By CARLA OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, Nov. 9, 2015 – Cancer-free. Let me repeat the words, cancer-free.
I’ve just been on another cancer adventure, for sure.
For many of you, this has probably been confusing. Here’s the deal. My cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma, has no chemotherapy fix, and it doesn’t really respond to radiation. It requires removal.
The prayer then must always be that when it is found, it is contained and can be removed. Such was the case for me. Twice now.
As many know, I was first diagnosed with this in 2010 and had a golf ball-sized cancerous tumor removed from my lower jaw. While the surgeon was sure it was all removed, I did have six weeks of daily radiation, more as a precaution to prevent any cancer recurrence in this same area, which was so close to my brain stem.
I was told at that time, my cancer was likely to return at some point down the road. I think back to that time now, and those were rough times for Chuck and me. Just when I finished with my radiation treatments, his lymphoma, which we thought we had beaten a year earlier, had returned. In fact five years ago this week, Chuck entered the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics for his stem cells transplant. We were caught up in a lot of recovery and treatment back then. Surviving the moment was more on our mind than looking into the future.
Carla Offenburger and her mother Sue Burt, of Des Moines, on an afternoon walk with some of the livestock at our “Simple Serenity Farm” southwest of Cooper in west central Iowa. We’ve talked many times about what a blessing it was to have Carla’s recovery happening during one of the most beautiful autumns ever around here.
We must have somewhat forgotten the message to me about “likely to return.” At least enough not to be worrying or thinking about “where next?” I’ve been vigilant enough over the last five years with testing and monitoring, but never dreaded the outcome.
And then in early August, my stomach ache didn’t go away. I naturally believed what everyone told me – “it’s your gall bladder.” Why not? It seemed reasonable. But my primary care provider, Sara Fleecs at UnityPoint Clinic at our Greene County Medical Center in Jefferson, thought that with my history, we should check things out a bit more thoroughly. Many, many tests and scans later, her inclination proved life-saving.
My adenoid cystic carcinoma was back – hanging out big time in my liver.
This go ’round proved to be a bit more intense. A tumor had incredibly grown to six pounds in my liver. The good news was that it was encapsulated, or neatly “contained” there, with no cancerous runners or spots in other organs or tissue. This allowed liver surgeon Dr. Qasim Chaudhry to successfully remove the whole large tumor (“the size of a small football”) along with 60 percent of my liver. He reported to my family while I was beginning my recovery in ICU that he was able to “get it all.” Cancer-free.
That surgery left me with a 12-inch chevron-shaped incision, just below my rib cage on the upper part of my abdomen. The surgeon of course had to cut right through my muscles and nerves. That had me in Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines for seven days, and then a return to that hospital for another four days when things didn’t go quite right at home on the first try. I had this massive fluid build-up in my body, dangerously gaining 32 pounds in about four days. Once my medications were adjusted and the sack around my right lung was drained, the fluid drained and the weight came down as quick as it had risen.
All of that had me recovering at home and unable to do much of anything for another few weeks. Now, finally, in the last two weeks or so, I have seen incredible progress in my stamina, my appetite and my stomach pain.
Carla was able to make great progress on this quilt she is doing for her mother.
I am now resigned to the fact, that the external surface of my stomach, around the incision, will most likely always be a bit numb, a bit hard and a bit painful. Just like my left jaw and throat are now from the surgery I had five years ago. Cutting through muscles just isn’t natural in the human body. Unlike cutting out 60 percent of your liver – which is the only organ that will re-generate (within weeks) to meet the demands of your body – muscles aren’t quite as forgiving.
So this week, I have returned to work at Greene County Medical Center, where I am community relations director. After seven weeks away I think I’m up to it. At least if I take it slowly. There’s something about having to lay down mid-afternoon, stretch out my stomach and take a nice long nap, that is going to be hard to break.
When I was lamenting to our dear friend Douglas T. Bates III, the Tennessean, the other day that I had been off work for seven weeks and haven’t cleaned a closet, finished cleaning my flower beds, or done a fall garage cleaning, he reminded me that, well, “you did re-generate a liver.”
Yes I did.
As I reflect on these last seven weeks, I am overwhelmed with my experience – of illness, of treatment, of support and of recovery.
First, it’s just darned debilitating to go through a major surgery and be so fragile and reliant on so many for so long. It’s humbling too. The care I received could not have been better – by the professionals and my inner support group of friends and family. I cannot say enough wonderful things about the treatment and care I received at UnityPoint Health’s Iowa Methodist hospital. Kudos and a standing ovation for all my caregivers there.
It is somewhat frustrating to know that cancer will probably be a part of my life again. And thinking “where next?” will be on my mind every time I go into to be scanned and examined.
But I am ever so thankful and hopeful with the medical expertise available to me and all cancer patients. The treatment this go ’round, at all levels, was second to none. And the plan for regular monitoring in the future, under the direction of my new oncologist, Dr. Matthew Hill, is also very promising.
And the support of friends and family? Oh my!
Great pal Nancy Teusch, of Jefferson, and Carla spent an afternoon finishing up one of many puzzles Carla put together during her recovery.
Prayers, visits, food, gifts, get-well cards. Dozens and dozens and dozens of well wishes have kept me going for these past seven weeks. Gifts that have filled our car with gas or filled grocery sacks with food or paid medical expenses. They have eased the burden at a time when the day-to-day living just gets pushed out of the way and is replaced with 100 percent focus on recovery. I believe in the power of prayer and the prayers on my behalf – for expert caregivers, for comfort and ease of pain, for recovery and remission – all worked.
THANK YOU every one of you for whatever it is that you did to make my burden lighter and my healing possible. Please know that I pray for each of you daily when I say my prayers of thanksgiving for what has transpired over the last seven weeks.
Those seven weeks included the first three weeks of surgery and serious recovery, both in and out of the hospital, the two times. (And you can read more about that in the archives of this site, especially the earlier column right here.)
The first few days at home after both hospital stays, I was fragile and tense. I recall very little about those days. It was such a blur of trying so hard to do what I needed to do, to make sure I didn’t land back in the hospital, while also working at gaining strength and minimizing the tremendous amount of pain I had then.
But the last four weeks showed gradual improvements in every way. I remember much more about these weeks. When my mind started working again, it was harder to focus on just healing. I wanted to start doing stuff – but my body kept telling me no! Especially if it required moving my abdomen in any direction.
Recalling all the times I had said in the past, “if I just had a few days of quiet,” I found plenty to occupy my time. Here’s a short list of my recovery activity successes:
–I read 10 books – none in the first three weeks. Here’s my list:
“When You Were Mine,” by Elizabeth Noble.
“Girl Waits with Gun,” by Amy Stewart.
“All The Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr.
“Ordinary Grace,” by William Kent Krueger.
“Jesus and the Disinherited,” by Howard Thurman.
“The Paradise of Glass,” by Petra Durst-Benning.
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” by Truman Capote.
“Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons,” by Lorna Landvik.
“Plainsong,” by Kent Haruf.
“Leaving Church,” by Barbara Brown Taylor.
Check that list again. I am pretty sure I am the only person who has ever read “Jesus and the Disinherited” by Howard Thurman and “Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons” by Lorna Landvik in the same month! Ever.
–I made a quilt top (fabric meets the lifting-weight limit I’ve been under) for my mother that is now at The Stitch in Jefferson being quilted.
–I did seven jigsaw puzzles. The last one, all in one day.
–I got to monitor the harvest happening all around us more closely than ever before, and it seems that it was as bountiful as it was beautiful.
–I listened to every one of the Major League Baseball playoff games, starting with the Chicago Cubs “Wild Card” game against our Pittsburgh Pirates, and continuing right on through the final game of the World Series won by the exciting Kansas City Royals. I believe that was 35 games, if my count is correct.
–I wrote dozens and dozens of thank-you notes and cried buckets of tears while doing so.
–I spent an enormous amount of time with my mother Suesy Burt, who was a wonderful caregiver and stayed with us here at Simple Serenity Farm for the first two weeks. This time together was priceless. As she said just the other day, “we turned a pretty bad situation into a pretty good time together.” She was the best cheerleader and comforter. Times with my sisters and friends were also wonderful, but time with one’s mother gets to be at the top of the list.
–And then there is Chuck. What can be said about a husband who is so constant and faithful and vigilant on every level of care that is needed in such a time? He is in every way I can think of just incredible. And if I try to say anymore in what it means to have him in my life, I will just become a blubbering idiot. So I’m stopping now.
So, ready or not, here I come, cancer-free.
Thanks to each one of you for helping me get here – again.
It was like old times. Here Carla’s mother Sue Burt is reading a favorite Shel Silverstein book to Carla, who was drifting off in a nap.
You can write the columnist at carla@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.