared my concern, spoke to my OBGYN, and was able to get me an appointment the following day.
At this time, Chad was working the night shift at work, so his days were spent catching up on sleep. After my appointment, I drove straight home and didn’t think twice about waking him up from his precious sleep. If I was going to be freaked out, he was along for the ride! I woke him up, and he listened to me and watched me cry through his groggy eyes. Always the calmer side of our relationship, he assured me that everything would be fine, and we would get some answers the following day.
We went to the doctor the next afternoon, and I was immediately taken to an ultrasound room with a tech. I will never forget this sweet girl’s face as she searched that small little screen for some good news to share. At the time, I didn’t know a thing about ultrasounds, but I knew her silence meant something was wrong. She said that I could go ahead and get dressed, and I would want to get my husband from the waiting room and meet her, and the doctor, in an exam room.
Chad and I waited in that room for what seemed like an eternity. When the doctor entered the room, her normal positive and upbeat demeanor seemed to have been left in the hall. The conversation that followed was, and still is, a blur. “You were pregnant, but you’re not, but we need to do surgery, and HcG levels, but chemo, but not, and 1 in 3 million women, but everything will be okay.” My head was spinning, but I was able to determine that my positive pregnancy test was caused by a tumor that had formed in my uterus, and I needed to have surgery the following morning to remove it. I made the necessary arrangements to have the day off from work, and I told them I would be back the following Monday morning.
The next morning, I had the surgery, everything went well, I went home to sleep it off, and I was back at work on Monday. The doctor did tell me that I would need to have bloodwork done every week for 4 weeks to ensure they “got it all.” I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew I needed to do it. So I did. First week, fine. Second week, fine. Third week, I got the call.
I remember that I was sitting in the back room at work, eating my lunch, and I saw an incoming call from my doctor’s office. (By this time, it was the most recognizable number in my phonebook.) Honestly, I couldn’t really tell you what the nurse said. I didn’t understand anything she was saying. At the same time, my call waiting was beeping in my ear repeatedly, so I asked the nurse to please hold on. When I answered, the woman identified herself as calling from Cancer Care Associates and that she was needing to set up my treatment schedule. HUH? I asked if I could call her back, explaining that I was on another call. I went back to the original nurse, trying to get some clarity. Not understanding, I said, “Well I can’t do that, I have to work.” And her response was a statement that changed my entire life: “Molly, I don’t think you understand, you have cancer.”
The feeling in that moment, and in the 8 months that followed, can only be summed up with the word confusion. Through the pills, the injections, the PICC line, the infusions, the doctor’s appointments, the tests, the hair loss…confusion. I just went through the motions, arrived when and where I was supposed to, and prayed for an end. By the end of my treatment, I was going to the treatment center every single morning before work, receiving two hours of chemotherapy, and then driving straight to work to work a full day. The nights and weekends were hard. I was tired. I was sick. I was sad. I went through the unique experience of having my husband shave my head in the kitchen of that brand new home, which not really something I wish on any couple. But I also got to shave his head in an act of solidarity, and that was super fun! When we got married, I didn’t think I could love Chad any more than I did in that moment, but this experience proved me wrong. He cleaned my PICC line every single night, he attended every doctor’s appointment, he held my hand during every treatment that he could attend, he brought me a molten chocolate cake from Chili’s every single time I asked, because it was literally the only thing I wanted to eat. We celebrated his birthday, my birthday, and our 1-year wedding anniversary while holding hands in a chemo chair. But he’s not a doctor; he’s not a nurse; his experience and education was limited to what we gleaned from the doctors and nurses providing my treatment. Throughout this experience, there was an expectation that we should know things without being told. We didn’t have an advocate or anyone to help us navigate this experience.
But I got better. After 8 months of treatment, I got another call, a nurse telling me that my tumor was gone! I would have to complete a couple of additional weeks of treatment and return periodically for bloodwork, but the end was near.
A couple of years later, Chad and I moved to Kansas City, and I started working for U.S. Bank. Within the first few months, we started our annual United Way Campaign, and I attended an after hours kickoff event. I didn’t really need an event to convince me to donate to United Way; I had seen the impact of these efforts and liked the idea of my money staying in the community. But I’m always in for free pizza, so I was in for the evening. During this event, we were introduced to one of the local agencies that would benefit from our donations. As the woman spoke passionately about her agency, my ears perked (and I took the slice of pizza out of my mouth) when I heard the word “cancer.” I heard her talk about this agency and the services and support they provided to the cancer community, and I couldn’t help but think, “Well where the heck was this when we lived in Tulsa?” Like I said, I was already in for a donation, but I wanted to do more for this agency. Before she could leave, I approached the speaker and asked her if they needed volunteers, thus beginning another love story: my love for Cancer Action.
You see, as I mentioned, when I was diagnosed, when I was in treatment, when I finished chemo, we had no idea what we were doing. My overuse of the word does not escape me, but it truly was a blur of orders and appointments. Cancer Action was that knowledge, that friend, that support that we were missing. Today you will hear more and more about the support and services that Cancer Action provides to our community, and I can confidently tell you that does NOT exist anywhere else. And that one simple inquiry into volunteering almost 8 years ago led to many volunteer events and ultimately serving on the board for multiple terms. (Have you met Karla? She has a way of doing this…)
I could share many more love stories with you this morning, like how my love for running and involvement with the Kansas City Marathon connected them with Cancer Action, resulting in them becoming one of the charity partners…or how my love for my company and our employees has helped connect many of them to Cancer Action in either a volunteer or recipient capacity…or how my love for my friends and family (many of whom are here today) has brought them to volunteer, donate, and support Cancer Action…but I would be remiss if I did not leave you with one final love story.
Although my treatment was completed many years ago, and I celebrated my 10-year anniversary of being cancer free on July 7th, my journey did leave me with one lasting effect: the inability to conceive a child. Chad and I always knew that we wanted to adopt, so when we learned that we would not be able to conceive a child, we knew this was our direction. Before we started the process, I mentioned to Karla what we were planning, and she reminded me that our very own Program Coordinator, Shirley Gibson, had previously worked in the adoption field and would be a great resource. That led to us to being connected with the agency that brought us our son, Jack, one of the greatest love stories of my life. So just when I thought I couldn’t love this agency more, we have a walking, talking, sassy reminder of their commitment to community and the support of everyone that they meet.
I consider myself blessed to know Karla, Shirley, the Cancer Action employees, volunteers, and Board of Directors, and I feel honored to be a part of their world.