The Day That Changed My Life
July 17th, 2013…. is a date that will forever be ingrained in my memory. It is the day that I found out that I had a brain tumor. Early that morning on July 17th, I went for an MRI scan due to some headaches and sharp pains I had been having in my head. My mom went with me for the MRI and the entire time I had this horrible feeling in my gut, and I couldn’t help but cry. At this time I was not aware of the tumor, but I knew in my heart that something was not right.
I had the MRI and returned home, not expecting to hear any results for a few days. That same day around noon, I got a call from my doctor saying that the results had shown a “nodule” in a very dangerous spot. I was told that I needed to get to the emergency room for another MRI immediately. This news was paralyzing to my entire body.
I immediately called my mom to come to pick me up and we headed to the ER at Lutheran General.
Right away, they took me in for what ended up being a two-hour MRI. Once I had finished, I was taken back to the ER where my family and friends had started to accumulate. They each had their own look of fear and terror on their face and I distinctly remember each one. We were not waiting very long when the top surgeon at Lutheran General, Dr. Ruge came and found me... His first words were “are you Christina Lapke? and are you able to walk?” I looked at him so confused, “well yes of course I can walk... why would I not be able to?” He then began to ask me to perform different tasks such as touching my nose, walking a straight line, etc. All of which I was able to do fine.
He then took my family into another room to discuss the seriousness of what he had found in my MRI. Dr. Ruge explained that I had a large tumor, in a dangerous spot, and there were arteries wrapped around it, they would need to operate immediately. What had come up in the results was that I had barely any spinal fluid left because the tumor was so big. My mom then came back to me in the ER, I was sitting in a chair awaiting my results in the hallway, my dear Mary Ann was sitting on the floor holding my hand, and my Auntie Julie beside me. My mom had told both of them to go meet my step-dad, Paul, as she proceeded to tell me the news. I do not remember that conversation at all. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be having brain surgery. I was absolutely terrified. I even remember saying “Dr. Ruge, can't you just…laser it out?”
That night I was moved to a room in the ICU where I had loved ones coming to see me all night. I needed those people there, family AND friends more than anything. I needed to feel that love and support. I needed to know that people were praying for me.
I saw the horror on all of my loved ones' faces, as best they tried to hide it. I was getting Facebook messages, tweets, texts, phone calls from so many people. It's like that was God’s way of saying “you are loved”.
My surgery was scheduled for noon the next day and it was expected to last 4-6 hours. One of the assisting surgeons came into my room that night to explain everything to me, have me sign some papers, and then it was just my mom and I. I’m not exactly sure how either one of us made it through that night, but we are a force to be reckoned with. This was the day that changed my life. Little did I know it was just the first day of a very long road ahead.
My associate pastor prayed with me before surgery, as did my Uncle Brian and Aunt Kathi. My cousin Becky never left my side; I had grabbed her hand right before they took me and said “don’t leave me” because I was so scared. Each member of my family got to say their own words to me before they took me off to surgery. I also had a lot of text messages from people who couldn’t be there physically but were in my heart.
The surgery ended up lasting seven hours and I made it through fine, with no complications. I was told I had 30 people in the waiting room, and elsewhere praying for me. Everyone tells me that those seven hours were terrible for them, waiting to find out if I would make it through surgery. Before they took me that morning the surgeon had told everyone the chances of me making it through were bleak. I know now that I made it through because I had so much love coming my way. There were so many people praying, and I know that God must have a great plan for me.
I don’t remember much of that day. I was obviously on a lot of pain medication but I was told I was my feisty self pretty quickly after waking up. No one knew, not even my surgeon, how I'd be after I woke up. They didn’t know if I would be able to move my legs or toes, or if I would know my family, friends, or even myself. By the grace of God, I was able to do all those things.
That night they would only allow my immediate family to see me. So I was surrounded by my mom, my step-dad, and sister and brother-in-law. If I had it my way I would have let everyone in the room with me. Those who couldn’t be there made sure I knew they were thinking of me. My mom would read me so many messages from all my friends. And so the day ended. And it was just my mom and me. I felt safe and protected knowing she was there. That was the day I became a fighter. The day I knew God would always protect me. So while it was painful and terrifying. It changed me forever. It changed me for the better.
July 23rd, 2013......On this day I found out I had cancer. I think I can say with confidence this was the worst day of my life. The Oncologist came in and told us the tumor was malignant and anything he said after that I couldn’t tell you. A thousand things were running through my head. As soon as my doctor walked out my pastor walked in. Talk about perfect timing. Again I was reminded that even though I just received devastating news God was with me.
I went home not long after that day. I needed a walker and constant assistance. There was nothing I could do on my own. It was terribly hard for me to not be able to take care of myself. My mom literally did everything for me. My emotions were running crazy, and I needed to relearn how to live again.
I knew that I was going to need physical therapy which didn’t sit well; I am used to being the caretaker. I’m a nurse, I didn’t want anyone to have to do therapy with me.
The first 10 days home were just a whirlwind of emotions. I obviously had to move in with my mom and step-dad so that was an adjustment for all of us as well. I was very quickly learning what living with cancer was going to be like.
I needed to do 6 weeks of radiation, 5 days a week. I was doing a special kind of radiation called proton therapy, which is meant to target just the area needed. I was really nervous at first because I had no idea what to expect. I was very lucky to have such a great team of nurses, therapists, and doctors. They answered any questions I had and made me feel so comfortable.
The side effects of radiation were not terrible. It made me really tired and there were times I would be nauseous but besides that, I was really okay. I made sure not to stop living my life during this time. I knew that just because I had cancer my life did not stop. I was not going to lock myself in my room and cry, I was not going to give in. Yes, there were times that I had to allow myself to be weak and cry on a loved one's shoulder, but for the most part, I would count my blessings and be grateful to be alive.
Radiation was a really humbling experience for me because I would see small children come in for treatment and my heart would break for them. I just wanted to take away whatever they had and do treatment for them. I tried to go in every time with a positive attitude, and reassure myself that I was there to get better, to get rid of the cancer.
Now, 8 years later I can have a brain tumor and be cancer-free. It has been a long journey since my diagnosis in 2013 accompanied by depression, anxiety, graduating, career changes, and so so many life lessons. I still struggle every day with the "what ifs?", with the anxiety that comes with the memories of what happened in July of 2013. While I do allow myself to grieve for the part of me I lost, I also have to remind myself to be grateful for all I have gained. I finished nursing school and am now proudly working as a Nurse. I took control of my health and lost 34 lbs and more importantly, I learned how to love my body again. I am also working to better my mental health every day. Where there is pain and suffering there is also growth, strength, and love. I thank God every day that I am alive today. Because of what I went through, and my understanding of how quickly life can be taken away, I try to look for the good and the beauty in each day.
Photo courtesy of author.