Saturday, April 14, 2012

Game Changer


I am on an airplane bound for Tokyo – from there I will catch a flight bound for Los Angeles. Home. I will be greeted at LAX by my parents and Roberta - President of the Society of Beating the Shit out of whatever is Growing in Steph’s Breast.

Of all the twists and turns I could have foreseen this journey taking - this was not one. Not even in the deepest, darkest corners of my mind…

At some point in the last few months or so I noticed that my nipple had started inverting when I raised my arm over my head or bent over. I tried to pretend it was nothing. I had no mirror in Africa, so didn’t take much notice there. But in Thailand it became very clear – something was wrong.

I told Lyndall, who became my instant advocate (she actually became my advocate the day I met her on January 3rd, my Lyndall). She decided that we would go to the doctor as soon as possible and forced me to ask the nurse who had been dressing her leg every day about where I could get checked out. This nurse became the second or third, or maybe 30th (I can’t keep count anymore) miracle to me. She instantly started calling hospitals to find out the cost of a mammogram. She came back to me within 10 minutes with all the information I needed to make my appointment.

Lyndall and I arrived at the hospital around 1 pm on April 10th – the day before my 34th birthday. By 2 pm I had already seen the doctor who told me that there was no lump, so not to be concerned. I was ready to bound out of the place, having heard what I wanted to hear. Lyndall piped in (in her infinite 23 year old wisdom) “yeah, but it makes her nervous, can she have a mammogram anyway?” The doctor agreed and we were escorted from the waiting room for the GP doctors to the waiting room for x-rays.

The doctor had requested a chest x-ray and a mammogram. When the nurse doing the mammogram disappeared for quite a long time and I was escorted into a different room for an ultrasound, the fear started to seep in.

The woman doing the ultrasound looked at both breasts – the “good” breast first. I watched along in awe… When she got to my right breast I saw a little black dot. I asked her what it was, “that’s just a cyst” – ok, good, THANK GOD… just a cyst.

Then she moved the little gadget over about an inch and I saw a larger, mean looking black mass. I asked her what it was. 

As long as I live, I will remember her words, “That is your tumor.”

It’s that feeling of shock where your hands and feet go numb and you want to ask her to repeat the sentence because surely, she didn’t say what you thought she just said.

“What? Tumor? Is it big? Can you tell if it’s cancer?”

Yes, tumor. 2cm. She can’t tell if it’s cancer.

And then I laid on the bed and sobbed as she continued to take pictures of the inside of a breast … my breast … which has a tumor inside of it. Still, as I write this journal entry five days later, I cannot believe it was ME on that table and that I am the one telling this story about myself. Surely somewhere someone made a mistake and everything is really fine.

Surreal, being told this news on my fourteenth week traveling - in Thailand – alone except for Lyndall, my angel this week – The Amazing Lyndall. I will say that as the tears streamed down my face and the woman with the gadget tried to ignore the emotion of the situation, the only coherent thought that went through my head was “I have to go home.”

When I left the ultrasound room I popped my head around the corner and motioned for Lyndall to follow me to the dressing room where I proceeded to sob, and sob, and sob. She held me there and cried with me for about 20 minutes. When we could both walk, we found ourselves a bathroom (where Lyndall forgot to lock the door and ended up giving a free show to some mzungu dude in the Thai hospital… HAHAHAHA!!!), and were then escorted back to the original doctor I’d seen earlier, the one that told me everything was fine.

When we walked into her office she said, “everything is fine, why are you crying?” Lyndall and I looked at her disgustedly – one of us told her to read the (EFFING) report sitting in front of her from the ultrasound tech.

She didn’t know what a category 5 tumor was, so googled it as I sat there, still in shock. I didn’t know what category 5 meant either, but I knew that categories 1-4 had to come before it and that FIVE was much higher than I wanted it to be.

“Ohhhhhhhhh,” she said, “95% chance of being malignant.”

Which is when I told her to shut-up. “What now?” I asked.

Next thing I know we are being escorted to the surgeon. Lyndall’s leg is covered in bandages – what skin is visible shows off some of the worst road rash I’ve ever seen. So here we are being escorted from one office to the other in the Thai hospital, Lyndall hobbling along with her disgusting leg and me holding on to her, sobbing. Really, pretty hilarious. Quite a pair… (The hospital staff couldn’t figure out which one of us to treat!)

My surgeon was lovely, attractive, well-spoken (even in English!!!), caring, and brilliant. He tells me what he understands: according to the ultrasound the tumor is very, very likely to be malignant, and I very likely have cancer.

I already understood this.

I told him where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and where I was planning to go. I asked him what he would do if he were me. After explaining that Bangkok has a phenomenal hospital and could treat me just as well as any hospital at home – he looked in my eyes and said, “You need to go home.”

Ok. Done.

He wanted to biopsy the tumor to further a diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible (meaning, as he put it “right now”). It takes a week, possibly two, for results (the longer wait is because of the Sangkran Festival – which I have to say, we had so much fun at that it’s worth waiting the extra few days for). Obviously, by this part of the day I was completely unable to compute logic. “I won’t be here in two weeks… or should I stay two weeks? Or should I wait to have the procedure?” Ultimately, I decided to have to biopsy.

I was still wearing the skirt I’d put on that morning; there was no gown, no four million questions about family history, allergies, etc… They didn’t ask what I’d eaten that day; they were pulling my jewelry off of me as I was being escorted to a small room off the emergency ward.

It was like a closet – but very clean. They laid me down on the table, wrapped a blindfold over my eyes, and before I knew it the doctor was poking needles into me. I felt very little other than the occasional tug or pressure deep within my breast. I could hear him clipping and snipping away. I lifted the blindfold as much as I could and made eye contact with the nurse who stood over me. She just kept putting her hand on my shoulder and saying, “it’s ok, it’s ok…” tears streaming down my face.

Whose life is this???

In my head I was pretty sure that I’d woken up several hours earlier to a body that I considered to be healthy. Very healthy. I never get sick. Ever. I had planned on a seven mile run that afternoon. Instead, here I was having a tumor cut out of my breast. I honestly thought I would wake up and it would all have been a bad dream – the kind where you wake up sobbing…

I could tell when he was sewing me back up. It took about half an hour. I don’t know how long the incision is or even exactly where it is. I have a bandage on my swollen, right boob that covers much of it. I have stitches that need to come out on Tuesday. I will have it done from my GP at home.

I’m not ready to come home.

I’m in shock. Within four hours I went from spending the rest of the year exploring the eastern part of this planet to getting on an airplane in just four days and going home. My future was vague, but expected. I’ve lost the ability to create my future, it’s waiting there for me. It will come in an e-mail from a Dr. in Thailand sometime in the next couple weeks.

I want to drive, forever. I want to climb my mountain. I want to swim in my ocean. I want to kiss the earth there.

By nature, I adopted an “everything happens for a reason” attitude sometime back. It works for me most of the time – and even though I’m incredibly confused by the emotions swirling around in me right now, I can see some of the “everything happens for a reason-ness” in what’s happened in the past few weeks:

Thank you to India for not allowing me to get a visa. Thank you to Thailand for being so accommodating. Thank you to Lyndall for coincidentally having planned your trip to Thailand at the same time same time as me. Thank you to Thailand for some of the kindest, most gentle, and fast acting medical personnel I’ve ever met.

I don’t have a diagnosis yet, and at the risk of sounding pessimistic (or maybe realistic) I am preparing myself to deal with cancer. I won’t lie and pretend that I am ok with the fact that this is happening to me or that I’m cool with the “everything happens for a reason” part of this. So far, my emotions have been unpredictable and incredibly varying in regards to my denial of this part of my journey... Gratitude, tremendous fear,  anger, and the deepest sadness I’ve ever known. I just never thought I would be the girl that would have to FIGHT for life. I’ve always been so good at living it aggressively… I guess I always thought it was a right, having life.

In some ways I feel like I’ve let my body down by not taking better care of it. In some ways I feel like my body has let me down by not taking better care of me. We’ve always been so tight – me and my bod… I just can’t figure out what went wrong.

On top of that, I miss Africa something fierce. I can’t figure out how to tell my friends there what is happening to me. I am mourning the rest of the journey I’d had planned. I’m struggling with the fact that I have no home at home, no job, no real value or place to be (though I realize all of that can change very quickly).

Silver lining(S) – Home is where my army is. I have already been showered with support and love enough to last a lifetime. My mountain and my ocean are there. Familiar roads, English speakers, my little car, Trader Joes, CHEESE!!!, a kitchen to cook in, and some freedom to move around await.

All of the above being said, the bottom line is this: I am trying to prepare myself to have the most positive reaction possible to the worst news possible. For better or for worse, I am a fighter by nature and this will be no exception. So, though I’m not there yet – I will get this sorted in my head and ultimately pull out some mean moves to kick this stupid bugger’s ass.

Side Note: I am aware that everyone has an experience with cancer in one-way or anther. I’ve already learned that most everyone has an opinion about what I should do, how I should feel, how I should act, etc… I’m sure that sometimes these messages will be good for me to hear, but sometimes not. I am respectfully requesting that you please ask me if I am up for hearing what happened to your friend, what kind of treatment I should have, or what I shouldda/couldda/wouldda done to prevent this. Thaaaaank you!

PS – Wall Edgar Worm is coming home with me despite two attempts to kill him. Yes, I will ask the doctor on Tuesday to please get rid of him; he’s a bit clingy. ;-)

Monday, April 9, 2012



Three months and 9 days removed from home. Two days to 34. Woah. Who. Am. I?

I’ll start with stating the obvious… Asia is not Africa.

I dreamt of Africa forever before I went. It did not let me down. Asia confuses me. Bangkok is supposed to be chaotic, but it’s not. It’s simple. There are 7-11s on every corner… I always know where I can find shampoo and razors and water. There are ATMs every ten feet, a taxi every 12 feet, and four billion other white people. For all the complaining I did about being the only mzungu around, I have to say – I kinda wish there were a few less here. This is a city where the tourism and the Thai culture are so dependent on each other that they’ve molded into one and it seems impossible to really know what authentic Thai culture is.

I felt bonded to Africans before I met them. And while I’ve made friends with other tourists here, I have yet to connect with a Thai person - other than the woman who gave me a foot massage for 6 bucks the other day – I gave her a $2 tip, she hugged me – honestly, that’s the only connection I’ve had with a local here. This kind of tourism doesn’t interest me at all.

Bangkokian tourists have created their own sub-culture here. (Fair warning, I’m going to get critical and rude…) This is where all of the people who annoy me at home come to feel as though they’ve experienced some crazy travel adventure. They arrive and (I kid you not) have faux dread-lock extensions put in, they get tattoos and piercings and maybe hire a Thai girlfriend and walk away thinking “Woah, that was a very cultural experience.” I’m not sure if this behavior is better than not traveling or not. They make me angry. They know nothing about the Thai people or culture. They come here to be comfortable, drunk, buy cheap clothes, faux ray-bans and pretend that they have a clue about the world.

The paragraph above implies that I know something about the world or that I believe I’m a “better tourist.” I guess it’s true. Or maybe it’s just what I value in comparison to what the Bangkok Tourists value.

For the past few weeks I’ve been doing some heavy thinking about what I’ve learned since I’ve been away from home. The lessons are countless. One day I will try to compose a comprehensive list. But for now, I will say that I have learned that I get the greatest joy out of truly connecting with locals- seeing the underbelly of a place. My time in the village in Uganda and the short time I spent in a village at the base of Kilimanjaro returned the greatest rewards for me. I walk away from Africa feeling like I’ve given it my best shot at connecting in the short three months I was there. I feel gratified, fulfilled – and of course, cannot wait to get back. I’m happy to say that having spent as much time on the continent as I’ve spent, it doesn’t feel so unattainable as it once had. Surely I’ll be back soon.

So here I am in Thailand feeling pretty disconnected to anything Thai (even the food! What is wrong with me!?!?!) I left Bangkok on Monday evening for Phuket, the most touristy destination in Thailand (so I’ve read). Tourists here are different, they come here for holiday – a proper vacation. While it’s not really the way I do anything (I’m no good at sitting on a beach, never have been… I’m always either swimming, surfing, playing Frisbee, or searching for a trapeze to play on…) I like the people here. I’ve also realized that I can rent a scooter (yes, dangerous, blah, blah blah…) and explore this island on my own terms.

Since I left home almost 3.5 months ago, it has been rare for me to feel pure joy – simplicity -the kind I used to get from climbing Baldy. That’s not to say I’m not happy, I’m just constantly processing experiences and trying to make sense of everything that’s happening. Sometimes it feels like I’m on Star Tours at Disneyland and the experiences fly by me like the stars do as my aircraft blows from one planet to the other. I can safely say that riding a scooter on this island, finding the little nooks and crannies, places without tourists, searching for the most secluded spots, finding beautiful blue ocean where it never should be, seeing thunderstorms roll in from the nighttime distance, feeling the air on my face, negotiating the twists and turns and traffic of the island (including driving on the LEFT side of the street!!!!) have provided me the greatest sense of freedom and the greatest peace since I left home. Pure Joy. I may stay here longer than I anticipated, book myself into the cheapest hostel I can find, and rent a scooter for another week. Just cause it makes me so happy… and well, cause I can. (LUCKY ME!!!!)

I am learning to love Asia (Thailand, at least). It hasn’t come instantly like Africa did. But then, I didn’t spend years dreaming about it like I did Africa. I’m proud of myself for giving Asia a chance even though she was off the intended path, and has been a challenge for me.

Because I was unable to obtain a visa for India, I have a LOT of time here (two to three months). I’m looking to spend a month traveling in Thailand (two weeks, already gone… WHERE DID IT GO???), a month living in a hill tribe up north (outside of Chiang Rai) teaching English in a primary school again, and a month traveling in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. At that point, I’ll probably travel down to Indonesia and then on to Australia where I will meet Lyndall (LYNDALL!! I LOVE YOU!!!) and Christie (CHRISTIE!!! I LOVE YOU!!!) and hopefully Janine (PLEEEEEAAASSEEE!!! JANINE!!! MAKE IT TO OZ!!!!) and probably explode with happiness as the four of us make our way around the coolest parts of the country, camping, laughing, and reminiscing along the way. (All of these wonderful women are Peaks Peeps – and My Peeps. I’ve only known them for 3.5 months, but they will certainly be part of my life forever.)

Details and pics on what I did in Bangkok and Phuket to come (again, mostly for me).

Love to you all – hope you had a fantastic Easter! (I completely forgot about it. This is a Buddhist country… Kinda nice!!!)

PS  - Willy Edgar Worm lives on – he got a free trip to Bangkok. He doesn’t bug me, he lives in the same place in my arm. When I get to Australia, I promise to have him checked out. Hoping to come home “worm-free!”