Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Survive or Thrive?

For thirty-eight years my life was perfect.  No, really, it was.  A fun childhood filled with doting parents, playing softball, church trips, lots of friends, and even an occasional family trip to Panama City Beach.  Those eighteen years were followed by a wonderful college experience at Troy University, then a move to Washington, DC to work for U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, then on to graduate school at the University of Hawaii - (three years in Honolulu, I told you it was perfect).  Then back to Sweet Home Alabama where God introduced me to my amazing husband, I got married at 32 and had babies when I was 35 & 36.  Life was perfect.
But that all changed in the fall of 2010 when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  She died on November 26, 2010 when she was just 65 years old and my perfect life came to a bitter end.  My mother, Jackie McCaul, and I were very close.  We talked on the phone most every day and shared all of the minutia of life.  She was my biggest cheerleader and never left any doubt about how much she loved me.  My babies were her first grandchildren and they were the light of her life.  We were having fun raising them together. But suddenly she was gone.  And I didn't handle it well.
I spent the next two years in a dark place, wrestling with the grief that threatened to consume me.  I wondered why I was so weak.  I wondered why God didn't spare me from the pain. There were some friends who told me it was time for me to snap out of it.  I withdrew from those friends.  Actually, I withdrew from most of my friends.  And as my emotional state plummeted into the abyss so did my physical state.  I spiraled into a very unhealthy lifestyle and gained a lot of weight, a lot.
My mother and I at my wedding shower:

Then, after two years - as if a switch flipped - the light came back.  I began reaching out to friends again and rebuilding relationships.  Although I still miss my Momma every single day, I guess I reached the "acceptance" stage of grief and realized that while permanently altered, life could move on. But while my emotional and spiritual healing was going well, my physical self was still a mess.  Then cancer.  And the mess got worse.
Now I find myself griped with the fear of death.  I know, I know the breast cancer survival rate is very good and I have every reason to believe I will survive this disease.  But, trust me, when you have something growing inside your body that could kill you, you cannot help but think about the possibility of death.  I find myself saying, "I don't want to die." And that begs the question, "Why don't I want to die?"  Let's face it, this world ain't all it's cracked up to be.  While there are many wonderful moments and experiences during this life, there are exponentially more devastating and tragic experiences.  The Bible promises us tribulation in this world and we have plenty of it.  Poverty, starvation, human trafficking, sickness, hatred, terror attacks, war, murder, and perhaps the worst of all - children dying.  Not to lose those of you who don't share my Biblical world view but this world is not a battle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, powers, and the ruler of the darkness (that would be satan) and those dark forces do a great job of making us miserable here on earth.  Bottom line:  this world is a bad place.  So why do I want to stay here?
Do I want to remain on this earth to merely survive another day, or do I want to stay here so I can thrive?
Yes, I want to survive for my children.  They need a mother.  They need me to be their biggest fan, their fiercest protector, and their wisest teacher.  They need me.  My husband does not need me in the way my children do, but we love living life together.  We have plans, things we want to see and do together...and we have actually saved for retirement and I hate the thought of missing out on spending that money.
But I don't want to survive just to exist.  I want to survive so I can thrive.
Seize the day.
Live like you are dying.
Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
All of that.
If we consider the longue duree of world history we are but a blip on the radar, a spec of sand on the beaches of time. Not to go all deep on you but we can't waste a moment of the time we have on earth, we need to make an impact.  Even if we get 100 years on earth we don't have a second to waste.  Every moment counts.  Whether we have one year or a hundred what matters is what we do with the time we have.
Most of you haven't come face to face with the end of your time here on earth. But I have and I'm tired of wasting my time.  We are creatures of mind, body, and spirit.  Our goal each day should be to improve our mind, our body, and our spirit.  And in doing so we improve the lives of those around us which will create a ripple effect in time as we impact our generation, the next generation, and the next. And please, let's not consider this challenge to thrive in some sappy, philosophical way - but in a real, tangible, world changing way.
What will we do today to improve our mind, body, and spirit?
Casting Crowns recently released a song entitled Thrive which says in part:
Just to know You and to make You known
We lift Your name on high
Shine like the sun, make darkness run and hide
We know we were made for so much more than ordinary lives
Its time for us to more than just survive
We were made to thrive

I agree.  Its time for all of us to more than just survive. Chemo number three is tomorrow, now let's all get out there and thrive!!!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Bad Hair Day

It's been a long week, a very long week which is why it's taken me a while to get this update to all of you.  Last Saturday my Daddy was admitted to the hospital here in Montgomery at Baptist South.  He's 85 and in relative good health (golfs, fishes, travels) but it seems that after my Mom died four years ago he wasn't so faithful about taking his heart and diabetes medications.  Doctors had to amputate one of his toes and put in a stent. He is struggling to get all of his organs to work properly and get back up and moving.  Hopefully today, two days out from surgery, will be a better day.  He survived the jungles of Vietnam and he will survive this, but in many ways I think the jungles were easier for him to tolerate than the hospital!
Since a hospital is probably the most dangerous place for me to be right now, my brother Darryl is shouldering the lead on taking care of Daddy.  When I visit I'm masked and gloved and cannot stay long. Jason and my sister-in-law Jesi are also spending a tremendous amount of time at the hospital as is my Dad's friend Jane - it's an exhausting time for everyone and we appreciate your prayers for Daddy's total healing.
Now, about my hair.  About 12 days after my first chemo treatment my hair began to come out.  The first two days it just came out a little then it really began coming out in handfuls.  My wig had been ordered a couple of weeks earlier but it had not come yet (they are custom made and I didn't realize how long it would take). My hair actually began to mat, it felt like steel wool and was very uncomfortable on my head.  It was time for it to come off.  I reached out to my friend who is high up with UPS and he was able to get the Montgomery UPS facility to intercept my wig as soon as it arrived and he contacted me and I was able to drive out and pick it up.  Then I went to my wonderful stylist Linda Echols who owns the Phoenix Salon in Montgomery. Linda told me when it was time for the hair to go just to show up and she would drop everything and take care of me.  She did.  Oh the money I've spend getting cut and color from her over the years only to see all of that hair get lopped off! Linda was so sweet and took such great care of me.  She cut it as short as she could then took the razor to it to finish it off.  My wig is a touch blonder than my color but it's close.  My sweet friend Martha Roby bought it for me and I love it. Linda put it on me and styled it and voila, hair again.  I like wearing the wig but I've also been wearing hats, scarfs, etc.  This Friday night my girlfriends are throwing me a "hat and scarf party" so I will have plenty of fun options when leaving the house each day!
How does it feel to be bald?  Weird and cold!  My head actually often feels wet, I guess that's the cold sensation I'm experiencing.  It's tough, no woman wants to lose her hair. It's a very defining part of our physical selves.  To find a silver lining I had to make a mental list of all the money I will save because I don't have hair:
No cut and color costs
No shampoo and conditioner
No mousse, hairspray, styling gel
And Jason loves how clean our bathroom vanity is now that all my products are gone!  And how fast can I get ready...20 minutes flat!
Me with my fab new wig:

A popular question:  How are Eli and Margaret handling my new look?  It's a process.  They knew the day I would lose my hair, I prepared them when they got home from school I would be bald.  I had on a hat when I picked them up and they immediately wanted to see my head.  Then they immediately wanted me to cover up my head!  It's been tougher on Eli than MJ.  Mommas of boys know how much a little 7 year old boys loves and adores his momma.  He just stares at me, shakes his head, and will say sadly, "I just cannot believe a doctor would give you medicine that would make you lose your hair."  I keep reminding them it is temporary! Each day they get more used to my new look.  And so far I am able to be "normal Momma" with a smile on my face and reading and cuddles and taking them to Chick-fil-a.  As long as I'm acting normal they will be ok. Around the house I wear a little cotton cap, not my best look but it is comfy and they're ok with it.  Although Margaret often says, "Momma, please put on your pretty blond hair so you can look like me again."
Yesterday I had a County Commission meeting and got rave reviews about my wig.  Most folks didn't even realize it wasn't my real hair.  My favorite comment was from a lady who told me her daughter wears wigs and always says, "You either wear your wig or your wig wears you."  Then she told me, "Ronda you are wearing that wig!"
I'm feeling pretty good this week.  My next treatment is on Thursday, January 29 and I do not have any doctor appointments until then!  Hoorah! Tomorrow we will celebrate Jason's birthday and honor him for being such an amazing husband and father.  He's going over and beyond for better and for much worse.  I love him and thank God for knowing and loving me so well as to let me be Jason Walker's wife.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Chemo #2

Chemotherapy treatment number two is over and done!  I'm feeling great right now and am ready to watch the National Championship game.  I will not make it until the end, but I don't think I would have made it to the end if I were as well as could be.
Today I met with my oncologist, Dr. Stephen Davidson.  Dr. Davidson confirmed what I had already been told, that cancer was found in my lymph nodes.  Absolutely not the news I wanted to hear.  No cancer was found any where else in my body save for the few nodes closest to my right breast. That is a good thing.  This new news doesn't change our chemo and surgery plan.  I will press on with 6 more chemo treatments and then I will have a double mastectomy. The new element is radiation.  I had hoped to avoid that but at this point it is a given.  However, we won't evaluate how much and how long until closer to time.  And I don't know exactly when it will begin but I do know it won't happen until after my big surgery.
It was a setback and I took it pretty hard.  I had time in between the Dr. visit and my chemo treatment so I went to Chappy's to eat lunch, sit alone, and process all of this.  I was feeling pretty drained as I got up to leave when I bumped into my childhood friends Tim and Jennifer Head.  Tim and Jen wrapped their arms around me and prayed over me and I immediately felt the weight lifting.  God was good to put them in my path.
My second chemo treatment began with an interview with CBS/WAKA.  Reporter Catalina Trivino is following my cancer journey and she and I are both so excited about the education component in all of this.  Get your mammogram.  Follow up with you GYN. Be aggressive with your personal health.
Do you realize that 1 in 6 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer?  ONE IN SIX!!!  Someone reading this blog right now, someone who thinks it can never happen to them, will get diagnosed with breast cancer.  ONE IN SIX.  The odds are not in your favor.  But we can beat this.  We can prevent it. We can catch it so early.  But none of that happens if you don't become your own best advocate and get aggressive about your health.

My chemo today was so much easier since I had the port implanted.  I have taken to calling it the "portal to hell" but I tell ya, it made things soooo much easier.  So much.
I was deeply thankful for my girlfriends that came to chemo with me today.  Stephanie Peavy got the party started and hung right through the media interview.  She brought me hand sanitizer and tissues:) Then Melissa McDaniel showed up with a book of Bible promises and a beautiful scarf (props to LATP and KM too).  Then Trudy McFarland showed up with some fresh cherries.  Yum!  They could have all come empty handed, the best part was their presence.  Gosh the time really flew by.
Ok, about my hair.  On Saturday it started coming out a little.  Sunday a little more.  But today when I woke it was really coming out in massive amounts.  You see the picture of me above, I look normal but my hair is much thinner than usual.  I don't think it will make it to Wednesday or Thursday.  Then I'll shave my head and put on a wig, scarf, baseball cap.  Whatever the occasion calls for.  More about the hair later. But here is a sample of of what happened today when I ran my fingers through my hair.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Surgery & Stuff

When I first met with my oncologist he told me I needed to get a port implanted into my chest that they could use to administer the chemo drugs. But, since it was Christmas it was going to take a little time to get the surgery scheduled.  I wanted to go ahead and get chemo started asap so the doctor said I could have my first chemo treatment via IV, but only the first treatment.  I understood it wasn't ideal, but I really had no idea up from down at that point I just wanted to get going.  Sure enough getting chemo injected through my hand for three hours was less than pleasant, but it got the job done.
This past Monday I went in for an iron infusion and thanks to my less-than-receptive veins it was a no-go.  The nurses are so good at what they do, it just seems my veins have a tendency to roll around and blow up.  So the good news is I have my port surgery tomorrow so no more poking and prodding into my worthless veins.
I have to be at Baptist South at 6:00AM tomorrow so I will head on out in the freezing cold nice and early.  Jason will get the kids up and ready for school then my friend (and Margaret's teacher) Missy Xides will stop by and pick them up at 6:45AM and take them on to school early with her.  Then our friend Ken Peavy will come over and pick Jason up and drive him to South and drop him off so he can be there for my surgery then drive me home.  I told you it takes a village to beat cancer!!!  Jason told me to write down where I park at the hospital in the event I'm too groggy after surgery to remember.  Maybe I'll just valet.  lol
The surgery itself will only last about 20-30 minutes but it does require general anesthesia so there is my prayer request - that everything goes routinely.  I should be home napping by lunchtime.
I'm no medical doctor, and I didn't sleep at a Holiday Inn last night, but I think this port thing will be inserted just under my skin on my chest right below my collar bone.  It's some sort of small device that can serve as a vehicle to get the drugs into my system.  And not just that, they can use this port for my blood work, iron infusions, everything and it's a quick easy needle poke into the port and voila - much easier.
My follow up visit this week revealed my white blood count really took a massive dip after my first treatment.  I've already given the disclaimer that I don't understand medicine - so here goes my layman's explanation.  The chemo kills the bad cancer cells that are rapidly dividing in my body.  But it also kills good cells that are rapidly dividing in my body (that's what is going to make my hair fall out - amongst other things).  White blood cells help our body fight off infection.  It seems the chemo is taking a toll on those cells as well which means my body has very little defense against infection right now.  Great huh, right during cold & flu season.  If I get sick it would be bad.  I would have to go in for daily antibiotic treatments and I guess if it was bad enough I would be hospitalized.  The folks at the Center told me, "get plenty of rest, avoid stress, and don't get sick."  I just gave them a blank stare as if they were speaking a language I was completely unfamiliar with.  How on earth am I going to do all of that with kids and jobs and life and such.  Inconceivable!
Hoping our best efforts will be blessed, the Walker family has implemented a health plan.  Eli and MJ are jacked up on vitamins and thankfully they are not prone to sickness.  (Their pediatrician always says if all of his patients were as healthy as my kids he would go out of business.)  The second they walk in the door in the afternoon they put their clothes directly into the washing machine and their bodies directly into the shower.  No kissing momma on the mouth.  I've actually implemented air kisses which they think is fun (for now anyway).  And if you see me in public (or Publix for that matter) I'll be wearing a mask and gloves and won't even be embarrassed about it!  When you see me don't expect to hug me or shake my hand.  Yes, I'm going all Howard Hughes and make no apologies. Whatever it takes for me to stay well I'm going to make every effort.
Monday is my next chemo treatment.  I have felt SO GREAT this week the idea of starting the whole ugly process over again is crushing, CRUSHING!  But, I've got 7 more treatments to go and will press on.  My hair hasn't budged.  They said I could start to see changes after treatment #2.  I've got my stylist on speed dial and she will work me in the second I need her. No other physical changes yet (that I want to discuss in this forum anyway).
I'll end with a funny story.  Yesterday when the kids and I were driving home from school I was reminding them about our plan to stay healthy.  Eli said, "The nurse at our school has healthy snacks in her office.  But they are not for everybody - just for Sam because Sam is an antibiotic."  I was laughing so hard as I repeated the words to make sure I heard him, "Sam is an antibiotic?"  Eli said, "Yes, you know - an antibiotic is someone who has to eat right, keep their sugar right, and get shots sometimes."  I think having little kids around is the best medicine possible! 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Warrior is a Child

Back in 1984 Christian singer-songwriter Twila Paris had her first number one hit with The Warrior is a Child.  I was twelve years old when the song came out and absolutely loved it.  At the time, I clearly didn't know what the lyrics meant because at the age of twelve I was far from a warrior!  But now at 42 I find a whole new meaning in the words to the song.  The song tells the story of a person - a warrior - fighting the battles of life.  The warrior has the strength and grace from God that puts a confident smile on her face in spite of the angry fear she fights deep in her spirit.  People pat her on the back, tell her she's amazing! They say they don't know how she can be so strong in the face of such adversity!  As they praise her then walk away she thinks to herself, they have no idea how hard this really is for me.  I seem strong on the outside, but inside I'm just a weak child crying out for help.

      People say that I'm amazing
      Strong beyond my years
      But they don't see inside of me
      I'm hiding all the tears
     And they don't know that I go running home when I fall down
     They don't know who picks me up when no one is around
     I drop my sword and cry for just a while
     'Cause deep inside this armor
     The warrior is a child

Someone recently encouraged me not to try to "superwoman" through this cancer battle and just rest in God.  I got to thinking about that and the truth is the power of Christ is what can make us all super men and women.  When people see the smile on my face and they sense my courage and strength what they are seeing is Christ in Me.  That IS NOT Ronda. Ronda is not super.
Let me tell you what Ronda is.  Ronda is the patient at The Cancer Center that is the biggest wimp in the world every time a needle comes at her.  Ronda is the girl lying in bed each morning crying that she has to face another day fighting cancer.  Ronda is the friend texting constantly asking for help, prayer, encouragement. Ronda is the wife complaining to her husband about the nausea and fatigue.  Ronda is the Mother who snaps at her children because she is so emotionally stressed she cannot handle one more moment. Ronda is the woman asking why is this happening to me! Ronda is weak.  Ronda hurts, Ronda cries, Ronda is angry and sad and scared.  But Ronda is not alone.
Years ago I admitted all of my weaknesses and shortcomings to God and asked Him to help me and guide me through this life.  And He has.  And He will continue to.  Truth is, when I am experiencing my weakest moment is when He can best show His strength.
Do you know the worst thing a person drowning can do when someone comes to help them?  Try to help.  If you are overcome by the waters around you and someone comes to help you, you should just allow your body to go limp.  Don't kick, fight, or try to save yourself.  Let the lifeguard take full control of your body so they can save you.  Of course that is the opposite of what most people do in that situation.  When someone is drowning they are scared and even when help arrives they continue to kick and flail making rescue much more difficult.
Sometimes I still kick and flail when God tries to rescue me from the deep water.  But when I let my body go limp.  When I stop fighting and trying to save myself that is when God can easily scoop me up and save me. And God's salvation during battle comes in many forms.  The nice meal delivered to my door by a friend, the gift bag filled with items I need during treatment, a yellow scarf arriving in the mail, a fun candle, a book, an email, a card, a prayer.  Those are God's way of sustaining me in the battle and I accept them all with a humble, grateful heart.
I say it all the time, you either trust God or you don't. It is easy to trust Him when things are going great.  But do we trust Him when we are told we have cancer?  I do.  I trust Him.  And that trust brings peace - the peace that only Christ can give is what others see when they see anything good in me.
I trust that God loves me more than my finite mind can understand.  I trust that God has a perfect plan for my life and cancer is part of it.  I trust God.  But in my humanness I have many difficult moments as I fight life's battles.  This life is hard, the pain and suffering are real and at times debilitating. But we are never alone.

       Unafraid because His armor is the best
       But even soldiers need a quiet place to rest
       People say that I'm amazing
       Never face retreat
       But they don't see the enemies
       That lay me at His feet
       And they don't know that I go running home when I fall down
       They don't know who picks me up when no one is around
       I drop my sword and cry for just a while
       'Cause deep inside this armor
       The warrior is a child

Friday, January 2, 2015

Press On and Press In

Today is January 2, 2015.  I've spent the past couple of days thinking a lot about the new year.  The way this new year is beginning compared to how 2014 began.  Last January the Governor of Alabama appointed me to serve on the Montgomery County Commission, this January I am enduring chemotherapy as I fight to rid my body of cancer.  Last January was filled with excitement and expectation.  This January is different.  I feel no excitement, but I do still have great expectations. An expectation that I will survive.  An expectation that I will be cancer free by this summer.  An expectation that I will learn more and grow more from this one experience than all of my other life experiences combined.  An expectation that by January 2016 I will know how to love more deeply and more compassionately than I ever dreamt possible.  I will no longer sweat the small stuff.  I will appreciate people - not processes or politics or platitudes - but people. I will stop beating myself up for my perceived failures, instead I will celebrate the everyday joys of life.  Cliff Sims, founder of Yellowhammer News, wrote a very nice piece last month on the juxtaposition of how 2014 began and ended for me that explains it better than I have, please take time to read it. Yellowhammer Article
But right now, in January 2015, I am seeing through the expectation glass dimly.  It's only been eighteen days since the doctor told me I have cancer.  My journey is still new.  The road will be long and hard, but my expectations will remain great.
Last Monday, December 29 I had my first chemo treatment.  I wish y'all could all know how funny my husband is.  He made me laugh the very first night I met him in February 2003 and I haven't stopped laughing since.  And sitting in the chemo room was no exception.  The guy is funny.  Which is good because it was a long three hours of drips.  We got home about 4:00PM and Jason and our teenage boys headed off to the hunting camp.  My 6 & 7 year olds were with my in laws in Hueytown (just west of Birmingham).  Now, before you panic that I was left all alone, this was MY plan!  And those who know me well will understand that I love my downtime.  Anyway, I was assured the first night and the first day after chemo I would feel pretty normal.  Then my family was all due back on Wednesday afternoon, right about the time I might be feeling bad.  It was a good plan.  But, that's not exactly how it all went down.
By 6:00PM Monday night I was overcome with extreme nausea, chills, dizziness.  I could not believe how badly I felt. I remember sitting down on the couch hoping it would pass but it never did.  I finally took a nausea pill that would help me sleep and passed out at 7:15PM and slept until 7:15AM the next morning.  I awoke groggy but improved.  I took my time getting going and by 9:00AM felt fine.  I later was told this MIGHT have been a reaction to the Benadryl that MIGHT have put in my IV.  Makes sense, I'll check on that.
Catalina Trivino, a reporter with our local CBS news affiliate (WAKA), asked if she could follow my cancer journey in the hope of educating our community on the disease and perhaps bringing less fear to the diagnosis.  I said yes so on Tuesday morning at 10:00AM I met my girlfriend Stefanie at the YMCA for some "light exercise" per the doctor's orders and the cameras met us there.  After we finished at the YMCA, Cat asked to do a segment at my house.  Now, all of you know how a house looks the week after Christmas!  I had a mess in every room, not a clear counter to spare, toys strewn all over the floor.  But I said yes -- if she would limit the interview to one room!
While it is not easy for me to put myself in front of a camera, talk about my fears, and show my dirty house I truly pray this will have some small impact.  Make one person go get a mammogram.  Encourage one person going through a tough time.  Point one person to the hope and strength I get through Jesus Christ.
Tuesday afternoon I had to go to The Center for an immune booster shot (the chemo breaks down my white blood cells and this shot should help that - how's that for a very medically sounding explanation).  Tuesday evening I had dinner out with some wonderful girlfriends then home to bed.  Wednesday morning I woke up and felt like I had a mouth full of molasses coupled with low grade nausea.  I popped a Zofran and drank as much water as I could and ate half an apple.  I felt mostly fine.  There were several things I needed to accomplish before the family arrived home that afternoon including de-cluttering the kitchen, so I got to work.  I was feeling fine until my sister-in-law Leslie called to tell me my 6 year old daughter had gotten up that morning with a stomach virus.  Worried for my girl and realizing she could not bring a virus home to me my mood diminished quickly.  But let me tell you something about my baby girl, Margaret.  Margaret awoke in the wee hours of the morning in a strange house, she made her way to the hallway bathroom where she got very ill.  When the episode ended, she cleaned up the mess, changed her clothes, and got back into bed all without waking a soul.  I'm telling you, that girl is tough!  But, her virus persisted into the day so Eli and Margaret could not come home to me.  Then my mood bottomed out!  They were ready to be home and I needed them home.  But, they will come home today.  Meanwhile, Jason and our older boys did come home on Wednesday and we had a great night and all day Thursday watching football.  (One of my three teams won, no need to discuss those details.)
Sad mood aside I felt OK on Wednesday.  Low energy and low grade nausea but not terrible.  Same for Thursday.  Oh, except for waking up at 2AM Thursday morning with full blown body aches.  They told me this would happen (because of the shot I got on Tuesday) and some Advil helped tremendously.
Bottom line, my symptoms thus far have been uncomfortable not unbearable.  So much of this is a mental game.  I cannot THINK about my nausea.  I cannot THINK about my fatigue, I cannot THINK about my cancer.  I have to press on -  live life.  When I need to rest I will rest, but mostly I need to press on.  And press in.  Press in to Jesus.  "Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ."
And just because she's the toughest, funniest girl I know here's my Margaret!