You don’t think it’s cancer, do you? I asked my brand new primary care doctor after she’d examined the swollen lymph node I’d come in about.
No, she answered, but we need to do all the tests just to make sure.
I felt a little silly calling a doctor about the small lump that had been in my armpit for the past couple weeks. I don’t even know how I discovered it — scratching an itch, I guess? I hadn’t been sick and didn’t have any logical reason to have a swollen lymph node, and something inside me nagged me to get it checked out, silly feelings aside.
Five weeks later, after an ultrasound which led to a biopsy, I got the call on a gorgeous, sunny Wednesday evening at 5 pm as Whitney and I were heading out to go ride.
“It looks like you have lymphoma.”
Everything my doctor said after those words went in one ear and out the other. What? How could this be? This was supposed to be nothing. I am healthier than I’ve ever been. I make it a point to eat well, sleep 8+ hours a night, exercise every day, drink only in moderation… And I felt totally fine.
I hung up the phone, stunned. I turned to Whitney and told her what happened. She asked if I wanted to call anyone else. No, not yet, I just want to ride. It was the best way I knew how to process the feelings, but the truth was, I wasn’t feeling much yet. I was in shock, maybe some denial. I couldn’t fully grasp what this meant.
By the end of the next day, I had an appointment with an oncologist for Friday. He kept reassuring me that I was going to be fine, that for all he could tell, we caught it early. It’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is one of the most treatable cancers there is. The prognosis is very good.
I liked his style and demeanor. He showed me flow charts of the treatment plan depending on what stage my cancer was and the list of tests I’d need to undergo before starting chemo. There was the PET scan of course, which would show how widespread the cancer cells were. I needed to get a full panel of bloodwork, a lung function test, echocardiogram, and they wanted a full biopsy of the lymph node to determine the subtype, so I needed to have surgery to have it removed. I also had to have a port through which I’d receive chemo inserted under my skin near my collarbone. These tests were all scheduled for the following week.
I was planning to go away that weekend to the Lu Lacka Wyco Hundo. I was going to head up early on Saturday and do an easy ride in that area, then camp with some friends before the century on Sunday.
Saturday morning, after Evan left for his ride, I tried to get my brain to focus enough to pack for the overnight. Alone with my thoughts, I felt panic coming on. I wasn’t sure I could mentally do this — go to this bike event alone and act normal despite knowing about this huge thing that is totally going to upend my life.
I wasn’t sure I could physically do it either. This one piece of knowledge had suddenly destroyed my confidence in my body. I thought I was so healthy, only to find that there is actually something very wrong with me. How can I ride 100 miles if I have cancer, I thought.
Of course this is illogical, as Evan had reminded me the night before as I’d expressed similar concerns to him. You’re still the same person, he assured me. My muscles didn’t just disappear because I learned about something that has probably been going on in my body for a while.
I finally pushed the fearful thoughts aside and got myself out the door, hours after I’d intended. I had a lot of fun at camp that night and almost forgot about my diagnosis, until it was time to part ways and head off to bed. I lay in my tent for a while Googling “biking through chemotherapy,” trying to find some stories of encouragement for the coming months ahead. I was determined to stay as active as possible through all this. The good news is that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that exercise helps with the side effects of chemo. I know I need it to help with the mental side effects.
I felt like I didn’t sleep that night. Between thoughts about cancer, some nervousness about the ride the next day, and the chill in the air (for some reason I thought I would be fine with my summer sleeping bag), it seemed like I just tossed and turned. But I didn’t feel that bad in the morning, and a cup of coffee brewed on my camp stove perked me right up and ready to ride.
I’d gotten myself to Lu Lacka by telling myself that I could always bail and do one of the shorter course options if I wasn’t feeling it. But that morning, I headed out determined to finish all 100 miles, even if it took a while and even if I felt like crap. I didn’t know when I’d be able to do this again.
I ended up riding with a new friend all day. The morning started off cool but warmed up quickly. It was going to be the warmest day of the year so far, which made me even more skeptical that I would finish strong. I normally don’t do well with the first few hot rides before my body has a chance to acclimate. Around mile 40, my legs started to feel heavy, but I am no stranger to this feeling. It’s par for the course. On long rides, I typically start to feel pretty tired around mile 40-50, then I get a second wind and start to feel better. Sure enough, by mile 60 I was feeling great. It was really hot, but I was tolerating it just fine. Even my stomach felt good. I was eating and drinking enough water. I was having a great time and we finished strong. Ironically, it was the best I’d felt on a long ride in a while.
The week after Lu Lacka was rough. Spending most of my Tuesday and Wednesday at two different hospitals meeting with doctors and getting tested slapped me in the face with the reality of what was happening. My port placement was also scheduled for the upcoming Friday, which meant that I’d have to take it easy the following weekend. Maybe Lu Lacka really was my last long ride for a while. I mourned the loss of my lifestyle and the impending decline of my fitness and strength. I had a panic attack during my lung test and I cried during the surgical consult about my lymph node removal. I entertained fears about never being the same again after this and I let them consume me.
But by the time the port insertion procedure rolled around on Friday morning, I’d found some amount of acceptance. I decided that I had to refuse to believe that I’d never feel good riding my bike again. I had to refuse to believe that I could never reach my current level of strength and endurance again — or get even stronger. Yes, this experience will change me, but maybe for the better. Maybe getting through this will give me a level of mental fortitude I’ve been searching for. Quite frankly, this is going to suck. But I am determined to do everything I can to ensure the best possible outcome. I’m going to keep exercising as much as I can. I started paying even closer attention to my diet and eating extra healthy. I quit drinking alcohol. And perhaps hardest of all, I’m being mindful of my thoughts and not letting myself go too far down the “what if” road.
It turns out I’ll have one more weekend to do a long ride — I don’t have any exercise restrictions with the port so I will still be going to Mammoth Endurance Gravel this upcoming weekend before having my lymph node removed on May 9. I’ll likely start chemo shortly thereafter.
I want to share this journey — what it’s like, what works for me and what doesn’t, lessons I learn, etc. I’ve done a ton of Googling these past couple weeks trying to find stories from people similar to me who have gone through this. Maybe I can offer insights that are helpful to someone else. And writing is a way that I know works for me to process tough things that are happening. Thanks for following along.