(Sorry, this is a long post. Bear with me.)
This is it.
It’s really happening.
A few weeks ago, I had every cancer survivor’s worst nightmare. I had been suffering from back spasms and backaches that would not go away after weeks and weeks. The pain kept getting worse. After two days of agonizing spasms, constant pain and being barely able to move, I finally asked a friend to take me to the ER.
A hospital under Covid-19 precautions is a crazy thing. They allow no visitors or outsiders of any kind. I arrived wearing a mask (this was just after Memorial Day 2020 when masks were required in most places) and they gave me a new one to wear. They asked a series of Coronavirus-related questions before getting to the reason why I was there.
I explained that my back had been hurting for weeks and the aches wouldn’t go away. I said that I was a breast cancer survivor, and sarcastically added that as a survivor, of course every time I get a stomach ache, I think it’s a tumor.
You gotta appreciate my follow-through. Even in pain, I am still making bad jokes.
They first did an EKG test; I also had chest pains, probably as a result of the spasms in my back, but they determined I wasn’t having a heart attack. They wheeled me into a slot in the emergency room. I was still having involuntary back spasms every few minutes. The doctors and nurses, who were amazing, explained that they would get me in to a CT scan as soon as they took my blood and did other various tests. They gave me a mild pain medication for my back, which was great since my attention was on my arms … since I had lymph nodes removed when I had breast cancer, I can’t have any blood draws, IVs, or pretty much anything, on my right arm.
That leaves my left, which after months of chemotherapy five years ago, is pretty shot. They literally stick me 3-4 times before finding a “good” vein (one that won’t collapse) – one of those tiny ones in my hand -to get an IV set up.
A few minutes later, another technician comes in, and explains that the CT scan needs to include injections of contrast dye, so they will need a better vein, one higher up on my arm. The technician is packing an ultrasound machine, which she says she will use to locate a good vein in my arm, then she will use an extra-teeny needle, all to give me an IV with minimal discomfort.
I get wheeled into a CT scan. As soon as they (very painfully) move me on to a slab for the machine, they realize that the extra-teeny needle is TOO teeny for the contrast dye, so they are sending me back to the ER for another IV.
Only I am running out of real estate on my arm, what with two IVs, several sticks for blood draws, and space needed to take blood pressure, etc. The doctor comes into my barely-concealed area of the ER to check out my arm and see where else they can put an IV. I jokingly (again, with the jokes) suggest that he find a good vein in my toes, like I saw on TV once.
The doctor chuckles. Then he has an idea! “Hey, we can put one in your neck! I do that all the time!”
“Paaaahahahah, yeah, that would be HILARIOUS!” I exclaimed. Damn, this doctor really knows how to take sarcasm and run with it.
But no. The man was serious.
“Just lie back and relax,” he said to me, as I am lying on my back, which is literally spasming violently and uncontrollably.
By some miracle, he manages to get the IV into me – yes, sticking out of my damn neck – and I get into (again, painfully) the CT scan machine.
Once I am finished, they blessedly give me more pain medication. I call my mom and text my sister and my boyfriend to let them know I’m OK. My mom is already crying and I don’t even know what is wrong yet.
I am trying to calm her down, telling her it is probably a pulled muscle or something minor; they just did a scan but as soon as they come back with the results they will probably give me some medicine and send me home.
I hang up when a doctor walks into my curtained-off area with a social worker and another nurse. They have the results.
The doctor tells me that my cancer has come back.
They can’t tell yet if it’s my old breast cancer that has spread to my bones, or if it’s a whole new type of cancer. Regardless, my back is riddled with tumors, and one of them broke a vertebrae, which is why I was in so much pain. They admit me to the hospital and call my oncologist.
I call my family back to let them know. I text my boyfriend to take care of my cat. I haven’t really comprehended what all of this really meant for me, because I was still in so much pain, and then I was so heavily medicated.
For the next four days, I went back and forth between extreme pain and extreme medication.
I wasn’t allowed to have visitors, not even family. Not even my boyfriend who is a registered nurse. My family was going nuts not being able to see me. The (masked) nurses and technicians were my only human companionship. I was able to do some FaceTime calls and Zoom meetings, but I was so woozy from drugs and tired and in pain … it just wasn’t the same. In between vital sign checks and doctor pop-ins, I was very, very alone.
Well … I was allowed to have flowers. For a few days.
And the food wasn’t even that ridiculously terrible.
FYI, this is what happens when you ask for “just some fruit.”
Anyway, I had multiple MRIs and biopsies. I had a procedure where they injected bone cement into my shattered vertebrae to repair it. I had a port installed in my chest because it was so painful and difficult to get IVs and blood draws in my arm. I had lots and lots of painkillers, both oral and via the IV in my neck. I had shots of medicine to make my bones stronger, and chemotherapy shots to stop the tumor growth.
The tumors are too small and too populous to attack via surgery — my doctor said it looks like someone tossed salt over the floor. Tiny specks everywhere.
Finally, after 8 days, I was discharged. When I went into the ER, I thought they might keep me overnight or something, so luckily I had the foresight to bring a few things from home and pour out extra food for my cat. But I never thought I’d be away from home for so long.
When I finally made it home, my mother had arrived from Tennessee and cleaned up my house (of course). My mother also makes these cheesy scrambled eggs that have magical restorative properties, so that was my first breakfast back at home.
Once I was able to see my family, pet my cat, sleep in my own bed and eat some good food, I felt a million times better. My kitty was very happy to have me back at home. She wouldn’t leave my side for days.
Over the next few days, I was able to spend some good quality time with friends and family, and my health has improved exponentially. My chest has healed over my installed port.
As I sit here typing this, I have been back at home for a little over a month. My broken vertebrae has healed and my bones feel stronger. I am still moving around slowly, and I won’t be breakdancing any time soon, but I can get around my house without my walker, and walk pretty far with my walker to support me.
After the cement procedure, my back began to heal, and I have recently been able to switch to milder, non-narcotic painkillers only.
I should also mention that while my back was hurting so much, I wasn’t able to wash my long hair as much as I normally would. I didn’t wash it at all in the hospital – they gave me some dry shampoo that made my hair into one giant dreadlock, and it was pretty icky. I got my boyfriend to buzz it all off when I got home, and it was the best decision I have made all year.
The “after” photo:
My doctors have told me that my life expectancy is about 2-3 years maximum, but that is also assuming the cancer hasn’t spread any further. If it’s in my bones, chances are it has spread to other organs. No scans have shown any further spread, but if there is a tumor hiding out in my brain or my pancreas, my life expectancy will shoot down to like six months.
So what is left to do? Fight cancer, of course.
But I only have a small amount of time left on this earth. I better make it count.
Since I was a little girl, I have wanted to go on a nationwide road trip. I had originally planned to work 20 more years or so, retire, buy an RV, and travel the country. Now, I have to step my game up. I need to do it now.
Basically, I feel like a ticking time bomb.
I have been approved for permanent disability. I’ll never work again.
My brother will be adopting my beloved kitty.
I’m moving out of my apartment. I’m selling all of my stuff.
I won’t see the age of 45.
Starbright’s Kitchen will now be Starbrights’s Adventure. My blog is reborn.
I am working now on acquiring an RV. I have set up a GoFundMe campaign and started my plans in motion. I don’t know exactly where I will be and when.
All I know is that I HAVE to go.
I will update this space periodically with my preparations for the Great American Bucket List Road Trip. After I hit the road, I will be posting pictures, videos, live posts, tweets, Instagram stories and posts, detailing every step of my adventure.
I hope you’ll join me.
How can you join?
- Check out my (very often updated) photos and videos from my trip. I will upload them to Google Photos, here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/28AoTVEYwq2xcNBT8
- Donate to my GoFundMe campaign, here: gf.me/u/ycg4kt
- Follow this blog
- Follow me on Instagram (hillarystarbright)
- Follow me on Twitter (starbright619)
- Follow me on Facebook (starbrightskitchen – they will change it soon to starbrightsadventure and I will update it)