September 11, 2017 was my first day of radiation treatment for my surprise cancer diagnosis I had received just two months before during a regular left parotidectomy for a pleomorphic adenoma. The days to follow were the hardest days I’ve ever faced in my life. Absolutely nothing could have ever prepared me for the upside-down thinking, the excessive tears that fell, and the physical failures I would experience as each one of the 30 total treatments passed. By the end, I was brittle and broken and faced a insurmountable amount of emotional struggles to find stability in what the next days, months, or years might look like if I was afforded that kind of time.
September 14, 2019 I boarded a flight to Chicago, IL to serve as one of nine social champions and the only non-MD, non-PhD representative for the American Society of Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) annual conference. (And to host two UAB events I planned for the department)
Isn’t God good, y’all?
If you’ve been following along for any amount of time or simply talked to me in any capacity, you know how raw and ugly my healing has been the last two years. Fear of recurrence has eaten me alive and stolen precious moments from my present while emotional turmoil has caused people to pull away or just consider me too much of a hassle to deal with. But you don’t make progress or get to where you want to be without resistance and persistence.
I woke up Saturday morning at 3:30am like I was going back to Lake Tahoe (my favorite place for obvious reasons). I had been looking forward to this trip since the day I was invited, but not once had it crossed my mind that I could potentially be walking into PTSD hell by going to an entire conference centered around cancer and more specifically the sole treatment I experienced…until we were 5 minutes out from the airport.
We pulled into the departures lane and my legs begin to quiver. My heart was racing. The back of my neck down to my fingertips were hot and flushed. The pit in my stomach was getting heavier by the second, and I was fairly sure I was going to be sick. There was no way I was getting on that plane. My very methodical and measured husband was starting to worry I was going to miss my flight as I sat in the passenger seat and tried to get my mess together, so I downed 2 dramamine and an extra dose of anxiety meds for some forced semi-sedation and willed entry onto my intended aircraft.
I spent my afternoon at McCormick Place, where conference would be held, while things were still quiet in anticipation of how overwhelming the next few days would likely be. I knew I had zero chance of absorbing as much information as the physician attendees, but I was hopeful to comprehend about 70% of the content at best. Top that with having actually experienced the very treatment being discussed for 4 days, I felt like it was probably smart to prepare myself. (It is now very clear that I was insane for agreeing to this in the first place.)
Sunday was the first day of conference and also a big day for me as the UAB Marketing and Communications Coordinator. I had my first sessions of my first ASTRO ahead of me as well as the #tweetup where I would meet many of my fellow social media champions, mixed with a bit of pressure to represent patients well and share knowledgeable opinions. Sunday was also the day that I was hosting two events that evening for UAB: A steering committee dinner for the alumni program I’m starting in our department followed by our annual UAB reception.
Monday was my final day at conference so I made sure it was a jam-packed with every session I could possibly fit in before departing for Midway later that evening. We even organized a #retweetup because we all had too much fun at the original #tweetup. And by the time it was time to say my goodbyes, my heart was torn in a zillion different directions.
So how was my first experience at ASTRO?
As embarrassingly cliche as it is for me to utter as a writer, this experience is rather hard to explain for me. It changed parts of my heart that I had been ignoring. It widened my perspective on the physician side of things and how tirelessly Radiation Oncologists work to make what they do beneficial to the highest level and more comfortable for patients. It mesmerized me to see how much camaraderie there was among all of the attendees rather than competition, and it humbled me to see how determined everyone was to learn and better themselves for their patients while leaving their egos aside.
I had intense insecurity going into this being a nobody, 30yr old girl from Alabama that just happened to have been treated for head and neck cancer two years ago. My intelligence was questioned at times as to what I could possibly get out of a conference like this not being a physician or clinically inclined in any way. My ability was doubted to be able to attend conference and also do what I needed to do for the events I had planned while still keeping up with my other responsibilities. And a variety of fears surrounding overall acceptance severed my hopes of making a difference at such a large venue.
When I look back, even though it’s only been a few days since I returned home, I’m proud of myself. I somehow found my place in a sea of brilliant-minded MD/PhDs. I mastered attending enough conference to fulfill my social champion duties and also put on two successful events for UAB. I was received with authenticity from humans who owe me nothing and I very well may never see again. And I experienced quite a bit of unexpected healing in my soul that I know I needed desperately, especially with my two-year post-treatment anniversary and scans approaching on October 20th.
The journey to this point was incredibly hard which is no secret if you read any of my previous blog posts, particularly the ones early on. They’re gut-wrenching for me to re-read, but sometimes I force myself to so I don’t ever forget where I came from (although that would be nice sometimes) and so that I continue to heal and process what it means to be a 30 year old cancer survivor in a healthy way. I have days where I get frustrated with myself that I don’t have more to share these days, but there’s also a blessing that lies within that. Life is calmer and I have less doctors appointments and scans to attend, and I don’t take that for granted by any means. I’m moving more towards “normal” and I don’t feel as much like I have a giant “C” for cancer as my scarlet letter across my chest constantly. Thank you, Jesus.
So ASTRO: The beautifully magical unicorn of an experience, THANK YOU for every tiny little thing you sent home with me from the friendly faces to the non-coincidental, God-sent Uber drivers that also had stories of cancer, healing, and hope. THANK YOU for trusting me as the sole patient voice in the group. THANK you showing me the future of radiation care for those that will unfortunately hear the same words I did. And THANK YOU for believing in me. You have my heart!
There ARE a few special folks that deserve some extra love for standing in support of me and sitting back to watch me go get ’em (as we say in the south).
The other social champions of #ASTRO19 who followed me without question, listened to what I had to share, liked, retweeted, and commented in support of me before, during, and after conference. And my goodness, were they precious souls when I finally met them in person!
The 61st president of ASTRO, Dr. Ted DeWeese took the stage on Monday with a presidential address full of promise and progress in the field of radiation. So much so that I went and found him after the session and the first thing he did after I introduced myself was hug me and look me straight in the eyes to say, “Bless you. I’m so glad you’re here.”
My lifesavers: Dr. Bill Carroll who was my surgeon and the one who quietly gave me the news during his post-op rounds, Mrs. Kristi Gidley, the PA for Dr. Carroll that has blessed me each and every visit with her wisdom and gentle nature, Dr. Sharon Spencer, my fearless RadOnc who treated me right here in our department and has always made sure I’m cared for, Dr. Sam Marcrom, who was a PGY4 when I was diagnosed and has been a wonderful friend and colleague ever since, and finally Ms. Laronica Conway, my coworker and the sister I never had that has kept me grounded more times than I can count and pointed me to the Lord all the other times.
The UAB Department of Radiation Oncology: I was hired in this department in March 2017 before I had surgery and was diagnosed in July of the same year. It has been a whirlwind but they are the ones who, at the end of the day, made it possible for me to attend.
My parents. It goes without saying that these two would believe in me. They brought me into this world and let’s be honest, I’m their favorite daughter. (Note: I’m the only daughter) But the days leading up to my trip and the morning I left were filled with encouraging texts of best wishes and a wonderful time in the windy city.
And my precious husband K.T. Lord Jesus, I’ll never be able to give back as much as what this man has given me. From bathing my feeble body post-surgery because I was unable to do it myself to cheering me on in literally everything I’ve ever tried to do, whether I succeeded or not, he has been by my side and has loved me fiercely, unconditionally, and without wavering every single day.
So needless to say, ASTRO provided ASTROnomical blessings for me as a patient, as an employee, and as a human, and I am eternally grateful! See yall in Miami! (hopefully 😉 )