“My Voice” by Rebecca MacKenzie

Rebecca MacKenzie - 'Survivor'

I once read a quote from A.A. Milne.  Christopher Robin says to Pooh, “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

The quote is so simply put, and is easy to dismiss; however, its sums up my cancer experience. People always ask me:  “How do you do it?” and “Aren’t you scared?”  The answers to those questions respectively are I don’t know, and yes, I’m scared out of my mind.  Who wouldn’t be?  But ultimately we really are braver than we ever imagined, stronger than we thought we were, and smarter than the world sometimes allows us to believe.

We are all survivors from the day we are born.

I was born small, with lungs that didn’t function correctly.  I was always sick.  I had to sleep sitting up in a car seat, and my Mother being the slightly paranoid parent of an only child watched my every move, bound to save me from any mishaps or falls.  She was determined to catch any illness right away, rushing me to the emergency room over and over again before the slightest cold could turn into something drastic.  What most of us don’t realize is that no matter how much we try to take control, life often grabs a hold of us before we can stop its hands from getting a tight grip.  Often times we have to let go and just “be.”  My Mother and I have both learned that since my diagnosis.

Recently, I had two long years of lengthy chronic sinus infections, nosebleeds and generally not feeling well.  I bounced from doctor to doctor, each saying “you’re so young, you’re healthy…. You’re fine… it’s in your head, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with you.”  They’re smart… they’re doctors… it’s all in my head, I would tell myself.  Ultimately, we know our own bodies better than anyone and we need to be smart enough to be our own advocates.  I kept going from doctor to doctor until I found the right one for me. I didn’t care if I met twenty new doctors.  I knew something didn’t feel right.

After meeting with a new primary care physician, she recommended I get a genetic test for a disorder that runs on my Father’s side of the family called Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia.   A cousin had been begging me to be tested for the disorder for years, but I never knew the urgency of it, as doctors shrugged it off each time it was mentioned.  This new physician was the first to let me know that I needed to have it done as soon as possible.

I went to Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, for the test, but relocated to Houston for work and had the results read to me over the phone by a genetic counselor at MD Anderson Cancer Hospital.   My results were positive.  I carried the gene for the disorder which entails hyperparathyroidism, tumors of the adrenal glands and the main component, medullary thyroid cancer.  Because I carried this gene, I had an almost 100% chance of getting the cancer, and my thyroid should have been removed before the age of ten.  MD Anderson immediately scheduled me to meet with specialists at their facility.

On February 16th, 2009, I found out why I was sick and my life changed forever.  I met with doctors who explained my disease.  They recommended an immediate neck ultrasound.  I cried the entire time in a complete state of panic and disbelief.  I remember the ultrasound tech saying to me, “What’s up?  Do you want me to tell you what I see?”  I nodded my head, and she calmly explained that she saw suspicious nodules on my thyroid and lymph nodes in my neck that didn’t look the way they should.  That day I had an extremely painful biopsy on my neck and less than an hour later, I had my results.  Today, the words mesh together…

‘You have cancer…It’s medullary, very rare
We’re going to take care of you
We know of at least one surgery you will have
There is no medicinal cure
Do you get headaches?  Abdominal pain?
40% of the population will get cancer… you happen to know what kind
It’s a slow grower, but it metastasizes very quickly’

The good news was I didn’t have to do chemo.  The bad news was I didn’t get an option for chemo.  With no known medicinal cure at this time, my only chances were surgery.  While I was thankful not to have to endure terrifying rounds of chemo most cancer patients do, I was also disappointed that the option was taken away from me.  The doctors would clean out as much of the cancer as they could and hope it cured me.  If not, I could live with this for the rest of my life.

The next few weeks were a blur of tests, emotions and learning.  I spent days at the hospital getting MRI’s, CT scans and ultrasounds.  I met strangers that taught me the ins and outs of the cancer hospital.  I met people a lot worse off than me, and people that were better off than me. I learned that phlebotomists were secretly called “vampires,” as they were always drawing my blood from the day of diagnosis on February 16th, until as recently as a month ago.  My arms were so bruised, they were painful to touch, and I cried every time they had to poke me again.  I overcame my fear of needles immediately, and I learned that the human spirit can conquer anything.  I laughed at my situation, and cried even more.  Strangers lifted my spirit and I tried desperately to come to grips.

On March 30th, a little over a month after my diagnosis, I had a nine hour surgery, involving a complete thyroidectomy and radical neck dissection with the removal of 47 lymph nodes from my neck.  The results showed a tumor on each side of my neck, measuring 1.3 and 1.5 inches, as well as six affected lymph nodes out of the 47 removed.   I return to MD Anderson on August 25th to see if my levels have returned to normal.  I have a neck ultrasound on September 1st, the day before my birthday, to look for visible signs of cancer.  I’m whispering into the sky every day, having faith for good results.  I hope I get my birthday wish.

The specialists at MD Anderson, whom I have grown to love immensely, have told me to expect the cancer to return.  Is there a chance that it won’t?  Of course.  However, it is highly likely that it will weasel its ugly way into my body again.  There are also lesions on my liver, which are thought to be benign at this point.  Doctors choose to wait and see if the lesions make any movement or develop any growth. My scan reports indicate a one centimeter lesion in my pelvic area, in which we are taking the same approach.  These things may or may not be a result of my cancer.   I am choosing to be optimistically realistic.  Besides, doctors don’t know the depths of my spirit, and I believe in all of the goodness in the world.

I gave myself two rules:  Always have hope, and never give up.  I learned this young:

In 1999, in an utter act of desperation, my Father who had lost all hope gave himself to the depths of depression.  Unable to allow himself to deal with the loneliness and incredible sadness he felt, he committed suicide.  In the process, he broke my heart, leaving me with guilt, pain and an incredibly empty feeling for many years.  I never want to be or feel that desperate.

Cancer is ugly and scary.   It is a horrendous disease of the body, and if allowed can be a disease of the spirit as well.  I have learned from my Father’s death that often diseases of the spirit can be much more debilitating than many physical ailments.  My Dad chose to die.  I am choosing to live.  I can allow myself to wallow in my sorrows and become depressed, or I can live in this present moment.  I choose the latter.  I never knew I was that brave until adversity slapped me in the face.

I’ve started running.  I like to say I’m running for my life, as it keeps my mind from drifting into the darkness of the unknown.  I’m running to live.   Life would be insane without this vent that I have grown to love.  I’m up to six miles, and surgery was only three months ago.  I never realized I was that strong.  I registered for the West Palm Beach Half Marathon on December 6th to raise money for my disease.  I will crawl across the finish line if necessary, but I will finish.

Today, my life is drastically different than it has ever been in the past.  In lots of ways, it is better.  I know that anything can happen at any given moment, and because of that, I appreciate the cancer that woke me up, and my pavement pounding feet that carry my body every step of the way.

Late at night, when I wake up scared and sweaty and I am overcome with fear in my mind, I envision myself, running for my life….  Breaking through the tape at the finish line… successful… a winner…  I am stronger than I ever possibly thought I could be.  I am brave, and anything I encounter is merely a stepping stone into the next direction.  I will not succumb.  I am a survivor.