No Matter How High the Stakes, Sooner or Later You’re Just Gonna Have to go With Your Gut.

And maybe, just maybe, that’ll take you exactly where you were supposed to be.

According to country music I was supposed to get diagnosed, and then go skydiving, and stop and smell the roses, enjoy each day as if it were my last, the list goes on. But I didn’t actually do any of those things. Yes, I promised myself a better life, but that didn’t happen overnight. Here’s the deal, you have to let go of your anger and resentment before you can truly enjoy your life again. And I don’t mean anger towards God or the world, but at yourself. I deeply believed I was to blame for getting sick. I thought I had brought in on myself, that maybe I was such a disappointment I deserved to be sick. So, I slipped into a depression that seemed impossible to climb out of. I become more and more insecure and beat down as each day passed.  

When I went to college I was still struggling with finding myself and my joy again. I wanted to get the most out of the experience, but that’s not an easy task when you feel so down.

I’d just faced a grueling week at school, and a massive fight with my boyfriend when one of my friends invited me to this giant spring fed pool in Austin called Barton Springs. My immediate response was no, but something inside of me told me to go.

I’d been so caught up in things that didn’t matter and stress that wasn’t worth worrying over I felt with complete certainty that I was supposed to go to Barton Springs. It was a  full moon  that night and every full moon they open up Barton Springs for one hour and anyone and everyone is invited to go.  When we got there tons of people were swimming- teens, college students, families, senior citizens, kids. It was amazing to see. And then someone howled. A legitimate wolfs howl. Then there was another,  and then everybody there was howling. It was amazing. I felt like we were all a part of this secret community and everybody got to be themselves and just be free, even if it was just for the night. My friends started to head for the water but stopped short when they realized I wasn’t following. One of them turned around, “aren’t you coming?” I wanted to. I needed to, but my insecurities made me hesitate. I didn’t take chances anymore. I didn’t like to go outside my comfort zone. And I certainly didn’t feel comfortable in a bathing suit after a 40 pound weight gain post surgery. And besides I hate being cold and Barton Springs is famous for its low temperatures.

Then everyone howled again.

Not tonight. I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from this experience. I took off my towel and jumped in.

The cold hit me before I even got wet. I sunk to the bottom, shocked over the extreme climate change, my body propelled me back to the surface, out of the freezing water. The air engulfed my body like an old friend. Goosebumps covered my skin and I opened my eyes. I couldn’t recall a time I had felt this alive. The cold water turned everything else cold and my blood rushed through my body pulsing through my veins. Every molecule was excited. I felt each droplet of water fall from my hair and race down my face. Immediately I started swimming. I went in every which direction that my body pulled me. I was fighting for warmth, but I wasn’t fighting against the cold. Swimming and panting and heating up my body that was immersed in an ice box created perfect harmony with in my soul. It awakened in me a spirit that was long forgotten. The water touched my tongue and I became parched with a lust for life. I forced my face back under the water and took in the cold, piercing touch of each wave as it put its hand over me. We all swam and talked with the other Austinites, marveling at the undiscovered experience that was swimming under the light of a full moon. Just as the 65 degree water hit me, so did the realization that this ice box very well saved a part of me that was on the verge of disappearing.

Sometimes God Calms the Storm

Sometimes He let’s the storm rage and calms His child.

My dad and I have gone running together since I was in 7th grade. I was clinically obese when I was in middle school and after a year of torment from my peers I was absolutely determined  to lose the weight. So, I started running. Obviously, chugging nearly 200 pounds around on a 5 foot frame wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen very fast. But my dad stuck my side, walked when I needed to walk, ran a little faster than I did -just fast enough to push me, but not discourage me- and talked with me the entire 2 mile trek. By my freshmen year of high school we’d upped our runs to 4-8 miles and  were competing in 5 and 10k’s…where I actually WON a race. We ran all the time and would use the opportunities to talk..a lot. Sometimes we’d have heart to hearts, but more often than not it was just enough time to catch each other up (or if I was in trouble for something then I was just enough time for a lecture).

When I had my first surgery I felt mostly unaffected. But when the surgeon called back that night and said we needed to come back the very next day for an emergency surgery, things changed. I woke up from the second surgery and immediately realized I couldn’t swallow. I just kept choking. I had to adjust the way I held my head so that I could at least semi-regain that ability. I also fell into this weird depression. My grandmother offered to get me something to eat and I yelled at her. 1)because I probably wouldn’t be able to swallow it. And 2) the doctors had already put me on a strict diet to prepare me for the upcoming treatments. Regardless, it was totally out of character, and out of line.  The news of me having cancer was barely 24 hours old. I had no idea what to expect, what to do, where to begin, or how to accept it.

Two days of back to back anesthesia can wreak havoc on a person. I had to stay in the hospital a little longer to help get my body back to normal. After a triumphant walk from my bed to the hall way-an astounding 10 steps that brought my parents,surgeon, nurse, and myself to tears-I was released from the hospital.I was ordered to rest for two weeks.

After the morphine wore off, I did not adjust well to the news of my diagnosis. I was mad. I was confused. I was scared. The only thing I wanted to do was run. I was one week shy of my potential release from resting, one week away from my follow-up visit with the surgeon, one week was all I had to wait. One week was too long. I begged my dad to let me go running. Of course, he said no. But being the only person in my family to ever have cancer, and even the only person my family personally knew who had cancer, they couldn’t relate to what I was going through, and they were a little more likely to be more lenient. They just wanted me to be happy. I cried and insisted he let me go, but that he could come with me, just in case.

We went running. Not a quarter-mile into it I fell from exhaustion. My dad broke my fall and held me while I sobbed. I felt like I didn’t even know who I was anymore. Running was supposed to be my release. Running was supposed to be OUR thing. Now cancer had taken even that.

We didn’t run together again until a couple of years later. It started off much like it did when I was in middle school. I was slow. I had to stop and walk. But my dad was still with me stride for stride. To be honest, I think he was (and still does) bracing himself for another fall, just in case.

The World May Be Broken

But Hope is not crazy.

The doctor was talking too fast, in a language that was too unfamiliar. “We’re sorry it’s just…so much worse than we thought.”

Two weeks prior to those 6 life changing words I was getting a routine physical for what would be my senior year of cheerleading. It was just like any other normal physical- except that it wasn’t. They found a large, suspicious growth on my neck. This lead to a whirlwind of tests that ultimately resulted in two emergency surgeries, and a cancer diagnosis.

One week following my second surgery we went back to meet with my surgeon and specialist. We were expecting pretty much a “we got it all, now be on your merry way” kind of talk. But what we got was completely unexpected. Before the surgery we were told that I had a slow-growing cancer. I’d had the tumor for two years and it appeared to have grown to about the size of small orange (no biggie!). During surgery it turned out to be the size of a softball and it extended all the way to the back of my neck (ok…medium biggie). The cancer had also entered all of my lymph nodes and surrounding capillaries. This meant I was vulnerable to the disease spreading exponentially (biggie.). They told me I couldn’t make it. They told me my days were numbered. They told my parents to prepare for the worst. My strong Father, Sergeant McDonald, crumbled into my lap. He sobbed and sobbed. My mom stopped functioning. I’ve never seen someone so distraught. I on the other hand, was a stone. I didn’t cry (until a few days later when I finally got a chance to be alone and cry with out my parents seeing me fall apart. My calm, I felt, was the only thing holding them together.) but I made myself a promise. I would get out of this. I would survive this mess. And I would, starting right then and there, live the best life possible for myself. My local doctors quickly transferred me to M.D. Anderson, the best cancer treatment facility in the world. There I underwent a round of unsuccessful treatments and a third surgery, after which they told me that unfortunately, I’d never be cancer free.

They explained to us that the cancer was just too invasive, and with treatment not being an option I was only left with surgeries, that no matter how numerous, were not able to get all of the cancer cells. However, this did not mean quit. I could be healthy. I could live a normal life (for the most part). I could fulfill my dreams. I would just do all of these things while simultaneously battling cancer.

Enter this mantra: The world may be broken, but hope is not crazy.

I still believe in that promise I made myself. I still believe I have a hope worth holding on to. Not every day is easy. I have plenty of stories to show you that. But step by step, day by day, I get a little closer to realizing that promise. This blog is one of those steps.

Image credits to John Green from tumblr