Tuesday, January 17, 2017

When Life Gave Me Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts.  The name alone makes me cringe.  I did actually try them last Thanksgiving, but not even bacon, parmesan cheese, and EVOO could hide the dreaded taste or the awful texture.  Of course, I choked them down so as to not make a scene in front of my in-laws.  But when my writer-friend asked me to think of a disgusting food yesterday, Brussels sprouts immediately came to mind.

This week, the doctor served me Brussels sprouts.  It’s difficult for me to call it what it actually is: cancer.  (1)  Because I am only 37, and (2) The prognosis is not as horrible as what so many others with such a diagnosis must endure. 

The abdominal mass was discovered on a renal ultrasound this past summer.  While this is not a routine test for most people, I have one yearly to monitor congenital bladder and kidney issues.  Since I also have endometriosis and had had a fibroid the size of a grapefruit removed along with my beautiful baby girl during a C-section 15 months ago, my gynecologist attempted to remove the mass laparoscopically. However, he found it to be out of his territory and surrounded by blood vessels and wouldn’t touch it. 

Next step was a colonoscopy. The general surgeon took sample tissue of the egg-sized growth that seemed to be attached to the outside of the colon.  While obviously not normal, it did not seem to be anything too alarming.  Over the past twenty years, I have had other cysts and tumors arise.  A surgeon would remove them, the pathology report would come back clear, and life would go on.  Once again, this seemed to be the case. 

But, thankfully, the surgeon did not write this off.  Three months later he ordered a CT scan to monitor any changes.  Despite having such tests before, this time I had a reaction to the dye and ended up in the ER.  But when I read the online MyChart report that the mass had not changed in size or appearance, I figured this was the worst that could happen. 

To my surprise, he did want to remove the mass.  I was devastated.  This would be my thirteenth surgery.  I have a 15-month old that I would not be able to pick up during recovery.  I would have to take a few weeks off from my new job as library media specialist that I loved.  I asked him if we could wait until summer vacation since the mass was so slow growing. No, we could wait until Christmas break, but not until June.

On December 28, I had the mass removed and my colon re-sectioned.  I had another allergic reaction, this time to the anesthesia, but otherwise the surgery went very well.  I was up and moving the next day, eating solid food two days later, and home by New Year’s Eve.  I felt so much better than I expected -- well, until my terrific toddler brought home the stomach bug.  Then I was nauseous and lost my appetite for days, but luckily Grammy was around to help change Maddie Grace’s diapers.  Still, I managed to stay hydrated and avoided going back to the hospital. 

On January 10, I had my follow-up visit with the surgeon, and as he removed the staples which made my stomach look like it zipped up the middle, he told my mom and me the news.  The pathology report was not what we expected.  The mass was actually two tumors (7 centimeters and 2 centimeters) called GIST or Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors.  These alone are very rare and only recently identified as cancer.  As I would later read online, only around 15,000 cases are diagnosed in the United States a year.  Of these, only 2% occur in the colon.  I always have been one of a kind.

I couldn’t believe it!  The doctor had briefly mentioned this GIST thing back in November, but I had been so busy with Maddie and school and writing assignments and the holidays that I hadn’t even given it my usual WebMD attention.  Mom and I gathered up our winter coats, her hastily-written notes, and our chins and did what any two women in our situation would do – we headed to the DQ and ordered Blizzards.  The sweetness of the chocolate and salted-caramel concoctions helped to mask the taste of the Brussels sprouts as I called my husband at work and broke the news.       
The next couple of days were spent telling loved ones, watching comedies on Netflix, and Googling the new terms on the Internet.  On Friday the thirteenth, I met with my oncologist.  While this word does not exactly roll off the tongue either, I again feel that for a bad situation mine is the best there can be.  Even though he is fairly young and has only been in Owensboro a short time, his training at the University of Kentucky was actually in this area of rare cancers.  He described a pill he has used to successfully treat other patients which specifically targets GIST cancer cells and has few side effects. 

Life may have given me Brussels sprouts, but my portion is small and for that I am so very thankful. If all goes as expected, my treatment will last three years.  I will have frequent blood work to monitor the effects of the Gleevec medication and undergo CT scans every three to six months (with a dose of Benadryl and steroids to prevent an allergic reaction), but there will be no chemotherapy or radiation.

Undoubtedly there will be days when I just can’t stomach these Brussels sprouts, but seasoned with faith in God and love from family and friends I can digest them.  Hopefully those bad ones will be outnumbered by days like today, when I can drown them in a little humor sauce and take them a bite at a time.  

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