Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Turning 1 Year Old: Looking Back and Celebrating!

HELLO EVERYONE!!! I want to share some very special news:

As of today, February 4th (which is World Cancer day...cool, right?!), it has been ONE YEAR since my life-saving, cancer-kicking bone marrow transplant! My family and I call this my "second birthday," so basically, the new, healthy Sarah is now one year old! 12 days from now will be the day that my sister's cells engrafted in my bone marrow, meaning that that marks the day I was determined cancer-free. I looked back at my Mom's post after my transplant and at my post on engraftment day, and I honestly cannot believe I'm standing here now, healthy, strong, back at school, and having hair that's growing longer and longer every day! Preparing for chemo, it seemed as though each round would last a lifetime...preparing for transplant, it seemed as if I'd be stuck on the floor forever...preparing to go to the hotel for my 100 day period of isolation seemed like those 100 days would never end. Even just waiting to go back to school while working on getting stronger with physical therapy seemed like I'd literally never make it back to SLU. Yet, here I am, sitting in my wonderful apartment with a balcony looking over my beautiful home city of Saint Louis. I know that it is an absolute miracle that I'm here, and words cannot describe how blessed I feel to be healthy and back to "normal" life...well, maybe a "new normal." I can't really say my life is the same anymore after my journey of the past year and a half. However, I really can say that I believe my life has changed for the better. I am meeting amazing people and finding incredible opportunities resulting from my experience, and as I often say, God has made so, so much good come from such a horrible disease.

As I was going through past posts, I wanted to share some excerpts that I found that made me smile, cry, laugh, and reminisce tonight. It's cool to look back and remember my absolute, stubborn confidence that I was stronger with cancer, and humbling to look back at all I've been through. I didn't often write on this blog detailed descriptions of the serious complications, extreme pain, and other side effects I went through simply because I wanted to stay as positive as possible and focus not on how the cancer was winning small battles, but how I was demolishing the cancer! However, memories of my experience show me how blessed I truly am and how I should never take my health and normalcy for granted.

Here are a few snippets from my first couple of months of treatment; the first is from my very first blog post a few days after my diagnosis:

      "Surprisingly, I feel SO hopeful. I do believe that everything happens for a reason, and while I don't know why God has me here, I know that he will make good out of this situation somehow. Yes, I have cancer. And yes, it is going to be a long journey that is not going to be easy. However, I am STRONG, I am TOUGH, and I know without a doubt that I will beat this!!! I know that God has some amazing plans for my life, so I know that this stupid leukemia is just a roadblock I have to get through. ...Just remember that cancer can't make me crumble; I am one tough cookie :)"

      "'Kiss my ass, cancer!' Okay, this is Sarah's Mom; for those of you who don't know me, I never use that kind of language.  But today, I am.  I hope you don't mind. While Sarah was at home for a short time, she received the most wonderful gift from her sorority sisters: an album full of supportive notes and good wishes.  Sarah and I cried and laughed reading each one.  One of my favorites says: 'Kiss My Ass! said Sarah to cancer.'  We dried our tears and chuckled over that one."

      "No matter how sick I feel sometimes, I know that my tears are tears of bravery. I am courageous enough to go through some really painful, tough stuff so that I can beat the nasty cancer in my body. And trust me, no matter how much it might hurt...I will never, never give up."

Here is a portion of my Mom's post after my transplant and my post when I had engrafted and was cancer free!

      "As you all know, Monday, February 4 became Sarah’s new birthday!  On that evening, Sarah received the precious stem cells which were harvested over a span of two days from her sister, Mary.  Mary’s courage in undergoing this procedure was remarkable.
...During Mary’s time of injections and preparations, Sarah also garnered lots of courage in enduring four days of twice-daily radiation and then two days of aggressive chemo.  The side effects of these treatments have been difficult for our Tough Cookie.  We liken these days post-transplant to Marine boot camp.  For these weeks, while we wait for Mary’s cells to engraft and Sarah’s counts to recover, Sarah lives on the transplant floor with a challenging regimen of exercise, nutrition, and other requirements, no matter how she feels physically.  No excuses allowed.  Boot camp, indeed…but all designed for a healthy outcome.
...As you can imagine, it was terribly difficult to watch two of my children suffer through the pre-transplant procedures, as well as the transplant itself.  But the strength that comes from watching the kind of unconditional love to which we all aspire kept me going.  Mary never, ever complained, even once.  Sarah has never, ever told me that this challenge is too hard to overcome. 
...And, so, we wait.  We await engraftment.  We wait for Sarah’s counts to rise again, so that her pain will decrease.  As hard as it is, I have learned that waiting is holy.  Waiting forces all of us to look to God’s face for help and hope.  We train our gaze on Him, trusting in the promise of Romans 8:28…that somehow, in some way, good will come from these  experiences. ...We wait, and we trust. Know that Sarah remains firm in her faith.  Know that your many cards and well wishes have lifted her up on some of her roughest days.  Thank you to her wonderful friend, Megan, who traveled all the way from St. Louis just to be with Sarah on the 4th.  Thanks to all the Kappa Deltas who continue to be such a support to their sorority sis—even sending her the largest teddy bear I have ever seen!  Thanks to all for your love and prayers for our tough cookie."

      "I have some AMAZING NEWS today!!!
I can now officially say:
Yesterday my counts went WAY up, meaning that my sister’s cells have officially “engrafted” to my bone marrow!! With my white cell counts coming up to an almost normal level, most of the pain and side effects I’ve had have almost magically disappeared and finally left a happy, comfortable Sarah. Today I was talking with my Aunt and said something about me having cancer; she said, “Sweetie, you don’t have cancer anymore.” It totally took me by surprise. I knew I was going to be cancer free after my transplant, but the engraftment makes it official. WOW. Thinking about all I’ve been through since this whole process began, from mid-September to as little as 3 days ago, I can’t believe that I’m moving from being a cancer patient to a cancer survivor. 
The word survivor holds so much meaning for me: it means that I was challenged to fight for the rest of my life, and I not only stepped up to the plate…I WON.
...Tonight, I’m praising God and counting my blessings for a successful transplant that is giving me years and years of LIFE and a life that will be lived with more contentment and meaning than I would have found otherwise. “Living life to the fullest” sure does have a whole new meaning to a girl who can now say that she is a SURVIVOR."

Today, I celebrated my milestone with my friend Megan, who came to Chicago for my transplant last year. We had so much fun celebrating my "1st birthday" by going to a fun hibachi restaurant. We had a blast! The cook even did some special tricks for my birthday! Here are some fun pics especially for those who haven't seen me in a while. Gotta keep you updated on the hair growth!! :)

Also, here are some pictures of my favorite Saint Louis landmark, the Arch, and the awesome view from my balcony!

A HUGE THANK YOU for all of the cards, care packages, and the flowers I received today to mark my special 1st birthday!!! Once again I was absolutely overwhelmed by love and kindness and so many people remembering and taking the time to help me celebrate. You are all so close to my heart and I could never thank you enough for your generosity and support!

Also, a little shout out to my new Relay For Life committee family! I am now on committee for our campus's HUGE American Cancer Society fundraiser, and meeting everyone and getting involved has been incredible. They are so welcoming to me with open arms and share my passion in helping ACS provide/fund support to cancer patients and prevention/research of cancer. It's so amazing to walk into a room where everyone either has had an experience with cancer, has known someone with cancer, or is passionate about helping those with cancer. I am so excited to continue working with the fabulous committee, and even more excited for the actual Relay event in April!

Well, time to go to bed since I have my "adventures in nursing school" tomorrow, AKA studying for pharmacology. :) Studying may not sound like fun, but saying a sentence like that is something I used to absolutely long for and I am thankful to be able to say now! Especially after today's reminiscing, I am going to try to stop taking things for granted so often...join me?

Love always,