Friday, September 30, 2011

The Gift of Cancer...2 Years in

 Happy 2nd Cancerversary to Dan!  Two years ago today, I was headed down the road to college to pick Dan up and take him for a Bone Marrow Biopsy (BMB).  We knew there was something wrong with him but we really weren’t sure what it was.  There was an issue with his blood but we figured it couldn’t be too bad since just a few weeks before he had been running 5-10 miles per day!  We were basically clueless about what was to come and I am grateful for that!  After the BMB, we were told we wouldn’t know for a few days what the results were but that everything had went well.  Afterwards, I brought Dan back to college and drove the 75 miles back home.  It was a relaxing drive…the surgeon had given me the impression there was nothing to worry about so I actually enjoyed the ride home…singing to the radio, etc.  Good thing I did, as it would be the last time I would truly relax for about 8 months!

Later that evening, the phone rang…it was Dan.  He had gotten a phone call at school from the Hematologist that had sent us for the BMB.  He told Dan that he was “pretty sure” that he had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) and would need immediate treatment.  Since we had requested a doctor in Sioux Falls, he said he had arranged for a doctor there to call us to tell us the plan.  Imagine…you are 20 years old…a college student…alone in your dorm room…and someone calls and tells you that you have Leukemia!  I can only imagine the shock, pain and confusion that he went thru in those moments…And then, to have to call his mother and tell her, he had cancer!  I know that was the hardest thing of all for him to go through…knowing the pain I would be in and not being able to hug me!  After he told me, we both cried for a few moments…then I went into fight mode!  Before a race, I had always told him, “Kick some (insert opposing school) @ss”!  So I told him, “We are going to fight this.  We are going to kick Leukemia’s @ss!”  He chuckled and said “Yes, we will!”  That seemed to calm him down…even then I knew that I had to stay calm and in control, so that he would be strong for whatever was ahead.  Then he went off to tell his friends, teammates and coach what was going on and waited for the Sioux Falls doctor to call with the plan.  I can’t comprehend what those conversations were like – I know they were shocked, just as we were.  He would need to leave school the next day to begin treatment…leaving his schoolwork, friends and teammates behind…for a year!
Dan in the hospital with his "fake hair"
  So here we are two years later.  Although Dan has done incredibly well during treatment, there have been many tough times…financial issues, medical issues of all kinds (including a blood clot in the jugular that required 2 shots a day in the stomach for months) and the removal of his Triple Lumen Hickman catheter due to an infection.  When I look back, it is not these things that come to mind first but rather the good things that came our way…the incredible outpouring of support from family, friends & co-workers…the wonderful doctors & nurses that cared for Dan…and the amazing survivors we have met along the way.   The best part of this experience though has been how both Dan and I have grown in the past two years…hence the title “The Gift of Cancer”.

Dan has always been a “good kid”…not that he didn’t get into trouble.  It wasn’t often but when he did, he learned from his mistakes and tried to never do it again.  He was quiet and shy…introverted but thoughtful.  His teachers always said they wished he would speak up more – they were certain he knew the answers but wouldn’t raise his hand!  He rarely started a conversation with someone but would answer, briefly, when spoken to.  Sports were always his focus and after winning state in the 4x800 he earned a bit of swagger!  Schoolwork was important but sometimes he did just enough to get a decent grade…accepting a B when a little more work would have gotten him an A.  He could’ve made it onto the National Honor Society but didn’t want to write the essay – who needs that anyway, right??  That was his mindset.
Dan crossing the finish line at state - State Champs!
 Today, Dan is still a quiet guy but is much more engaging.  After 2 years of doctors, nurses & techs greeting him and asking him how he’s doing he has learned to reach out.  At first, he would just say fine…then, eventually “pretty good” and now he will engage first and tell them about his latest running exploits or his perfect 4.0 from last semester.  His grin has turned into an all-out smile that brightens the room.  He is also so determined to do well in college…the B’s just aren’t good enough anymore and he is now gunning for one of those medals around his neck at graduation in 2013!  He can’t indulge like other kids in the partying…with all the drugs he has in his system, more than one or two drinks are not wise!  Most nights he is in bed by 9 or 10…after the up to 10 miles of running, classes and the chemo, his body is just worn out by the end of the day!  It doesn’t seem to bother him…he keeps the end game in sight and focuses on the ultimate goal…finishing chemo and graduating!  Before, Dan’s prize possession was his medal for winning state in the 4x800 relay.  Today, it has been replaced with a purple medal from the Relay for Life!  The track medal sits at home under glass while the Relay for Life medal goes with him to college to remind of what he’s been thru and what is to come!
 For me the changes have been gradual…I have found my voice…literally…as proven by this blog!  It started out of necessity with Dan’s Caring Bridge to keep everyone informed on his progress and transformed into a growing passion that I am just beginning to realize.  I used to write – both stories and poems but haven’t done it in years.  I am happier & more content with my life now.  I think when you go through something like this you learn to not sweat the little stuff anymore but focus on the bigger picture.  My kid has cancer…so if I make a mistake or someone doesn’t like me or my hair looks like crap…in the big picture, those things are really pretty insignificant!  I am much more positive…to be honest, I was a little bit of a Negative Nellie… looking at the glass half-empty instead of half-full!  I enjoy life more and notice the little things…like the chipmunk in my yard…I’m sure he was there before but I never bothered to look.  I love the feel of the sun or wind on my face and try to take the time to just see what is going on around me!  I am not so hurried anymore!  I take the time to watch the birds and the butterflies in the yard.  I don’t take myself so seriously anymore.  I am finally at peace with who I am and what my life is…boy, that took awhile!

Like everyone says…you find out who your friends are…and I have many more than I thought!  I found support from my brothers & sister and their families as expected but also was lifted up by my work family too!  They put up with my frequent absences and occasional breakdowns and still kept me around – I am so grateful to all of them!  All the Coaches, Parents, Teachers…they all stepped up to help keep us going in this fight.  I actually learned to ask for help…I still have a way to go with that one but I am working on it!  
Dan and I at the ISU Meet in Ames
 But the biggest gift that cancer gave us was each other…that neither Dan or I had to go through this alone…we did it together.  I remember one time early on saying “we had a lumbar puncture” and then I apologized to Dan…I didn’t have the LP, he did!  He answered, “No, we both did…you’ve been with me thru everything.”  So from then on, I used “we” when I talked about anything regarding his illness.  We have gotten very close in the last 2 years…we sure spent a lot of time together.  I did get a little sick of the non-stop viewing of ESPN Sportscenter and the Food Network but I am getting a respite from that when he goes back to school.  The bond we have forged is stronger than ever and is one of the greatest gifts I could ask for.  I would trade places with him in a minute and take on all he has gone through but I know that he is grateful for this gift also.  He wouldn’t be who he is and where he is without the Leukemia.  I wish it could have come to him in a different manner, but “it is, what it is”.  So Happy 2nd Cancerversary Dan…and here’s hoping for many, many more!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What a Difference a Year (or Two) makes...

Dan running at the State XC Meet Senior Year
 The smell of Fall in the air means football, falling leaves and to us…the Cross Country season!  My son, Dan came to Cross Country a little late in the game.  As a freshman in High School, he played football but as much as he loved the game, it just wasn’t for him!  He took the fall of his sophomore year off but decided the Summer before his Junior year to go out for Cross Country.  He had been out for track every year but at the most ran an 800 so the 3.1 miles he would need to run would be a stretch for him but he was determined.  I knew very little about the sport…it is one of the most overlooked sports in High School and College too!  Even when you continue to contend for a state title as our school has, it is usually overshadowed by Football and the other Fall sports.  But after the first meet, I was in love with the sport of Cross Country, as was Dan!  The parents and kids are the best…everyone cheers for everyone else…even other teams!  Dan ran on the JV squad that first year and was always towards the front of the pack, gaining medals at most of the meets!  Senior year, he made it onto Varsity and was consistently the number 6 or 7 runner on their team that was ranked in the top ten for most of the season.  They made it to State as a team and ended up in 7th place as a team.  Dan was the number 7 runner at State and also had one of the highest places for the number 7 runner.  He decided to attend Buena Vista University mostly to run track.  He had decided to practice with the Cross Country team just to stay in shape and run at the Conference Meet only if needed.  But after just a week, he decided that he could run with the guys on the team and he felt good, so he ran his first meet on Labor Day Weekend at Central College at Pella, IA.  It is a 6K course and he ran a very respectable time of 22 minutes flat.
Dan (# 189) running freshman year for BVU
 The following Summer, Dan worked harder on training than the year before because he knew he would actually be running the Cross Country season.  A week or so before he was to leave for college, he ran with his former High School teammates just to see where he was in his training.  He was a little disappointed because he couldn’t keep up with them but we thought he just hadn’t put in enough work.  At school, he struggled a little bit in practice but that is not unusual as the Coach never knows how much work everyone has put in over the Summer.  The first meet was again at Central in Pella…I was not able to go because of the distance.  Dan would always call me on his way home to tell me how he did.  I had found the times online and had to go way to the bottom to find him…that was very odd for him!  His time was 27:47 – 5 minutes slower than the year before!  When he finally called me, he said that he had needed to stop several times during the meet!  His coach thought he might be anemic as he had all the signs so we decided he would see a doctor in Storm Lake to get his blood tested.  About three weeks later he was diagnosed with Leukemia and the season and the school year came to an immediate halt!
Dan finishing strong in his first meet back in 2010!
 After finally finishing the intense rounds of chemo for his Leukemia, Dan finally began training again in May of last year.  His doctor was on board as long as his hemoglobin stayed high enough for him to run.  I really don’t believe the doctor thought he really could compete, but knew that having that goal would be very good for Dan’s morale.  We really had no idea how he would do and if he could actually run an entire race or not.  The first race of the year, again on Labor Day weekend, was this time in Mitchell, SD – a new course for us.  It was only a 4K course due to the large amounts of rain they had received in the area…which was a good thing for Dan.  I was so nervous…I thought he might collapse or just not be able to finish!  It was a course with several loops thru the same area.  The first time thru, he looked very strong…hanging with the others guys on the team he usually ran with.  The 2nd time thru, he seemed to struggle a bit more and by the last time, he really was slowing down!  I went to the last hill to try to motivate him up it and then went to the finish to cheer him on!  He finished with a hint of a kick to fight off a contender that was behind him!  It was such a huge relief to see him cross that finish line!  He wasn’t last but was only a few runners from the end but it didn’t matter!  To be able to finish and to compete again, at any level was the goal!  He continued to amaze us throughout the rest of the season by getting better…slowly but surely.

 This Summer, Dan was an “animal” in training!  He ran up to 10 miles a day and I think he is in the best shape ever!  Last year, he was just beginning to get his hair to grow back in and had a little bit of “moon face” from the high doses of Prednisone he had been taking.  He also was just starting to get his muscle mass built back up!  Now, his hair and face are back to normal and his muscle tone is back…better than ever!  The only giveaway that he is still ill is the port in his chest.  His expectations are high due to the training he has put in and how he feels.  He is ready to compete…for real, this year!

Fast forward to Labor Day weekend…just a week ago.  Again, I was not able to go to the meet in Pella again this year.  It is a 4+ hour drive for me and starts at 9:30 in the morning, so it would mean staying overnight in a hotel which just isn’t in the budget!  Even though Dan is doing great, we still have the same prescription bills, deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses we did in the beginning…it just takes a little longer to get there.  Anyway…I anxiously awaited the text from Dan with his time!  I knew he was gunning for that 22 flat that he ran as a freshman to prove he was back to “normal’!  Finally, he put me out of my misery with a text…He ran 23:11.3 – just a minute slower than he ran his freshman year…Healthy!  He said he was very happy with his time as it was a tough course!  He finished just one second behind a teammate and 10 seconds behind a former HS teammate!  He had led them most of the race but it ended up a hill and he just didn’t have the kick he used to be famous for so he fell back at the finish.  He finished 79th overall out of 120 and was the seventh runner for the team!  I am so proud of him for this accomplishment but it didn’t come easy.  I saw the blood, sweat and tears he put into his training this summer…along with holding down a full-time job and monthly chemo treatments!  
Dan running this year at the Pella Meet
  This coming Saturday, Sept. 17th Dan will run at Ames for the ISU meet.  He hopes to break the 30 minute mark for the 8K course.  I certainly wouldn’t bet against him! I will be there to cheer him on along with my sister, Anita.  Hopefully, we will be missing the pouring rain that they ran in last year! I think this team will do great things this year with plenty of talented freshman pushing the upper classman!  I also think that those who know Dan’s story will be inspired by his progress and pushed to do better also!  Two years ago, I never thought he would be at this level!  I have learned what a strong, courageous and very determined young man my son is and I am so proud!  To me it doesn’t matter what his times are…I am just happy to see him back out doing what he loves…running!  That was something a few days after diagnosis I wasn’t sure would ever be possible!  What a difference a year (or two) makes!