Hearing the words, "You have cancer", is never easy for anyone, but hearing the words, "You have cancer", when it comes to one of your children is like your whole world explodes around you. It was like those words came into my life and crushed every wall I had tucked around myself and her. Before this moment, my family had been dealing with my son's chronic illness. He was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease called Nephrotic Syndrome and developed frequent Pancreatitis because of a steroid he was on for over a year. Eventually, our family managed to adapt, change, and deal with his illness like it was an everyday thing. I started to feel normal again . . . sort of, but all that changed on November 22, 2017. (The day before Thanksgiving.)
For over two months numerous crazy ailments were affecting my daughter's body. She was having frequent joint pain, mood swings, and headaches that weren't normal. She was all of the sudden getting into actual fist fights with her friends and pushed away from everyone, including me. I'll admit, my relationship with her was strained at this time. I had grown so close to my son over the last year because of his illness that she often got jealous and would say I didn't love her. Which, of course, was not the case, but when you're the "normal child" and the child who's not sick, you often find yourself starving for attention.
I remember her diagnosis day like it was yesterday. The Monday of that week I had taken her in to get her checked for Lyme Disease, begging the doctor to do some blood tests to humor me. She had been bitten by tick in September and all of her symptoms were those of a tick bite, ( or so I thought).
He ran his tests and that Wednesday I got "the call".
At first, they couldn't get a hold of me so they called my husband. He called me at work and told me that I needed to call the doctor back immediately. When I did, the nurse told me that I had to pick up my daughter and get over to the office right away. She wouldn't tell me anything over the phone, just that I needed to get there NOW.
I didn't know what I was walking into, just that something was wrong--very wrong. I picked up my kids and rushed to the doctor's office only to wait there for an hour and half before they actually saw us. It was ridiculous. My heart raced, my nerves were shot, and I had no idea what was wrong. We sat in the room for thirty minutes just waiting for him to walk in. I tried to keep her spirits high, but something in the back of my mind could sense that something was wrong.
He walked in frowning. (Not a good sign.) He sat down, and looked me straight in the eye and said, "I'm not going to lie, this isn't good news. Her blood results came back and her white blood cell count is 80,000. Now, at this point in time my mind says, "White blood cells are the fighters, they are the good cells." Not realizing this meant what it did. I asked him what it meant, and he told me that in all the years as a doctor he's never seen a WBC (White Blood Cell count) this high before. The closest he's ever seen was in the 30k range and that was with someone who had cancer--Leukemia.
I looked over at my daughter. I could see the anguish and fear in her eyes. I could see her already starting to crumble. Immediately, I turned off every fear of my own just so I could be there for her. I didn't cry. I didn't freak out. I just acted as calm as possible. When the first tear fell down her face, I wanted to wipe it away and tell her everything was going to be okay, but the doctor beat me to it.
"Aww, Sugar, I'm not saying you have Leukemia. I'm just saying I have to treat it like Leukemia until we can rule it out."
I didn't know what to say.
The word alone strikes fear in anyone who hears it.
It's the only word we contribute to such a cantankerous word.
I tried not to think about it, but it was there lingering in the back of my mind. "Does this mean I'm going to lose her." Again, no emotion, no fear, no tears ever fell from my eyes. I wanted to be strong for her even though my mind was going crazy with worry.
We were sent to Children's Hospital. On the way there I called my husband at work to give him the "News". I don't know what he felt at the time because we never really talked about it. I just told him that I would call him once we got to the hospital. I called my mom because I needed to talk to someone about it, but at that time I didn't have any information just a "you have cancer . . . maybe." Arriving at the ER at Children's was crazy, and before I knew what was happening our deepest fears were confirmed. She did have cancer . . . Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia to be exact. Luckily, the form of Leukemia my daughter has is the one with the highest success rate of being cured.
It took me three days to shed my first tear. It was when she was sleeping and I looked over at her and for a second I pictured her dead. It was a morbid thought, but trust me, every parent who hears the words, "your child has cancer" has had this moment. It only lasted a few seconds, but I realized that I never want to lose her. I cried myself to sleep. I never made a sound. I just let the tears fall and fall and fall, getting out every emotion I could until I regained my strength. I knew she needed that. I became her rock, her best friend. That bond we never really had changed into something more. She's now the strongest person I know, and I look at her every day admiring her for the positivity and strength she maintains on a daily basis. I'm closer to her than I am to anyone else right now, and if there is one thing I can thank cancer for, it's building this amazing relationship with my daughter.
The next few months were crazy. I had to quit my job because we were in out of the hospital every week and I couldn't juggle a full-time job or even a part-time job and cancer at the same time. I had to watch her go from the extremely healthy girl that she once was, to a broken shell of illness that would sometimes crumble right before my eyes.
I can count the number of times I cried on one hand. Shit, I'm tearing up right now just remembering those first few weeks of her diagnosis. It's hard being strong when everything inside of you seems to be quickly falling apart. It's not easy watching your beautiful child go through so many changes. I thought I'd cry when she lost her hair--I didn't. Two weeks before it started happening we chopped a lot of it off so that it wouldn't be as hard for her. It was still hard--so hard. She came out of the bathroom holding a huge clump of her beautiful brown locks in her hand. She was fisting it, trembling as she told me how she ran her fingers through her hair and it fell from her head so easily. It was a metaphor for what we were up against in the years to come. I knew I wouldn't be able to handle it happening every day. I didn't want to watch her go through that, but I made it her decision to shave her head. She lost all her hair that day, deciding it was easier to get rid of it all at once instead of waiting for it to fall out on it's own. Let me just say, she's even more beautiful without hair than she is with it. (Image taken by Dannie Thompson Photography)
It had become so normal seeing my child without hair that I don't even remember the last time she had it without looking back at pictures. She never wanted to wear a wig. She was strong enough to wear hats without feeling self-conscious. She never let cancer beat her. We still have two years to go, but everyday it became normal for all of us. Cancer just became a thing she had, instead of a thing that was slowly killing her. The weird thing about cancer is that the hardest thing isn't actually having cancer, but how it changes everything around you. Some of the closest people in our lives started pulling away. Family, friends, you name it. Complete strangers became our biggest allies, people that should've been there for us never were, we quickly realized that the only people we could rely on for sure was our tiny family of four.
Cancer changed everything for us.
My son became enraged with jealousy that she had all the attention now. He didn't understand why so many people were fussing over her and why his illnesses meant nothing anymore. It wasn't that they didn't mean anything to us, it was just that his illness was in remission and he was healthier than she was now. He still has trouble understanding this. To quote him, "he's supposed to be the sick child, not her." My daughter admitted to me one night that she prayed to God to take away my son's pain, to make her the sick one and not him. When she told me that, I cried. It's such a selfless wish, and I bet she never imagined anything like this would happen to her. She made that wish so he wouldn't have to struggle anymore, she took away his pain. I'm happy to announce he's slowly starting to get better, but when I say cancer changes everyone around you, I mean it.
2018 was probably the hardest year on our family to date.
Everything changed for us, especially for me and my daughter.
You would think that quitting my job would have given me more time to write. It was quite the opposite really. I couldn't write. I couldn't do anything. I didn't feel. I didn't move unless it was to take her to the hospital. My daily ritual was assessing and fussing over my daughter looking for anything and everything that would show any sign of a relapse. She spent almost all of her time either in the hospital or at home sick. My mind became a jumbled mess of crazy. I lost the ability to sleep. I would just sit and stare at anything that was an electronic device just to keep my mind off what was happening to her.
Sometimes my laptop would just sit on my lap with a word document open and only one sentence written for the day. I just couldn't do it. Writing wasn't important to me anymore . . . she and my son became my only priority.
2018 was a year of ups and downs. We had our extreme lows and we had some pretty amazing highs. I got to watch the whole world fall in love with my daughter after she requested postcards for her birthday. Complete strangers changed our lives, making the impossible possible for us. We had so many amazing things happen to our family in the last half of 2018. Over 7,000 postcards, cards, and packages were delivered to our house just for her, and some for my son, too. She even received postcards from celebrities, such as Tom Hanks, Toby Keith, Why Don't We, Steve Harvey, Governor Mary Fallon, Donald and Melania Trump, and George H.W. Bush. We made friends with a group of amazing bikers that drove up all the way from down in Texas just to meet her and hand deliver their cards themselves. We now are proud to call them our extended family and friends and couldn't imagine our lives without knowing them. Another big thing that happened in 2018 was that we got to go to Disney World for her make-a-wish trip. For one full week, she was healthy and cancer didn't affect her as much. Disney World is truly magical, because for that whole week the only thing we focused on was having fun and all the negativity surrounding cancer vanished during that time. It was a much needed break for us all.
Her postcard request had traveled so far so fast, that she was the topic of many local and online news reports, newspaper articles, and her story was even featured on the Steve Harvey show where he introduced her to her favorite band Why Don't We. After making a surprise video for her on the show, the band actually flew out to Oklahoma to surprise her at a radio station. We were able to go to a pop-up concert the next day in Dallas, where she got to see the band perform, meet some of their family members, and even had lunch with them after the concert. It was a great day, and one she and I will always remember.
As 2018 came to a close, life started getting easier for us. Our daughter finally hit the maintenance stage of her chemo and only had to go to the doctor once a month instead of every week. She started going to school more, her hair started growing back, and life almost seemed normal again. Then towards the end of the year, we found out that she also had a side effect of a steroid she was on. The same steroid that gave my son pancreatitis had given our daughter AVN - Avascular Necrosis. Which basically means that my daughter's hip bone is slowly deteriorating. I went from watching her lose her hair, to watching her be confined to a wheel chair for an unforeseen amount of time. She can walk, but they advise her to not do too much of it otherwise she may need a hip replacement or surgery at the age of 13.
So yeah, 2018 was definitely a year of highs and lows.
On a personal level, I think one of the things that was deeply affected by cancer was my ability to write.
I managed to finish one book in 2018, but it was different than my normal rom-coms. It was actually an anti-romance filled with angst and darkness. I couldn't write funny even if I tried during that time. There was nothing funny about 2018 for me. That dark book turned into my biggest flop. I took a risk when I published it, and that risk didn't pay off. But that's okay, because I wrote what I needed to write at the time and I stand behind it. Sure, it's not the normal romance trope, but it was real, and reality was something I was facing on a daily basis in 2018.
When the ball dropped on January 1, 2019, I realized that I spent the last fourteen months so focused on everyone else that I forgot one very important thing--myself. Not only did I let my health go, but I also let my writing go, too. My sales suffered, my writing suffered, my soul suffered.
I knew I needed to change the negativity of 2018 and turn it into something positive for myself.
That's why 2019 is going to be the year of change for me. Even though we still fight cancer everyday, this year I'd like to make sure that I'm taking care of myself, too. I already finished a book that's set to come out in February, and I plan on releasing at least three more by the end of the year. This year I'm not going to let my writing suffer.
If I can give advice to anyone out there who's family or child gets those horrible words, "You have cancer", it's to remember that cancer doesn't define your life. You define it. If you go into it negative and feeling like your life is over, cancer will win. Don't let cancer win. The only way you can beat cancer is to not let it consume you. I let it win for the last year of my life, but not anymore.
This year I fight for me.
I fight for her.
I fight for us.