My words to live by these days are: "Don’t live like you are dying - live like you will live 50 more years."
My goal is to keep and re-read this story in September 2061 with my friends and family around. I will be 86 years young, wrinkled, but still an amazingly healthy, vibrant senior with a dash of sexiness. Veins will show prominently on my hands and the backs of my legs. I will have my hair and toes done. And I will still wear fabulous shoes.
Pancreatic cancer at age 33. How can that be? It doesn’t run in my family, I have led a reasonably healthy existence, made all the right choices. Panic set in and I have been chasing a cure ever since the day I found out.
In the fall of 2008, I was preparing to go back to the classroom at Buena Park High School, where I had been working for a number of years. I was under a special grant as math coach, and running a successful side business called Math Graffiti. I'd just acquired a Stroller Strides franchise, and had 9-month-old baby Katie, who joined her brothers James, 2, and Ian, 4. Needless to say, my hands were full, and maybe I was taking on too much. My life was chaotic and hectic.
Since I didn’t fit any cancer mold, doctors treated me with ointments and creams for the rash and shots of cortisone for the itching. I was misdiagnosed with hepatitis. But when my eyes and skin started turning yellow, doctors knew something else was very wrong. Something was causing this to happen. Blood work and a biopsy were ordered and there was a mass discovered on my pancreas. It was blocking the bile duct, hence the reason why I was turning yellow – the bile was looking for a way out.
Cancer was not a part of my world, let alone my vocabulary. It came just in time to put my priorities back into place.
Five days before Christmas in 2008, I was in surgery to undergo the Whipple. Everything around the pancreas that can be removed, cut, whacked, chopped, is
. Santa came early that year so that the kiddos could have Christmas with me and my husband, Robert, and our families. I remained in the hospital and rehabilitation home for three weeks, followed by intensive rounds of chemo and radiation.
It was discovered that Mr. Evil Cancerman, as I call him, had already sent his evil spies to my lymph nodes. Doctors said if the cancer were to come back, it would appear in my liver - and that’s where he lives today.
I have undergone treatment to fight him in Houston (yes, we do have a problem), and I am winning. The cancer spots on my liver haven’t grown, and in fact, one spot is a bit smaller. After seeing a new specialist at a hospital in Los Angeles, our plan of attack was determined - to treat this cancer like any other long-term illness, like heart disease, high blood pressure, etc. I have accepted it as my life, but it will not stop me.
Cancer has helped me focus on what is important in life. I’m active with my three kids more than ever. I run my 7, 5 and 3-year-old around just like any other mom. I embrace normalcy and daily routines. I bake homemade muffins, love throwing creative birthday parties at the house, enjoy making the soccer team banner (who needs silk screening?), and plan mini day trips with the family. If this cancer has taught me anything it’s that my life has more purpose.
I teach Algebra 1 and 2 at Buena Park High with more passion and recently started a mentor program, Pride by Side. Teachers have teamed together to guide 25 to 30 students through their four-year high school career.
I like to say I will be the mom they wish they had, but I will also be the mom they wish they didn’t have. I will be on their case to complete and turn in homework and drill them as they study for tests in any subject. But I will also be there to cheer for them at their sporting activities, dance recitals, and most importantly, support them through tough times. I strive to make a difference in their lives and help them to become better young adults. I look forward to watching them grow and mature over these next four years.
Mr. Evil Cancerman desperately clings to me - wants to be friends - but I can’t. He’s like an awful roommate I just can’t get rid of. I embrace his faults, keep him on his toes so he doesn’t spread his mess around, and try not to talk to him too much. I just hope he gets tired of our arrangement and decides to leave sometime soon.
Hopefully before I’m 86.