The Other Side: My Journey With Cancer

Kippy Bracke, lives in  Minnesota, where she was born and has family.  She has a love of travel, something which was developed in her at an early age as an army brat.  She recently left corporate America and has a part time job as a Tour Director with a travel agency. 

 It came as a surprise; it usually does.  I am a Tour Director, and I was scheduled to take a group to California when I started experiencing discomfort—which I thought was indigestion.  My mother, a retired nurse, suggested that I see a doctor before I leave and follow up with further treatment, if necessary, when I come home. No problem getting in to see the doctor on Thursday afternoon.  He started with the usual questions and poking and prodding.  He finished all of this with the suggestion that I get a Cat Scan.  And so it began……

 The doctor called me at home that night (yes, you read that correctly, at night and at home) – results of the Cat Scan indicated a large mass on my ovary;  he recommended that I cancel my trip and come in the next morning for additional consultation with an oncology gynecologist.  I saw the oncologist the next day, and a whirlwind of appointments, surgery and acute anxiety started in rapid succession.

 I was in a state of shock.  Cancer.  It brings all kinds of terrible thoughts.  It can be a death sentence.   How could this happen?  I am in good physical shape; I have watched my diet; I exercise; I don’t smoke.  Why was this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?  I cried.  Self pity had set in. Friends and family surrounded me with love and support.  If I have learned one thing from this ordeal, it is that the only things that really matter in this world are faith, family and friends.  As I struggled to understand and deal with all that was happening, it was the conversations and tears  that we shared that kept me going.

My surgery occurred within a week of the diagnosis.  I had what I describe as a hysterectomy on steroids – all things that are removed during a normal hysterectomy plus a few other organs due to the cancer.   After surgery, the oncologist said I had Stage 2 cancer and that the cancer appeared to be contained within the tumor.   I was not completely awake and out of the anesthesia, but this registered with me –- I remember smiling (don’t know if I actually did, but it felt like I did)  My husband and parents were at my bedside;  we were all relieved that the cancer had not spread.

Our happiness, however, was short lived.  The doctor had said that they always biopsy surrounding tissue, in the event that there are any microscopic cancer cells.  So, when the doctor came back the next day with the news that 3 small cells had been found on my lymph nodes, the nightmare began anew.  Thoughts of death and chemotherapy started to consume me.   I cried again.                          

 The proscribed chemotherapy protocol was a newer one, one that they have had good success with.  I was told that there was a 75-80% chance of getting into remission with completion of all sessions.  I was also told that approximately 40% of patients who start this protocol are unable to complete it because it is so aggressive  – 6 sessions consisting of 3 treatments each (one intravenous injection and 2 injections directly into the stomach cavity).   Preparation for treatment—implanting the ports for administration of the drugs—started  after I left the hospital, and my first treatment occurred within two weeks of the surgery

 Somewhere between my first and second treatment, self pity was replaced with self preservation and determination.  It quickly became clear that this ordeal was going to be very difficult and take all that I had.   I was determined to complete all sessions.  I jokingly told my husband that the next 6 months were going to be all about me.

And they were.   I forced myself to eat when I had no appetite and food tasted terrible. I sucked on mints and lemon drop candy to suppress the metallic taste in my mouth. I walked and exercised when I had the energy but no inclination. I focused on my body to understand reactions to the many medications. I concentrated on my medications, in order to take them at the right time to ward off nausea and pain. I ate bran flakes to fight off constipation.  And the list goes on.  And so my life progressed – day by day, week by week, month by month, always focused on getting to the other side.  The other side meant an end to the chemotherapy, the return of my appetite, and most off all, spring and all that spring brings:  new beginnings.

 It was also between my first and second treatments that I started losing my hair.    Hair loss is the most obvious sign of cancer and a constant reminder that it is a life-threatening disease.   I thought I was prepared, having purchased several scarves and a wig.  But like so many other things, preparation doesn’t always allow one to deal with reality when it arrives.

It started slowly.  A few strands in my brush soon became handfuls of hair.   And although the hair loss started slowly, the decision to shave my head came quickly.  I couldn’t handle the slow, tortuous process of watching it fall out.  It was time.  I made an appointment, and, later that same morning, went into the salon, my scarf in my purse.   The stylist, recommended to me by the woman who sold me the wig and scarves, had a private work area, a good sense of humor, and a box of Kleenex.  I couldn’t watch, so I kept my eyes looking downward.  When he finished, I looked up and stared into the mirror, not knowing whether to laugh or cry—so I did both.    I felt a terrible loss but was relieved that this step was over.    As I put on my pink scarf, I remembered what a good had friend told me – “It’s your badge of courage, wear it with honor”.   So I held my head high as I left.  I knew that I was going to earn this badge of courage.    

 That night, I took off my scarf and got into bed to watch the news before turning out the light.  Mozart ,our yellow lab, loves to sleep in our bed.   I heard her coming upstairs, and, as she jumped onto the bed, she immediately froze, staring at me.  Her body tensed, the fur on her back rose, and she slowly leaned forward.  She didn’t recognize me!  I laughed and called her name, coaxing her to come.  She slowly approached: what stranger was in her master’s bed?  As she came near, she put her nose to my head and sniffed from one end to the other.  I’m not sure what was going on in that little brain of hers, but she finally did process that it was me.  And then she proceeded to lick my head!  Ah Mozart – just thinking about her brings a smile to my face.   We call her our “therapy” dog because she’s been such a great support through this whole affair. 

Kippy with Mozart

The last two sessions were tough.  I was anxious to complete my treatment and move on to whatever lay ahead.  When friends or family members asked how I was doing, I replied that I was going to finish, that it wouldn’t be pretty, and I’d crawl to the finish if necessary.  Well, I was right.  It wasn’t pretty, and I limped over the finish line. I finally completed the regimen on February 3.  I had made it to the other side. 

I am now in a state of remission and relieved that the treatments are over.  I know that I reacted quickly and well to the chemotherapy, but have asked very few questions about the prognosis.   I have no control over what might happen and have, therefore, chosen to live each day to the fullest.  Besides, I didn’t go through the hell of chemotherapy to waste my future away! 

When this ordeal started, I kept my focus on the other side and the new beginning I hoped it would bring.  How fortunate I am to have this opportunity now in front of me.  It is spring here in Minnesota, and when I look outside, there is renewal all around – grass and flower sprouts and buds on the trees.  When I look in the mirror, I see my own spring and renewal – hair growth on my head, my eyebrows and my eyelashes, and hope for the future.  It is a new me. 

My story ends with my reintroduction to God.  Most people diagnosed with cancer turn to their religion for support, and I am no different. I was raised in the Catholic Church, but have not attended church regularly as an adult.   During my chemotherapy “recovery” weeks, I started attending the very short 8:15 am mass at the nearby Catholic Church where I was married.  The people at this early service are elderly and are regular attendees.  When I started going to mass, it was difficult, and I cried through the service, not knowing how to pray or what to pray for. 

 It was after mass in late October when I experienced a life-changing event, one that helped me cope with this new challenge I’d been given.  As I was leaving church, tears still falling onto my cheeks, I heard a voice behind me:  “I’m a cancer survivor.”  I turned around, and an older woman approached me, and said:  “You have to believe, and you have to pray”.  As I nodded, unable to speak, she again said :  “You have to believe and you have to pray”.   She then asked me my name and said “Kippy, I will pray for you.”  I remember thanking her; l didn’t even ask her name; I have never seen her since. 

 As I continue to re-establish myself with God and my religion, I often think of her message.  I have found peace within and now understand what to pray for – not a healing but the strength to handle whatever is given to me and a reminder that there is life after death.

Looking back,  I now know why, throughout this whole process, I was so focused on getting through the treatments to the other side – it would be a time of new beginnings, both inside and out.

13 thoughts on “The Other Side: My Journey With Cancer

  1. Kippy, just came across this as I was researching RMWC alums on the internet. So sorry to hear of your struggle, but I rejoice in your recovery and in your new found zest for and love of life. I will pray, as you so rightly noted, that God will support you and walk with you through whatever comes into your path.

    Peace and blessings – Carter Moore Hoyt

  2. Kippy, I hope knowing this account gives comfort and hope to others makes you proud…because it should. It takes a lot of guts to share such a personal ordeal, and we all thank you for being such a brave and skillful writer. It had me in tears, yet left me feeling you will be just fine.

    The story about Mozart and her initial fear – then total acceptance – was very moving. It didn’t take her long to realize nothing about you had changed, apart from that temporary hairdo. It’s a lesson for all of us.

    Take care and PLEASE continue to write on this blog, letting us all know how you’re doing. You have made some brand new friends here, and all of us are cheering you on.
    Tisha

  3. Dearest Kippy, I’ve been thinking about you nearly every day and I’m so glad to read your superb article about your struggle. I let our Sisters of the Holy Cross know that you were fighting and going through a hard time and I’m going to copy this article and give it to them so they have a clear picture of the wonderful woman they are praying for. I’m happy also to know that their prayers will gladden your heart. They have an influence, wherever it comes from or whatever your belief, of that I am sure. We see proof of it every day here. But a printed article will work better with them–computers and little old ladies! Thank you for the inspiring article. love, Tootie

  4. Kippy, Today I read your story for the seventh or eighth time. I’m overcome with admiration for your strength, your courage and your determination. You’re even more impressive now than you were as a “little girl.” After reading your wonderfully articulate description of your efforts to get to the “other side” and to have the experience of new beginnings, I walked outside and was engulfed by one of the most beautiful spring days of my life. I stood there and thought of you and felt a surge of confidence for you. I don’t know whether it was really as perfect a day as it seemed to me, or whether, having just read your words, I was more fully able to appreciate it than I otherwise might have been, but either way it was a lovely and powerful experience and I thank you for it. You are in my head and in my heart every day. Sheppie

  5. Kippy, I so needed to hear your story….I have been a bit self-consumed today.

    Your couage to share has helped to get my line of thinking back in perspective.

    I am glad you have found your faith in God once again.

    He is all that we can count on!

    Just follow Him!

    Elisebeth

  6. Kippy,

    I am so glad to hear that the cancer is in remission. I always remember you and BJ laughing and cutting up in the many halls of RMWC. I remember more laughter at reunion -wasn’t it in the Bell community bathroom? I will be thinking of you.
    Zoleta

  7. Dear Kippy,
    I remember your radiant smile and grace from the R-MWC days and I can see in the photos that they are still the same. I truly admire your courage and determination. After a long and severe winter we have signs of spring even in this northern land and so it is with this theme of renewal that I send you my love and warmest wishes for the future.

    Sirpa Volanto Niemisto

  8. Kippy,
    BJ told me about your struggle with cancer and I have prayed for you. Your blog is inspiring and personally touching. It seems like yesterday we laughed and talked dogs, boyfriends, skiing, jobs. Oh how I’ve missed my college buddies! My brother-in-law has been battling cancer for over twenty years. He thinks the chemo will kill him before the cancer but he has the faith and many praying for him on a regular basis. Please lets get in touch.
    Alice Buchanan Meredith

  9. From your account, you faced this challenge with dignity and grace and I rejoice with you in being in remission.

    I have a close high school friend who is facing a similar challenge right now – so I may pass along your ‘story’ to her. She is hoping to finish her treatments in time for her daughter’s wedding in just 4 weeks!!!

    Wishing you all the best, Betsy

  10. Dear Kippy:

    What a moving account of the long and challenging journey you’ve been on over the past year–one that required incredible strength (physical, emotional, and mental) and stamina. As I’ve said to you before, your grit, determination, and commitment to staying the course of a grueling treatment protocol are a testament to the wonderful woman I have been very fortunate to call a good friend since our years together at R-MWC.

    May each day bring you renewed energy and enjoyment of life. It was great to see your radiant smile in the photos on your posting and to finally see a picture of Mozart. Maybe you should add a few cats to your musical entourage–perhaps a Chopin and a Vivaldi! Love, Beth

  11. Thank you for telling your story. You are a brave woman with remarkable qualities. My mom went through chemo five years ago and has been in remission ever since. One doctor tried to rush me into chemo on February 1st, but I didn’t trust him and got a second opinion that said I won’t need treatment for five to ten years. So I’m going for a third opinion just to make sure I’m doing the right thing. There is such a stigma about cancer, yet treatments have (so they tell us) become so much more refined than in the past. They know what to give us to make it easier. I’m glad you are through with this chapter. I hope your spring is flowery and your summer brings you a trip to a distant land that will sooth the wanderer in you. If you do get out to California… (long beach) look me up.

    leaseaguest@hotmail.com

  12. Wow, Kippy, I don’t know you but I sure feel as if I do now. What a wonderful story. I will pray for you, too. I’m going to keep your story in my head for a long time as a source of inspiration as I go about my days. Thanks so much for sharing your journey with everyone.

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