One women's journey to survival

Kathleen Quick is a member of “Stefanie’s Team Of Hope” – She made the 50 mile ride during Pelotonia this year and we at The Sullivan Centre were so touched by her story that we asked her to share it on our blog.

Life Poured In

“Can you get me to bed and tuck me in?” The faint smells of massage oil and chemo drugs fill the air as my African American friend pulls my sorry white self up the steps and to the bedroom. Scooping up the ever-faithful dog and making sure we are both set for the night, she quietly lets herself out. She is one of the faithful ones. A friend who comes when day meets night, with no concern for tumultuous weather. She marks her calendar for when I have chemo infusion; her goal is to massage killing drugs out of my little tormented body.

Did she wash her hands after the massage? I hope so; I don’t want that poison in her. I visualize the gloves marked “hazardous” that the nurse wears to disconnect my IV line, and I pray, keep her safe. Her family of five waits at home, but she comes to me because that is who she is.

I go into surgery with the assurance it is not life threatening. With a cloudy mind I awaken to my son’s eyes locking mine at the words ovarian cancer. My brain stumbles on this as I review all the missing parts inside this tummy of mine. Two weeks later, on my fifty-seventh birthday, the phone wakes me. The voice informs me that my cancer is one of the most deadly aggressive types, innocently named “clear cell.” Thankfully it was caught early on. Chemo is inevitable; the question is which drugs will eliminate this microscopic invader. There are second and third opinions, and a month to soak up the good life at one of my favorite places, wondering and weighing. Someone paints me a picture, someone dances a dance—all hold, all care. My mind can’t contain the information, but somehow my spirit does and I rest.

Rummaging through a closet, someone finds me the perfect scarf, and I tie it around my purse and smile. Soon it will cover my head. For now, a friend snaps photos while I dance in the dappled light—a picture gallery of life.

In the midnight hour words take on their own life. “If it comes back you will lose.” “You will be dead in two years if it comes back.” I breathe, I breathe, and I breathe again—deciding which words I will hold in my heart. I tell myself to be still; I rest.

Blessing or curse? My dog had pups before I was aware of this impostor growing inside me, and with over-gushing love I keep two. In truth, I do not feel confident taking care of myself, but the helplessness of these little pups enables me to think about more than my aggressive chemo. When peace slips out of my fingers, I can still myself and watch their abandoned sleep. They do not seem to have a care in the world, totally believing I will provide for their every need. I breathe in their peace and trust, and let it wash over me like a soft wave. I can do this.

I am someone who plans, down to laid-out clothes before a flight, so preparing for chemo day makes me crazy. It is like planning for a baby, with no joy at the end. I remember somewhere in the ninth month of pregnancy thinking, it has to come out, but the joy of a new life made the pain possible. Not with chemo. Wednesday, my infusion day, is no longer just a day of the week. Tuesday it is, “Oh God no.” Thursday it is, “I made it.”

Everything slows from motion to stillness with the dawn of each Wednesday. I know what is going to happen and I do not want to go. My mind is focused on survival. Are there people better off than me? Yes. Worse? Yes. Do I care? No. It takes all of my energy to stay focused on this one thing—will my body survive this day? Fighting for strength, I choose raw food drinks, essential oils, and exercise to endure the side effects of chemo. Two days after infusion, I swing my legs over a spinning bike and even though my world is out of control, my soul soars as I command this hour. I turn down the red knob of resistance and white-knuckle the handlebars. The smile, the song, the eyes keep me going. One after another, my instructors save me a front row seat and cheer me on. In weightlifting class, I walk in to find that my friends have set up my equipment, and I know that their hands will put it away. The air in the room hangs heavy with the smell of lavender from my spray bottle. Friends encourage me, sporting little yellow and teal bands of color on their arms. They are grunting, lifting, and pushing themselves beyond and beyond. One lone bench sits up front with my 5’1”self lifting baby weights. I am surrounded by good. Does it matter that I leave to be sick? No, that happens all the time—what matters is that we are all together and I am happy.

“I’ve never been a Chemo buddy before,” a special friend says with nervous eyes and slightly moving hands. We settle in with games, essential oils, magazines, and chemo, but I will only use the oils. My friend hopes for a moment that I will forget that killer drugs are attacking my body in every way. I look up as the nurse hangs four bags on my IV pole. Their eyes follow mine and widen; mine look down. I have a special “dancing vein” nurse assigned to me, and she can’t get a line in. “I’m so sorry,” her voice and eyes say. “I know,” I reply. I love, she loves, we love together—it has to be. She offers me comfort drugs. “No,” I say, “Chemo is enough.” I won’t take other drugs—not before, during or after. She hates to see me suffer, but I hate the side effects even more.

Frantic calls are made on infusion day when my daughter—my chemo buddy—is sick with a bad cold. Another steps in. “I will be there, don’t worry.” Dropping her own life, she comes by my side. I want my daughter to come along, so she seats herself a distance away for my protection and mimics chemo infusion and I laugh. We wander through Whole Foods on the way home, picking out food I think I want. I’m very sick by this time. They humor me, for I’m convinced I need food to feel better. After hours of stillness, this new motion makes the heart pump, limbs tremble. Connections for life, where do they come from? They can be ever so slight, but are always there. With my head upside down in my health club toilet, a voice calls out, “Are you ok?” Then it happens, the divine—she has a doctor who does acupuncture and it really helps. A cancer survivor himself, this needle doctor chases away my chemo brain confusion. He also relentlessly attacks my nerve-damaged hands and makes them as new. That doctor is sent, at this moment in time, just for me. Faith transcends my condition and in its path I find good.

Tornadoes rage in my body, but many hands anchor me to the ground. How many friends camp out to watch a movie while I retch? How many sit and rub my feet? How many run errands for whatever I need? Do they look at their watches? Do they think of home? No, they all stay until it is quiet. This is not about my personal cancer, but how I made it through to the other side.

Rounding the bend I finish chemo, but my friends are not done with me. They have more to give. I want to celebrate life since I have mine back. A 5K looms in my future, five months after my final infusion. I train, they help. These are baby steps for a new racer. The needle doctor, a runner himself, says, “You can do it.” My kids (who were all my chemo buddies) train and come from out of state for the race.

I am me, but I am also not me. I have something added to my life, something that is pushing me on. During my cancer, strength dripped into me, and it stayed. Life given into another is not leaked out, but brings more life. I ran that race, and finished with my best time ever.

These are the lenses I look through to view my cancer. Life is not just about me, but how I have new value hidden inside from each and every person who poured into me. A hand, a touch, a smile. Eyes that opened wide so I could gaze inside the soul. I will never be the same, I will never be alone.