As many of you know, I manage O’Neill Plastic Surgery and I am currently working towards my master’s degree from the Medical University of South Carolina in Healthcare Administration. Little did I know, the future I had mapped out was about to take a huge turn.
It all began in early October when I woke up with chills and a fever. The next day I went to see the doctor and was given medicine to treat the flu. Two weeks later, I was still having the same symptoms (night sweats, high fever, etc.) and returned to the doctor for further treatment. After several tests and an x-ray, I was diagnosed with pneumonia and was prescribed an antibiotic. I was told to take the medicine for two weeks and to take it easy. After another two weeks, my symptoms had gotten much worse. Daily activities like walking my dog (Sailor), taking a shower and walking up and down a flight of stairs were a challenge for me. I began having upper back pain and found it difficult to take a deep breath if I was standing up straight. Not knowing if this was a side effect of pneumonia, I called the doctor for advice on my way to work. Within two hours the doctor not only called me back, but had already scheduled me for a CT scan. I left during my lunch break for the CT scan and simply returned back to work just thinking he was being over precautious. My doctor, Dr. Meacher, called me at 3:00pm to see if I would swing by his office on my way home. So that’s what I did. I left work just like any other day and stopped by for the results from my CT scan.
When I got to Dr. Meacher’s office there was no one in the waiting room. As I walked up to the front desk to put my name down on the waiting list, the receptionist told me that I didn’t need to do that and she went ahead and put me in an exam room. I was just sitting in there by myself, and you would think my natural reaction would be to feel nervous, but it wasn’t! It was frustration! I was frustrated that he made me come into the office just to read a report. Why couldn’t he just do it over the phone? When Dr. Meacher and his nurse came into the room I looked at them and I was instantly nervous. I knew something was wrong the second I saw his face. I will never forget his demeanor and the look on his face as he searched for the words to tell me that something, he wasn’t sure what, was terribly wrong. I don’t remember his first words, but basically he said “there is a reason your back is hurting and you are in so much pain. The CT scan revealed that there is a mass that is about 11cm wide in your chest.”
For an instant it felt as if time had frozen. Like a thunderstorm of my body, a crash of thunder inside my head brought me back to reality and the tears started pouring down like rain. As my eyes filled with tears, my mind filled with a thousand questions!! What could this be?? Where do we go from here?? And how fast can my Mom and Dad get here? I was scared, and not knowing what to be scared of is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to face. Before I left Dr. Meacher’s office he told me I have an appointment the next day with Dr. Reed, a thoracic surgeon who specializes in esophageal and lung cancers.
I remember leaving his office in a complete daze and driving to Courtney’s house to find comfort. Without warning, I burst into her house and fell to my knees in tears as I told her the news. We spent the next few hours trying to think positively as I waited for my dad to get into town. The next couple of days I kept to myself, prayed A LOT and tried to focus on everything except the news I was just given.
After meeting with Dr. Reed, she ordered a biopsy so we could have a better understanding of what we were up against. That Friday morning at 8:00 am I had the procedure and was told they were to rush the results. At 7:45 pm I was sitting on the couch with Jay and my family when Dr. Reed called to inform me that I HAVE CANCER. I burst into tears and can’t find the words to explain the feeling I had or the thoughts that began to run through my head. Dr Reed stated it was lymphoma, but she wasn’t sure the type and told me that several test needed to be done to make that determination. It would be some time Monday before they would know anything else. Well, I did what anybody would do……I prayed, cried and searched on WebMD to try and learn a little more about the news I was just given. After a little research, I found that there are over 40 different types of lymphoma and that looking at WedMD was the worst idea EVER! On Monday, November 7th at 3:45 pm (longest day of my life), Dr. Reed informed me that I had mediastinal diffused large b-cell lymphoma, a curable cancer!
She referred me to Dr. Costa, an oncologist that specializes in b-cell lymphoma at Hollings Cancer Center. The very next day (Tuesday) my family and I met with him to discuss my options. I was stuck in the worst nightmare I’ve ever had and I couldn’t wake up! My biggest fear had somehow become my reality and I needed to get ready for battle. There was so much I still wanted to do. In many ways my life had just begun. I was worried about the chemo affecting my ability to have children, I was scared that it may be located in other places in my body and I was devastated that my life had just changed completely for the worse in a matter of two weeks.
Dr. Costa informed us of the standard chemotherapy regimen for diffuse large b-cell lymphoma called R-CHOP. R-CHOP is the abbreviated name of a combination of drugs used in chemotherapy for aggressive Non-Hodgkin Lymphomas (NHL). It consists of Rituximab, Cyclophosphmide, Hydroxydaunorubicin, Oncovin and Prednisone. I would receive six rounds of chemo (21 days between each round) staring Thursday, November 10th.
On November 10th, I began the fight against cancer, the fight for my life. The treatment or infusion as they call it went pretty well. I was blessed to have my family and friends stop by to show their support. It was simply another reminder that I’m not in this alone. I had a reaction to the first drug called Rituximab. It was pretty scary to say the least, but the remainder of the day went as planned. The next weekend I was blessed to have most of my best friends from college come down to surprise me for a weekend of FUN! They ALL went with me to get my hair cut really short and to get my make-up done. I felt like a princess. We laughed about old times and snuggled on the couch watching old movies.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday I was experiencing some pain and began running a fever. After speaking with my doctor, I was told to go to the nearest hospital with an oncology department for blood work. It was 5:50 am Thanksgiving morning and we were heading to CMS hospital in Charlotte…..not quite how I had pictured me spending my holiday with my family. After the blood work was completed I was told that I was neutropenic (neutropenia is an abnormally low level of neutrophills which means that my body was unable to defend itself against infections). With absolutely no immune system, I was then hospitalized and treated with IV antibiotics for the next three days. My family (yes all 26 of us) were planning to spend Thanksgiving dinner at my parent’s house, but unfortunately things didn’t go as planned. I spent the next couple of days in isolation laughing at my brother in home videos and watching many Disney movies on the VCR player (yes, I did say VCR player!) in my hospital room, including The Little Mermaid, my fav! It was far from ideal, but we made the best of it!
The second infusion went much better!! Because we knew better how my body would react to the drugs, we were able to adjust my medication to make the process easier for me. They also gave me another shot called Nuelasta that is used to reduce the chance of infection by boosting my white blood counts. I was still experiencing flu like symptoms, but I was so happy to be out of the hospital. I was able to return to work some and they even set me up so that I could work from home when needed.
Two days prior to my 3rd infusion, I was experiencing some pain. In fear of it delaying my chemo, I rushed to the hospital to have some blood work done. After meeting with Dr. Costa I was given orders to go home and avoid being around people, but that I should be able to receive treatment. I was thrilled!! When I arrived for the infusion on Thursday, I was told to report to the main hospital for an x-ray. Dr. Costa read the results from the x-ray and I’m happy to report that the mass has shrunk tremendously!!! I cried tears of joy for the next two hours (seriously, could not stop)!! All of the pain that I had been suffering from couldn’t compare to the amount of excitement that consumed every inch of my body. IT’S WORKING!!!
I’m halfway through this journey and I pray that I continue to improve. This journey won’t be easy, but I can and WILL get through this. I don’t know what caused the cancer or what God’s plan is, but I do know how truly fortunate I am to have each of you by my side as I travel down this journey. I’m blessed to have the most amazing parents, boyfriend and friends that anyone could ask for! Thank you all so much for believing in me and giving me the strength to fight this battle. Thanks again for everything!
My name is Abby Bunkley and I’m a fighter.