The Whole Story
by Sherri Snoad
This is the story that left us looking for a WELCOME to the OTHER SIDE! Cue the rainbows and unicorns: John and I are happily married, high school sweethearts even. John is a career high school teacher and football coach. I’m a nurse and massage therapist. We have three grown sons. We were born and raised in Ohio, the heart of the Midwest. We walk down the street and say "Hi" to everyone. And we love our sports..."OH!...IO!" . The Midwest...where we say "pop", not "soda", and pick apples in the fall as we anxiously await lake effect snowfall in the winter. Life was running along smoothly and it was, well...great! Until it wasn’t....
My story begins on a cold Ohio January day in 2016 when I was training for an upcoming Half Marathon. A persistent cough seemed to plague me. But it was January in Ohio coughs and respiratory illnesses are the norm. On this particular run, I went into a coughing fit; it brought me to my knees mid-run. A trip to the doctor brought about an unsuccessful antibiotic treatment for bronchitis, then pneumonia; finally a CT scan was ordered. The scan revealed a large nodule in my right lung. This sent me on an emotional rollercoaster ride of tests, procedures and repeated misdiagnoses, which ranged from a fungal infection, known here as “Ohio Lung”, to actual lung cancer. After months with little improvement, a more invasive biopsy was performed, removing a piece of lung tissue and the nodule. Finally, both relief and fear collided: a confirmed diagnosis finally, but it revealed a rare form of lymphoma: Lymphomatoid Granulomatosis. I was declared stage 3. We were six days from leaving the country with our twin sons to visit their older brother and his wife, where his U.S. Army assignment had them stationed in Germany. The trip was to be both a family reunion of sorts as well as a graduation gift for our twins who had just graduated from college. Life as we knew it came to a screeching halt.
The trip was cancelled. Overnight, I found myself in the hospital for the first of six full rounds of inpatient chemotherapy, with each five-day treatment starting just twenty-one days apart. The regimen was an intense intravenous “cocktail” drip for 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday.
Beyond the many drugs involved in the chemo, I was also taking other meds to offset the effects of the chemo. Emotions ran high as so much seemed out of my control. At a low point, I came to the decision I must take back control...it was the only way I was going to beat cancer. It started with the clothes I wore. I always chose athletic/running gear in the hospital in lieu of a gown. Getting dressed as an athlete everyday reassured me and showed my doctors I was a strong, determined woman focused on beating this. I walked and walked those hospital floors, pushing my chemo around with me on wheels, prayed religiously and maintained an often strained, but positive attitude.
Complications. This word became the theme of my treatments after the third round of chemo. As my body began to tackle the cancer, it also began to attack itself. I experienced respiratory failure resulting in a visit from the Emergency Response Team (ERT) to my hospital room. Large doses of steroids were issued to “calm the fires”. New scans revealed the development of unknown spots on my spleen as well as new growths in my lungs. The best option to diagnose these spots was a splenectomy. Just to keep things exciting, during the surgery my colon was nicked. This earned me a quick trip back to surgery. Devastation is the best word to describe how it felt waking up in ICU and discovering a colostomy bag attached to my body. More loss of myself and independence. Despite all this I fought and forged ahead. All treatments stopped so I could recover from the colostomy surgery. Fortunately this temporary setback was reversed, exactly two months to the day of receiving the bag, it was removed.
The fun never ended. It seems the combination of all the medications I was taking wanted to join the party. The meds interacted in such a way that they left me lethargic, mindlessly rambling and incoherently trying to mix jell-o and mashed potatoes to serve for Christmas dinner. John knew it was time to act. Ultimately I have no memory of my trip to the hospital on Christmas day. Our oldest and his wife had come home from Germany and I have absolutely no recollection of his visit to this day. Losing a couple weeks of memories was one of the more difficult aspects of that year.
Once the medication issue was resolved, I began to feel better, just in time to resume chemotherapy, of which I had still had three more full rounds. Feeling better was short-lived, my body being weakened more each time as the chemo hit me harder. Mentally, I was not in a good place and being physically weakened made it difficult to fight an infection with an unknown cause. I endured many blood draws and several spinal taps as they sought the cause. Spinal taps are not for the feint of heart; each one left me with a debilitating headache. There was no other option. I had to dig to find inner strength. Relying on prayer, family, music and calming techniques through these procedures, gave me strength to keep going. Somedays, I had to celebrate small victories such as just making it to the next minute.
Good news finally! The cancer was gone! Bad news...a new, more vicious infection ravaged my body. Weakened and emaciated, I could no longer walk on my own. After a three week stay at the hospital, I responded to treatment, finally discharged and sent home with a walker; unfortunately I now required twenty-four hour assistance when I walked and they had to use a gait belt around my waist. Hard to believe that I had run full and half marathons prior to this illness. Now I could barely get out of bed. Who is this person? Despite all of this, I refused to give up and could only focus on getting stronger. Everyday I walked and was diligent doing physical therapy exercises. The walker was no longer needed. At first, I fell down a lot. Eventually though, I only wobbled and didn't fall anymore. Though these were baby steps, they led to walking, hiking and even running again.
Physically, my body was stronger, but emotionally I was raw and beaten down. Rebuilding my emotional strength was much harder than building back physical body strength. Emotionally, I had to learn to let the fear go and move on. My body was living in a state of "Fight or Flight". Learning to live in a healthier state of "Rest and Repair" took much effort was just plain work. I immersed myself in mind, body and spirit modalities that eventually helped me learn to reside in more of a rest and repair state. Somedays I needed gentle tough love, while other days compassion and grace. It’s easy and natural to fall back into a fight or flight state. I try to recognize it and use tools to return to calm. This was my biggest lesson in learning how to land in a thriving state of recovery.
Cancer happened to me for reasons I will never understand. Coming to realize that I'll always be a work in progress; that I will continuously be taking steps forward and backwards, was, and remains, an important lesson.