Saturday, November 16, 2013

Here's how it started:

After the initial diagnosis of noninvasive cancer, the pathology after the mastectomy indicated that the cancer spread outside the ducts and became invasive. While the invasive tumors were extremely small, they had spread all the way back to the chest wall and all the way up to the collarbone. My surgeon, the talented and esteemed Dr. Elizabeth Revesz, sent me off to the oncologist office to speak with the grandfatherly Dr. Michael Kosmo. One of the first things Dr. Kosmo said was that I would lose my hair. I was really bummed, because I really like my hair! 

After the indication for chemotherapy was made, and a schedule was set, I negotiated so I could begin the school year and hopefully teach the first few weeks or more. During the in-between time several friends gifted me with care package bags of goodies. Inside the bags were all the same items that Abby includes in her bags.
There is no way to convey the anxiety I felt before the first chemotherapy treatment. My entire body felt like it was full of static electricity. My blood pressure was elevated and my head was swimming with questions and worries. My friend, Becca, surprised me that morning and had a HUGE care package for me.
When I arrived at the cCare facility at 4S Ranch, I was immediately put at ease by the nurses who greeted me: Teri and Marti. After choosing a chair in the treatment room, the nurses on duty, Juleesa and Larisa, made me comfortable and explained everything that was happening at each step of the way. A few chairs over sat a woman named Becky. She was there with her 18 year old daughter. I was accompanied by my husband, Art, and several bags (papers to grade, snacks, blanket, iPad, etc). I noticed that Becky and her daughter were splitting ear phones and watching a movie on a small device. At one point, I overheard her say to her daughter that she was hungry. We had so much stuff with us that I simply slid my bag over and handed her a sandwich and chips and fruit and water. Becky was really sweet, and as we began to talk, we discovered that we were both there for our first treatment and that we were both getting the "TCH cocktail" and that our surgeon was Dr. Revesz. 
It occurred to me in that moment that maybe I was prepared mentally for this experience, but I had been gifted with care packages to meet my needs as well. 
That day was a Thursday. The Thursday before Labor Day weekend. That entire weekend was awful and one I have archived in my memory as a 'never again' experience. 
Becky switched to a Tuesday schedule, so before her next treatment, I put together a care package bag for her and sent a message to friends and family. Instead of a birthday present, I requested that bags be made and delivered to local cancer treatment centers so that people like Becky, and others, would feel taken care of; whether it was their first treatment, their last treatment, or anywhere in between, sitting there for six hours while poison is pumped into your body is not exactly a trip to Disneyland. I was overwhelmed and humbled by the response to my birthday request. 
This is the picture and message that Abby placed in the first bag

Richie, Tommy, and Sarah Hauser delivering bags in Idaho

Tommy's sweet note!

Karsten Towery, in Idaho, with her mom and the ladies at the medical center in Idaho where she delivered bags

Sweet Sarah's note

Jennifer Warren delivering bags at Stanford

Karsten Towery outside of the medical center in Idaho
 Many additional friends and family participated in this endeavor. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and humility. 
There is so much about cancer that is out of my control: test results, scheduling, side effects. This was one thing I could control and feel good about. There is a moment, a fleeting space in time upon waking, when there is the ignorance of reality. It is that space between being asleep and being fully awake; you can hear the world but you are not yet part of it. In my mind, I am about to get up and get ready for work. I think about my students and my lessons and my doggies and my husband. And, then I open my eyes and stretch. I touch my head and there is no hair. My port is tender because I slept on my right side. And I remember; I remember that today I am not going to work. Today I hope I can taste the food I am eating instead of tasting metal in my mouth. Today I hope I can keep it together when the cashier at Von's reaches out to me, squeezes my hand and says,"Keep fighting sweetie." Everyone talks about the physical side effects and thankfully I have not had the terrible nausea that many have had. The headaches, the fatigue, and the indigestion has exacerbated the metallic mouth taste. What nobody really talks about is the emotional and psychological effects: mood swings, crying jags, hopelessness, depression. Those are also compounded by the 25 pounds of steroid weight gain, the water retention, the forced intake of protein, and the sense of smell being so warped that even the aroma of Thanksgiving turkey cooking makes me gag. 
I am so proud of Abby for seeing through the eyes of a 5-year old that something good could come out of this. I am so proud of her attitude of service to others. I am pleased by how her project has been embraced by her mom's friends and family on Facebook and by my friends and family on Facebook and beyond. Abby does not want attention for herself, she simply wants people who don't feel good to feel better. And the simple truth is, they do when they receive one of these bags. It's not just the contents; it's the handwritten notes and the hand-drawn pictures and the thoughts and prayers of strangers that can uplift the spirit of someone who may be feeling yucky. Yes, it's that simple. 

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