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Some Pre-Chemo Thoughts on Round 50

In a couple of hours, I’ll be at USC Norris to embark on my 50th round of chemo. It’s not an actual milestone, but it certainly feels like one. So let me share some pre-chemo thoughts before I get to some serious cancer-killing.

I woke up this morning with a shot of adrenaline. Honestly, this feels like my first round. I’ve been bouncing around the house, bellowing and singing and generally acting like a lunatic, which is always a good sign. More than anything, I’m grateful to be alive and strong. I’m grateful that, throughout over two and a half years of treatment, I’ve never wavered in my approach to fighting cancer. I’m grateful that my positive attitude and unyielding confidence have anchored me through every round of chemo, every round of radiation, and through every surgery.

I thank my family for being unbelievably strong and supportive throughout this journey. From my grandma who texts my mom every day asking how I’m feeling, to my dad who always gives me a good foot or hand or back rub whenever I ask for one, to my mom who would literally move mountains to make my life better or easier. My family has always had my back and believed in me, and when you know that people believe in you, it really helps you to believe in yourself. I believe in myself in spades, so you can imagine how much my family believes in me.

I thank my friends for being incredibly fun, loving, and awesome. I’ve heard of people losing friends upon receiving a cancer diagnosis, and I’ve not only maintained my friendships, I’ve actually gained some. That is the ultimate testament to how wonderful, loyal, and good-hearted my buddies are. My crew has my back to such an extent that I always feel like I have a small army behind me. They have enriched my life in so many ways and they continue to do so.

I thank my doctors for working so hard for me. My surgeons (Ramos, Sugarbaker, Genyk), my radiation oncologist (Song), my hematologist (Liebman), and my best buddy and brilliant oncologist, Dr. Lenz. These people have made it their business to help me survive, and I am endlessly thankful for their brilliant minds and incredible talents. Knowing that my medical team is as strong as can be makes me even more psyched to take down this beast.

So, now, it’s time for me to hop in the shower, get my game face on, and beat cancer with chemo for the 50th time. My golden anniversary, and I’m feeling extra special golden today. Thank you all for your support and love. You all make me stronger, which is pretty damn strong.

Chemo Round 49 and Duke

Chemo Round 49 and the trip to my beloved alma mater that followed capped off a pretty crazy (but very fun) two weeks for me: from Atlanta to Coachella to chemo to Durham.

First, chemo. Round 49. It is not lost on me that many do not make it to 49 rounds of chemo, and this realization will continue to be at the front of my mind as I march off to Round 50, 51, and so on. I woke up feeling excited for treatment, as usual, but also grateful. This cancer-killing adventure hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t been quick – but I’m still in it and that’s probably an understatement. If this was a boxing match between me and cancer (and it is), we’d be deep into the fight and I’d still be looking pretty good: no broken nose but maybe a little something shoved up a nostril to control bleeding….face not too bruised but maybe a cut on the cheek. Meanwhile, cancer is looking pretty haggard and bloody – footwork not nearly what it was, bag of tricks almost totally empty, and coming to the realization that this opponent won’t be giving up any time soon. To steal from baseball for a second: this one is going into extra innings.

Infusion at Norris went well. As always, I am incredibly well taken care of by Dr. Lenz, Taline, and all of the nurses and volunteers in the clinic and at the Day Hospital. I got a bed, cuddled up, and grazed on the various vegan foods provided by Norris and my mom (it’s a bounty, trust me). All the while, my body was dutifully guzzling up some more chemo and making sure that cancer continues to wonder “why the hell did I pick this kid?”

The week that followed wasn’t the easiest of chemo weeks, only because my activity was way up from what it would normally be. Instead of staying in bed on Tuesday, I went to my friend Alla’s memorial service, which was a mandatory thing for me regardless of how I felt. After crying my little eyes out and missing my friend, I was pretty drained. And instead of resting in bed all day on Wednesday, I got up and headed to Norris to get some pre-flight fluids, just to make sure I’d be bounced back as quickly as possible. The next morning, I was up at 6:30am and flying across the country because The WunderGlo Foundation would be hosting a basketball tournament on Duke’s campus on Saturday. All in all, I felt pretty good, although a little headachy and not that interested in eating that much food…but those things are to be expected if you’re pushing yourself during a chemo week.

And I did. I can admit it. But it was worth it the minute the plane touched down in the North Carolina.

Coming back to Duke is such a special feeling. It truly is a homecoming, and one for which I am continuously grateful. I really don’t know many people who love their school as much as Duke folks (I mean, we LOVE our school), and so I know I’ve been a part of an institution and community that really is special. Duke takes up such a huge part of my heart, and coming back fills my heart and recharges me like few other things do.

One of my favorite spots on campus, Armadillo Grill, is closing after graduation, so I made sure I soaked up some of my favorite Tex-Mex cuisine. A little sign hanging from the menu board that said “We happily accommodate our vegan guests” made the trips even more satisfying. We ate at ‘Dillo (that’s what the Duke kids call it, including me) every single day, and I couldn’t have been more pleased.

I also couldn’t have been more pleased at the fact that my good friend (and WunderGlo Foundation board member), Dan, made the trip out to Duke to join in the fundraising and the festivities. I loved showing him around campus, and he fit in like a glove. We even bought matching Duke sweats and sweatshirts. Bringing people into the Duke family…that’s what I like to do.

I also like to play basketball, which is what I and about 70 others did on Saturday at our “Go To Hell, Cancer!!” 3-on-3 basketball tournament. We raised several thousand dollars and had an amazing time in Duke’s holy land and where so many basketball moments of glory were made: Cameron Indoor Stadium. Hooping in Cameron was truly an unforgettable experience, and hosting such a fun event with awesome people made it all the sweeter. It was an incredible trip, and I have a feeling I’ll be back on campus very soon.

We left Durham on Monday night, and here I am: back in L.A., recharged and refocused, and ready to accomplish big things in May.

Saying Goodbye

There is nothing harder about living in this cancer world than saying goodbye to a friend. Honestly, I could care less about what I personally have to go through – the bi-weekly chemo, the two-a-day Lovenox shots, the scans, the supplements and vitamins and lack of cheeseburgers and cocktails. None of that stuff upsets me. What upsets me is losing a friend to cancer who fought so hard to live.

I found out last Friday, when I was at the Coachella Music Festival with my cousin, that my good friend Alla had passed away. Her very close friend emailed me the news and, even though I knew the news was probably coming soon, I was not ready for it. You can never be ready for losing a loved one. I got the email as I was walking across the fairgrounds and immediately stopped and sat down in the grass, my head in my hands. It took me a long while to get up.

I met Alla a few days after she was diagnosed, in September of 2011. I urged her to come to Norris for treatment. She did. I urged her to become a vegan. She did. I told her that we were young enough and strong enough to endure and to survive until the cure for all of us was available. I believed that with all of my heart. I believed that we both would live to see that day. I was wrong. The sting of that cruel reality hurts me deeply and probably always will.

Alla was a brilliant lawyer – a public defender in Compton, California – and an incredible person. A devoted wife, mother, daughter, and friend. My friend, too.

Her memorial service was almost too much for me to take. Even though it was Chemo Day 2, I knew I was going to get myself together and make it for her service, but I was not prepared for the overwhelming grief I felt while I was there. To see her family and friends so heartbroken, and to be heartbroken myself, was so hard. It was so, so hard.

It brought back memories of losing Annette a few months ago. My two best buds at Norris, Annette and Alla, were gone. Both of them, incredible women and true forces of nature that I was lucky and blessed enough to know, were no longer alive.

It’s hard not to feel robbed. Their families and friends have been robbed of their beautiful presences. The world has been robbed of their talents. I have been robbed of their friendship. It feels unfair…so cruel and so unfair. I sobbed at Alla’s service and I sobbed on the drive home, for the loss of my friend and for that feeling of being wronged by the universe.

But here’s the thing, and here’s what I always remind myself. I can’t get caught up in what is fair and what isn’t in life. There is no fair or unfair. Life is what it is, and I have to continue to live it with a full heart and with gratitude. So after dusting myself off, wiping away the tears, and with a still-tender heart, I gave thanks for Alla. I gave thanks for the fact that I knew her and that she was such an awesome person. I gave thanks again for Annette and how much she means to me. I gave thanks for being in a position to know both of those women, to have helped them and to have been helped by them…to have been good friends and fellow soldiers with them.

I share a bond with them that most people could never know. And I am thankful for that. It’s a bond that nobody would elect to share, but it’s ours. And it’s powerful.

Because, you see, we are cancer patients. We are looking death in the face, every single day. We are fighting for our lives, every single day. We are bonded together by our shared struggles, triumphs, hopes, dreams, spoken and unspoken fears. We are bonded together by our common enemy and our shared zest for life even in the face of that enemy. And while my two friends are no longer fighting and are at peace, I will still fight. I will still hold the banner of cancer warrior in their honor. I will receive that chemo and give myself those Lovenox shots and lay down still when its time to scan my body. And I will continue to be grateful and joyful in the face of challenges and sorrow and struggle. For them, for me, and for all of those who fight this terrible disease.

Rest in Peace, Alla. Your legacy will never die. You are in my heart always.

An Amazing Time in Atlanta

Earlier this week, I headed to Atlanta for the first time in my life. The reason? I was asked to be the keynote speaker at an event at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School. Specifically, I would be speaking at the School’s Program for Global Citizenship’s Annual Lecture. My buddy from Duke, Quinton, is the Director of the Program and thought it’d be good to have me talk to the kids and share my story and the mission of The Wunder Project. Pretty awesome, right?

First, a little about the Program for Global Citizenship. The Program provides an incredible opportunity for high schoolers at Holy Innocents’ to travel within the U.S. and abroad and think of ways that they can make a leadership impact on the communities they encountered. Once they come up with their start-up or non-profit plan, the school gives them small grants to help make their dreams a reality. It was incredible for me to chat with the students (I did that during their lunch, before my talk) and see how creative, driven, and community-oriented they were. Kids these days. They totally blew me away, and they had the most insightful questions about The Wunder Project, my adventure with cancer, and colon cancer in general. Big shout out to Holy Innocents’ for being an awesome school with phenomenal students.

It was 7pm almost before I knew it, and time for me to address the crowd, which consisted of students in the program, their parents, some of my fellow Blue Devils in the area who came out to support me (shout out to Adj and Sara and Andy!), and other folks associated with Holy Innocents’. I spoke about my path to leadership, my fist-fight with cancer, and The Wunder Project. We showed The Wunder Project film and, during Q&A, even showed our Harlem Shake video. I had a great time addressing the crowd and an even better time answering everyone’s questions afterwards. A huge thanks to Quinton and Holy Innocents’ for having me.

After the talk, I spoke with parents and students and was so honored by their kind words and support. The entire experience brought home the fact that I really do need to get in front of people and discuss The Wunder Project to truly make the impact I’d like to make. So, in the next couple of months, we’ll be hitting the road and meeting with major corporations to talk about partnerships. I know that we can get the major, big-money support we need to continue to infuse our movement with new energy and new dollars. There is no quit in me until we reach our goal, and it’s exciting to see things coming together so well.

So I flew back from Atlanta early on Thursday morning and by Thursday night, I was off to Palm Springs for the Coachella Music Festival (where I am today). Expect an update soon because this experience is, as it was last year, truly special. My life is so busy, but I am loving it...and living it with all of my heart.

Chemo Round 48

Before I go on, I realize that I’ve been a slacker with updating the blog, and I apologize for that. For those of you who have followed the blog for a long time, you know that my delay in posting isn’t because of bad news or anything awry but because of good stuff and general busyness. That applies now as it always has. You know your girl Wundy always has a lot cookin'!

I got some pretty solid news about my blood work before chemo round 48. Things are looking good, my disease is stable, and we are on our way to unlocking the mysteries to my particular strain of “the cancer” as I like to call it. I am beyond lucky to have such innovative minds working on my case, chief among them being the great Dr. Lenz. I couldn’t be in better hands, and knowing that gives me such confidence and peace that I never worry about my disease. Never. I’m not saying I don’t pay attention to my body and take care of it as best I can, but I’m not nervous or anxious about the disease in my body. We’ve got its number and it’s a matter of time before it’s totally stomped out. And I will be doing the stomping.

Chemo Round 48 went very smoothly. The time I spent infusing was easy and fun. Over the last two and a half years, I’ve developed some great relationships with the nurses and volunteers at Norris, so coming in for chemo is like spending time with friends. It’s a pretty wonderful feeling, rolling in for treatment and seeing over half a dozen people with whom you share a real bond of friendship. That’s exactly what I experience every other Monday, so I’m a very, very lucky girl.

After chemo, we stopped at my new favorite spot – a place that makes vegan NY-style pizza. Are you kidding me? Delicious. I knew that my appetite would be spotty for the next few days, so I got myself a large pizza with pineapple topping (my favorite) and knew that I’d sustain myself with that deliciousness. Along with that, I noshed on coconut popsicles, fruit, herbal iced tea, and some more coconut popsicles. I kept myself well-hydrated and got enough sleep. Consequently, side effects were super minimal – just a little headache on Tuesday and Wednesday. By Thursday, I was up and about and functioning well – taking care of Wunder Project business, running errands, singing and dancing like a crazy woman in the car (seriously, what do the other motorists think about me?), and pumped that I had gotten through another round of chemo.

One aspect about this cancer-killing adventure I’m on is that it’s a long road. It’s been a long road so far and I am fully prepared for it to continue to be that way. I don’t get anxious about treatment and I don’t ever think “ugh, when will I be done?” I’ll be done when I’ve fully vanquished this beast, and that’s going to take a lot of time and effort. And I’m totally cool with that.

Before my diagnosis, I was likely one of the most impatient people you’d ever meet – when I wanted something, I wanted it immediately and I got pretty irritated if I didn’t achieve whatever I wanted to achieve right away. Cancer has taught me to take one bite at a time, to pace myself, to understand that victory will come but it won’t come immediately or even pretty soon. I’ve learned a brand of patience that had been utterly foreign to me before. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m still goal-oriented, quick to make decisions (like, lightning quick), and decisive in my actions. But as far as my health is concerned, I know that I am a work in progress, and that it will take a while to fully recover from a disease that was so extensive and hell-bent on killing me two and a half years ago.

Slow and steady wins the race, and, make no mistake: I am winning the race.
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