Monday, October 1, 2012

It Makes You Stronger

I'm feeling quite empowered today.  There have been some cool things happening and some things that have made me really sit back and take stock of all the things that I have to be thankful for.  I got "accepted" as a writer for a sort of "reader's digest", if you will, blog style.  My first post is due to appear this Friday, so I'll set you all up with the link when it goes live.  So excited about that opportunity!  I'll be writing 5-6 times a month for Embrace Your Life.  I feel like right now in my life, maybe more than ever, I really embody that title.  So I applied on a whim and was accepted!  Woohoo!

I'm also overwhelmingly proud of a certain woman in my life.  You've heard me talk about her before, but maybe not enough considering what has gone on with her in the 9 weeks that Jonathan and I have been here in Freeport.  Bernice Womack should get a medal for her courage and tenacity in fighting cancer.  And believe you me, it is a fight tooth and nail.  None of this pansy stuff!  For those of you who don't know, Bernice is my mother-in-law.  For those of you who do know Bernice, none of this is new to you.  You know what she's been through, you know her story (on some level), and maybe you've even been helping her fight this fight in the past few months.  Maybe you've been a partner in battle!  But whether you do or you don't know her, I still feel like some of her story should be shared.  If for no other reason that for me to remind myself how lucky I am (how luck we all are!) that she's a part of my life!  So without further ado, the story of the Tiger Earning Her Stripes:

Not too long before I met Jonathan, his family had been through the ringer.  I mean really difficult losses, devastating road blocks, you name it, they'd walked it.  Not the least of which included Bernice being diagnosed with breast cancer, enduring surgery, and weathering chemotherapy and all that entails.  Of course, the first time I met her (which was VERY soon after my first date with Jonathan), I would not have believed you if you'd told me she was a cancer survivor.  You see, Bernice has always been this sort of "silent soldier".  She's a quiet and gentle spirit who is always so concerned with other people.  I'm sure if I'd gawked and said "You survived CANCER?!" she would have said "Yeah, well.  No big deal.  But, Rachel, how are YOU doing?". 

About 2 years ago, Jonathan decided (after much thought and prayer) that he was being called into the medical field.  So he answered the call heartily and began taking classes immediately.  It was a long road of school and applications.  Money woes, selling a home, dealing with student loans, etc.  But he got accepted in his first year of applying (which is HUGE mind you), and he accepted an offer from Ross University which brought us here to the Caribbean.  We were so excited!  But the excitement was quickly stifled by countless and seemingly endless curve balls and difficulties concerning our attempts to leave the country and get here.  All of those curve balls culminated in the event which will forever change our lives as a family and will inevitably have a hand in defining all of us.

The Womack family (me, Jonathan, Bernice, Charlie, Jonathan's brother Patrick, and his wife Nicole) had just returned from a 2 week long family vacation where we trekked through Kansas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and Colorado.  It was an awesome trip.  Just beautiful!  During the trip, Bernice starting having some stomach issues.  Minor, she thought.  But beginning months before this trip, we had all noticed a significant change of pace in Bernice.  Her usual bubbly self, she had become quiet and sometimes withdrawn.  Her usual active self, she had become slower to move around and was experiencing minor aches and pains that we all associated with just a general "slowing down".  As if 57 was the appropriate time for her to be slowing down!  She had begun experiencing a chronic hip pain which doctors had just associated with a sciatic nerve issue that was coming up from an injury she'd sustained many years ago. We just never saw this coming...

A day or so after returning to OKC, Jonathan and I had to flit down to Houston to "tie up loose ends" with the sale of our home and moving out.  On the day we were to be heading back to Oklahoma, Bernice called and said she was headed to the gastroenterologist to get some things checked out.  She "just didn't feel right".  Right about the time we hit I-45 headed north to OKC, Charlie called to tell us that the GI doc had sent her for a CT scan, and the scan showed what looked like a mass on her left ovary.  The doctor also informed us that due to some inflammation (probably in regards to this "mystery mass"), her abdomen had become filled with fluid and they were going to have to drain it off. When he said this, I immediately remembered a few days before watching Bernice from across the room one afternoon and thinking "Gosh, her belly looks so full.  That's strange.  Maybe I've just never noticed it before...  She doesn't seem to be bothered by it...".  

So we got to OKC as quickly as we could.  We walked into the living room at Bernice and Charlie's house, hugged everyone, and sat down to have "the talk".  At this point, we still had no idea what it was.  At least Jonathan and I didn't.  But when we had the conversation, I just could feel that Bernice knew.  She didn't have a feeling or a hunch...she knew her body.  She was already talking about the repercussions of chemo and I was like "Whoa, let's not get ahead of ourselves!  Maybe it's just a cyst, or maybe it's benign.  It's not necessarily cancer!".  I was trying to convince myself.  No tears had been shed to that point.  Until I tried to tell her that this was going to make leaving in 2 weeks really hard ( 2 weeks we were scheduled to fly out here to Freeport to start Jonathan's med school).  Obviously, I could not get through that sentence, and then she subsequently broke and told us it was going to be even harder for her to LET us leave in 2 weeks.  

So they drained like 4 liters of fluid off her abdomen the next day (she lost like 10 pounds in 10 minutes!).  They also came back with the pathology reports and she was positive for ovarian cancer markers.  They immediately scheduled her with the best Gynecological Oncologist in OKC, and she was scheduled for surgery the next week after a pre-operative appointment the day before her surgery. Can you say whirlwind?!  It was so quick (which was a blessing), and it didn't give any of us or her a chance to even really digest it.  So she went in for surgery on a Wednesday before Jonathan and I were to be leaving on a Sunday for the Bahamas.  We went in knowing, according to her surgeon, that most of these tumors, when they're found, are already at Stage 3 or further.  Again, we probably weren't really prepared for what that could potentially mean...

Into surgery she went that morning.  Resilient.  Quiet.  Poised.  Rooted in the Word.  Ready as she would ever be.  Her surgeon came in.  Talked about what the procedure was going to entail, prayed with us, asked if we had any questions, and headed up to prep the OR.  When they wheeled her into surgery, it was almost surreal.  Like something from a movie.  But she wasn't showing fear.  She was ready.  She was up for the challenge.  You could just see it in her eyes...she wasn't going down without a fight.  She beat it once, she was going to beat it again, and she was going to come out on top no matter what the outcome...  

So family and friends gathered in a bunched corner a few feet away from the gift shop and waited.  And waited, and waited, and waited.  Hours ticked by and they felt like centuries.  Charlie would get a phone call from someone in the OR periodically just saying "everything was going well".  And then...Dr. Landrum came downstairs.  She walked past the gift shop in her scrubs and summoned Charlie over to talk.  I strained my ears to hear.  Charlie came back and said "She says everything looks good.  They got it all.  She's going back up to finish up the last little bit, and then she's headed down to talk with us about everything."  So we waited.  And waited, and waited, and waited.  And finally, Dr. Landrum came downstairs again and squeezed into our little bunched corner...  

She was all smiles.  This woman, this tough surgeon, this "don't show too much emotion" doctor was grinning ear to ear.  She said "In my experience, I usually do not get the privilege of coming down here and issuing good news.  But it's as good as it could possibly be!  It is NOT ovarian cancer.  BOTH her ovaries were clear.  We took out everything in there that she didn't need anymore, though.  Just like we talked about.  But her cancer cells are something different than what we were expecting.  It's actually serous primary peritoneal cancer.  Her omentum (which apparently is an organ that acts like a filter and sits between your ab muscles and your internal words not hers!) has been filtering tumor cells for a while now.  We probably will never know how long.  But from everything that I can see, we got it all.  We've sent off some lymph node samples for analysis, but I can tell you I'm very optimistic about her recovery.  This type of cancer responds INCREDIBLY well to chemotherapy.  I can tell you that I truly believe she's going to make a full recovery and that she will probably feel better than she ever thought she could after this is all said and done.  We'll be taking her to recovery soon and then to ICU for a night or 2.  I'm just so pleased with this outcome..."  So about 10 hours later and 8 organs lighter, Bernice was officially on the road to recovery...

Just so you know, doctors don't talk like that unless they mean it.  They're trained not to fill you with false hope...not to give you the "sugar coated version".  They shoot straight.  So her demeanor said everything we were hoping and praying for.  Bernice was going to make a full recovery.  She was going to get through this.  So we went upstairs (me and Patrick and Charlie and Jonathan) and waited for her to be brought into ICU.  It took so long we were advised to leave and come back.  So we grabbed some dinner and headed back up.  We went one at a time into ICU to see her.  When I first went in, I was amazed at how awesome she looked.  She was in and out of consciousness due to the anesthesia, but she looked great!  But then it hit me.  I saw her and could foresee the pain she was going to have to endure, I pictured her post chemo with her hair gone, I saw the needles in her arms, I saw her poor swollen hand.  And a wash of something like panic came over me.  I had to sit down.  I needed air.  So I skated back out of the room to the hallway where Patrick and Jonathan and Charlie were and sent Jonathan and Charlie back in.  I had to breathe for a minute.  So Patrick and I commiserated about that initial unexpected shock.  And then, I took a deep breath, steadied myself, and said to myself "You know what? I've got 4 days to take care of her.  I've got 4 days to let her know how much I love her.  I've got 4 days to infuse her with as much confidence as I can.  And I'm not wasting a minute of those 4 days on the floor in this stupid hallway worrying about her when I can be by her side, holding that puffy little hand, feeding her ice chips, combing her hair, telling her how amazing she looks, reminding her what a miracle she is."  So I went back in.  And I didn't leave until they told me I had to...

She spent about 2 weeks in the hospital.  Jonathan and I stayed with her the first night she got out of the ICU.  That night, something inside me changed.  There was something about that night that made me stronger, stepped me farther away from child and closer to woman, brought out my maternal instinct.  It was a rough night.  There was pain, there was blood, there was drama, it was a little "touch and go" for a bit.  But with the light of morning came a band of doctors and interns and med students commenting on how well she was doing.  Her blood counts were back up, her incision looked good, she'd be up walking soon!  I slept maybe a total of an hour that night.  Jonathan slept on the floor and was constantly kicked out of the room as doctors came in to check on her or she needed something from me.  We ended up snuggled up on the lounger together while Bernice enjoyed the most extended rest she'd had up until that point as the sun came up over Oklahoma City.  And although I was lacking in hours of sleep, I felt energized and rested.  God was giving me that thumbs up.  That vote of confidence.  "Rachel, I've got this.  It's time for you to go.  There is nothing you can do that I can't do better for her.  Just give her to me and let me handle this."

So 2 days later, Jonathan and I had to say our goodbyes to everyone.  Bernice's goodbye was given lying in her hospital bed (mind you AFTER she had made a few laps up and down the hallway already!).  She said "I will not be the reason you guys question whether this is what you're supposed to do.  You're supposed to go.  And I'm gonna be fine."  It was a tearful "see ya later", but leaving that hospital, an inexplainable peace washed over me.  There was nothing holding us back.  The devil had played his final card, and that blow was STILL not enough to keep us from doing the will of God.  So we went to the airport.  Got through security.  And all either one of us could talk about as we headed to our gate was "How cool is it gonna be when we come back here in 17 weeks and she's at the bottom of that escalator?  I can't believe we are finally going to the Caribbean."

So there you have it.  The story in a nutshell.  In the past 17 weeks Bernice has dealt with post surgery recovery and is in the middle of Round 2 of 6 of chemotherapy.  She is feeling great.  More like herself than she has in a while.  She doesn't let chemo get her down!  Her responses to my "how are you feeling?" texts are almost always "I'm a little tired, but other than that I feel great.  No pain!".  I'm amazed.  She is resilient....a rock.  Hopefully she's as much an inspiration to you as she is to me.  Mind over matter!  If I can walk I can dance!  She's amazing.  So to wrap up this story, I want to share some pictures with you.  Bernice isn't just "recovering" she's WINNING...and she's doing it in style!

Bernice going to her first day of chemotherapy.  Dressed to the 9's and looking fabulous in a new ADKOF design.  Who needs stretch pants and jammies?

Bernice at the local pumpkin patch a week or so after her first round of chemo.  Cancer shouldn't stop a girl from decorating for Fall should it??

Bernice sporting her wig.  Oh. My. Gosh.  If you didn't know it was a wig, you just wouldn't guess it.  She should seriously be a poster child...

Bernice rocking "Chemo Kumihimo" during session 2 of round 2 of her chemotherapy.  Because enduring a session of chemo shouldn't stop a girl from making beautiful jewelry.  Or totally owning a hot boho chic look!

Keep doing what you do Bernice!  Keep being who you are!  Because there is so much about who you are and what you do that makes me want to be better.  A better version of me.  A version of me that has a little twinge of you.  Because even a little you is worth more than anything!  Love you!


  1. I'm your newest follower from the hop. Congratulations to your MIL. My niece just celebrated her 1 year of being done with Chemo. It's not an easy journey but your MIL looks great!

    Thinking of your family.

    Kimberly @

    1. Thanks Kimberly! She sure is inspiring. I can't wait to get home and see her in a few weeks! Thanks for stopping by!


  2. Amazing story. I can't imagine getting any life threatening disease. Very encouraging and makes me so thankful for what I have. Stopping by from the GFC hop. I am a new follower. Hope to see you at True Aim!

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by! I hope my Bernice was inspiring to you! Glad you enjoyed the post. Returning the follow right now!


  3. New follower and loving your blog! Prayers for your mother-in-law! She looks strong as hell :)

    1. Thank you so much Samantha! I think so too! It's tough for me to be so far away from her while she's going through this, but it helps a lot to know she's doing so well and fighting such a good fight. Thanks for stopping by! I'm returning the follow right now!



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