Like A Boss
All my life I have been fearful and unsure of myself, I also struggled with severe panic attacks and migraines that lasted a full year at one point without ceasing. My outlet was always music, hiking, or playing video games to let my mind escape for a few moments so I could pretend to live in a world where I wasn’t filled with fear all the time. When I finally seemed to be getting better after years of therapy and multiple doctors visits, I was given news of something I never saw coming. My name is Michelle Sherwin and I am a Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma survivor.
I was 23 years old when I discovered a lump on my neck one day while I was at work, at the time I was working at a doctors office as a receptionist. It seemed like a swollen lymph node, but after talking to several people I came to my own conclusion that it was probably just a minor infection that my body was reacting to. Regardless, I decided to get it checked out by my doctor just in case I might need antibiotics. I drove to the doctor's office by myself without a care in the world, thinking my doctor would tell me to take it easy for a couple days and send me home with some medicine.
I was in the doctor’s office for maybe 5 minutes while my doctor looked through my chart and saw my family history of cancer on my dad’s side. She looked at me and said “I am not going to sugar coat it, I am concerned that this lump could be cancerous.” Nothing could have prepared me for that moment. I don’t think I had ever been in shock before until that moment and it was a very surreal feeling. My mouth started quivering, my arms and legs were tingling and I couldn’t say a word. The first thought that finally came to me was “how am I going to tell my parents?” I was so scared I could hardly move. Finally my doctor said she was going to start me out with a blood test and from there they would do a biopsy if the results showed something of concern.
Thinking back on it now, I don’t even remember if I said anything more than “Okay.” My doctor walked me out to the waiting area and from there I went to the lab to get my blood drawn. As I was sitting in the lab I remember the lobotomist being very kind and seemingly unaware what they were testing me for. As I sat there, I realized I could hardly feel my hands and feet anymore. The lobotomist kept chatting with me even though I wasn’t saying anything. I just remember I started to cry in the lab chair silently to myself as they finished the testing. When I got back to my car I worked up the courage to call my parents and my roommate. I actually can’t even remember what they said anymore because I think I was still very much in shock. From there I had to have them help me tell people because it was too emotionally overwhelming to keep hearing people’s reactions.
What preceded after that was a lot of waiting. More tests and people trying to reassure me that it wasn’t going to be cancer. But I knew, somehow I knew that it was. It took a few weeks before I found out that it was cancerous, and another week or two before I found out what stage it was in and how they were going to treat it. That’s when I stopped being able to listen to everything they were telling me, it was too much. My doctor recommended I always bring someone with me to my oncology appointments to take notes, because when you are going through that amount of stress it is difficult to retain information.
I was told I had Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which is a type of blood cancer and can be a fairly aggressive form of cancer. However, given my age at the time I had high chances of survival with a potent chemotherapy treatment called EPOCH-R. They gave me an 83% chance of living, although when someone gives you a survival rate to begin with it is never very comforting.
It was at this point they realized I had progressed to stage 2 and they found another lump under my armpit as well. The weird thing about Non-Hodgkins is that there are no “tumors”, the lump I had felt originally was actually a swollen lymph node. But the infection wasn’t a bad cold, it was cancer. This also means you can’t surgically remove the tumor, because the cancer was in my bloodstream. My chemotherapy treatment was unique in the sense that I had 6 treatments, but each treatment consisted of me staying in the hospital overnight for 5 days straight getting chemo through a port in my chest 24 hours a day.
...if you are just starting your cancer journey be kind to yourself. Let people help you.
This whole story was a long one, and it continues to this day. I was blessed to be surrounded by so many caring people, from family and friends, to doctors and nurses. One thing I will tell you friends, is that if you are just starting your cancer journey be kind to yourself. Let people help you. Don’t try to put on a brave face or pretend that you have it all together, you don’t. When they told me I would lose all my hair a friend suggested to me to let my friends shave my head ahead of time. It sounds like a funny thing, but it made what could have been another traumatic experience, a truly memorable one. Instead of experiencing it alone I was surrounded by people that loved me and I still look back on that experience in a way that makes me happy instead of it being a sad experience.
I had friends and family spend the night with me every night I was in the hospital, the only night I was alone was when my immune system dropped dangerously low and I was quarantined for 24 hours. Chemo is exhausting, both mentally and physically. It is difficult to fully explain how tired you get, but it can in some ways be one of the most defeating feelings of cancer treatment. I felt so tired all the time that I would sometimes wonder if I would ever have any energy again. I went from hiking mountains to hardly being able to walk a few feet without needing a nap afterwards.
...I let people ask whatever questions they wanted to ask. Because the more they knew about how I was feeling, the more they realized all I needed was for them to be close by.
I underwent surgeries, injections, chemo, 911 calls, and panic attacks. It was the biggest whirlwind of my life and I am so happy to be here today cancer free for over 4 years now. If I can encourage you in any way and if what helped me ends up helping you then I hope this finds you well. Ask for help, be vulnerable with the ones who love you because they are hurting too. To watch someone you love go through a battle like this takes a lot of strength and patience. You have every right to feel the way you do but remember the people that are fighting with you. I chose to let people in and show them exactly what I was experiencing, I let people ask whatever questions they wanted to ask. Because the more they knew about how I was feeling, the more they realized all I needed was for them to be close by. Their presence was enough.
My oncologist encouraged me to keep doing the things I loved and to laugh and find moments of joy. He said that laughter and feeling alive was what I needed to stay alive. That may look differently for many of you, but for me it was bringing my guitar to the hospital and singing worship songs. It was bringing my xbox and flat screen TV to the hospital room and making it my home. It was skiing down a mountain (early on in treatment), it was going on whatever walk or hike I could do while I still had the strength. The best part was that none of my people let me do these things alone. It made my treatment more bearable and when I had really hard days I knew I wasn’t alone no matter how isolated I would feel.
Whether you are just starting your cancer battle, have been going through it for awhile, or you are even caring for someone you love, share the burden with people who are waiting to carry the weight with you. There are so many people like me and you going through the same thing in different capacities, you are not alone. Today I am a different person because of what I went through. Today I can hike and ski, I can lead worship at my church, I’ve traveled places I always wanted to visit with plenty more on my list. I manage a coffee shop and my confidence has grown to the point that I feel good about the life that I am living. I want to share my experiences with others so they can feel that same confidence in their own battles. There can be many obstacles in front of you but your own mind can sometimes be your biggest enemy. Show yourself who’s boss.
Photo courtesy of author.