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Written by: Debra Kurtz
Date: March 16, 2016

KidsAt one o’clock a.m. a very sleepy crew rang the doorbell and up I jumped! The kids are 21 months, 3½ years, and eight years old. I am sixty-three. It was time to celebrate!

We shared hugs all around and sticky kisses that had traveled eight hours in the dark from St. Louis, had eaten fast food and ice cream in their car seats and now breathed their precious sweet breath in my face. We loved on each other and climbed into Grandma’s big bed. I smelled their little heads and started to cry.

I was diagnosed with cancer in August 2015. I was weeks away from the five year anniversary of a bone marrow transplant following a relapse of Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), a blood cancer. That treatment was followed by a slow recovery. The thought of maybe having another cancer had crossed my mind a few times, but the thought of actually having another cancer had not entered my mind once.

It was a blow. The new cancer needed radiation and targeted chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. I would have to get to the radiation oncology unit about 10 miles away every day, Monday – Friday for five weeks, with chemotherapy every Monday for six hours for the same five weeks.

The old cancer required several weeks in the hospital totaling one month, an additional 40 days and finally about four months until the stem cell transplant was complete. The recovery required 24/7 care for 100 days and then a visit every day from my caregiver to flush the lines on the implanted catheter with three lumens. He had to change the catheter dressing on alternate days. My caregiver was my 29-year-old son.

The new cancer was far more personal; my son was unable to be in the examination room with me but was able to attend consultations. The old cancer required that he be in the examination room with me since I had selective memory. I wanted to be well and often downplayed any serious symptoms I had displayed during the week between doctor visits. He acted as my eyes and ears. He was there to keep me honest, but also to ensure that my recovery went well. It did.

The new cancer has a support group but it’s not the kind of support group a now 34-year-old son can attend. The old cancer has a support group that we attend regularly, me as a survivor and my son as a caregiver. He won’t go without me, his patient, but he has become the biased yet neutral component of the group: to keep from being an emotional wreck when called upon to tell his part of our story, he depends on me to be there. He often cries, but the advice and support he shows for caregivers in the room is invaluable; he has earned the respect of many.

The new cancer has an aggressive treatment, but is considered far less toxic than the old cancer.

The new cancer has a 90 percent success rate. The old cancer had less than a 2 percent survival rate.

There is always a debate over whether children be permitted into the homes of cancer patients in treatment, but before I am finished with treatment, I know that I will likely get sicker from the side effects.   My daughter and I made a plan for her to drive her three children from St. Louis to my house here in Columbus. My son argued that I did not need to be exposed to little germ factories. I argued that I wanted to see the kids before things got worse for me. I won – my daughter executed. I promised I would hug at arms’ length and not let the kids ‘slobber’ on my pillows.

It took less than one second for that promise to be broken.

­­­­­Sticky Kisses, Part 2

I wrote the first part of this blog October 20, 2015; today, five months later, I am finishing it after a sign-off from the radiation oncologist: she sees no signs of cancer!

But I am getting ahead of myself. I was correct, the treatment got worse as soon as the kids went back to St. Louis with the side effects continuing for several weeks.

After five weeks of daily radiation and five weeks of chemotherapy, I was sent to a second hospital for intensive radiation. I awoke from surgery with an epidural for pain and a Styrofoam wedge holding my shins apart. The doctor had planted 18 needles in the vaginal tumor and left 18 rods hanging between my legs. Twice a day, these rods were hooked to a radiation machine where the tumor was radiated from the inside out; this is called interstitial brachytherapy. I had to lie flat for three and a half days. Women from my church group came and sat beside me to feed me and visit with me and pray for me.

When this specialized treatment was finished and I was released to go home, I needed help walking for five more days. I wondered how I would feel if this were a permanent state of physicality and I had to depend on someone else for every step?

I was in a lot of pain; I wondered how bad you feel before you die. With all the worries in the world, that struck me as quite a selfish thought and I remember telling myself that I had been through worse, I was not going to die, and that this treatment was temporary. I thought of my grandchildren; I wondered about the sticky kisses that I longed for. Where were those sticky kisses when you needed them?

At the end of five days, I turned a corner! As bad as I had felt, I suddenly felt better, better than I had felt in two years. It’s hard to believe, but the nagging pain in my pelvis had been reduced to a mere ache. Could it be that the cancer had truly been eradicated? And in such a short time? What had seemed like an eternity of commitment for treatment now seemed like a short project – begun and done.

At the end of November, my family and I made a plan for Christmas. That’s when we realized how uncertain our immediate future had been; we hadn’t committed to any plans for Christmas. We scheduled our celebration to coincide with the New Year.

Early in January, we played out the scenario that had been played out three months before: At 1 a.m. a very sleepy crew rang the doorbell and up I jumped! The kids are now two years, four years and nine years old. I am 64. It was time to celebrate!

Today I read a poem that was published just a few days ago: ‘On the Day I Die’, by John Pavlovitz. He extols the value of having no more worries or obligations on the day he dies, but he goes on to remind himself “… while I am still alive I’ll try to remember that my time with them (friends and family) is finite and fleeting and so very precious—and I’ll do my best not to waste a second of it.”

What a good reminder of how precious are my friends and children and grandchildren.

But back to the sticky kisses. I hugged them all at once and got nervous. How was I ever going to get all the hugging and kissing that I had to give into these precious lives? I had so much to tell them and show them and share with them, but some things are not meant to be rushed; they are meant to be savored.

The two year old loves differently than the four year old and the nine year old is full of child love, but is way too wise for his years. Maybe I was scared, afraid I would miss out on their little lives, but it was more than fear, it was gratitude that I have been given yet another chance. Chances are not as random as they once seemed to me. Chances are part of a bigger plan, a plan that includes sticky kisses.