–shout out to my karaoke buddy, Vonnie, for this song from Bryan Adams – fond memories of blasting it in the car and hair brush singing in the mirror
Here we go! Summer 2019 BD (before diagnosis). It’s taken a while to be able to put this on paper but let’s give it a shot. Warning , long story! We actually have to go back to April of that year. It had been quite a year at school – don’t get me wrong, all good…we, as a math department, were on fire teaching our students and working to get the most growth out of our each one. We all worked famously together but by April, we were all exhausted and counting down to exams and good old summer time. I noticed my back started hurting and as I walked, my hip felt as if would give out. I blamed it on the extra leaning over the chairs helping students with trig equations and being on my feet all day. I quickly jumped on Amazon and bought a podium for my classroom to hold my computer so I wouldn’t have to lean over and some new fancy flip flops, a sure bet for back support! Haha! No seriously, here on the Outer Banks we have beach flip flops, every day flip flops, church flip flops, school flip flops, and now I had super special back supporting school flip flops. Armed with my new podium, kicks, and Advil each morning, I continued with the daily grind. May came and went, students took their exams in June and there it was, year number 25 in the books!
Despite all of my fancy new gear, my pain lingered on-sharp at some points. I couldn’t quite peg my pain and thought, well it’s time to see my regular doctor anyway so I’ll get her to check it out. Now because “it’s Manteo”, my general practitioner happens to be a sweet friend-her husband and my husband fish together, our youngests play ball together and cruise the neighborhood on their bikes, and our now 19 year old sons have been friends since they were in elementary school. So as you can see, we’ve been pretty connected over the years. She called for an X-ray just to be on the safe side and then referred me to a chiropractor. Nothing really showed in the X-ray so that was good news- no breaks or weirdness, just signs of regular aging and osteoporosis. I texted her back “What am I, 80??” … no offense to all my amazing 80 year olds but dang, I was 46!
So I continued to the chiropractor but first a trip to DC with Drew and my mom to see family, a bit of history, metro rides, and of course, baseball. Drew and I even pushed our way to the seats behind the dugout. It was fantastic being able to see the players and the field so close. We enjoyed a roof top dinner with Brandon, Justin, and Monica with a full view of the lights of Washington. We literally walked 16 miles that week and while my back was hurting it wasn’t anything that a little Advil and adrenaline couldn’t fix. I wasn’t going to let anything mess up this trip with two of my favorite people! I specifically remember how uncomfortable bowling was but was determined to beat my 12 year old Drew! Ha! Yeah, I never got the memo on “just let them win!”
When we returned I started my trips to the chiropractor. The chiropractor asked me every week if I felt a bit of relief and every time I would give him a disappointing, no. He did say that it may get worse before it gets better and I remember specifically thinking, if it gets much worse I won’t even be able to get up and down. Meanwhile life goes on. A group of us had bought tickets on a whim to see the Backstreet Boys in Raleigh, what were we thinking?! Jenn, Shelley, Beth, and I had a big time in Raleigh together and met a fun group of girls from Manteo there. Little did I know it would be my last trip to Raleigh for more than a year!
Next up were our traditional summer baseball tournaments – always a highlight! Drew’s all star team’s tournament was in Williamston, almost 2 hours away. Each night they would come out with a win and we would travel back to Manteo. Six nights in a row we drove back and forth. I was so uncomfortable so we would drive Grammy’s car with the heated seats. Kenneth would meet us there when he got in from fishing. When Coach Trent offered to carry my things to my lucky “spot” behind home and beside my fellow cheerleader, Cindy, I graciously accepted. I am not one to give in but whew, the pain was increasingly worsening with each day but there was no way I was going to miss a game!
Oh wait, back up, just a side note, when we got home from DC, I had my annual with my gynecologist – “all clear for another year-clear breast exam and all” and we just scheduled my yearly mammogram for July.
Ok, back to the story, I warned you it was long!! Baseball ended and summer was in full swing. Jenn and I love going to the beach the most in the summer. We can go out there for hours and hours. “It’s like a time warp.”, we say to each other. We talk about just about everything, husbands, boys (our own, haha) , teaching, friendship, religion, home projects, what’s for dinner, you name it and it’s beach talk! I knew it was getting bad when one day in July we got out there and I could hardly sit in my beach chair. I left the beach early that day only after about an hour. After six weeks, the chiropractor referred me back to my general practitioner who in turn referred me to an orthopedic doctor. I was going to head to a Greenville practice but one of the doctors on the beach had a quick opening. I met with him and asked him for an MRI. He told me it was muscular, I did not need an MRI, wrote me a prescription for pain meds, and referred me to a physical therapist.
Timeline check-it is now the third week in July-a month since my first appointment. The pain continued to heighten. I called the physical therapy office and they could see me Aug 12th. My “God feeling” , aka gut feeling, took over and I knew I couldn’t wait. As my pain continued, I again called the orthopedic and pretty much demanded a MRI. My dear friend, Linnea, recommended I try her chiropractor in Chesapeake, about 1 1/2 hours from Manteo. She said to get the MRI up there and then make an appointment to see him immediately following. So I made the appointment and my husband, Kenneth happened to have the day off! Digressing again – summer time is busy time on a charter boat. Kenneth’s been running a charter boat since 1997 and has working on one since he can remember. He is normally booked solid through the end of August but not this year – God Wink here, as my mom calls it. I made it for a Thursday because I was scheduled for my yearly mammogram that Wednesday. No biggie, I’ve been getting mammograms since I was 38 due to family history without a second thought.
We went to Chesapeake; the actual MRI was uneventful, easy, quick, but loud! Little did I know it would be my first of many of these scans. We grabbed a copy of the cd and headed to the chiropractor appointment around the corner. I was so excited because I finally felt I would have some answers. As we sat with him, he conferred with his colleague and decided he was looking at a compression fracture at T9, the thoracic part of my back. He asked if I had fallen or been in an accident—not at all, I replied. He said he would not be able to help me but he would recommend me asking my orthopedic doctor about a procedure called kyphoplasty to fix the break. Yes, I said a break in my back at the specific vertebrae I had been crying the blues about for the last month. I actually felt relieved they found something and I was not making it all up in my head!
Kenneth and I thanked him and headed back to Manteo. The questions rolled through our conversation… Surgery? What orthopedic doctor should we use? I start school soon, how can I miss work? How long will I be down? What about FOOTBALL games, team meals, etc? Funny looking back, all of these were questions related to logistics. I called my sweet friend, Norma, who sees a doctor regularly for her back. She said to call Dr Menchew at Duke to schedule an appointment. I was not impressed with our doctor from the beach, who by the way never called me about the results of the MRI, so I was excited about a new perspective. He was her doctor and he was the best, she told us! We called on the ride home and luckily got an appointment the following Tuesday, God wink there for sure! Feeling relieved to have a “lesson plan” in front of us, we stopped at our one of our favorites, Coinjock Marina in Currituck to get a seafood lunch and some home cooked sides- their mashed potatoes are the best I’ve had! Conversation was light with a bit of relief in our tone but also thinking about how to juggle this surgery with our crazy busy lives! I look back at that thought and just laugh. The chiropractor called as we were eating. “ Just called to let you know that I conferred with the radiologist and he too agrees this is a compression fracture that will require the kyphoplasty procedure.” I told him thank you and that we had already made an appointment and were on track. Then he said it, “but just want you to know also that the radiologist definitely ruled out cancer.” Wait, what?? Well, that’s a weird thing for him to say, we joked as we tore up our lunch spread. We told him “thanks for the call”, finished up, and got back on the road. We questioned the phone call a couple of times on the way home but it never really phased us. Cancer? How could it be cancer? It’s a little break; I probably tripped and fell somewhere or picked up something too heavy. Whatever! I’m all about doing things on my own! We got home, I took some pain medication, and went on with what we had started earlier in the week!
Now, here’s the kicker…wait for it… in the middle of all of this, we had found a crazy house right on the sound and threw all caution into the wind (of course after punching the numbers 1000 times and weighing every pro and con imaginable, haha) and decided to leave our “forever” house of 22 years and move. By August 1st, we had a closing date on the sale of our house and a closing date for our beautiful spot on the sound in Manteo. It was a dream come true and what would ultimately become one of the saving graces in an otherwise unbearable situation.
As we were packing up on Friday and putting plans in action for our football “Meet the Skins” annual potluck dinner, I got a call from the hospital. I answered it hastily in between packing boxes and gathering supplies for the Potluck. It was the radiology secretary from the OBX hospital. “ Hi, Mrs Brown. We need to schedule a follow up mammogram and ultra sound because the results of Wednesday’s mammogram were inconclusive.” Do what?? I told her she must have the wrong number. She read off my name and date of birth. Wait, what? I told her “Surely my doctor would have called to discuss this first?” She said not to worry because “40% of these calls ended up to be nothing but dense breasts.” That doesn’t fly with this math teacher because that means that “60% of the time it does!” I told her I would have to call my doctor and I would call her back. I was able to speak with the nurse but never had a conversation with the gynecologist and actually never would – don’t get me started. I don’t like to make waves so I called the hospital back and just made an appointment really without thinking too much about it.
The potluck dinner was a complete success. We had over 250 players, coaches, and parents. We were all fired up for the up coming season complete with Friday night lights. I told my fellow football moms about my fracture and that I was unable to lift anything big. I had pretty much forgotten about the mammogram. They jumped right in and took over as I “ directed traffic”. The night came and went. Saturday was spent packing. Kenneth and I had a couple of glasses of red and called it a night. For some reason, the red wine was an absolute relief to my back pain!
And then it hit me, like a ton of bricks—-is there a correlation between my compression fracture and my mammogram call back? All I could hear in my head was the phone call, “the radiologist definitely ruled out cancer”. I got up and looked at my clock-1am. I didn’t want to wake Kenneth because his alarm would go off at 3:30am to wake up for his charter the next day so I went into the living room and started the inadvisable “google search”. I hit link after link trying to see if the two were related. Who knows how many websites and links I went through and there I found it and knew! Breast cancer metastatic to bones- very hard to diagnose with simply back pain but with a mammogram finding a lump, they are most likely related. After reading about diagnosis procedures and treatment, I couldn’t help myself and hesitantly clicked on prognosis…. and then…. I cried. I cried so hard I shook. Deep down, I knew this was what I had as I continued to put all the facts and logic together. I probably sat there and cried by myself on my favorite red couch for an hour. I looked at the clock, 3 am. Kenneth’s alarm would be going off soon and the last thing I wanted was for him to worry about me 30 miles out in the ocean with no cell service. I pulled myself together and slipped back in the bed beating the dreaded 3:30 am set alarm. This would be my little secret until it couldn’t be anymore. I mean, what if I was wrong, which I probably was, right!??. You always hear of people thinking the worst and it ends up being a hang nail or something. I’m sure this was that type of situation. Regardless, my lips were sealed and Kenneth headed out on the boat to make a day’s work and I had a beautiful day on the water with Jake and Drew clamming by Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks waters..
Tuesday came fast and we were heading out on our 4 hour venture to meet with our Duke doctor, the orthopedic. It was 90 degrees outside but I had that heated seat cranking. As I spoke to different doctors, I remained stoic but as I spoke with Dr. Menchew’s nurse on this day, I could not contain my feelings. I cried when I described the pain and she was as sweet as she could be stepping in to console me. When Dr Menchew came in, I told him about my hip hurting and he was the first not to blow it off as a separate entity. He had all the facts-the MRI, the call back on the mammogram, and now the X-Ray on my right hip. After reviewing each, he and his nurse came in to share their findings. He could not confirm my findings from the other night using the C-word but his mannerisms explained to us that it wasn’t good news. He showed us the spot on the X-ray and pointed out that the fracture was more than just a break. He told me he was calling in additional blood tests and a bone scan that we would do at the OBX hospital. Kenneth and I left and literally couldn’t figure out if we needed to go east or west to get home, we were speechless. I don’t think we said a word until we were almost to Rocky Mount. I told him about my own research which matched Dr Menchew’s words exactly. We drove home knowing the world as we knew it had just been turned upside down. The next day I had blood drawn, then Thursday was my follow up mammogram and ultra sound and finally the cherry on the top was the bone scan.
Ok, time for another side story. One of my best friends from high school, Rise (pronounced Ree-sa, in case we make a movie one day, haha), is the ultimate at keeping everyone in touch and taking care of everyone around her. When we were in high school, a group of five of us combined our names and called ourselves Lardarise (Liz, Sarah, Debbie, Denise, and Rise). Miles have kept us apart through the years but when we do get together it’s like we never missed a beat. We went from 5 girls just figuring out who they are to 5 women with 14 kids between all of us. Now with texting and Facebook, we hardly go a day without being in touch with each other. Our text group over the next year and more would end up being one of my true life lines. I don’t know what I would do without these girls and their support! So we went from marathon texting spurts, to funny phone calls and Facebook posts last week to crickets this week… on my part. She called, I didn’t answer. She texted, I would answer only quick words. Finally on Thursday morning, just after I got home from my mammogram, she showed up on my phone again as the ring tone was persistent. I took a deep breath and hesitantly answered. I had been avoiding her, of all people, because she can read me like a book and I didn’t want to worry her as we were going through all of this craziness. I’ll never forget our conversation that day… or lack there of. I tried to act nonchalantly trudging through the small talk. Then she asked me a more poignant question. I paused and got choked up. I had told her about the week before activities but only that I got an mri and had a mammogram. I paused so she wouldn’t hear me crying on the other end and then she just said “ okay, I’ll be there in three hours” All I could say was “okay”. I knew I needed my friend of over 30 years to lean on. There’s something so special about those friends who you have known since you were 14 years old – big hair, wings, blue eyeshadow, and all that came with the 80’s! She brought UTZ rippled bbq chips (is there any other?) and looked everywhere for rolos with no success. It became our mission! I love this girl!
Cara, my general practitioner, texted me “Is now a good time to call? Is Kenneth home?” I told her he wasn’t home yet but to go ahead and call me it was fine. She wanted to wait until he was home. I didn’t think about why but looking back it is obvious. Boy, was my mind in a strange place. He got home and we called her. She read the ultrasound report with the most important words being “Bi rad 5”. We got off the phone, looked it up, and realized this was the real deal. The next day, Rise and I sat in the hospital together as I waited for my bone scan. She distracted me with what else but good ‘ole People magazine celebrity gossip. She stayed until Saturday afternoon because Saturday night we planned to sit our three boys down and to tell them what was going on. We didn’t want anything to be a surprise to them. We collectively decided not to say the word CANCER and instead, remember I live in boy world, settled on calling my cancer “butthead” so at least we could all get a little laugh when times got serious.
My mom was coming on Sunday to be here for my biopsy (or so she thought) since Kenneth and Will were fishing the Pirates Cove tournament. For some reason we were strangely calm; I almost think I was still in the “this can’t happen to me” stage. Monday was spent packing up boxes and working on getting the last pictures in for the football program. We went to the high school to get the picture of the band and before I could get out of the car, Cara, called me again. She read the bone scan report. I remember specifically having absolutely no idea what she was reading or what it meant exactly. I may have been in denial or it may have just been such crazy words I just kind of dazed out—I mean really can’t they just say “ top of the hip”-nope it’s “femoral head” or shoulder- nope it’s “humeral head”. Any hoo, when she finished the long list of words I couldn’t even pronounce, I knew if she answered one question, I would understand the seriousness of my situation and that would make results of the bone scan clear. “Cara, am I starting school next Monday” (our first workday) and she simply said “no”. That was the punch in the gut I had been waiting for. Looking back I hate that my friend who doubles as my doctor had to be the one to deliver those results. That took it to the level I was afraid of. I had a biopsy scheduled for Thursday on the Outer Banks. I felt an urgency to have it done sooner. Cara told me she would see what she could do. She called back and asked me if I could be in Greenville by 9 am the next morning for the biopsy . Right then and there, she wasn’t aware but, she saved my life!