As Kelly Clarkson’s popular lyrics proclaim, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” If my life has taught me anything, it has taught me that…
Those of you who follow the blog and keep up with my story know that I haven’t been feeling well the past few weeks. Those of you who didn’t know, or came across this blog by accident when trolling the web, I can honestly say this week has been one of the most difficult of my life. My husband can certainly attest to that, as he has been the one to take my hand and lead me across parking lots and over uneven pavement when I feel dizzy. Jon has watched me stumble my way to my classroom, which happens to be as far away from the front gate as any classroom on campus. (Bonus: you can only reach it be climbing or descending at least two sets of stairs.) He’s the one who’s had to rub my back when I’m up puking in the middle of the night, and he’s the one who’s had to patiently try to encourage me as I attempt to shower and dress for work. This act sometimes ending in complete and utter failure. Several times last week my attempts at normalcy were thwarted and I had to run to the bathroom to throw up last night’s spaghetti. The last few weeks I’ve playing mind tricks with myself: if I can just wake myself up with a shower, hold off the nausea for a few hours, and not turn my head too much, maybe I can make it through the day. More often that not, though, I have been unable to do so.
When Dr. Majlis told me last week that I might have vertigo instead of cancer, Jon and I, and probably all of my friends and family clung to that belief. I mean, it made sense: I was having dizziness and nausea, which could have been attributed to the hearing problems I’ve been having in my right ear ever since my last treatment. The problem comes and goes, but I recently flew to Brazil and the change in air pressure tends to make the ear more clogged, so I believed I had vertigo like everyone else.
But as I kept hearing stories about people who actually suffered from vertigo I became a little suspicious. According to their stories they felt awful (Check), threw up when they moved their head (Check) and basically could not move for many days (Check). However, I did notice some obvious differences as well. Most people complained that they weren’t able to go to sleep because lying down brought on the spins. And then I realized, although I am very dizzy, the world hasn’t really been spinning for me. It’s more like everything reverts to slow motion when I turn my head or change directions. It’s like those pictures taken with long exposure of night stars slowly moving across the sky and leaving behind a streaky trail. That’s what my vision feels like at times.
When the medicine the neurologist gave me for vertigo (the same one that others have sworn by) wasn’t working and made me sicker instead… I knew. However, I gave the vertigo theory one more try and let Dr. Majlis prescribe some new, stronger stomach medicine for me. It worked for a little bit, just in time for me to enjoy a wonderful tasting menu at 99 with a guest chef from Mexico. (I guess if I had to pick one night to feel good, that would have been the one. That deliciousness was the only meal that has gone down successfully in the last few weeks). However, my good feelings started to slow as Santiago was inundated with rain over the weekend. Our city is not equipped for handling rain and so the rivers overflowed and enveloped the streets in mud and running water. Close to a million people did not have potable water as the water treatment plant was hit by a muddy landslide and needed to shut down before it could operate again. School was cancelled, which was good because I had been feeling too weak to grade or write comments, which were due Tuesday, but all I kept thinking was, “Gosh: I hope I can make it to my MRI appointment tomorrow.”
Well, the water retreated and we were able to get the scan done, but not before I had a major meltdown in the Imageniologia section of the hospital. Apparently since we hadn’t booked the exam through International Patients, we had to pay for the MRI upfront and get reimbursed later. It was either that or wait until April 29 for the machine to be available again and for my insurance to pre-approve the procedure. Well, after some yelling, blaming, and child-like antics, we decided to cough up the credit card and get the test done. Although the unfriendly man checking me in at the counter thought I was a nut job, the MRI was actually a welcome relief from all of the grading I had done that day. I was finally alone and could close my eyes for the next 1.5 hours. When I returned home at 8:00 to finish inputting the grades and comments I found that the grading system was down again, so I went to bed, unable to finish my work, but grateful for the time spent laying my head on the pillow.
In the morning, I forced myself to get out of bed to go to school and finish those grades because I knew, I just knew, that I had to get them done before the MRI results. I had three fruit drops and no breakfast that morning, in order to keep the nausea at bay. It was a horrible day but I managed to finish my grading on time. Phew! So off we went to receive the MRI news. Going in to the results I knew there was about a 50-50 chance that I was sick again, so I tempered my expectations. I know Jon did too. It would have been great to confirm that I do, indeed, have vertigo, but we both had seen that I had been feeling pretty bad, so I was prepared for the worst. Dr. M greeted us with a weak smile instead of his usual jovial expression, so as I entered the room, I steeled myself for the inevitable.
Although my previous lesions were disappearing, he said, the MRI found new lesions at the base of my skull. The largest is about 2 cm and is what has been causing my dizziness and nausea. All my fears had come true… the cancer was back. All the air was immediately sucked out of my body and I didn’t know what to do. How would I tell the bad news to my family members and friends who have offered me such support? Jon and I sat in silence for a while, alone with our thoughts, while the doctor scheduled an appointment with the radiologist in order to go over our treatment options. He then prescribed some more steroids to ease the swelling in my brain. When I was walking out of the office to get my steroid drip, the enormity and unfairness of the situation hit me and I began gasping for air. As I lost control of my body, I grasped onto Jon’s arm for dear life and basically let him pull me to the outpatient section of the hospital. A nurse that has been administering my treatment and taking care of me for the last three years had to console me and let me cry on her shoulder. When I stopped blubbering, they hooked me up and then began the agonizing wait. The treatment took about two hours, much longer than we expected. But the time spent at the clinic gave me time to control my emotions before I called my family. I was grateful, as Jon and I were able to make those important yet horrific calls with as much emotional detachment as humanly possible. I think we had both become numb. Somehow, we were even able to pick up some dinner and watch a chef show on Netflix to get our minds in the right place to be able to sleep.
Although I slept peacefully, I awoke early this morning and immediately remembered everything from the day before. In that dark room, my fears pounced on me and carried me down some really dark paths. I wasn’t sure I had the strength to battle cancer and the effects of treatment again. Luckily, my dog, Chingy, heard me silently crying and jumped onto the bed to sniff my face and lick my tears. Satisfied that it was me and not a cat, he gave a big yawn, blasting his stinky doggy breath in my face, and then harumphed down on my pillow, his head resting on my shoulder, and his soft fur conveniently catching the rest of the tears on my cheek. As I watched him drift back into doggy land, I could hear my wonderful and long-suffering husband snoring softly on the other side of him. It was only then that I had a momentary thought: “Maybe I CAN do this again after all.”