Danny defeats cancer

dannyWith everyone trying their best to be optimistic as a child battles cancer, there’s always a looming cloud of doom that follows you. When Teri’s son Danny, who had leukemia, went with her husband to the funeral of a boy who had been going through the same treatments, she stayed home and cried. And she wondered when it was Danny’s turn.

In June of 1993, my cousin Teri and her family were living in Norway, and her brother Rick and his family were visiting from the United States. Throughout their visit, Teri watched Rick and his wife give their young daughter her chemo pill, as she was battling leukemia. On the last day of their visit, Danny became very ill, vomiting in a way Teri had never seen before. Still, they figured he must just have a stomach bug.

Rick and his family left Norway, and a few days later, Teri noticed 11-year-old Danny’s back was covered in bruises. She wasn’t entirely worried, as Danny was a goalie for his soccer team. But then he had a fever and started vomiting again. Teri knew something wasn’t right, but she never imagined it was cancer.

“The doctor said he hoped he was wrong with his diagnosis, however, we needed to have tests done at the hospital,” Teri said.

The normal range for white blood cell count was between 4,000 and 11,000 cells in every microliter of blood. Danny’s was 168,000.

“All of a sudden I got confused and started to really worry,” Teri said. “But my thoughts were that we were in the hospital ward with kids, and I needed to put my big girl pants on. We were told he was going to have minor surgery to extract bone marrow from his hip to get the results, if this was leukemia or a blood disease.”

It was leukemia. Like his cousin Jennifer, Danny was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

“My mind went crazy,” Teri said. “Both (my husband) Ivar and I were very quiet and in a state of shock. No crying and no reaction. All the doctors were wondering why. Our reaction came when we were alone and nobody was looking.”

Teri and Ivar’s reaction, or lack of one in the hospital, came from a common thread in their family: bad news. It was too familiar for the couple, whose daughter Marina was diagnosed with spinal meningitis just six years earlier. She wasn’t expected to survive, hooked up to nine machines that kept her alive for five days. Sure enough, Marina pulled through.

“I’m positive this is part of what makes us tough-skinned,” Teri said. “Bad and horrible news was par for the course.”

Danny began chemo immediately after the diagnosis and continued treatment for three years. For two of those years, he was hospitalized nearly the entire time. Danny faced a number of terrible issues due to the chemotherapy treatments, but his family was always by his side. His stepdad Ivar even shaved his head to show his support for Danny, who lost his hair.

The radiation also curbed Danny’s growth throughout chemotherapy, and it wasn’t until he was 14 and finished that he started growing at normal rates.

“The role of having a kid with cancer, it was just an automatic duty,” Teri said. “I did what I had to do and that was be a mother. I felt lucky because we never lost Danny to this disease. We had really close calls, but we learned from it.”

Danny turned 38 on February 4, and works for a Norwegian Company in Asia. He was told he might not be able to have children because of years of radiation treatment, but Danny has two boys, Ethan and Isak.

“They are my little emperors who are currently learning three languages: English, Mandarin, and Norwegian,” Teri said. “We are very proud!”

Leukemia and lymphoma are blood cancers that many families face, and it is particularly destructive on the bodies of children. To support families impacted by these horrible cancers, please make a donation here.

Lucky to have his little girl

IMG-1744I was in the fourth grade when my cousin Jennifer was diagnosed with leukemia, so I don’t remember much other than being really scared and praying a lot. When I asked my cousin Rick, Jennifer’s father, to recount their experience, I was heartbroken. I simply can’t imagine what they went through. 

This is the first in a series I’m writing for my Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Woman of the Year campaign. I am raising funds for LLS, whose mission is to “cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma, and improve the quality of life of patients and their families.”

After reading this, you’ll see why I am 100% in on supporting LLS. No one should have to go through this. And next week I’ll share another story: how my other cousin, on the same side of the family, also battled childhood leukemia.


“That day was the most difficult day of my life,” Rick said. “It was first time my wife ever saw me cry.”

It was Mother’s Day in 1991, and Rick and Cindy had just learned that their three-year-old daughter Jennifer had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL).

Rick and Cindy hugged and prayed, and then they realized they had so many questions.

“All we knew was that the word leukemia was associated with terminal illness and death,” he said. “I was not able to process that.”

Jennifer, her twin brother Jason, her older brother Geoff, and her parents soon learned that she would go through chemotherapy, a word Rick didn’t want to hear. His grandmother had died of colon cancer, and he saw how chemo ravaged her body.

As scary as it all was, Rick soon learned that had Jennifer been diagnosed just ten years earlier she would have had only a 50% chance of living another five years. Due to advances in course of treatments, Jennifer’s chance of mortality was 10%.

Rick endured some of the toughest years of his life as he watched Jennifer go through three and a half years of chemo, several bone marrow tests, several fluid taps, surgeries, and other hospitalizations.

“I remember having to restrain her several times in a fetal position while they drove a needle deep into her hip bone to extract bone marrow for testing,” he said. “I had to listen to her scream, ‘No!’ and ‘Daddy!’ as I helped hold her down.”

Rick also recalled frequently having to give her a bitter steroid medication that she wanted to spit out. She would scream, gag, cry, and try to free herself from her parents’ grip. Each time, they, too, were left in tears watching their little girl struggle.

“But she was a trouper and a strong little girl,” Rick said. “And she still is.”

As the treatments and medicine went on for more than three years, Jennifer eventually stopped putting up a fight.

“I don’t know if that was an answered prayer or if she just gave up fighting,” he said. “But it was never easy watching her little body weaken, her hair fall out, her sadness when she had a bad day.”

As their family went through Jennifer’s many years of cancer treatments, Rick wasn’t aware of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“After becoming involved with (LLS) in later years and finding out what they have done in the field of research and patient care, I’m certain Jen benefited from their efforts,” he said.

Fast-forward to today, and Jennifer is approaching her 29th year of being cancer-free. She hasn’t even seen her oncologist in nine years and won’t ever have to again unless the cancer returns.

Rick knows he’s lucky to have his little girl. Their many hospital stays put them in a position to meet other families with children going through the same thing. Often it was comforting, other times it was devastating, when a child’s cancer would prove fatal.

“Our hearts aches for their families,” Rick said. “They still do.”

In 2015, Rick walked his daughter down the aisle as she married the love of her life. And in December 2019, Rick and his wife Cindy where there when Jennifer and her husband Rob adopted a sweet little baby they named Arlen.

“To this day, I don’t know why God spared Jen. Except maybe because He had something bigger planned for her,” Rick said. “Who knows, maybe it has something to do with Arlen. Nevertheless, He allowed her to live, and that is not lost on Jen. Or me.”


Click below to learn more about supporting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

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An open letter to Carrie Underwood

Dear Carrie,

IMG-4494I’ve never felt like I was beautiful. So when I had melanoma removed from my face last last year, it was kind of difficult to take in. Here I was, who I consider to be an average-looking woman, who would now have a big scar on her face.

Through the support of my family and friends, I knew I couldn’t let it bother me. I didn’t have a choice. The surgeon even told me right before I went back for surgery that there are so many nerves in the face that there was a chance the right side of my face would be paralyzed. He also said my smile might not ever be the same.

“But, we don’t have a choice,” he said. “You have melanoma, and it could kill you if we don’t get it removed.”

I refused to be ashamed of the scar on my right cheek. I knew I was more than what people see on the outside.

When I read about your fall and all the stitches on your face, my heart broke for you. While I had around 20 stitches, you had more than 40. I can’t imagine what it’s like having your beautiful, flawless face cut up like that.

But a part of me was encouraged. I had something in common with you- a scarred face. And I had no doubt that you would still be beautiful.

After the first of the year, I read that you posted your first picture of yourself since the accident. I was eager to see you, confident as ever, displaying your wounds for the world to see. But instead I only saw your eyes peering out behind a scarf and a hat.

It’s difficult to put into words, but it made me feel… ashamed. I was never afraid to post pictures of my wound or my scar. If you are hiding your scars, should I be doing the same?

If you are too ashamed to share your face with the world after it’s been cut up, should I also be ashamed?

Should I not be sharing my journey of healing with people who follow me on Instagram and Facebook, or those who read my blog?

IMG-4824However, I also realize you’re facing something I can’t even begin to imagine. While hundreds of people see my photos, millions of people see yours. But Carrie, I’m here to tell you that there’s more to you than how you look.

I read another blog post recently about how it’s not your job to be inspirational. I have to disagree. Carrie, you are a positive role model for millions of girls and women. You are a celebrity and a public figure. Whether or not you want to be an inspiration to the public and your fans, you ARE.

I pray you find the courage to show the world that gorgeous face of yours. You have an opportunity to empower many women who have been through similar experiences and need to hear you say, “Here are my scars. I am not ashamed.”

Show people like me, who do not hide their scars, that we have nothing to be ashamed of.

“When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be – this is me.
Look out cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies – this is me.”
– “This is Me”, The Greatest Showman Soundtrack

My 2017: Cancer, Confidence, and a Cat

26113828_10154926156416573_1909445423053074190_nThere are three things that sum up my 2017: cancer, confidence, and a cat.

I can only imagine what I would have said if someone told me a year ago that in 2017 I’d be diagnosed with melanoma on my face, have plastic surgery to remove it, end up feeling more confident afterwards, and that I’d get a cat. There was just no way I saw any of this coming.

The big story of my 2017 was supposed to be that I bought a house. But no, God had other stories that headlined my life in 2017.

Cancer
Even though I’d gotten the phone call, even though I’d had the surgery to remove melanoma from my face, and even though I’d met with an oncologist, it wasn’t until a few months later that it actually “clicked” that I had cancer.

IMG-0076I was at an unrelated doctor appointment when the nurse said to me, “I see here that you had cancer,” she said in passing as she reviewed my medical history. Oh, I thought to myself, I guess I did. 

Cancer doesn’t look the same for everyone and every type. Mine was in the form of melanoma, and lucky for me, it only required a single surgery.

So, yes, I had cancer in 2017. Certainly not something I expected, but certainly a headlining story in my life this year.

Confidence
I’ll be honest. For a period of time before my surgery, I was really worried about what I would look like afterwards. I had a major pity party for myself that went something like this:

I am so screwed. I’m already apparently not pretty enough for someone to want to marry me. I’m going to have this giant scar on my face. NOW who is going to want to be with me?!

Before you tear me to shreds, know that those thoughts didn’t last. God intervened and reminded me that He wouldn’t let a silly scar keep me from finding someone to spend my life with. He also gave me peace and confidence to go through everything with my head held high.

It seems backwards, but I almost have MORE confidence with the scar on my face. I often forget it’s even there. It keeps healing and will continue to heal. I’m fine with it being there. Somehow God has used it to make me even more confident. I’m not sure how, but it’s not the first time He’s done something I don’t understand.

Cat
When my friend got a job at the SPCA, I avoided the place at all costs. I knew that if I visited, I’d come home with a pet. Then, one June afternoon, she talked me into a visit.

That’s when I saw a handsome grey cat who stole my heart.

A few days later, I returned. And I went home with a cat.

IMG-2998I never knew an animal could have such a huge impact on my mental health. Mr. Glitter Sparkles has changed so much for me. He’s given me a buddy and a reason to smile when I come home to an empty house.

I am beyond grateful for my amazing cat, Mr. Glitter Sparkles. I can’t imagine going through melanoma, heartbreak, and other bad days without him.

Cancer? Check.
Confidence? Check.
Cat? Check.

I’d love to speculate what I’ll be writing about a year from now, but only God knows. Maybe life will be better, maybe it will be worse. But as always, my faith in God will get me through whatever lies ahead.

Well… that and Mr. Glitter Sparkles.

My Melanoma Story

Genetics. Tanning beds throughout my 20’s. Severe sunburns from when I lived in Uganda. It all likely played a part in why I had a chunk of my face removed two months ago. But whatever the official reason was doesn’t matter. All that mattered was that I had melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, on my face.

IMG-0670It was September of 2015 when I visited the dermatologist about a spot on my right cheek. It was a small, dry, red patch. It was growing, and no amount of lotion or coconut oil was making it go away. The dermatologist recognized it as precancerous immediately, and ended up blasting the spot with liquid nitrogen. It turned white on the edges, but within a few weeks, the spot disappeared.

A little more than a year later, a mole started to grow in that same spot. At first, small and brown. Then it began to grow. One area was black. The edges were jagged. It was a strange-looking spot. I decided to have it checked out.

I was hoping the dermatologist would say, “No, that’s nothing.” But instead what I got was a concerned, “Yes, we need to biopsy that today.”

First they numbed the area with a series of shots. (Shots to the face are REAL fun.) Then she razored out a small chunk of the spot on my face. At this point my face was bleeding and wouldn’t stop, so she had to cauterize the area. Nothing like seeing smoke rise from your face while smelling burning flesh.

I was told they would call me in a week with results.

A week went by and I hadn’t heard anything.

“I’m sure it’s fine!” so many people said.

“It’s nothing, that’s why they haven’t called!” others said.

But my curiosity got the best of me and I called the dermatologist on a Friday morning. My results had just come in.

“Your biopsy shows melanoma. It’s very small, but bigger than what we call “superficial.” So it’s not a best-case scenario, but certainly not the worst. You’ll need to have surgery to remove the melanoma, and since it’s on your face, we’ll refer you to a plastic surgeon.”

For some reason, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t really feel any emotion.

“Melanoma cancer is serious, so we’ll want to get you in as soon as possible,” she said. “Are you OK? Do you have any questions?”

“Um, no questions,” I replied.

We set up a consultation with a plastic surgeon, and hung up.

And then I cried. Unfortunately, I’d already prepared for bad news and read up on melanoma. I knew it was the worst type of skin cancer to have. I knew it could kill you. Although small, the deadliest type of skin cancer was on my face- not far from my brain or my lymph nodes, where melanoma spreads to before it kills you.

It was small. The surgeon would remove it. I wouldn’t have to do chemotherapy or any other sort of radiation, as long as he removed it all. But still. I was told that I had cancer. Words no one wants to hear.

IMG-0410It was about a week later when I met with the plastic surgeon. He explained the stages of melanoma and where mine fell.  The stages run from Stage 0 (superficial) to Stage IV. Mine was a Stage 1 melanoma.

He drew on my face to show how big of an area he would remove. Typically, he said, there would be another appointment before surgery, but since this was melanoma, there was no time to waste. It had to be done sooner than later.

It’s funny how people react to skin cancer. I heard a lot of, “Oh I had a spot removed once,” and, “I had basal cell carcinoma skin cancer before.” Which, yes, sucks, because all cancer sucks. But this was melanoma, and people don’t understand how deadly it can be once it spreads. Not to mention the fact that this was on my face.

IMG-0733But I kept a positive attitude. How could I not? It was somewhat of a simple “fix,” assuming the surgeon removed all the melanoma during surgery. And yes, I’d have a hideous wound on my face for awhile, but that’s nothing compared to burn victims, people who have had acid thrown on their faces, etc., etc. I tried to keep things in perspective, and certainly leaned on my faith in the Lord as I awaited surgery.

My surgery- wide excision- was on August 9. I was sedated, but was “awake” for the surgery. I was tied down to the table, so as not to jolt and mess up the surgeon cutting my face open. It was quite an interesting experience.

Recovery wasn’t bad at all, which surprised me. Once the numbness wore off that night, it was pretty painful, but the next morning and on was fine. It looked, however, pretty disgusting when I was allowed to take off the bandage.

IMG-0319Within four days, they removed the stitches, and it began to heal. And within a week, we received the results of the biopsy of what they removed- my margins were clear, and all of the melanoma was successfully removed.

Praise. God.

But my journey isn’t over yet.

Just last week I met with an oncologist. My surgeon said it would be a good idea, in case I get melanoma again, in case it has spread, I would already be established with one.

IMG-0932Because that’s the issue with melanoma- if it appears on your body once, it’s very possible that it will appear again. Whether due to genetics, tanning beds, or natural sun, I have the cells in my body to produce melanoma. The oncologist will check my lymph nodes again in three months, I have to get full body checks for suspicious spots every six months for the next 3-5 years, and then, if no other melanomas appear, I still have to be checked every year for the rest of my life.

I’ve been told it will take a good year to tell how well the scar has healed. There are a lot of nerves in the face, so it will also take awhile to know whether or not I’ll regain feeling in that area. Right now, if I touch the top part of the scar, it feels like I’m touching the bottom of it. Nerves are a funny thing!

IMG-1868I hope my melanoma story ends here. I plan to be smarter in the sun- wearing SPF 30 every day, whether I’m at the beach or not. And I’ve been encouraging all my friends and family to get checked, and many of them have! All have been fine, with the exception of a friend’s husband who has a superficial melanoma spot on his arm that has to be removed.

But thank the Lord that people are getting checked. If I went through this just to make others more aware of taking care of their skin and going to the dermatologist, it was worth it.

I’m very lucky. Melanoma kills, and it’s one of the fastest growing cancers for people in their 20’s and 30’s.

I get it. Everyone looks better with a tan. fbprofile

I get it. It won’t happen to you, right? That’s certainly what I thought. Nothing could stop me from tanning. Not even the threat of deadly skin cancer.

But my lesson has been learned. I pray no one else I know has to learn this lesson.

Some people commented on my bravery as I went through the entire thing. I can only attribute my positive attitude and outlook to my faith in God. I knew, and I still know, that He has a plan for my life. And even if that plan includes melanoma, I’m happy to live it, because there’s nowhere I’d rather be than in God’s will for my life.

Note: The melanoma was found in my right cheek. In photos, it appears to change because some of the photos are selfies and were taken with a phone that reverses the photo.

 

 

Your billboard when you’re knocked out

Everything was going great. I had job satisfaction. I was healthy. I was loving life in my new home. Spiritually, personally, professionally, and emotionally, all was well.

And then my refrigerator died.

Then my boss, whom I respect and adore, announced he was leaving. The team I have been a part of for a year and half was about to be destroyed and picked apart.

Then my dermatologist called with the results of my biopsy. “It’s melanoma.”

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Melanoma was found in the dark spot on my cheek.

Then my neighbor reminded me that I was responsible for pulling the weeds in my landscaping. Gee, thanks. I have cancer, and you’re giving me crap about a few weeds.

All of a sudden I was knocked out. I needed money for a fridge. I needed time to pull weeds. I needed a peace about the future of my job satisfaction. I also needed to meet with a surgeon to discuss the surgery that would remove the melanoma on my face.

I know it could be worse. But I didn’t see any of it coming, and I felt totally knocked out.

I have cancer. It can be removed with a simple procedure, but I’m on high alert for the rest of my life when it comes to being vigilant about the spots on my body. Once you have melanoma, there’s a very high chance you’ll get it again. I face so much uncertainty when I look at the future, concerning my health. And how I deal with all of this, as a Christian, is on display for others to see.

Last week in Growth Group at my church, we talked about how we are a “Billboard for the Lord.” For some people, the only Bible they’ll read is how we, as Christians, live our lives.

I am knocked out. I am stressed. I am hurting. I am fearful. And how I handle this speaks volumes to what I really believe about Jesus.

“People who do not believe are living all around you. Live such good lives that they will see the good things you do and will give glory to God.” 1 Peter 2:12

When I’m knocked out like this, there really is only one solution that brings the peace I so desire – Jesus. If I truly believe in His love, mercy, and grace, I will turn to Him, and He’ll give me what I need. He always has.

I will turn to the Lord when I am feeling knocked out. He is the only one who can revive me.

When I am struggling financially because of unforeseen expenses, I will turn to Him.

When I am annoyed by others, I will turn to Him.

When the future is unclear at work, I will turn to Him.

When I get a bad call from the doctor, I will turn to Him.

What will be on your billboard when you’re knocked out? Will it be complaining? Angry words? Hate? Disbelief? Worry? God’s got you covered. If you believe that, live like it.

For me, it’s a struggle to always be a squeaky-clean billboard for the Lord. But I’m certainly going to try to represent Him well, especially when I’m feeling totally knocked out.