September 12th, 2018 was the day my world turned upside-down. It's crazy to think that at the time, I had no idea what was about to unfold.
On this day (exactly one year ago), I walked into my Oncologist’s office for a routine checkup. It had been 5 years and 1 day since my Melanoma (stage 2A) was removed.
…and the rest is, well, history (as they say).
This month is an eerie month for me. September in Phoenix means we're one-month closer to finally getting rid of these triple-digit degree days and inching closer to our best season (I can't really call it "Fall" because, well, in Phoenix we only have two seasons: hot and not as hot). As excited as I am for cooler temps, I feel so conflicted because this time of year brings back so many memories I'd love to forget. So, while everyone else is counting down the days to "Fall" and drinking their Pumpkin Spice Lattes, I'm reminiscing on one of the most tumultuous months of my life (and probably also indulging in a PSL).
Wednesday, September 12, 2018: I visited my Oncologist and showed her the lump in my leg. This is the same lump I asked my gynecologist about 3 months prior and she had told me not to worry about it. It was about the size of my thumbnail and hard as a rock. It was just underneath my skin on my upper thigh area. It had been there since the spring time, but for some reason I felt it was changing. When she found out that I had this lump since about April, she hit me with her paper (gently) and scolded me like my Mom would. I told her that I had been spinning and running a lot lately, and it was likely that I had lost some weight, so that was probably why it felt different (yes, these are the stories I told myself). After she felt the lump, she ordered an immediate PET Scan. I remember calling my Dad when I was done to tell him she ordered a PET. Neither of us were concerned, just very much like “Ah yes, well that’s how Dr. M. is, she’s thorough!”
Tuesday, September 18, 2018: I visited my Surgeon to get an opinion on the lump in my leg. I remember him saying “It doesn’t feel like cancer” – which was what I wanted to hear. We discussed that he could take it out at his office, or schedule a quick surgery at a surgery center – which clearly I opted for because I'm a wimp. Due to the placement of my lump, I had to take my jeans off and put on these terrible paper-like basketball shorts. I joked I was going to wear them to work the next day. Pretty sure there is a picture of those somewhere... At this point, I was convinced this was an incredibly inconvenient exercise that was just racking up unnecessary medical expenses.
Friday, September 21, 2018: I had my PET scan. I was so, so irritated about this. It was costing me $1,700 out of pocket and I was mega annoyed that we felt we had to do this. Clearly I felt fine and this was just absurd. At the time, it seemed so pointless. When I was done, Dad and I went to breakfast cause I was one hangry Hailey. To be honest, I wasn’t even worried about getting the results because I genuinely thought I had nothing to worry about. I spent the rest of the weekend doing normal things with family and friends and didn't really think too much about it.
Monday, September 24, 2018: I got the my PET scan results. I’ll never forget this day – ever. In hindsight, this seemed like the day that never ended. I received a phone call from my doctor at about 11am and was unable to answer it because I was in a meeting. Her voicemail just said to call her back and I immediately felt like I was going to throw up. I remember thinking, if it was good news, she would have said that in the voicemail, right? I finally got a hold of her and held back tears on the phone when she broke the news. She offered to call my parents for me since I was at work and clearly upset. Dad had just teed off in a golf tournament and Mom was at work. I called Mom, crying in the hallway over the news. I hung up the phone with her and went to tell my boss that I needed some time to figure things out. I had no idea what this meant, but I knew there would be more tests at the very least. Mom called Dad and he immediately withdrew from his golf tournament and met her at her office. We decided to schedule an emergency appointment with my Oncologist. Turns out, in the midst of my meltdown, I failed to remember that I had carpooled that day and didn't drive to work. It wasn't until I was tearfully searching for my keys that I realized I didn't have a car. So, Dad came and scooped me up from work. Although we spent nearly two hours with her in denial, this when things turned from laughably inconvenient to “holy shit this is serious." I spent that evening with my family. When I went home later, Dan stopped by and ended up spending the night just holding me. I woke up a few times in the middle of the night in tears and he kept reassuring me that everything was going to be okay. I remember saying "But, what if I lose all my hair?" and he said, "Then you lose all your hair. Imagine if Zazu (my dog) was bald." The tears quickly turned to giggles and I fell back asleep.
Tuesday, September 25, 2018: I had a brain MRI. I’m not going to lie, I was scared for this. The PET scan wasn’t nearly as scary, but sitting with the IV in my arm, waiting for the MRI machine made me feel like a cancer patient and I wasn’t one yet. It was almost like I was looking into the future and saw a glimpse of what my life was about to look like – filled with scans. Also this is when I learned that MRIs are noisy as f*ck.
Wednesday, September 26, 2018: The very next day, I got my MRI results with more awful news: the results showed that cancer most likely metastasized to my brain. Thinking back through things, this is probably the worst day of them all. Up until this point, we were hanging on to hope. The phone call I got while waiting for a sandwich at the office Food Truck tore that hope away in a matter of seconds. It solidified what everyone was so afraid of: I had Stage IV Cancer and it’s in my brain. The rest of the afternoon was pretty much a crapshoot. I tried to pull myself together for work, but was silently crying at my desk and in-between meetings. I was afraid to tell my coworkers what was happening because the second it came out of my mouth, it’d be real. And I was so, so scared.
Thursday, September 27, 2018: I met with a Radiation Oncologist. To be honest, this appointment was premature and unnecessary, but I needed to feel like we were doing something about all that had unfolded. It was during this appointment that I saw images of both my PET scan and my brain MRI. I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but I knew the dark spots weren’t good. There were several of them throughout my body. I don't know why, but I consider this the day that I was officially diagnosed. I didn’t have a tissue biopsy yet, but that would only confirm what we all were 99.99% sure was true. There were too many spots for this to all be coincidence.
Friday, September 28, 2018: I had a biopsy of the spot in my leg and a piece of the spot in my shoulder. I was only supposed to have the spot in my leg removed, but during this crazy week I had also found a lump in my shoulder near the original Melanoma site from 5 years ago. I more or less begged the surgeon to biopsy both spots. It might have been naïve to think, but we were concerned that if my leg proved this was nothing, they’d have to go in and biopsy something else. I was of the “kill two birds with one stone" mindset. It’s almost silly to think about that now, but I was very adamant about it. The same surgeon that said my lumps didn’t feel like cancer also told my parents when he was finished that they “looked like Melanoma.”
… and that’s just September. These dates are burned in my brain, and it’s pretty strange to be approaching them one year later. Replaying them in my head gives me a mix of overwhelming feelings. I don’t even know how to describe it all. I cried a bit writing this, but I think because I somehow reminded myself of how much I’ve been through. Celebrating my "cancerversary" seems wrong, but I have to remind myself that I defied the odds to still be here today, and that part is worth celebrating (not to mention, my new friend, NED). And when celebrating those pieces, I feel an overwhelming wave of gratitude. I’m so grateful for my family, Dan, my friends and coworkers, my medical team, Dr. M and the favor she pulled to get me into Mayo, and (arguably most importantly) science. Thanks to SRS, Ipilimumab and Nivolumab, my immune system more or less got a giant kick in the ass to fight this cancer.
I’ve always thought survivorship started when you beat cancer but Mom was very quick to correct me. She said the second you start fighting, you become a survivor. It honestly blows my mind that I can say I’ve been a Stage IV Melanoma survivor for one year.
And in those 365 Days, a whole lot sure has happened:
31 Doctors’ Appointments
27 Blood Draws
12 Total Infusions
12 Different Locations for Surprise Barfs
9 Consecutive Days in the Hospital
7 Brain MRIs
5 Cardiac MRIs
4 CT Scans
3 PET Scans
1 Stereotactic Radiosurgery Treatment
1 Spinal Tap
One. Entire. Year.