“‘You have 7 months to live if we don’t begin treatment right away.’
7 months to live. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…. 7.
It was October of 2018 and I was working 60-70 hours a week trying to climb the corporate ladder. For about 6 months, I had random and quite weird symptoms: itchy legs, fatigue, vertigo, shortness of breath, and weight loss. I went to a few different doctors who all assured me I was fine. I thought to myself, ‘Great, because I don’t have time to be sick.’
In October, I began experiencing extreme back and neck pain. I reluctantly dragged myself to another doctor for answers. I was in the waiting room when I reached up and felt my neck and there it was. On the bottom left side of my neck, I felt a large lump… I felt sick to my stomach. I immediately pulled out my phone and consulted Dr. Google. Can you guess what Dr. Google told me it was? Yep… Cancer. I immediately pushed that thought away because Google always says cancer…
I am generally a very anxious person and so I remember touching my lump over and over again. I showed my family and my close friends. Each time one of them told me it was probably nothing was like a drug to my anxious mind. However, my mom isn’t so easily convinced and forced me to go to the ER. My husband and I walked into the ER full of people waiting, explained why we were there, and were taken back right away. ‘Do they usually skip other people? Maybe they’re just waiting for someone,’ I thought to myself. The ER doctor came in and identified the lump as a swollen lymph node. She told me it was probably nothing, but she recommended a chest X-ray just to be safe. The ER doctor told me we’d probably be out of there within an hour.
After my X-ray, we were waiting for the doctor and I was already planning my exit. I had work to do when I got home. Deadlines to meet and NO time to be ‘sick.’ The doctor entered the room. She was crying. She was carrying a teddy bear. She sat down on the bed next to me and what she said next changed my life forever. ‘I’m so sorry we found large masses all over your chest. I think you might have lymphoma. Cancer,’ said the doctor. It turns out it was absolute fate this doctor was mine. She had a friend who battled lymphoma when she was a teenager so she pushed for the chest X-ray when another doctor may have again brushed me off.
As soon as the doctor left the room, I turned to my husband and cried, ‘I don’t want to lose my hair!!’ Within 24 hours, I was being wheeled into my first ever surgery, set up with an oncologist appointment, and thrust into the land of the sick. My identity of a wife, a mom, a friend, an employee, was replaced with just one title— patient.
After an agonizing week of waiting, my biopsy results came through on my phone in the middle of a Chick Fil A. Chicken sandwiches with a side of you-have-cancer. I went home, laid in the middle of my living room, and sobbed. I don’t remember how I ever got the strength to get up. A few days later, I was in a cancer center hearing my fate— I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma… the oncologist described it as the ‘good cancer.’ Then somehow in the same breath, he said I had 7 months to live. It didn’t seem very ‘good’ to me.
For the next 7 months, I underwent 12 grueling chemotherapy treatments with multiple complications. The only thing people kept telling me was how brave and strong I was. What an inspiration! These are the last words I would have used to describe myself. I was a broken person, a sick person, a patient. I didn’t know who Chelsey was anymore. The woman I used to be already died.
I was desperate to feel ‘normal’ again and so only 6 weeks after I finished chemotherapy, I returned to work. The way people looked at me as I walked in the office was like they’d seen a ghost. I felt like a ghost. Well-meaning coworkers complimented my ‘hair cut’… I wanted to scream it’s not a f*cking haircut, but I just smiled and said thank you. I felt like I needed to live up to their expectations of being strong. That same day, another coworker commented I must have enjoyed my 7-month vacation. Vacation? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, …7 months. I guess since I’m supposed to be dead right now, I should just feel grateful.
About 2 months into returning to work, I lost it. I was driving home from work and just started sobbing. Who the hell was I? I had just fought for my life and suddenly I’m talking to Susie about the latest office gossip. All of this just seemed so insignificant and I just wanted to escape. Thoughts of the cancer returning constantly dominated my thoughts. The safety blanket of weekly doctor visits had been ripped off. My oncologist gave me the famous ‘see ya in 3 months’ speech and I was sent away. One thing the cancer movies don’t tell you is that life after cancer treatment is so much harder.
Fast forward to October 2019 and I’m due for my routine PET scan just to be sure the cancer was staying away. In fact, my scan was scheduled for the exact same week I was diagnosed. The scan results popped up on my phone a few days later… I relapsed. I felt like I let people down. My friends, my coworkers, and most of all my family. I wasn’t the inspiration anymore… I was the sad story you read about somewhere. I went back to work the following day because I wanted to wrap up my assignments. I was sitting at my desk staring at these papers that meant absolutely nothing to me. I didn’t care about this job. I cared about not dying. I felt like I was drowning. I started crying, I crumpled up my papers, shut my laptop, and left. I never made it back.
I transitioned my care to Mayo Clinic desperate to find answers and next steps. I was told I needed a stem cell transplant. Since I am a certified Dr. Google myself now, I already knew what was coming but I was horrified and scared. High dose chemotherapy, a 4-6 week stay in the hospital, and at least a year of living in a bubble. When you receive a stem cell transplant, you are like a newborn baby and highly susceptible to infection. I had no other choice. It was this or die. I may have considered the latter if I didn’t have a child to be here for. The thought of putting all this poison back into my body made me physically ill. I just wanted to run away and never look back.
In order to qualify for the transplant, I had to get into remission. I opted for a new treatment that was less harsh and would let me keep my little regrown hair until transplant. I also decided to stop making everyone else comfortable with my cancer. I turned on my phone’s camera and started spilling my guts. I’m not brave. I’m not inspirational. I’ve lost friends because of my diagnosis. Everyone who says ‘let me know if you need anything’ is lying. I started candidly speaking about my experiences and uploaded it to YouTube. YouTube became my therapy and also a way I could give back to others. I wanted to let other cancer patients know that they were not alone in feeling this way.
I completed 3 treatments and had a scan to confirm I was in remission. I was planning on going to transplant right after. By the way, during this time, the job I dedicated so much of my energy to tried to fire me for having cancer a second time. It felt like they just threw me in the trash because I wasn’t useful anymore.
I was sitting in the oncologist’s office with my husband to get my scan results, feeling nervous but optimistic to a point. The doctor was very confident I’d be in remission. Turns out I wasn’t done being different. The treatment hadn’t worked. My cancer spread. For the first time, I saw a glint of sadness in my oncologist’s eyes. My husband was in shock but eternally optimistic. I wanted him to face reality and acknowledge things were bad. I was going to die. The next week I was admitted to the hospital for inpatient chemotherapy. It was the sickest I’d ever felt.
2 weeks after my first inpatient treatment, my hair fell out for the second time. It was so much harder the second time. I had just grown this hair. It was a symbol of my healing. I turned on my camera and started pulling out my hair. I wanted to show what it looks like raw and real. No photoshoots, no balloons, no fluff… just the ugly truth.
March 2020, the whole world shut down for a pandemic. It was also the month I found out I was in remission and ready to proceed to transplant. My transplant was allowed to continue in the midst of shutdowns because it was a life-saving procedure. The day you receive your stem cells is known as your re-birthday. My re-birthday was delayed by 1 day because of a pending COVID test. It was delayed until April Fool’s Day. Honestly, it felt pretty fitting because my life felt like one big cruel joke.
The transplant and recovery was the absolute hardest thing I’ve ever been through. My husband was my caregiver and there were points when I couldn’t even walk. I was only 29 when I received my transplant, yet I felt like an old woman. The transplant has given me my life, but it has taken so much too. I am infertile now. I now have diagnosed with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and ADHD. I don’t live even one day or maybe not even one hour without thinking about cancer.
I also have a new purpose. Change. I want to actively change the way the world sees cancer and cancer patients. I began making funny little drawings depicting the realities of cancer. For example, the hair on your head isn’t the only hair that falls out. In fact, I lost all my hair downstairs before it fell out of my head. To more serious topics such as mental health issues and body image issues.
I was surprised by the feedback I received online. Immediately, people began reaching out to me saying they felt the same way. They also told me my art was making them feel less alone. There were days I sat in bed feeling so alone myself. I felt like my soul finally had a purpose and a reason to have endured so much. I’m not a very spiritual or religious person but I’ve always felt a calling to help others. Damn, it’s crazy how things manifest themselves.
It’s been a little over a year since my transplant and I’ve remained in remission. My odds of relapse have greatly reduced. I have recently graduated to scans every 6 months. I recently saw a quote about how beautiful it is for people who have been in a fire to carry buckets of water back for those in their own fire. I feel like my art is doing this in a very small way and I’m extremely grateful to pay it forward.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Chelsey Gomez from DeLand, FL. You can follow their journey on Instagram, Etsy, and YouTube. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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