Serendipity. Coincidence. Happy accident. Fate. Whatever you want to call it, my cancer journey was filled with many of these little sprinkles of hope that made me smile and stay positive. They are pure luck at the unluckiest of times. Coincidence? I think not.
#1. My mom was diagnosed with Stage 1A breast cancer at a time when my tumor lump was large enough for me to feel. Think about that. There is no significant breast cancer history in my family. Until her diagnosis, breast cancer was never on my radar. We don’t even know how long my tumor was there. My tumor was about the size of a cheerio or a peanut. It was close enough to my skin that it was easily palpable but it wasn’t until I felt for it with purpose that I found it. If my mom had been diagnosed months earlier, I may not have found it so soon. It would have been too small for me to feel. I don’t even have the BRCA gene to connect our cancers. Mind. Blown.
#2. My doctors were randomly assigned to me. I could have requested specific surgeons or oncologist, but I went with my gut and let fate decide. I received my doctors’ names and googled them like any normal human would. The first to come up was my surgeon, Dr. K. and as I’m looking at his picture, I have a flashback to my nephew’s “American Symbols” performance I went to just two days after my diagnosis because my school schedule this year is completely different from his and I had the day off (lucky). I was sitting behind Philip’s dad and another man who he was talking to. As the google image came up I knew that was the same man. And when I went into that first appointment and after I asked all the cancer questions I could come up with (which weren’t many because I was still in a fog) I asked him if he had a student at my nephew’s school. Not only did he say yes, but his son is in my nephew’s class! San Diego is huge. 1.4 million huge. That coincidence is insane in terms of numbers. Add onto that the fact that my Oncologist, Dr. H, is a close family friend of one of my former co-workers at Willow Grove Elementary and my brain had yet another mini-explosion.
#3. I had a lot of nurses during my 3 night stay. One during the day and one at night. They changed every shift and I only had one nurse twice. That last night was miserable. The dreaded Itch had returned and I was expecting another night of pain. Alyssa was there when my night nurse came in to introduce herself and witnessed her shock at my upright position, scratching myself anywhere I could reach, rocking back and forth in agony. The nurse came in and took charge. She reviewed my chart, identified what pain meds had worked and which hadn’t, and convinced me to try Norco again because it seemed to be the Percocet not the antibiotics that I was reacting to. Her calm but dynamic demeanor was exactly what both Alyssa and I needed when it seemed that I would never get relief. As I’m sitting there all disheveled, nodding and agreeing, the nurse looks at me and goes “I have to tell you, I think your sister was my daughter’s first grade teacher.” In that moment, I remember the haze lifting and looking into the eyes of not just another nurse, but a nurse that knew me. Maybe not directly, but through my sister who I love and who is an AMAZING teacher. I remember nodding and smiling and telling her yes. That was me! I was her! I wasn’t just a patient, I was Sarah’s sister and Philip’s aunt. I was me! She then let me know that she had read a post my sister put on Facebook about my being in the hospital. When she saw my name on my chart and put two-and-two together, she could’t believe that of around 800 (I think?) possible patients I was one of the few assigned to her care. JT was so calming and passionate about making me comfortable that last night in a way that I will be forever grateful for. I can’t wait to see her in real life and give her a giant, itch free hug.
#4. Until last summer, I worked for a contract company. While I always wanted to be a district employee, I waited three years to take the risk and leave my first school. In July of 2017 I became a CVESD district employee with significantly better benefits including insurance and disability leave. If you had told me my life would depend on those benefits I would have brushed you off. I remember sitting next to Alyssa when we signed our contracts (yes, Alyssa is pretty much in every part of my life in SD!) and telling her I was going for the basic insurance because “I never use it.” Man did I eat those words! I am so lucky to have the job that I do and will never stop appreciating it.
#5. After years of planning, I got my first tattoo. I had planned on getting it on my right side but something told me, last minute, to switch it to my left. My sweet peas next to my left breast represent my parents and my family. They represent commitment and love. They represent that people make mistakes and that forgiveness is possible. They represent the determination and dedication a family makes to each other. I got my tattoo with my sister just one month before my diagnosis. It became a wonderful reminder of my families love each time I took my shirt off for a new doctor, a new nurse, a new test. My plastic surgeon was even able to place my drains without hitting any of the flowers or leaves or curly cues. I see that tattoo as much a part of my journey as the cancer itself.
#6. They were able to squeeze my surgery in over Spring Break which was just a few weeks after I met my doctors. This meant Alyssa was also on spring break. Alyssa did more for me and my family than can be put into words. She handled all my communication with friends when frankly I didn’t feel like texting anyone to tell them how I was doing or to give any details. She brought my parents lunch at the hospital, got my mom to walk around, and was holding my mom’s hand when the surgeon told them my lymph nodes were clear. (My dad was out stealing succulents from around the hospital. We all handle stress differently!). I cried when they told me she couldn’t come back to recovery and I would see her in my room. She held my hand next, made me wear these stupid leg circulation things I always wanted off, took my socks off, put my socks on, took my socks off again, and was the best at angling my pillows under my arms and behind my neck. Alyssa wrote on my CaringBridge page, returned leggings to Costco that had a hole in them, and helped me blow dry my hair after that first shower. Fate brought us both to San Diego to meet but we both have put in the work to become friends.
#7. Dating is not easy for me. I’m the worst. Ok, online dating is the worst but like, go one notch below that and there’s Gina just struggling. Before anything cancer related happened I got this ridiculous crush on Alyssa’s brother-in-law. See, Alyssa again! I would casually have her invite him to whatever we were doing. Christmas party? “Oh, I wonder what Jesse is doing…” Friday night? “We should get happy hour, do you think Jesse is free?” I like to think I played it super casually but our connection was pretty obvious and while Alyssa tried to set us up (a proposition I sneakily “refused”) Jesse and I were secretly spending time getting to know each other without the pressure of anyone else involved. On February 13th we went on our first date. We talked for hours and it felt more natural than anything I’ve ever experienced. We have so much in common. I got home that night extremely excited to see him again. On February 14th I was diagnosed with cancer. I retreated back to my pessemistic ways and pushed him away. I closed myself off and stewed in my anxiety about how hard the next few months would be. And while I asked him to (kindly) leave me alone, Jesse just said he would be there when I was ready. And he was. I had feelings for him long before cancer, but I can’t deny that for a person like me who typically lives in a mindset of doubt and second-guessing, having my life turned upside down, ripped open, and rebuilt into this new reality left me with a new perspective on time and what I want from life. I wanted Jesse to be my boyfriend after our first date and now he is. Cue the sappy music.
I’m learning as I go to follow one of my favorite couples’ words of advice to TTR: Trust the River. I’m officially choosing to trust the timing of my life instead of fighting it and damn, it feels good.