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.
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.