The Climb Begins
From July 2, 2019
Dear Friends --
I appreciate it's hard to top the travesty of our president doing his best to ruin the 4th of July, but I'm afraid I have some personal news that will beat it.
For the past six weeks or so I've had a series of mild health issues that persisted in all kinds of strange ways. They were subtle: very low grade fevers that would come and go, weird GI symptoms, night sweats, lots of aches. But again, all mild and often would disappear for a few days at a time.
I finally saw a general doctor who became suspicious of a possible parasite (perhaps something I picked up in Honduras from many weeks back), so I went through an infectious disease doctor who diligently followed that trail. But there was one hitch, one lab result indicated something odd with my liver so he ordered an ultrasound. I'll spare details here but many days passed waiting for appointments and labs and all the rest.
About a week later I got a call from the infectious disease doctor notifying me I had a 13 cm mass on my liver discovered on the ultrasound. Not a call anyone wants to hear, but this doctor still had a strong hunch that this came from an infection, so he ordered a cat scan to double check. Again, another story here (we'll save for the novel), but the cat scan didn't happen until about four days later.
And this is where the plot, as they say, thickens. You know it's not a good day when ER docs initially enter your room with chipper smiles and high fives ... and then three hours after a cat scan they come in looking at their shoes with reassuring little squeezes on my shoulder (from here on out we’ll simply call this gesture the sympathetic “shoulder hug”). About two hours later, a generalist doctor said, "No, this isn't an infection. It's a mass. And it needs to be biopsied. Soon."
Friday night the biopsy happened, and the next morning I was discharged with more reassuring shoulder hugs. But Sunday I had a fever that began to spike in dramatic ways (102.5 and beyond) and so was asked to go back to the hospital for closer observation.
By Monday morning the official news had arrived. I have been diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. I know. It's too much.
We could pause here and segue to things like family history and other curiosities but again let's save that for another time. What's most important now is what this means and where my story goes next.
But I will tackle the one question I know everyone might be a bit stuck on -- why does she have colon cancer if she has a massive mass on her liver? I had the same question. Here's our answer -- "You have colon cancer, and it decided to mainly settle in your liver. You do have a tumor quite high (think just under your left rib cage in your colon). But let's be clear: this is colon cancer." (This is a key plot detail we'll come back to later).
Ok where we go next. After a rather grim intro chat from a generalist and a heartfelt shoulder hug, an actual liver specialist arrived to my room, miraculously referred to me through a mutual friend. I think most of us are basketball fans, so let's just say Steph Curry entered my room full of good eye contact and zero shoulder hugs.
Here is what Steph Curry had to say, in my paraphrase.
Hi, I'm Dr. V (aka best three point shooter in the history of time). So you have a lousy diagnosis, but let's talk about it in a new way. You're very fortunate. This is metastatic colon cancer, and I'm not going to downplay the seriousness here. But what you need to know is we have a playbook for this. And it's a good one. Our goal with this is a journey to many years living with a chronic condition. This isn’t a playbook to a cure, but we have a strong path ahead, and that's the one we're going to follow. So let's get started.
I can't tell you how much I loved the complete absence of a shoulder hug in that moment.
So here's what's in motion – I’m providing a very best case scenario here, so know that all of the below is subject to all kinds of twists and even harder news.
For the next 8-10 weeks I'm going to have an aggressive form of chemo called FolFox (I have very talented friends in the t-shirt design department so if anyone wants to commission a “Stay Foxy” shirt, I’m all in). Also let’s just get right to that other nagging question -- will I lose my hair? I don't think so! Apparently this form of chemo is more mild than most, so while I'm sure I'll have my share of misery I'll likely not have to endure that particular one.
Most likely 3-5 days after Foxy I will not be feeling at all foxy. Likely I’ll be feeling very sluggish, maybe nauseous, achy, just blah. We haven’t taken this part of the story out for a test drive yet, but my fabulous sister, Mindy, is here to closely monitor if I’m a hot mess, or just a low grade drag. We’ll find out soon.
Lots of scans and some unpleasant tests will happen through this season. We’ll get through those, but if things go sideways we’ll begin to know more through what we learn here. And hopefully there will be ways to adjust.
Then if scans are positive and when Steph Curry says the tumors have shrunk to a place where he feels good about putting on his jersey, he'll go in and do a rather dramatic surgery (likely October since we'll need to take a pause between Foxy and surgery). Here is where his three point shot prowess counts. And who doesn't feel good about that.
A few weeks later I'm back on Foxy for a final lap to bolt the door and bid a proper goodbye to this chapter.
A side note on Foxy – every two weeks I’ll get a 48 hour infusion that I’ll be able to take as an outpatient. So if goes exactly in the best way possible, there’s a world in which someday I might get to have lunch with one of you while Foxy is along for the ride. My day one is today, so if you like to keep track of these things, know that every two weeks from today for the next few weeks I’ll be all Foxied up.
All of the above hinges on all kinds of best case scenarios. And that's where the good souls of this extraordinary email community come in. You all know I love a good metaphor, so here's the one I've chosen for this chapter.
For reasons we may never know, I've been called to summon a great mountain. And for many days I was hanging out in base camp staring out the windows trying to sort out which mountain would be mine. Turns out she's mighty tall, but she has this just really strong and well-trod trail. Oh and some of the best Sherpas out there, led by the one and only Dr V (aka Curry).
But here's what else this mountain will require. Terrific and creative souls who'd like to be closely connected to the ascent. Several close by who have gotten a preview of this news have asked how they might help, so I thought I would offer an early menu of options for those who would like to be supporters for the climb. Here are early ideas:
Assuming post-Foxy days are completely decimating, here are things I’d love: Your audio and visual playlists. Documentaries, podcasts, shows you binge, novels you can’t put down, best kept secrets, poems, or obvious hits you’re fairly certain I’ve missed. Lord knows there’s plenty of choices out there, but what I’d treasure is a note from you saying, “Ok you might never choose this, but I adored it, and here’s why,” And then by listening or reading or watching this, I’ll know you better. And somehow knowing you better means you’re closer to me on my hike. Bonus points for humor here, because well, this mountain probably needs more laughs.
Stories of souls you know who have successfully climbed a similar mountain are always welcome. Many may come armed with smart advice about how to tolerate Foxy, and wouldn’t that be great to know.
I adore encouraging notes. They tend to have a way of arriving at just the right time.
For those who live close, visits are a special treat, especially during the “normal” days in between it all. I’d love to hear your stories, hear about different chapters people are living, and find new ways for my world to grow larger through you.
And for my friends who hold faith close, there is nothing more powerful than prayer. This mountain is a grand invitation to prayer, not just for me but for all of those ahead and behind me on the trail. I especially think of all of those who don’t have maybe the world’s best Sherpa guiding the way.
Many of you might be wondering about how Connor and Lucy are navigating this news, because this mountain belongs to them too. Along with their dad, we had a powerful talk last night covering lots of ground, but the big headline comes down to this: this is the most sacred chapter the three of us are likely ever going to experience. We will experience suffering, exhaustion, anger, confusion, and despair like never before. But here’s what else we’ll discover – breathtaking beauty from the climb, joy that will show up in the nick of time, and even right after the nick. Mostly we’re going to move through a season of love that will forever change us. We’re going to receive love in new ways, and we’re going to learn how to give love to others in ways we’ve never even imagined. And if we are especially brave and faithful climbers, we will forever know how to love others who face their own special mountains with a grand new set of resources. Resources we’ll hold with us for the rest of our lives, no matter how long our lives last. And that, my friends, is a miracle. Maybe even the most important miracle of all.
I’ll conclude with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner. And he said this: “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you. There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you'll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
My mountain is the most beautiful and terrible climb of all, and I do so hope and pray I reach the summit, with courage. The view will be just spectacular, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.