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.

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.


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!


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 Dress

em-dresses1 linds-dress1inked by Holly

I do love dress shopping! All of my girls have such different taste, and it’s so fun to see what they choose and how it reflects their sense of style.

Here are my dress shopping tips:
*Don’t be afraid to buy off the sample rack. We bought Emily’s ceremony dress for such an amazing price, and we ended up with room in the budget to also buy a fun reception dress. We were so excited to score two dresses for the budget of one, but something I didn’t take into consideration was the cost of alterations.  Buying off the rack means you probably aren’t buying the correct size. You’ll be told by the sales assistants shop that you can alter it to fit, and you can… but it’s gonna cost you. Also, altering a dress that’s a few sizes too big will affect the finished dress so keep this in mind. This is also true when you order a dress–be prepared that the dress may not look exactly like you thought it would when it was initially tried on in a different size.

*Who knew you can machine wash some wedding dresses?! I threw Emily’s ceremony dress in the washing machine on gentle and line dried. It looked perfect! Obviously, that wouldn’t work for her reception dress with feathers which leads to next tip…

*Shop around for dry cleaners. I took the reception dress to the dry cleaner in our neighborhood and gasped at the price. I called around and found another cleaner who did a beautiful job for half the price.

*Bright white isn’t the only option. Lindsay chose a champagne dress and Emily chose an ivory dress. Bright white shades washed them out, and the slightly darker shades were much more flattering.

*Buy what you love, because you only wear it once. But don’t go bankrupt or blow the whole wedding budget on the dress, because you only wear it once.

Any other tips for dress shopping? Any favorite bridal salons?

Mother of the Bride Series


Is it just us, or do the fathers of the brides get all the attention? We do love the movies, but other than writing the checks and giving the daughter away, the MOB’s (mother of the bride for you wedding planning newbs) are the ones doing the hard labor. The planning. The prioritizing. The delegating. The choosing. And a lot of the crying.

With two weddings under her belt and another in the works for next summer, Holly, our MOB extraordinaire, had the fabulous idea of creating a blog series with tips for future MOB’s. Everyday this week, we’ll be sharing tips on creating the guest list, picking the perfect dress, finding the right venue, creating a day-of checklist, emergency kit must-haves, and even how to keep your emotions in line.

Check back with us tomorrow for the first post in the series. We’ll be keeping them short and sweet and chalk-full of advice from a wedding planning veteran. And, if you’ve planned weddings a time or two, be sure to chime in with your tips. It takes a village, right? ;)