Emalee is passionate about creating a world where no one has to navigate cancer alone. As an attorney in Washington, D.C., she is an example of how living with cancer does not define you.
Sometimes I wonder how I can even be associated with Becky and Taylor. Honestly, I just read their ‘about me sections’ and feel serious imposter syndrome. But for some reason they keep me around and I don’t want to ask questions. So although this is out of my comfort zone, I tagging along for this blog journey! Please be kind – This is for you. Muah!
I was 28 and healthy when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was gearing up for a typical Saturday night and was brushing my mascara on real think when a strange sensation started creeping up my hand. I didn’t know what I was feeling or what was wrong, but in that moment, I knew something wasn’t right. Thankfully by the time I had realized something was wrong, I was able shout for help and sit down on the ground. My speech was unrecognizable. I remember trying to form the words 9-1-1, but the words just couldn’t come out. My mouth was just so heavy and the words couldn’t form. Thinking about that moment still gives me goose bumps. By the time the ambulance had arrived, I was fairly back to normal and truthfully, very embarrassed by the time the EMTs found me. My speech was back to normal, but I was cracking jokes trying to make light of the situation – how ridiculous is it that we tend to make ourselves uncomfortable before making another person feel uncomfortable. I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. The EMTs were convinced that I had simply ‘passed out’ and insistently asked me if I was dieting. I laughed and said I wish. They didn’t find me very clever, but in that moment I am grateful that I reiterated that I something didn’t feel right and I needed to go to the doctor.
After the seizure and a joy ride in the back of the ambulance, I arrived into the ER and informed the staff that I had just experienced a heart attack. I picture what happened next like a scene in Grey’s Anatomy. The doctors started running tests to detect evidence of a heart attack…Looking back this is comical. It didn’t take long for the doctors to run me through some big machines and discover that betch, Gretchen. Yes, we named my tumor.
The doctors best guess is that Gretchen was brewing for about ten years before she made her grand entrance. T-E-N Y-E-A-R-S. How is that even possible? Regardless, there she was, grapefruit sized and nasty. There are a lot of quirks to brain cancer. Truly, things that had never occurred to me. For example, it seems obvious, but unlike other types of cancer, can you imagine how they biopsy a mass in the brain? Exactly, a craniectomy (honestly, who can spell that?). After a craniectomy, Gretchen was officially diagnosed as a Grade 2 astrocytoma aka cancer, complete with jellyfish-like tentacles, microscopic cancer cells intricately woven into my healthy brain tissue.
Probably just an Emalee quirk. But have you ever wanted to feel extraordinarily gifted or truly exceptional at something? I have always been somewhere in between. Average. I’ve never been really bad at something but have never been remarkably good either. Just normal. Why did having cancer have to be my thing? I would have welcomed mindlessly slaying law school or becoming finalist on Jeopardy, kicking ass at the tambourine, seriously, couldn’t it have been anything else? Nope! Instead, here I am just like any other 90s baby, with a side of brain cancer. I’m mostly salty because I had perfected the recipe for success and I had followed that damn recipe to a T. Join every damn club in high school (check). Get into college and join a sorority (check). Drown yourself in student loan debt trying to become a lawyer (check). I did every damn thing I was supposed to.
This formula made a lot of sense to me until it just didn’t. January 13, 2018. Looking back, there are moments in your life when everything changes. For me, there is a before cancer and after cancer. Admittedly, sometimes the moments blend together and my brain forgets what happened when. Talk about lessons learned, during my cancer journey Momma Cindi kept nagging me to journal or at least write one sentence a day, so that I could see my progress over time. Do you think I listened? Absolutely not. I will do my best to lean into the uncomfortableness (thanks Brené!)
My intention is not to shed light on some of the uglier parts of my journey, but I am going to challenge myself to be unapologetically authentic. Why? Because you deserve to hear all of the really great moments that happen with cancer, but also the really ugly parts too – the stuff that nobody tells you. If you are cozying up for the ride, you better be comfortable with curse words and no BS.
I once heard someone say, “I am not living with brain cancer, brain cancer is living with me.” And it always stuck. There is no cure for brain cancer. Brain cancer is treatable not curable. While Gretchen is a low-grade glioma, she is always lingering. Despite the doctor’s scooping her out like ice cream (I kid you not, that is how a neurosurgeon explained it once!), receiving 35 rounds of radiation straight to her core, and ingesting chemotherapy for 12 months, she still lingers. Back to the sentiment of words that stick? I remember sitting in my oncologist’s office when she told me it wasn’t a matter of if Gretchen comes back, but when she comes back. Another brainy fact! When a craniotomy is performed, neurosurgeons are faced with weighing the benefits of removing the cancer cells with preserving your healthy brain tissue. Again, maybe not so obvious, your brain is the most complex part of the human body. I swear to you, people do not believe me, but I have had to re-teach myself how to perform basic skills. I was in rehabilitation program for months – physical, speech, and occupational therapy. Seriously, I couldn’t even draw a fucking clock.
Physically, cancer is no easy fete. But what is often overlooked is the other side of the coin. Experiencing cancer is trauma and deserves emotional healing too. For 19 months, I was navigating more than just my physical health. During those months, I was consumed by some shit. Like seriously shitty shit. I was so naïve when it came to cancer and unfortunately, you probably are too. We are talking IVF treatments, the loss of a career, navigating short/long term disability, lack of health insurance, preparing a living will, having tough conversations with your power of attorney, and navigating a divorce after discovering an ongoing affair. Seriously. I can’t make this shit up. My life fell apart. I know it seems crazy, but for me the emotional destruction I experienced during my cancer journey hurt more than the physical health of cancer.
All of this to say, my shit was heavy and awful. But everyone has shit, cancer or note, and it is all heavy and awful. My hope is that I can make your shit just a little less shitty.
I can’t promise the journey is easy or that it gets easier. I can’t promise that you’ll look back and think “wow, cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me” because that is 100% bullshit. All I can say is that I am happy you are here. It is possible to live in a world where cancer is merely one chapter of your story. I have a new recipe for success, and it is simple – live your best life. I think about cancer every day, but for now I am happy to be average. Boring. Simple. Normal.
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