In the words of Carl: Our home away from home.
It was April 10, 2018.
The girls spent the night at Jennifer’s parents’ house because we were headed out early to Rex Hospital. This was a planned visit, though. Jennifer had surgery scheduled for the morning with Dr. Jendro to get her port placed.
Just one year earlier, to the day, I was driving Jennifer to Rex for another appointment. 2017’s third passenger was a soon-to-be-born 9 lb, 1 oz Halle. 2018’s third passenger was a 6cm cancerous tumor and what felt like the weight of the world on our shoulders.
Maybe I’m naive. Or maybe I’ve just been blessed to come from a healthy family that didn’t spend much time at the hospital.
Before this process, I had no idea what a port was, or that such a thing existed.
Basically, they install this small, plastic device into your upper chest that has a tube connected straight into your vein. This way, each time you go in for an infusion, the nurses can insert a needle into your port instead of finding a vein in your arm. Genius.
The port surgery went smooth and Jennifer took the afternoon to rest.
We had one day off before the big day...April 12, 2018. Our 10 year wedding anniversary. Well, Jennifer’s first chemotherapy infusion AND our 10 year wedding anniversary. Ever since we got married, we had been talking about what we wanted to do for our 10 year anniversary. Tropical vacation, visit Europe, or a big house party with friends and family. Never in our wildest dreams would we have thought to have been the hospital for cancer treatment.
We had to be at the hospital around 10 a.m. for Jennifer’s appointment, so we had some time that morning to relax. Jennifer wanted Jubala (surprise), but I had other plans.
A long time friend, photographer Chris Nieto, had agreed to meet us at the North Carolina Art Museum to get some photos for our anniversary. Jennifer’s mom and sister were in on the surprise and brought the girls to get some pictures with us. It was a great start to the day.
After photos, we made it to the hospital, got checked in and then seated in the infusion room.
An infusion room? It’s a large space with comfortable chairs for cancer patients to sit and get pumped with drugs. It’s not the most welcoming environment in the world, especially for someone who had never known a place like this existed before. But, it is what you make of it and we got comfortable for the next 7-ish hours.
On that first day of chemo, I came prepared with a bottle of sparkling cider and our wedding video. The video was noticeably 10 years old, based on the quality of the video and the amount of hair on my head at our wedding. We hadn't watched the video in quite a while, so it was a fun experience for us to have together while Jennifer received her first infusion.
One thing that stood out to us on the wedding video was the surprise appearance of an old friend, John Yoon. John was a co-worker of Jennifer’s in college when she worked at J. Crew. Oddly enough, we had recently been re-acquainted with John and his wife Emily at our church, The Gathering at Edenton Street UMC. We started attending The Gathering in January 2018 and immediately got plugged in to a Missional Community group hosted by the Yoons. So, seeing John on our wedding video from 10 years earlier was a fun surprise.
Seeing John on the video was a reminder to us that the battle we were facing wasn’t one that we’d be fighting alone. Everyone we were surrounded by was placed to our lives for a reason...and at just the right time.
It Takes A Village
Jennifer’s treatment plan called for chemotherapy infusions every three weeks for 18 weeks - six rounds total.
We were told that the effects of chemotherapy are cumulative, so the first round or two don’t hit as hard as the the last few rounds.
We were anxious about when Jennifer’s hair was going to start falling out. Up until this point, the average bystander would never really know that anything was different with Jennifer. She still had her big smile on each day, stayed active at the gym and at work, and had a full head of beautiful hair.
The morning of May 5, we celebrated Jennifer along with hundreds of other breast cancer warriors at the Susan G. Komen Race For The Cure. Friends came out to support from all over, through texts, letters, donations, and even flights to Raleigh for the weekend.
My sister-in-law, Sarah Hoverstad, organized a team for the event to support Jennifer: JEN > CANCER. Enough said!
With only a few weeks to raise funds for the team, we were able raise just over $12k and finished in the top-5 fundraising teams. It was an incredible day of celebration and wouldn’t have been possible without the coordination from Sarah.
The Fall Out
The days passed...slowly...and Jennifer’s hair was slowly starting to fall out.
I don’t have much hair anymore, but I can only imagine that as a woman, losing your hair would be one of the toughest mental and emotional challenges you can endure throughout this process. It’s a part of you and it’s something you see every day when you look in the mirror. Your hair is a significant of your identity.
So, when it became apparent that Jennifer’s hair was starting to fall out, we scheduled an appointment on April 24 with our good friend Heather at Design Gallery Salon.
We knew we wanted (and needed) our friends to be a part of this process, so before the scheduled haircut, we spent an hour or so with some close friends at nearby Brewery Bhavana. We enjoyed delicious food and drinks while catching up...like nothing was out of the ordinary.
Then, we headed across the street. Heather gave both Jennifer and me the 2-guard. This was the first time (and maybe only time) in our lives that Jennifer and I would have the same haircut! Cutting her hair was a symbolic gesture. We knew the cancer was attacking her body, but we were taking charge...we were going to take action on our own schedule.
Seeing Jennifer with a buzz-cut took a bit to get used to, but it started to grow on me. It lasted for a week or so before small patches of hair started to come out.
So, we woke up the morning of May 17, pulled out shaving cream and a razor and shaved the rest of her hair off.
Turns out, there is quite a difference between short buzzed hair and NO hair.
I never imagined that I’d be shaving my wife’s head!
But, as expected, Jennifer looked just a stunning without any hair on her head as she did with her full head of hair. Certain things like this are only experienced by a few men.
We just did what needed to be done and will look back on this experience as one that drew us closer to each other.
As we progressed through chemo treatments, we were overwhelmed with the amount of support we received from our family and friends. One of Jennifer’s best friends, Michelle Massey, was coordinating the support effort throughout the entire process. We had friends from all over volunteer to bring us meals, groceries, even paper towels...too many to even begin to name names. (You know who you are and we thank you!!)
The first four rounds of chemo were tough for Jennifer, but not like the last two rounds.
After the fifth round, Jennifer was diagnosed with C. Diff.
C. Diff, short for clostridium difficile, is a bacterium that can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to life-threatening inflammation of the colon. Bad, bad stuff. The infection kept Jennifer in bed for the better part of the week. But, she bounced back just in time for the sixth and last round of chemo. Only this time, she caught a stomach bug after the infusion. Another week of rest in bed! It was around this time that we were referred to a proctologist in order to get Jennifer on the right track prior to her double mastectomy surgery.
Surgery was scheduled for August 23 and she had to be free of any infection before they could operate…
Later this year, Carl will pick up the conversation around surgery. And even later this year, Jen will have surgery again! This time to exchange her expanders for implants.