I survived non-hodgkins lymphoma when my son was just a baby 16 years ago. The doctors gave me a 50/50 chance to live or die. Now Jonathan is 17 and a senior in high school. Read my amazing story (Book One of my Survival Stories).
Summary: “Crossing the Chemo Room,” Book One of the nonfiction trilogy “Survival Stories,” tells the true tale of Lonna Lisa Williams’ battle with cancer. After enduring a tragic childhood, early motherhood, and divorce to a Navy pilot, Lonna met her second husband at the university where she got her Master’s degree in English. They married and had a daughter. When she was pregnant with their second child, Lonna noticed that something was wrong, and soon after Jonathan was born, she discovered she had cancer. Walk with Lonna as she takes you through the physical and emotional challenges of surgery, chemotherapy, and recovery. Meet the other patients, health workers, and friends who helped Lonna along this path. Discover how Christ’s resurrection power strengthened Lonna to write about miscarriages and wildfires in “I Saw You in the Moon.” Journey across the landscapes of New Zealand, Russia, and Turkey in Lonna’s third book, “Fire and Ice,” as she survives the loss of her California life and family but rises like a phoenix to teach English overseas.
These two chapters tell how I found out, as a young mother, that I had cancer:
Between Two Worlds
“Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your Presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there Your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.”
January 26, 1996 (Friday)
Tonight I stare at our answering machine which announced two messages from my gynecologist’s office–one from the doctor who sounded worried, and one from the nurse who repeated the need to call the office as soon as possible. We hadn’t checked our answering machine until after the doctor’s office closed, so now we must wait until Monday morning.
I want to replay those messages. But I can’t. I accidentally erased them (darn machine). The machine sits there, black and silent, a red “O” indicating no further news.
They found something, both Edd and I think, though we say nothing now. We have the entire weekend to worry.
At the dining table across the room, Edd grades essays for one of his English classes. His brownish-red hair falls on his forehead a little as he bends forward. His bushy brows arch upward, coming together sometimes to frown at a student’s mistake. His big shoulders slump slightly at his task. I can’t see his eyes, but I know the blue holds a little green ring around the pupils.
Edd and I spent the entire afternoon reading the Bible and praying together.
I think about walking over to touch his beard or pick up my own pile of essays and grade them, but the answering machine pulls my eyes back to it.
I stare at it again, knowing it can tell me no more. The phone won’t ring this late. I can only wait.
I wonder if Edd feels as scared as I do. He seems strong, his broad back like a tree trunk. He won’t burden me with his fears. He’ll do what he has to do, then climb into bed with me later and hold me against his chest . . .
The clock on the wall reads 10:35.
Jessica, age three, sleeps in her toddler bed. Jonathan, only seven months old, snuggles in the corner of his crib.
I lean back on the floral sofa next to the brass lamp, close my eyes, and slowly enter a world between remembrance and sleep. I wonder how the pieces of my life will weave together–an embroidered tapestry only partly visible.
Jonathan starts crying for his nightly “num-nums,” and I pull myself out of the sofa. Before answering the baby’s call, I hear Edd praying out loud from the back room where he’s gone to work on the computer.
After nursing my baby back to sleep, I lie in the dark bedroom and think about my childhood again. I figure God allowed what happened for a reason, but surely He won’t also give me cancer.
I pray, somewhat incoherently and restlessly, realizing the
test results are already known to the doctor (yet God is not trapped by time):
Lord, please don’t let it be cancer.
January 29, 1996
On Monday morning, Dr. Francis tells me the cells were “suspicious.” The pathologist who called Dr. Francis (so concerned he didn’t wait for the official, written lab report) even used the word “lymphoma.” Dr. Francis recommends a surgeon to remove and biopsy the entire lump.
January 31, 1996
I will go to the surgeon’s office today. Before he left for work, Edd gave me a long, worried kiss. He didn’t want to leave, but we knew he had to go. Now, I feel somewhat free of my burden of worry–almost joyful, inevitable, as the doctor’s secretary calls me in earlier than my appointment. I bathe with the kids and drive through the rain to the unfamiliar office–yet another doctor in glasses and lab coat, another to examine and counsel me for the worst.
“Let’s assume it’s a tumor,” Dr. Aragoni says from the far side of his cluttered desk. I glance at his pewter golf bag statue next to his Sharp Healthcare glass filled with pens. He outlines possible treatment plans as he has done for other women (some of them dead already?). Jessica draws his eyes from me occasionally as she wiggles around his office.
I try to pin the missing lung back to his “visible man” statue as Dr. Aragoni mentions radiation and chemotherapy. I think of Jonathan sleeping in the receptionist’s arms up front, of Edd standing in front of a classroom and lecturing about verbs . . .
Dr. Aragoni gives me a 50-50 chance of breast cancer. I’11 have the lump removed Monday morning. Two days later I’11 find out if it’s malignant.
The doctor and I don’t speak much of survival chances because my lump isn’t labeled yet. I gather they are fairly good–early detection and all that. Surely, with the proper treatment, years could be added to my life. Of course, there is the chance of recurrence . . . .
How many years will I have? As the doctor speaks to me, they seem fewer than before–the naive plans of my youth departing like raindrops on the office window.
February 1, 1996
Edd’s very sick with a sinus, ear, and throat infection. The kids may be catching it. I’m taking antibiotics myself.
I’ve got a headache–the right side of my scalp hurts. “Brain tumor” crosses my mind as I furiously scrub the kitchen floor while the children sleep and Edd teaches a night class. Why not throw a brain tumor in with the rest of my problems, God? I think, angry as David in one of his Psalms or as Job when he cursed the day of his birth. I wanted a year without doctors. Last year we spent over $6000.00 on private insurance and uncovered medical bills. I wanted a year of peace. Haven’t I endured enough already? I want my dreams for the future intact, God–not threatened by a disease.
I pick up my blue-covered New King James Bible. It feels heavy yet flexible in my hands, its thin paper edged with silver. Needing comforting words, I open it and flip the pages. I’ll be reading this book a lot in the next few months, I think. My fingers find the middle, Psalm 116:
“I love the LORD, because he
has heard my voice and my supplications.
Because he has inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call
upon him as long as I live.
The pains of death encompassed me,
and the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me:
I found trouble and sorrow.
Then I called upon the name of the LORD;
O LORD, I implore You,
deliver my soul.
Gracious is the LORD, and righteous;
yes, our God is merciful.
The LORD preserves the simple:
I was brought low, and
He saved me.
Return to your rest, O my soul;
for the LORD has dealt
bountifully with you.
For You have delivered my soul
from death, my eyes from tears,
and my feet from falling.
I will walk before the LORD
in the land of the living.”
Of course, none of us knows our measured life, I realize, as I close the book and place it near the microwave. I put away the mop and hunt for the sheepwool duster. Grandma Ruth (Edd’s mom) has smoked for over fifty years and still lives–though her emphysema demands that she stop smoking or face disability and death sooner than she should. Edd could die in a car wreck one night after teaching late. Any one of us . . . .
These thoughts haunt me as I dust and vacuum the house, then pace the carpet until Edd comes home. He feels awful. He eats Oriental noodle soup then falls asleep, sprawled on the sofa, his Nyquil dose untouched on the T.V. tray.
I walk softly toward our bedroom, checking to see if both house doors are locked, then glance at the smoldering fireplace. Would any sparks fly out between the screen holes?
Is it safe to sleep?
I glance back at Edd, in his red and white-striped Santa Claus nightshirt, curled up without a blanket on the sofa. Should I cover him? The room’s still warm, and I may wake him if I do. So many classes . . . he works hard. I figure he’ll wake up and climb into bed when the room chills.
I place my hand on the cold bedroom doorknob. Once opened, the door sucks out cool air. I see Jonathan cuddled at the headboard of his crib that adjoins our queen-sized bed. He holds one small hand upward. What do babies dream? Jessica, hidden by her patchwork quilt, shows me only her tousled hair above the toddler bed at the foot of our bed (we like to sleep near our children–feel their life-force around us).
I stand in the doorway between two rooms–one warm and lit by the brass lamp and fireplace, one cool and illuminated only by the nightlight.
Colors–orange and yellow and green–mingle with grey and black and pale white.
I don’t want to leave them, I think, as I stand between Edd and the children, as I hold them between two worlds.
God, you have shoved my future smack in my face–I cannot
help but think and write. Please let me see Your hand holding me–as Moses said, in his last blessing upon Israel,
“Underneath are the everlasting arms.”
The mother eagle flies beneath her young so that they cannot spiral downward.
Standing on the Cliff
“But as for me, my feet
had almost stumbled;
My steps had nearly slipped.”
February 5, 1996
Another outpatient surgery–no big deal. I breastfeed Jonathan at six a.m., before going to check in at Outpatient Surgery.
It’s my third surgery in less than two months. I’m getting to know Sharp Hospital, Murrieta. I get the same “pre-op” stuff–no food or drink, a hospital gown that opens at the back, little blue slippers, and an I.V. I wait in the same room for the same anesthesiologist in his jungle print cap and wire rim glasses. He tells jokes as the male scrub nurse wheels me toward the operating room.
“Take good care of her,” Edd says as we head toward the double doors marked “surgery.” I tilt my head to see Edd’s face, his eyes drawn at the corners, his mouth pulled downward.
“You bet,” the nurse replies as he pushes me through the doors. They shut between Edd and me, and before I can think to worry about Edd worrying about me, I enter the operating room.
I see the same steel and plastic apparatus and the massive ceiling lights that look like an alien spaceship. The nurses help me scoot over to the cold operating table. I don’t recognize Dr. Aragoni since everyone wears face masks. The anesthesiologist puts the breathing mask on me, and I enter the world of twilight sleep.
I awake feeling pretty good since I didn’t have general anesthesia. There’s a bandage and a drain on my right breast. The recovery nurse tells me how I should care for the wound.
“You know, you have to stop nursing,” she tells me.
“No, I didn’t know. Dr. Aragoni never told me. Why do I have to stop?”
The tall nurse, with sensibly short black hair, stares at me for a moment.
“Because we’ve put a drain in–your wound won’t heal until the milk stops producing.”
She doesn’t say it, but I think she’s wondering why I don’t realize that I might start chemotherapy or radiation treatment soon. I wouldn’t want to pass those things through breast milk to my baby.
“Oh,” I say. I didn’t know this morning as I nursed Jonathan who lay on the bed beside me (both of us half asleep)–that I would never nurse him again.
Knowing that I have eaten nothing since last night, the nurse brings me coffee and graham crackers. It’s almost noon. Edd enters the room and tells me the surgeon said that my 3 X 5 centimeter lump (bigger than expected) didn’t look like breast cancer.
We feel hopeful and return home.
February 7, 1996
Today, two days after the surgery, Dr. Aragoni calls while I’m at work. He talks to Edd about the lab results, mentioning something noncommittal about me needing to see Dr. Schinke. I get an appointment right away, thinking maybe I have some precancerous cells. I don’t worry.
February 9, 1996 (Friday)
This time I take Jessica and Jonathan to Dr. Schinke’s office (Edd isn’t home from work yet). I want their young life forces surrounding me as the doctor tells me possible bad news.
Dr. Schinke gets right to the point as I hold a yelling Jonathan with one arm and dig my notebook and pen out of my purse with the other. Jessica sits demurely beside me, staring at Dr. Schinke.
“You know, the lump was intermediate grade lymphoma,” he says.
I knew something suspicious had shown up, but I thought maybe it wasn’t real cancer.
“No, I didn’t know. Dr. Aragoni only said something about you being better able to interpret the lab results than he could,” I reply.
Dr. Schinke looks uncomfortable for a second, almost sad. He must not enjoy this part of his practice. He stares at Jonathan and asks how he is doing, mentioning (proudly) his new son Derek. I notice the “New Dad” pin he wears on his tie. Then he forges ahead into discussing treatments and percentages. I write in my notebook: 50-70% cure rate, with standard chemotherapy.
I stare at the numbers for a moment, then quickly write down the mass of information he dictates to me.
“Your type of lymphoma (in the breast) is rare. Considering your age and all, I’d say you’re one in a million.”
I feel special.
He wants me to get a CAT-scan and a bone marrow biopsy Monday. He also wants me to start chemotherapy the following Friday. One week.
The “CHOP” chemo program (each letter stands for one of the drugs given) will last 20 weeks, one treatment every three weeks, on Friday afternoons so that I’ll have the weekend to recover. It is a fairly strong chemo regimen–to kill the cancer, not just treat it, so I’ll lose my hair. I’ll also get anti-nausea pills that will make me sleepy, so I’ll need help on Saturdays after treatment.
For a few days after each treatment, I’ll have to take Prednisone, a steroid. It will make me hyper and hungry. Between my six treatments, I will get blood drawn and Neupogen shots (to boost my white blood cell count and ward off infection).
If the standard chemo treatment doesn’t work, there is always a bone marrow transplant.
“Any questions?” Dr. Schinke asks as I finish writing.
“I can’t think of any now, but I’m sure I’ll have a million later,” I reply.
I have a lot to tell Edd, I think, as I put my pen and notebook back in my purse and shepherd the children out of Dr. Schinke’s office.
Edd knows the moment I pull into the driveway and look at him. He holds me in his arms and tells me that he’s known in his heart for days–since before the surgery.
February 11, 1996
I’m waiting for my CAT-scan at Sharp Hospital. I just drank a thick white liquid that is making my stomach queasy. I stare at the off-white walls and reread the “side-effects and radiation disclosure” statement the radiology attendant gave me. After awhile she comes back to lead me out to the semitrailer filled with the CAT-scan machine and its computers. She makes me lie still on a thin metal slab that she slides into a tube like a submarine torpedo bay. I have to hold my breath when the machine starts, X-rays with a humming sound rotating around me. Red laser lights flash. A nurse begins an I.V. and puts metallic dye into my bloodstream.
After about an hour of lying still and intermittently holding my breath, the technician helps me off the slab. She takes me to the huge computer terminal and shows me one of the many monitors. There, in black and white, glows my left ovary.
“See the follicles?” she points to a round circle beside two smaller ones. “You’ll be ovulating from this side soon.” I place my finger on the cold glass above the image. These eggs will be fried by the chemotherapy. Why does the technician show them to me?
Edd and I have wanted a third child since Jessica was born. Surely God will protect one last egg . . . .
Next, I get the bone marrow biopsy. Edd is between classes, so he and the children come with me this time. Edd distracts the children as Dr. Schinke sticks a long, wide needle–more like a hollowed-out nail than a needle–into my hipbone and extracts the dark red marrow. I can feel the needle penetrate my bone with a popping sound. Nurse Ruth holds my hands, telling me in a firm voice to blow like I am in labor and hold perfectly still. I squeeze her knuckles white, staring at her balloon-design stethoscope cover: green, purple, yellow, red. She bends her head toward me, the short, greyish-black locks falling forward a bit. The lines around her brown eyes show concern and years of experience.
God, don’t let me ever go through this again, I pray.
February 15, 1996 (6:35 p.m.)
Tomorrow, I start chemotherapy. Everything’s happening too quickly. I sit at the kitchen table, Dr. Schinke’s card in my hand, and stare at the telephone.
After reading the Chemotherapy and You pamphlet published by the American Cancer Society, I panic. So many possible side effects–which ones will I experience? I dial Dr. Schinke’s office number, and his answering service takes my call. Amazingly, he calls back in ten minutes. I demand answers to several questions:
Will I get a second cancer later (the chemo drugs themselves being carcinogens)?
Will the drugs damage my heart or liver?
Will they destroy my reproductive system so that I have no chance of bearing another child?
Dr. Schinke answers my questions patiently. The drugs shouldn’t cause lasting damage. And since my CAT-scan and bone marrow biopsy were negative (the cancer didn’t spread measurably), my chances of recovery could be close to 100%.
“And,” he continues, “though there aren’t many studies of the effects of chemo on child-bearing women, your reproductive system should either go right to early menopause or return to normal.”
“Thanks for calling me back, Dr. Schinke,” I say, letting out the breath I have been holding.
After hanging up, I stare out the window at our citrus trees shadowed by the moonless night.
I still feel like I’m standing on the edge of a cliff, looking downward. That’s how one cancer pamphlet put it. Even if you’re “cured,” the thought of a new lump appearing any moment stays in your mind.
As a teenager, I felt my days spread out unlimited before me. All paths lay open, unexplored. Now, at 38, I look back at the paths I should not have taken and the paths God blessed. In front of me that cliff dangles into mist and clouds. Perhaps God will lead me safely down it, to paths I cannot see below.
I’ve stood on cliffs before. In England, when I was twenty-nine and healthy, I hiked alone to the top of Mount Penn-y-ghent while my first husband was out to sea and my English friend Carol watched Kristen and Ryan. In the mist of an early Yorkshire morning, I tried to catch sight of the rocks, bracken, and yellow wildflowers far below. I got no clear view–a big-horned sheep sidled toward me menacingly, and for a moment I thought he’d ram me off the side with his wrap-around white horns.
I smelled the heather, the wet granite, the slate. On the far side of the mountain, I had to sit down and shimmy across broken grey stones. Wet rock caught at my clothing and boots, bruising the palms of my hands.
Four and a half years ago, Edd and I visited England, Scotland, and County Kerry, Ireland. My father’s family came from there. We saw my maiden name, Lynch, on several signs.
Much of my storytelling comes from that Irish side.
Edd and I camped atop a sea cliff one night, on Valentia Island. Our small orange tent contrasted with the green, short-cropped turf around it. White rocks tumbled to sea waves far below–we saw no foothold down. On the far east end of the island, we heard the great crash of waves beneath the highest cliff. We could not see the edge, guarded as it was by thorn bushes, boulders, and sheep. Still, we felt the wind whipped by salt water, surging up to our faces, through rock holes and darkness. Even the night sky seemed too dark though more stars than we had ever seen canopied above us.
Now, on this cliff caused by cancer, I see no stars.
Read the rest of the story here: