November 29, 2012

A Cancer Story

"But...everything is going to be okay right? I mean it can't be...cancer? We're too young, she's too young...right? Right?"
After a long silence he says "Honey, as you get you get older things start happening, good things and bad things...and well...I don't know if it's going to be looks serious, very serious..."
I started to cry. And I had a bad feeling. I realized this was the first time ever that my dad couldn't tell me if everything was going to be okay. Probably because he had read her test results and picked up on words like 'metastatic' and 'tumor' and already knew what they meant.

I remember that call like it was yesterday and this was the first of many scary months and phone calls ahead. It was around this time last year that I called my best friend Julia to catch up--she had had a cough for a few months and it just wasn't getting better--"dude your cough sounds nasty! Are you sick?' But like best friends, we moved on to other topics and talked about our secret plot for Christian and I to fly home for Christmas a few weeks later to surprise my parents.

Fast forward and we were in Cali for Christmas and Christian and I had just gotten engaged! And guess what? Julia and my other best friend Smitty were on the beach with us snapping pics and watching as Christian got down on one knee and proposed. Throughout that same week we talked about how amazing the summer had been--Julia and Smitty spent a few weeks in Amsterdam a few months earlier, we barhopped, lunched by the canals, partied in Berlin, they joined me for my twin sister's bachelorette party in Vegas and wedding in Cali and now we were celebrating my engagement! "You guys, this year is one for the books." 

But Julia also told me the same week that she had gone to the doctor several weeks earlier to get her cough checked out and an x-ray revealed some type of mass in her lung. But the doctors didn't express too much concern and assumed an infection and they'd keep an eye on it. Just before Christmas though, Julia started coughing up a bit of blood and decided to go back. 

A few days later it was time for us to return back to Amsterdam, so I hugged her tight and told her to get it checked out again and that I'd miss her so much. 

Over the course of the next two months, Julia got more x-rays, blood tests and check-ups. Each appointment resulted in another appointment which was exponentially more urgent. I remember thinking 'wow they sure are moving fast with this now.' It was clear that CT scans and biopsies were triggering the next phase of testing now, not next week, not next month, as in "Julia, you need to come back in tomorrow, or actually we can do your test this afternoon." 

Smitty and I discussed possibilities, never believing that it could be cancer. She's our best friend and we all just turned 26, I mean the thought of cancer was just not possible. We comforted her with these ideas and got her mind off of it--"hey I think the next time I'll fly out again is February 2013, just in time for your b-day! I owe you a b-day celebration, let's plan a tropical getaway.'

By this time it was the end of February and the words 'PET scan' came up--the last test they do before they diagnose cancer. At this point I started freaking out. Within the same week, they did a biopsy of tumors which were found in her lung AND liver. 

It was March, the week leading up to St. Patrick's Day--a week I will never forget. I knew she had these tests done at the hospital that week and told her to call me no matter what time it is. And I gotta call. It was Smitty, she was sobbing and she said the words I prayed wouldn't be said: 'Julia has lung cancer.' My world stopped. As soon as I hung up the phone, I saw the lengthy text messages from Julia but only a few words stood out--'it's malignant, I have cancer.'

I picked up the phone and called her right away. My voice was shaky but I tried to keep it together. I was in shock. I just wanted to be with her. I wanted it to be me. She said she had to get another scan to make sure it didn't spread to her brain--omg is this a nightmare?! Fortunately (if that word can be used), the cancer was only in her lung and liver.

They wouldn't know the staging until she met with the oncologist the next day--it was a Thursday.

Early on Thursday, Christian and I had decided that it's best for me to fly out to California ASAP. I sobbed the entire week--out of fear, sadness, anger, love. I was just so scared.

Then her oncologist appointment came--stage 4 small cell carcinoma. I had bought a ticket to fly out 2 days later and probably to prevent a nightmare-ish flight home, no one told me how severe her cancer was. But I did found out. The night before my flight I joined a friend at a bar to bid her farewell since she was off traveling for the summer, then heard that Julia's cancer was stage 4. I cried and cried and cried, begging the friends I was with to wake me up from this nightmare I was in.

I went home, threw some things into a suitcase and boarded a flight to Cali the next morning. And let me tell you...8 hours to JFK, an 8 hour layover, then another 5-6 hours to California is a damn long time alone in transit thinking about the week's events. I cried the entire time thinking, praying, begging that I would do ANYTHING IN THE WORLD to make Julia's cancer go away, wondering why it had to be this kind and why this stage

As soon as I arrived, my sisters picked me up and when I walked in the house, I put my head down and stared at the ground. My mom and sister put their arms around me. I pepped up though, because Julia would be there any minute. And then when she walked in the door, I hugged her tight and didn't want to let go.

Over the next 2 weeks, Julia, my other best friends and I talked about cancer and what we will do to celebrate her cancer victory one day. She started chemo immediately. I brought a movie to watch and a salad to share during two sessions of her first week of chemo. I looked at the bag of chemo as a scary hero leading to my best friend's arm. But she still kept a smile on her face.
Over the next 2 months, I told friends, family and co-workers through teary-eyes. Maybe the more people I told, the more untrue it would become. Fortunately, her tumors started shrinking immediately. Her side effects were minimal but the chemo was strong, so hair loss was a necessary evil. And she did lose her hair--knowing this still didn't prepare me for the first pic she sent me with a bald head. At about 6 feet and blue-eyed bombshell though, she still looked beautiful. 

Julia's friends did a DJ fundraiser for her, we did a boat fundraiser in Amsterdam and she remained so optimistic throughout the summer. Even despite the terrifying statistics we read over and over online. 

I am so proud of her. I know she's scared but she's staring lung cancer in the face.

Once July came, Julia went off her 3-month chemo routine because her tumors stopped responding. One day I called her and she said she found some small surface tumors around her body--god no. So Julia went back on chemo, a harsher one, with increased side effects that often leave her with crazy body aches--like deep into her bones. While she was active and working before, this time she sometimes stayed indoors for several days :(. That hurt my heart. 

A few weeks later I flew out and surprised Julia. I just wanted to be with my friends! Albeit a few days' trip to California and subsequent road trip to Oregon. I just couldn't miss it :).

Fortunately, the last few months proves she's a fighter. Julia's harsher chemo stabilized the tumors and most of the surface tumors were benign! She started another treatment alongside her chemotherapy at the Immune Institute of Huntington Beach, CA, which curbed side effects tremendously.

{Julia and I on our first ever trip to Amsterdam in 2005}
And now here we are on the brink of Christmas, and I couldn't be more thankful for my best friend of almost 12 years. Our friendship started from the day we met on the volleyball court in highscool. Every year since has been a blessing for any friendship: homecoming dress shopping, our fun rides to volleyball practice in Irvine, CA, three times per week, trips to Hawaii, Mexico, Amsterdam, boyfriends and break-ups, her moving to Oregon and back, her lending me her favorite scarf when I left for 6 months in Finland, college parties, thousands of beach days, my move to Amsterdam, her 3 week visit, and eventually her being in on Christian's sneaky proposal last Christmas. 

The baffling part is that when these scary things happen, people you say you appreciate them more. But I've always been so ridiculously thankful for my friends, always so grateful for this friendship that has been filled with so many years of good times.

So why did I write this after so many months of knowing about her cancer? A few reasons:

1. PROJECT JULIA: Last week, a contact at the clinic she is seeking one of her treatments from started a donation site on Julia's behalf. While her treatments are mostly covered, there are still those small percentages of extremely large bills that are not. 

The site kicked off last week and the donations and comments have been incredible. Complete strangers have been donating every single day. 

I had no intention to mention this personal story on this blog until I realized how many people--strangers--wanted to help and how reaching out is so important. Therefore, I decided to share this story in case any bloggers wanted to contribute. Cancer touches the lives of so many people. It's been a tough lesson to realize that cancer just doesn't happen to other people. It happens to all of us.

Donations in any amount will help Julia against her fight. If you have been touched by cancer, this story or just want to show support for Julia or read her story, please visit her donation site: 

If you can't spare anything, no problem! Even a comment to her would be uplifting. She is so incredibly brave and I am so proud to call her my best friend. Her next chemo treatment is next week together with a few full days of immune infusions to keep her body strong (all funded by the donations she has already received in the last 7 days).

2. HEALTH & AWARENESS: These days, cancer is caused by everything. I had no idea that a large majority of lung cancer (especially in young people) is not caused by smoking and lung cancer is hard to catch in it's early stages (nearly 70% of lung cancers are already in advanced stages at the time of diagnosis). There's a reason cancer-fighting foods are encouraged so eat your raw fruits and veggies and stay active. Also if you just don't feel right (such as Julia's many months of coughing and chest pressure), get it checked out! My friend Jeanelle said it best: trust your body

3. APPRECIATION: If this experience has taught me anything, it's to appreciate this life every single second of every single day. Suddenly a rainy day doesn't bother me, almost getting run over by a biker in the pedestrian path doesn't either. And suddenly trying to travel as much as possible isn't on my mind 24/7. It's friends, family and those little moments that make life worth living. Don't worry about grudges, bitterness, or that last fight you had. Say 'I Love You'...say it now and say it often. 

4. LIVE LIFE NOW: Ya know that thing that you wanted to do and never did it? Or that friend you never texted back? Or that place you always wanted to see? You never know which day will be your last or what life throws at you. 

There's a quote I heard once that went something like this: 'it's not the years in your life that count, it's the life in your years.' Do it now.

In the fight against cancer, we are all in this together. 

If anyone has ever been touched by cancer, I'd really love to hear from you with advice, tips, stories, anything...good or bad. This year has been so hard for Julia and everyone around her and as someone who never knew anyone with cancer, it's been a tough reality to accept. Everyday more and more people stand behind her.

If anyone makes donations to Julia's site, I thank you from every single part of my heart.

Help Julia fight! <3

{Julia visits me in Amsterdam in 2011!}


Jenna said...

Tears. Your friend is so brave and I can't imagine how difficult it must be for you to be sitting so far away while all of this is happening - but I know she will make a full, strong recovery :) I'll definitely be donating what I can :)


Megan said...

my eyes are filling with tears. I have friends that i feel the same way about..and couldnt possibly imagine being far away from them during such a difficult and horrible time. Sending my love thoughts and prayers to her and her loved ones. xxx

Betsy Transatlantically said...

so much love to you all through this time - I can't imagine how scary this is but am so glad that she has friends like you whose strength she can borrow. sending across prayers and support and whatever else I can!

Karli said...

Thanks for sharing this personal story. Yes we do want to help. I too have a friend that just finished chemo. It's so hard to watch them go through so much pain. I thank God for my health.

nancy said...

What a heart-wrenching story. I'm so proud of this person I've never met!

lauren | eyes/ears/mouth+lens said...

What a post. You are such a phenomenal friend and Julia sounds like such a fighter. I can't imagine how hard these last few months have been, and I hope she gets all the help and support she needs. Sending love and well wishes to both of you. xxx

Kaity said...

oh my god, this poor girl. one of my biggest fears in life is that someone I know and love (or myself) will get stricken with some awful circumstances like these. where all you can do is feel helpless and worried and keep reminding your stressed-out self that it's all out of your control. my mother went through breast cancer a couple years ago, and while hers was a early case that she beat no problem, that whole experience was easily the most frightening thing to happen to me. I sincerely hope that your friend pulls through this. sending so many hugs and thoughts and well wishes to both of you.

Alli Campbell said...

Thank you for sharing Julia's story. We have watched friends and patients fight this fight - she is so fortunate to have such a wonderful cheer squad behind her. All the positive thoughts, well wishes, prayers, love, strength and grace to you all. You're all in my thoughts x

Unknown said...

Very inspiring. I am thankful to be reminded that life is special and we aren't promised tomorrow. XOXO your newest follower

Kristina said...

Thanks for sharing Julia's story! I am sending her all the strenght she needs, love and positive thoughts! Cancer is a bi***, it is cruel, unforgivable and evil! One of my best friends had blood cancer and it forever broke my heart to see him go! I remember the day when I have been told, the weeks, months, years of tears, fear, anger, hope! His strenght! My weakness, my endless stream of tears at night! It is hard, so hard!! I know what you are going through as a friend... Stay strong, positive, give Julia a piece of the normality and include her in all your problems of the "normal" life - I tended to be short for words because I was not sure what to say, what stories to tell, so afraid to hurt him even more with my stupid problems and stories etc. Just stay as you have always been! A loving, caring friend!!
All the best for Julia, and for you! I have you in my thoughts!
Will check out the donation page just now! Kristina x

Kristina said...

PS: I just visited the fundraiser page, will definitely support! I am so happy to read that this new treatment is working - Julia is looking so strong and positive! I am so sure she will pull through all of this!! Keep fighting!

Selene said...

amazing post <3

Catherine Fishback said...

Thank you for sharing this.


A and B said...

My husband lost his beautiful 26 year old friend Morgan to cancer a little over two years ago now while we were abroad, so we weren't able to help at all, so I am so thankful for the opportunity to donate to help to your friend! Our thoughts go out to her and all those around her!