Saturday, March 12, 2016

In Which I Come out of Hiding and Share My Scare in March Story…

A year ago I was told that it appeared I had a spot on my liver. It was a phone call that shook me to my core. Thee call that I was always afraid of possibly having to face. The one every cancer survivor fears could come out of nowhere, changing our lives once again, forever.

This 'spot' was believed to be 1 centimetre and was considered a 'new finding' since the radiologists at the local hospital said there was no mention of it on previous scans in my records. It could be a freckle (hemangioma) but it likely wasn't as "freckles on organs don't usually appear. They have always been there." my GP had said apologetically over the phone. "I'm sorry Ashley, but if it's not a freckle. It looks like the cancer is back."

I'd been really sick for a week… I thought it was maybe appendicitis, a stomach virus or worse (always impossible to not go "there"). But because it felt gut related I really didn't expect that an ultra sound would show something on my liver. Here I was being told by my doctor that it looked like the cancer was back. That whatever I had been worried about originally was now much more serious than just appendicitis or a stomach bug. It was a lesion on my liver. If it was a freckle it would have been there previously. And it wasn't on any other report prior to this. These facts were not in my favour. Things did not look good.

I called Mike immediately and he was soon on his way home. Coincidentally, my Dad was already heading over as he was bringing me soup since I had been home sick for days. As much as I was terrified, I was actually more angry than anything else initially. I was mad that after all of this... after everything I had been healing... that I was facing this shit again. Cancer that had spread to another organ was NOT something I was ready for. No one is. I paced, swore, yelled and cried as I tried to figure out next steps. My Dad, his wife and Mike, all in disbelief, tried to get me to sit down but I couldn't.

Things sounded pretty certain as far as outcome, but to confirm whether it was metastasis a CT scan was ordered. Unfortunately I was told I'd have to wait a few days. A FEW DAYS OF PURE TORTURE. I was having none of that, got on the phone and was at the hospital within a few hours. Put me to work, get me on the phone to push through, give me a task to make things happen and I'm there. As most people who have been through this cancer crap can probably relate, It's difficult to just sit and wait for medical news. My coping method is to keep busy or work towards a solution. I try my damn best to make things happen when it comes to tests so I can move forward, be put out of my misery and speed-up the horrifying fear of anxiety. Thankfully my perseverance paid off.

Shaking on the table of the CT machine it took three CT techs and a ER nurse to attempt to get a line going for the contrast dye.

"Don't worry. We will get your veins going soon." One of them said, clearly seeing my discomfort with adding more wait time to the scanning process. And another..."Are you afraid of needles? Don't worry. It's just a poke"

Through chattering lips, "I'm not afraid of needles. I'm afraid cancer is in my liver."

The CT crew was really understanding, kind and compassionate after I shared this. I was so afraid of what they would see in the scans. The fact that they couldn't get an IV going just added to my panic. I was shaking so hard they had to hold me still. I feared how they might know my fate before me once the CT was done. They would know. And their eyes might try to hide what they knew as they undid the straps holding my arms in place. That I would see their sadness for me. And I would know from their sympathetic glances that I was now living with mets.

Within an hour of finishing at the hospital, Shannon, my life-long best friend since kindergarten, arrived at our house to be with me while Mike went back to work. I still don't know why I felt it was important that he continue to work that day. Maybe to normalize the situation. Whatever the logic, Shannon was there for me as my support as we waited for the call from my oncologist who had said she would know that day what was going on. (Thank goodness for kick ass oncology teams and expedited answers!) To keep occupied we went for a walk. I paced on the beach and then again once we got home. I felt fragile and small. Like I was 5 or 6 years old. Helpless. Similar to how I felt when I went through chemo.

A million fears and scenarios of chemo, radiation, panic attacks and dying played out in my mind. I went as far as to discuss some pretty intense concepts and end of life wishes with Shan as she held space in the sheer terror I was experiencing. I kept thinking about popping Ativan, but wasn't sure whether I wanted the hangover feeling and blackout that usually goes along with it. I managed to resist the anti-anxiety meds, wanting to be fully alert for when the call would come in since I was anticipating having to process some pretty hefty information.

But the stress of the situation was exhausting me. Shannon and I agreed that maybe it was a good idea if I tried to nap. I had been shaking for hours and all of the adrenaline was making me sleepy. (It's interesting how our bodies react to stress in this way. I almost always need a nap when I am working through cancer-stress, after a scan, waiting for news. Makes sense. Fearing your life is some serious shit!)

In the bedroom, Shan held me like I was a little girl and let me cry in her arms. I flashed back to when we were 5 and she had comforted me on the steps outside of our kindergarten classroom when I was home-sick. I was the new kid at school and feeling nervous on my first day. I remember it so clearly to this day… Little Shannon had joined me on the stairs and given me a hug assuring me everything was OK and not to cry.

Now, 25+ years later, I couldn't have asked for a better best buddy to be there for me during this time.
"Shan, can you promise me one thing?"
"Sure Hun."
 "Will you promise after I die, to still come visit Mike and check up on him for me?" I said holding back crying.
She stroked my hair like I was her child, nodding "Oh of course, my dear." I think we both may have had tears but I couldn't see her face all curled up like she was my Mum.

Then the phone rang.

We jumped upright and I swung my legs over the edge of the bed. This was it. I would either be planning for managing metastatic breast cancer for the rest of my life or I would be given yet another chance at life (If that makes sense). I took a huge breath before answering.

Without wasting a minute with phone formalities my oncologist on the other end of the line...
"It's Sophie. You're fine."
"I'm fine!!??" Raising my voice through tears of relief!
"You're fine. It's not cancer."

IT'S NOT CANCER. I WAS FINE! I was better than fine! I had a hemangioma that WAS on a previous scan that the local hospital didn't have on file. My oncologist (Sophie) said that the 'spot' was 'over-called'. The CT and ultra sound clearly showed that it was not cancer. The radiologist pros at the BC Cancer Agency would have been able to determine this from the beginning, and the local medical folk were just being overly cautious because of my case (and age). Lesson learned: Rely only on the pros who see cancer daily. 

Regardless of the dramatic roller-coaster that the local hospital had just put me through, I was suddenly on cloud fricking nine. Beaming and shaking all at once. I was in a state of relieved shock… processing the halt of fear and sudden relief of happiness was something I had dealt with before but not to this extent... watching Shannon scream and jump up and down for joy, I almost couldn't believe that everything was suddenly OK. It was like a dream.

Shannon galloped through the house screaming overjoyed as I relayed what Sophie had said and began calling Mike with the news. I could feel his breath-hold release with a deep sigh and had wished in that moment that he had been with me. I then texted a few people that had been in the know of what I had been dealing with for the past few days. Happy tears flowed hard and smiles were so big they hurt.

That week and this day one year ago was by far the most terrifying health scare I've had since finishing treatment for breast cancer. To think of how slim my chances were - that it didn't appear probable that it could be just a freckle... Things had not seemed in my favour at all. I thought "this was it". I went from receiving my worst fear to suddenly feeling like I could fly. The shift from fear to relief is unlike any other feeling. I felt like I was having an outer body experience all day and then was quickly thrown back into myself with the news that I was in the clear.

For days and weeks, even months after that mind-f*ck of an event I felt like I had to pinch myself over and over. I was not living a nightmare. I was OK. I now refer to that time as My Scare in March. Because, for me, it was the mother of all cancer scares. It was like another mile-marker for me in my story of having had cancer. Another re-birthing period since first hearing those words in 2012. A chance to reset once again... to know that I was free. I could do anything. How odd that in threat to life we are suddenly 'switched on' to give ourselves expanded permission to truly live. I'd already experienced a huge impact from the post-traumatic personal growth in my life since that original diagnosis, this was like a second-helping of it. Another sobering dose of 'this is the only life you get' front and centre.

A few weeks after the good news I actually learned that I did in fact have some kind of stomach sickness. I had Yersinia Enterocolitica. A type of bacterial infection similar to E-Coli. (gross!) It mimics appendicitis and makes you feel like something is attacking your abdomen. No wonder I had felt so awful.

So I wasn't crazy. The infection cleared on its own and my March Scare has now come up to one year later. Since then I've had a few more scans that have caused scanxiety but nothing like this one. Overall I'm pleased to say that I'm doing really well (despite the continued hormone-blocking therapy side effects.) I'm happy. Mike's happy. We're both healthy… living, learning and growing. I'm just loving this life. My mind is stronger, my soul nourished, my spirit free. My liver has a 1 cm freckle on it and I don't have cancer.


  1. I'm so glad your still doing well Ashley. I think of you often :)

  2. Hey sweetie, amazing we felt like updating at the same time.. Just really happy you're doing okay and that you and Mike are both happy! It shines through your daily photos! p.s. What you wrote about Shannon was really moving!

  3. Wow I can relate to part 1 of all that. Sadly my story goes in a different direction. But thank goodness yours didn't. If you had texted me I would have told you that the liver is full of interesting things that aren't cancer. Fat deposits, hemangiomas and many other things. It's a detox organ so it accumulates crap. Thank god that was all it was. That waiting thing is ridiculous. I'm like you - take action and make it happen ASAP. I think we deserve a free pass from waiting. Or knock us out/keep us drunk or sedated until results are in........

  4. I came across your blog when researching the Jean Barber lodge, where i will be staying (unless i find something better?) for 6 long weeks starting in Nov. Any advice on how to make it less prison-like? i have had a tour, and see exactly what you experienced, after reading your blog post in 2012. Any advice is muchly appreciated. thank you!