Positive Side of Cancer

11885328_1031408973556609_3430847938691278550_n inked by Julia

The past few weeks have been full of highs and lows, so I decided it’d be fun to make a list of the positives of cancer, if such a thing exists.

  1. No more exercise guilt. Prior to my cancer diagnosis, I was adamant about not working out. I hate every ounce of any kind of exercise. Though I told everyone I never worked out, I still had that little bit of guilt gut every time my friends would go to the gym and I’d be in bed  watching Netflix. With cancer, you’re not really able to work out, because if you fall, you get bruised up badly and could have some serious issues. I’m also extremely weak at this point in treatment. I tried to do a jumping jack today and… yeah. That was probably funny to watch.
  2. All you can eat buffet.  This doesn’t apply to all cancer patients, but right now I’m literally hungry ALL the time. I am constantly eating and gaining weight, and you know what? Everyone applauds me for it. My doctors think it’s great!
  3. People listen.  I’m the baby of the family. Though most babies, including myself, are known for being spoiled, we can sometimes feel like we’re getting ignored. We’re always too young to understand, too small to participate, you get the idea. Now that I’ve been diagnosed with leukemia, I have everyone’s ear for the first time in my life. My doctors hear one complaint from me and immediately think of a solution. I’m not afraid to be honest with people anymore, and it’s liberating.
  4. Gaining Perspective.  Don’t get me wrong; we were devastated by my diagnosis, but my prognosis is good. I just have to get through these next two years and I’m home-free. Others aren’t so lucky. Being at the hospital and talking with families, we have gained so much perspective on life and how God has shown His grace to our family. So many families are going through much harder things and don’t have the resources or support they need. Many of my friends and family think what I’m going through is hard, but I wish you all could see what we’ve seen and hear the stories we have heard. We feel more and more blessed every day.
  5. Time with family. Some of my immediate family relocated over the last few years, and my in-laws are from Maine. After being diagnosed, I saw each and every one of my family members within the first week. I love being able to see them and talk with them everyday. It gives us something to talk about and go through together. We’re stronger than ever.

I know I’ve forgotten a few other positives that I’ve found in the cancer life, but it’s so good to just find the happy’s within all the crappy’s. I hope you can do the same.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Cancer

inked by Julia

As we began my journey of cancer treatment, we were basically clueless. No one in our immediate family had dealt with something like this, and we asked a million questions our first week. I hope this post helps you understand what battling cancer might be like for friends and family. Here are 10 things you most likely didn’t know about cancer:

  1. Nausea is not the only side effect. When I learned I had cancer, two things came to mind: being bald and throwing up. I dreaded both terribly. For a lot of patients, nausea is an awful side effect, and fortunately for me, I haven’t been hit with the vomit bug. But, I have struggled with many other side effects that include numbness and tingling in my hands and feet, sensitivity to textures, constipation, exhaustion (severe!), weakness in my knees, crazy dreams, insomnia, headaches, the munchies, loss of appetite, sensitivity to smells, body aches, weight gain, weight loss, and probably many others that my chemo brain fails to remember at the moment. I cycle through some of them in the same day—definitely didn’t anticipate that.
  2. Chemo comes in many different drugs and forms. For my type of cancer and because I’m high risk, I’ve had seven different chemotherapies in the last 9 weeks. Most are intravenous (given through my port), some are intrathecal (7 spinal taps), and one was a pill. The pharmacy student in me can’t wait to see how many others I get!
  3. Chemo administration is much less exciting than you think. The first time I received IV chemo, all my siblings left, and a lot of my family were worried for their own safety. All the nurses reassured us its totally fine unless it gets spilled everywhere, which rarely happens. Everyone was silent as they hung the little bag up. Then the nurse said, “Ok, that’s it.” We all laughed a little– that’s it?! Chemo is usually just a bag of fluid that goes through an IV, PICC, or Port. I don’t go to a special room or do anything wild. It’s quite simple! There are some scary medicines that I get that can cause an allergic reaction, but so far I’ve had an easy time with administration.
  4. Hair loss is different for everyone. I’ve talked a lot about my hair loss on this blog, but it’s kind of crazy how different it is for everyone. I haven’t lost my eyebrows or eyelashes, but everything else is pretty much gone. Some people lose all their hair, others don’t lose anything. It’s pretty wild stuff.
  5. Hair grows back during some chemo phases. I lost my hair in induction, and right when consolidation began, I grew peach fuzz! The nurses told me this would happen. Once it grows in, it falls right back out and the cycle continues until maintenance. I always thought patients were completely bald the whole time of treatment.
  6. The schedule is super whack. Whenever I’m asked what my week holds or when I get chemo, it’s almost too confusing to fit into a text. Most people believe chemo is only once a week, but that’s not the case. In this phase, I receive IV chemo four days in a row and take a chemo pill every day. But that’s just for two weeks, because then I really do only get chemo once a week for a few weeks. It’s a complicated, confusing, and messed up schedule that is impossible to make any plans around.
  7. Energy comes and goes. I could be out and about, partying it up (you know, eating dinner at 3:30) one day, then completely down for the next three. Energy levels are very unpredictable. Take this week for example: I received IV chemo on Thursday, was completely fine Friday, and I then spent the following four straight days in bed with headaches. Last week with this same medicine, I was totally fine. I’m just glad I have at least three people in my life that take each day at a time with me and never get annoyed for my laziness.
  8. Every cancer is treated differently. I’m sure you know that liver cancer and breast cancer are treated a bit differently; but did you know that even blood cancers are treated differently? Even different forms leukemia are treated differently. There are four subtypes of leukemia: ALL (what I have), AML, CLL, and CML. All four have different treatment plans. They have different phases, different number goals, and different medication protocols.
  9. Chemo patients are limited on activities. Some patients that are not quite neutropenic (low in neutrophils) may have fewer restrictions, but mine are fairly strict. I can’t be around sick people, but I also can’t be around little kids or anyone who hasn’t had a flu shot. I’m not allowed to go to the dentist for fear of a laceration, and I’m not allowed to floss my teeth for the same reason. I can’t go “play in the dirt,” which means I can’t pick a pumpkin. I CAN go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather, though, if I have the energy. I can also take drives just to see what new buildings are going up or the leaves changing. But real talk, most days I just sit at home and watch TV. This week has been rough and I haven’t been outside in five days!
  10. No matter how much support you have, you’ll get lonely. In the beginning, I heard a lot of “we got this,” “we can get through this,” “we,” “we,” “we.” As awesome as it was to have such supportive family, and they’re intentions were good, in the back of my mind I thought, “No, I have this,” or, “I’m the one with the IV bruises.” I feel the incredible amount of emotional and spiritual support in this, but I still get lonely and pessimistic. I love having all my family around me, but for some reason I still find myself sneaking away to cry alone. There are just so many hard days where no one can take away the pain or feelings that I have. I just keep reminding myself to go to Christ when these feelings come. It brightens my own outlook of my life and helps me get through that day! Just the other day I was being so cranky and having way too much self-pity, I ended up retreating to my room to cry for a bit. When I stopped crying, my devotional book, journal, and Bible were all at my feet. I took fifteen or so minutes to just read and write about how I felt. I came out of my room smiling and ready to finish out the day.

Bold, Bald, and Beautiful: Part 3

inked by Julia

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5:1-5

The last two months have been a whirlwind for me. Actually, the entire summer was also a whirlwind. We planned a wedding, we went to Venice, I moved in with a boy, I started grad school orientation, and then I got cancer. It’s still a little weird to throw that last one into a sentence. After I was diagnosed with cancer, we spent a full month in the hospital, moved in with my parents, and now I spend every weekday just chilling at home with my mom watching TV when I’m not going to the hospital for chemo.  I told her the other day that besides the whole cancer thing, we’re kind of living the dream life! ;)

God doesn’t make mistakes, and this is His will for my life. He knew I was going to have leukemia before I was even a thought in my parent’s mind. I’m glad God knew where I was going to be at age 21, and I’m ready to roll with it. Yes, it can be tough. I have bad days fairly regularly, but those bad days make the good days that much better.  Like the passage in Romans says, this tribulation has already produced perseverance, refined my character, and produced hope in and through me.

This hope, that my loved ones have as well, has radiated through us to others while in the hospital. We’ve been blessed with the opportunity to share Christ’s love with others. I try to have a positive attitude through every situation in the hospital. I still cry when it hurts, or even when my heart hurts. It’s not that I’m stronger than other patients, but my love for Christ and faith in His plan that gives me peace. My hope is that the doctors and nurses see this peace and know Who it comes from.

I want to continue growing through this trial. I have to battle selfishness and self-centeredness on a daily basis. Michael and my parents have centered their lives around taking care of me, and it’s easy to think that everything is all about me. I constantly remind myself to ask others questions and not talk about myself. My prayer is to grow in humility through this process.

Something life changing like a cancer diagnosis shows you who you truly are, and then you choose who you’re going to be through it. I hope the Lord uses this to make me a better version of myself. A sweet patient care assistant at the hospital shared the verse above with my family and me and it keeps showing up in my life. I love that it says “hope does not put us to shame,” because we have Christ! These verses are my prayer as I walk through this long season. Even on the hardest days, I want to rejoice knowing that my suffering isn’t in vain, and that my ultimate hope is in Christ alone.

Bold, Bald, and Beautiful: Part 2

inked by Julia

I started this blog post in the hospital when I was anticipating my homecoming. I arrived home last Tuesday evening, and by Wednesday afternoon, the deed was done—I shaved my head.

I couldn’t take another day of looking like a balding middle-aged man. I took a before shot of my hair and sent it to my sisters and I don’t think they really knew how to respond because it was that bad. My goal of hair loss was to not reach Gollum status, which I think I succeeded in, but it’s a close call. 7

Along this hair loss journey, I feared how I’d feel buzzing my head. When the day came, the mood in the house was quiet and somber, and no one really knew what to do or say. My mom and I cried together.

Being an all-girl-plus-a-dad house, we were unsure of how to even use clippers. Luckily, my mom had not given away her mother’s (a former hairdresser) clippers, and we dusted them off to give ‘em a whirl. I have an awesome husband, like I’ve said a billion times, who offered to go first. We all laughed watching my mom shave a head for the first time. Once his head was shaved, it was my turn. It’s strange—after all the tension building up to that point, I wasn’t nervous after seeing Michael shave his head.  My head shaving went smoothly and easily.

Now I’m five days into being a bald beauty, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s really not that bad. I mean, don’t get me wrong–there are times when I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself. I also feel pretty self-conscience when people see my baldhead for the first time, and I’m aware of the stares I get out in public. I don’t blame them, either, because I’ve been there! But most of the time, I embrace the new look. Getting ready takes no time at all. I do miss having the feminine look that long hair gives me, but a baldhead shows off the rest of my face. I’m ready to give bald a chance!

I searched the internet for tips from other young women who’ve battled cancer and lost hair in the process, but I couldn’t find much. Here are a few tips (I wrote them when I still had some hair) for any other women out there who might be in the same hair loss boat:

Depending on the length of your hair, it’ll shed like crazy even as you cut it shorter and shorter (which I highly recommend).  For most of the stages of hair loss, you need a lint roller. Rolling up the mess is a lot less sad than picking it up strand-by-strand, and it’s much easier.

I would also recommend a silk pillowcase. They are much most gentle on your little head, and I think they are very comfortable. I used a head wrap instead of the hospital towels after showers. In the early stages, it didn’t pull any hair out. Now, it’s a little bit different, but I still think it helps.

Accessorize! As I approached the end of the first phase of treatment, my hair was mainly thinning out on top, but the back was starting to go as well. I found the cutest headbands to cover up the top of my head and make it look super stylish! Stock up on every type of hat, scarf or headwrap that tickles your fancy. I tried not to wear anything in the hospital, because I felt like it pulled out the hair I had left, and it just littered the inside of my clean hats and headbands with hair.

Lastly, don’t leave the house without confidence. I say that as a pep talk for myself, because I want to share my new look with you. I do this with hesitation, but here I am, world!IMG_0043

Anddd here’s one to tug at your heartstrings.

IMG_0047

Bold, Bald, and Beautiful: Part One

inked by Julia

A wise night nurse once said to me, “It is OK to mourn the loss of your hair; it’s not vanity. It is a very difficult trial for a woman.”

My name is Julia Gardner. I’m a 21 year-old Christ-follower who married the man of my dreams on June 28, 2015, and was diagnosed with Pre-B Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia on August 15, 2015. If you do the math, we were just a day short of being seven weeks into marriage.1 Photo credit: Braun Photography

We had a beautiful wedding day in Cincinnati, and everything went exactly as planned. We then spent a week in amazing Venice, Italy, where we road gondolas, ate pasta, and lived the Venetian way. Michael and I arrived home, started nesting, and made our little rental house our home. I may have had an ER run for glass in my foot our third week of marriage, and at this point our insurance probably thinks Michael’s crazy for marrying me.

For our first month anniversary, we ate a piece of our leftover wedding cake together in our adorable kitchen. On our second month anniversary, we ate a replica version of our cake (thanks to Cake Diva in Waynesville) in the comfort of a hospital room. I have high hopes for our third month anniversary: eating dinner at 3:30 at my favorite restaurant in order to avoid crowds of people and protect my immune system.2 3

Everyone finds out they have cancer in a different way, and all those non-cancerous lucky’s out there want to know exactly how you found out.  For me, it all came on fairly quickly. My lymph nodes in my neck seemed a little strange to me one Friday; they weren’t swollen, just different. I noticed them on a drive to my house where I was meeting a group of family friends, one of which being a doctor. He felt them, noted they were a bit odd, and that we should just watch them for a bit. I agreed with that.

That same weekend, my mom and three sisters all told me at separate times how pale I looked. By Sunday, I needed two naps and was very lightheaded. To me, all these signs pointed to anemia. I made an appointment with my doctor that Tuesday to get some blood work and answers. I spent the next four days feeling my pulse over 120 after lying on the couch for hours. I couldn’t focus in my three-day pharmacy school orientation, and I finally called my doctor back for results on Thursday.  The nurse returned my call and informed me I was anemic and to continue the iron supplement they gave me.

I wan’t quite satisfied with that answer, so I requested for my results to be sent to me. When I received the results around 12pm on Friday, August 14th, I sent them to my parents, who then sent the results to a few of our doctor friends. Apparently, everyone who saw the blood test results came to the same conclusion, but no one informed me of the potential bad news. What the nurse failed to tell me was how elevated my white blood cell count was, and that my white blood cells appeared “atypical and immature,” something I knew couldn’t be good.

My family friend and primary care physician then pushed me to head to the emergency room, somewhere my husband and I knew would take hours and dreaded going. We just had dinner with my out-of-town in-laws who were staying with us that weekend while they moved my brother-in-law into college. We sent them a text that we were headed to the ER and left for a local hospital.

We spent about two hours getting fluids and blood work at this hospital before they spilled the dreaded beans. They were worried it was lymphoma or leukemia and needed to transfer me to their main hospital in downtown Dayton. We, of course, lost it. I was remembered saying, “Leukemia we can handle… that’s an easy one”. So I was optimistic from the start (I think).

I was poked and prodded constantly for 24 hours and I was told it was nothing, it was something, it was nothing, and finally it was definitively leukemia. Immediately after handing out the diagnosis, the doctor asked where I wanted to be treated. Everything was moving so quickly. I was desperate for a minute to process before making a decision. “Oh, hold on,” I thought. “Let me sob on my cute new husband’s shoulder for a minute before I make any decisions, please.”

We ended up choosing Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the number two pediatric oncology center in the nation. I was transferred Sunday, and my treatment Day 1 began the following Wednesday. It’s been a wild ride, but honestly, I’m doing really well overall. I think I can admit to myself and all of you, that so far the hardest part is losing my hair.

I came into this mess with a head of long, curly, thick hair. And I was very determined to keep it as long as humanly possible. I asked every nurse and doctor and social worker when I should expect my hair to fall out, but they could only tell me this: “Oh, honey, everyone is different.” That was so not good enough for me. I needed to know the exact date I would need to shave my head.

4This is a picture of my adorable niece, and my long locks. 

I receive a chemo drug called Vincristine (it’s a nasty sucker) that causes my first bought of hair loss. I got my first dose on Day 1 of my treatment. If my memory serves me well, I started noticing my hair coming out easier about three days later. I, of course, thought it was a massive amount of hair loss, but I didn’t know what was coming!

My second week of chemo, I started losing hair in chunks. Everyone told me a fresh cut was a great idea, but I still wasn’t convinced. I let myself run my fingers through my hair, and watched handfuls come out. I thought I’d be bald in the next days. But alas, some of my hair held on.

The third week was miserable in every way. I was having tons of side effects from chemo, including a spinal fluid leak that left me bedridden for a week. In addition to all the bodily discomfort, my hair was a mess! It matted up, clumped out, and was impossible to brush. We called a family friend in and had her chop off my locks.

5This is the shortest my hair’s been since 1st grade, but I felt like a new woman!

Sadly, this cut could only last me a few days. By my fourth round of Vincristine, the hair was coming out faster and faster. Laying in bed all day caused severe bed head. I had one huge mat of hair that had fallen out but was stuck on my head. I woke up four days after my fresh cut, told my mom I need this hair off now, and she scheduled an impromptu haircut with my Aunt Polly.

My ANC levels were good, so I was able to leave the hospital on pass and meet her at her hair salon. Her shop had a private room just for this sort of thing, and it made it more intimate and emotional. I still had a lot of hair somehow, so I went for the pixie cut. This has made all the difference!

6

I’ve had my ups and downs with hair loss during the last four weeks. Sobbing in the shower or just laughing through the pain seems to be my normal responses. As of today, I feel ready to let go of the last bits of hair.  I cannot predict my emotions as I take clippers to my head for the very first time, but I know everything will be ok, and I will accept my new look as normal. I dread the stares that I have admittedly given to others, but I’m still me, not matter what I look like! So let’s do this cancer thing.

Julia’s Engagement Story

IMG_7337 IMG_7336 IMG_7338 IMG_7274inked by Julia

Now that you’ve been warmed up by a whole week of wedding planning tips, I’ll fill you in on the beginnings of another Neal wedding.

Out of all of the Neal family members, I’m the hardest to surprise. Every year at Christmas we do a secret santa exchange for the “sisters” (and brothers-in-law) and I always end up figuring out who has who. I pick up on little hints and can plan to the day when something is supposed to happen. Lucky for me, I have a super sleuth of a fiancé, and he caught me when I least expected it.

About a week before the big day, two of my lovely roommates whispered to me and said, “Let’s go out to eat just the three of us. We could use a break from the rest of our roomies.”  So I said yes of course, and we made a plan to go to my favorite place, Dewey’s Pizza in Dayton.

Thursday night, my friends had a “nail party” which never happens, and of course I refused because I had just painted my nails a lovely shade of orange the day before.

Friday came, I slapped on some makeup, let my hair dry naturally, and put on a sweatshirt and jeans. I turned around to see my roommate glaring at my gross outfit. The rest of the day, my friends would ask me about my outfit with subtle hints, and by the end of my classes, I had decided I would change and do my hair (thank goodness), still unknowing of my impending engagement.

We finally headed out to dinner. My roommate is from Long Island, so she uses her phone GPS everywhere she goes in Ohio. Once we passed our exit, I started giving her helpful bossy tips on how to get to Deweys. We ended up driving fifteen miles in the wrong direction, and I was furious. It helped that my other friend in the front seat was texting me about how Courtney wasn’t listening to my directions and how annoying it was. ;) We pulled into Cox Arboretum to “turn around” and to break tension in the car, I exclaimed, “Well guys, this is my favorite place in Miamisburg!” Still clueless.

We parked the car, and the next thing I knew, Michael was opening my car door. Right then I realized what was happening. We walked around the arboretum for a few minutes until he found the perfect spot to pop the question

Luckily, there was a photographer at Cox to snap a few shots of our fun day. We finished the evening with a surprise engagement party at my parents’ house, and in true Neal form, checked out a possible wedding venue the next morning. On to wedding planning!

 

Mother of the Bride Series: The Day Of

LCCer034LCCer180 LCRec218 {Photos of Lindsay’s wedding are by Sandra Reed Photography} 10689469_824238180941729_4203671588859891564_n10649703_824239180941629_3764122146997661252_n 996152_824239230941624_5731227780688630533_n 10533398_824239710941576_2742844792554857722_n{Emily’s wedding photos are by Braun Photography}

Inked by Holly

Preparing for the Day Of

As you’re planning, prioritize the things you MUST do and the things that would be nice to do if time allows. Do the must do things first and save the optional items to do as time allows. For us, the optional items included programs, menu cards, bathroom baskets, and hotel guest bags. We ended up finding time to do them all, but we weren’t going to stress ourselves out if those things didn’t happen.  We had some big family celebrations in the weeks leading up to the wedding and worked VERY hard to get the must do’s finished a few weeks in advance so we could relax a little and enjoy the wedding week.

Here are some other tips:
*A random tip for MOB’s, brides, and really anyone in the wedding party: buy two pairs of shoes and switch out when needed. Trust me on this– I’ve been an MOB twice now and still haven’t found the perfect shoe that’s comfortable and looks fabulous in photos. It’s a long day, and your feet with thank you for the relief.

*Some things can be done months in advance, like bathroom baskets for the venue that include small items guests might need like gum, tide pen, sewing kit, etc. We also were able to make table numbers and create an emergency kit (see below) months out and as we found things on sale.

Here are a few items to include in your Wedding Emergency Kit:
Deodorant
Wisp (or small disposable toothbrushes)
Baby powder
Ban wipes
Sewing kit
Scissors
Tape
Lint roller
Gum/mints
Static guard
Contact solution
Bandaids
Hair spray
Eye drops
Feminine protection
Tissues
Advil/allergy medication
Comb/pick
Tweezers
Body tape
Steamer
Snacks (lots and lots)
Water bottles
Extra shoes

Day Of Do’s and Don’ts

The big day is finally here! Everything is planned, every last detail. Know that things WILL go wrong, but you just have to roll with it. Keep the big picture in mind– the new marriage, not the perfect wedding.

The zipper may come apart from the wedding dress (yep, that happened to Lindsay) but it’s ok, it can be fixed. The big fun plan for special donuts as wedding favors fell apart because the donut shop, which is open 24/7, is unexpectedly closed for updates the week of the wedding (yep, that happened to Emily). It was ok, because it’s about the marriage, not the wedding

Here are my tips for the day of:
*Build in extra time in the schedule. Hair and make up could run behind, lunch delivery could get lost, a zipper could break, a groomsman could forget his shoes. You don’t want to be rushed and frantic, so allow lots of time. Start the day much earlier than you need to.

*Feed the people. All the people. A hungry bridal party is a cranky bridal party! Plan to have lunch delivered and plenty of snacks and water bottles on hand. Vendors also appreciate snacks.

*Biggest tip of all: slow down and take it all in. The wedding day goes by SO quickly. Have a friend remind you, if necessary, to stop a few times during the day to just look around and enjoy the moment!

Phew, that’s it! And to think that we’re doing this all over again as we plan Julia’s wedding next summer. :)

Do you have any other tips you’d add?