With little to no warning, our lives take a turn and we are on a completely new journey, a different fight. Driving up to Rochester, with the road ahead of us and the city, our lives, in the rear view mirror, all of a sudden we realize the normalcy of daily routines and everything that contributes to our happiness in the almost past year and a half is going to have to take somewhat of a backseat in priority as we gear up to take on a new battle.
Up until this point, we were looking forward to the unthawing of winter and the warmer days filled with sunshine, the budding of trees along the streets, patios taking shape outside cafes and restaurants and the blooming of tulips all along Michigan Avenue signaling the arrival of spring washing over the city. We had started planning our honeymoon that we had put off until after the wedding. We were just starting to look at bigger places in our neighborhood, as we outgrow our one bedroom condo with clothes and boxes full of wedding gifts peaking out of every corner in our closet and along every wall in our bedroom.
With priorities realigned, we were headstrong in taking on this new battle and put all our faith, trust and confidence in Mayo Clinic. After all, they had saved my life once before and I knew there wasn’t any other place I wanted to be, as they would be resilient in doing so again. I do have a part in this as, without doing regular self breast exams, I don’t think we would have caught this diagnosis so early. Being my own advocate is so important to me, truly allowing me to be one with my body, mind and spirit, instilling happiness, health and awareness. Coming out of my previous illness increased this awareness tenfold for me and allowed me to have a completely new relationship with all aspects of my health, body, mind and journey. Peeling back layers where anxiety used to be and increasing this awareness has allowed me to live the life of my authentic self, one of the greatest gifts of this whole journey. Authentic happiness and self is the ability to be true to your self each and every day, let your voice rise and constantly be present and living in the moment. With this as well, I noticed an extreme sensitivity to and awareness of changes in my body and mind culminating to one of the greatest transformations I have experienced in my recovery. And I am so thankful for this gift; it has given me the ability to be my own best advocate, one of those extraordinary tools that provides you powerful and enlightening benefits. It is being your own warrior and defining what that means for you and allowing that to take shape in your life, acting upon the goals you set out for yourself.
On this drive to Rochester, I was reflecting on this and in returning to Mayo and found myself rather eager to do so; to walk through those doors of the Gonda building and meet the greeters who offer help immediately to every patient and engage them in conversation, leaving them hopeful and positive for the start of their day. Every staff at Mayo, no matter their role, has One Goal, and that is of the patient. It truly is amazing and it cascades down from the founders and familial and individual philanthropists who have given so much to Mayo, inspired by their own care and stories or, wanting to further research and development on those diagnoses where a cure is still within reach. From the executives down to the doctors, surgeons, nurses and volunteers; everything they do is geared toward the patient and taking any kind of stress, task or coordination off their plates so they can just focus on being a patient. Even something as simple as making a call to insurance to ensure a procedure or test is covered; it is one less call for the patient to make or to remember to do. Setting up their appointment schedule and any travel logistics, providing them information and education, providing water, snacks, pillows and blankets; anything they can do to ensure the comfort of their patients and families so as to relieve stress and worry from their minds. Eliminating stress allows so many benefits as a patient and, I find, can help reduce fatigue and anxiety. One Goal: you, the patient, so you have only one focus, one job; the path towards healing, recovery, strength and confidence. It is such a simple yet extraordinary philosophy that started with their unprecedented and remarkable compassion and care that is the mission of Mayo. I realized I couldn’t wait to get back, as odd as that sounds.
We arrived in Rochester the night before my first appointment the following morning, the first time I would be back in just under a year and a half. We unpacked and got settled into our hotel we would be staying at for the next week. I loved having Meghan with me for this journey and I couldn’t wait for her to experience on her own the workings of Mayo and the reality of why this was the only place I truly trusted to take on this battle with us. It wasn’t a question for me and I was excited for her to come to the same realization as well. When we went to bed, we had a mix of emotions and even more questions racing through our minds. We kept writing down and mentally adding to our list to ensure we didn’t miss anything large or small.
By the next morning, I felt my worries slipping away as we started out the day with a workout at an athletic club we found in the area. Keeping to our usual routines was very important to us and helped to instill the positive energy we wanted to maintain. When we were walking to the clinic from our hotel, as Meghan can attest to, I found myself almost skipping I was so excited to start this journey and get a plan underway. It’s funny, living in the moment and from one minute to the next, I find myself being more carefree and sometimes having the attitude and excitement of a child. This was definitely one of those moments! So let’s put a mental picture together of this; you have me at this moment, very childlike and skipping and jumping around as we walk into the clinic and then my wife, Meghan, who some may say the first thing they notice about her is her loud and energizing personality, her height and the fact she is a true red head with very fair skin. Someone you can’t help but notice right away. We are both very active, positive and somewhat have no filter at all no matter who we talk to. So put all of that into our conversations with our doctors and nurses and you have everyone in the room laughing with high energy when we are talking about something as serious as cancer. Oh, and maybe I forgot to mention this, but we also look like the gear of Hockey Canada threw up on us, as that seems to be literally the only comfortable clothes we are able to find to wear when we travel. From shorts to pants, to t-shirts to sweatshirts to hats, you name it, we are wearing it and every piece of clothing has the Hockey Canada logo on it somewhere. Meghan used to work for Hockey Canada when she was living in Calgary and received a lot of gear over the years, which is why we look the way we do and so, you can bet the first question we get asked of a lot at the start of our appointments is, are you guys from Canada?
In between the jokes, laughter and small talk, the seriousness of the situation is lightened by the vast amount of information we received on the pathology of my tumor. The pathology report was probably a paragraph long with maybe 5-6 sentences and our coordinating doctor went over each word of the reading for over an hour to ensure we understood every detail and what we were dealing with. At the end of the day, the breast cancer I had was deemed to be an extremely aggressive type, as the tumor was found to be a grade 3, which means the cells are dividing and growing abnormally at an accelerated rate. It was also revealed that I had triple negative disease breast cancer and that my tumor was showing metaplastic features, which is a rather rare form for a tumor to take on, from my understanding. For those of you that don’t know, triple negative disease is where the receptors are neither estrogen, progesterone or HER2 positive, but rather your own blood supply is feeding the growth of the cancer. For me, an image of an alien immediately took shape in my mind as I thought of this tumor calling upon and pulling into it my own blood to fuel its growth. Strange, I know, but I sometimes have an overactive imagination. I was soaking all this knowledge up, as I tend to find strength, comfort and encouragement with the more information I have. With Meghan, I think the more detail there is, at times, can be scary for her. And so there were a couple times where she broke down and we would hug and hold hands for a bit until we brought her back. This seemed to warm the hearts of our nurses and doctors as they really felt they got to know us by our unfiltered responses and actions. Meghan’s amazing strengths came into play as, once again, she became my arms and legs at a time I needed her the most. And she was jumping in and doing it again with no other thought than choosing how to help and support me in the best way she knew how.
At this point, we have all the information we need from a pathology perspective and the next phase of coming up with our plan is formulating a team of doctors to review my medical records and figure out the next steps and in what order. My team consists of my oncologist, my radiation oncologist, my surgeon and my radiologist. They all meet together as a panel, review my information together as a team and figure out the best plan of action, based on the pathology and breast cancer that is specific to me. They treat the patient and not the symptoms. And they communicate as one team, rather than as a siloed approach to medical care that seems to be found everywhere else. Mayo takes care of everything, from figuring out a plan, to expedited scheduling and making all the necessary calls to make the arrangements. None of this nonsense where you see one doctor and get a bunch of phone numbers and referrals to make another set of appointments and procedures, only to come to find out you have to wait weeks or months to get the actual plan started. The powers that be at Mayo make things happen quickly, with your plan being actualized that day. Because, with cancer, you really don’t want to have to wait weeks or months for your plan to begin.
And so, at the end of our first day, my plan was taking shape and the rest of the week would be dedicated to tests to rule out the spreading of cancer to any other part of my body, genetic and blood testing as well as educational classes surrounding surgery and any related reconstruction options we would need to know about. I received my new appointment schedule and we slowly began to process the information we received and realized the beginning of my new battle and fight against breast cancer had officially started. And it was time again to embrace my warrior. My life, my warrior strength.