[Editor’s Note: This post is a follow-up to Making Lemonade With Mego by Carlee Buck]
Before any of this was even on my radar, Carlee Buck, my coach at Limestone, mentored me, and now is a wonderful friend, shared a phrase with me that she had always used: “when life gives us coconuts, we’re going to make lemonade anyway.” Ever since then, whenever life has decided to toss something the complete opposite of “lemon-like” my way, we use that phrase.
Last summer, I had been offered and accepted the head coaching position at Converse College and so much had happened to me since then. The IWLCA Capital Cup was approaching and the support I got from the other coaches I knew/been coached by was nothing short of amazing, and much needed in a time of tons of anxiety and fear of what was to come. I was nervous about my first head coaching job, and really had no idea what I was doing or getting myself into. I guess what I am trying to say is, I was freaking out and felt like a chicken with its head cut off. I cried all kinds of tears leading up to my first real recruiting tournament because I finally realized that the fear of the unknown is a real thing. However, I am super thankful other coaches are human like me and, though there is some friendly competition, for the most part, they just want to help and see you succeed. Little did I know that all this was preparing me for the biggest Game Days and battle of my life. It’s crazy how my story starts with bending down to take a picture with my “new” coaching friends after dinner, and progresses to sitting in my oncologist’s office being told the most life-changing three words… “you have cancer.”
Being an athlete is the best thing that could have happened to me growing up. It taught me leadership, mental toughness, hard work, responsibility, integrity, and so many more life lessons. Choosing (and I use that term loosely) to play lacrosse, specifically the position of goalie, has made me the person I am and helped me handle, and get through my diagnosis in ways I didn’t think possible.
I “chose” to play lacrosse goalie my junior year in high school after my homeroom teacher, who happened to be the lacrosse coach, mentioned it once, or 500 times, during my freshmen and sophomore years. Something about just having a complete spinal fusion and possibly getting pelted with lacrosse balls just made the decision so much more appealing. Plus, they really needed a JV goalie and I didn’t quite have enough activities to do, so I thought I would give it a try. With all that said, I got the equipment, laced up my cleats, and gave it a go. I didn’t die the first day of tryouts and I didn’t get kicked out of practice, so I guess the fit was right. Since that night, I have been hooked. Goalie has to be one of the most trying positions. I have no idea what I was thinking when I agreed to tryout in high school, or when I signed a letter of intent to play at a nationally ranked Division II school. But something about the sport keeps you wanting to play more. Lacrosse is my passion. The game has given me so much and I hope one day I can give back to the lacrosse community just a little bit of what it has given me.
I was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma non-metastasized of my left femur right behind my knee on Thursday, August 25, 2016. The words, “you have cancer” struck me hard and made me automatically numb. I remember everything about that day; kind of like a goalie remembers every single detail about the goals they let in. The appointment was at 4:30 pm and I didn’t get in a room until about 6 pm. The walls were all white, no pictures hung, no place to read X-rays or an MRI. Just two chairs, an examination table, and a desk with a bible. Nothing really prepares you for those three words, and I pray you never have to receive them. But if you do, I am here to hopefully shed light on the battle and help you see the positives in a sucky situation. Dr. Kana, the orthopedic surgeon who took the MRI, has seen only one other case similar to mine. My dad passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2013, so as soon as I got the news, I knew I wanted to go home and be treated in Georgia with my mom, even though my team and friends were in South Carolina. Dr. Kana got me an appointment at Emory with Dr. Reimer, my Orthopedic Oncologist Surgeon, who saw me bright and early the following Monday morning. After taking a biopsy and confirming what we already knew, I finally met with my Oncologist, Dr. Read. We set up a plan that included three weeks of fertility treatment and egg removal, port placement surgery, and the start of chemo. My chemo regiment would consist of 15 cycles of chemo (three weeks in a row, then two weeks off). After chemo was done, we would talk about surgically removing the tumor.
I always look at chemo like I did gasser testing in college. A gasser is a 55 yard sprint down the field, and 55 yard sprint back. A “suicide.” That’s all fine and dandy, but our test was made up of 20 of those all in 19 seconds. Now, these days when I am recruiting, I am looking for a fairly active and athletic goalie. But for those who know me, know that even though I thought I was pretty athletic, I practically have a table in the athletic training room named after me. 55 yards down and back in 19 secs, 20 times in a row, is no easy feat. Honestly, I picked the goalie position for a reason. Running has never been my favorite part. Anyways, when the day came, you ran them, and survived. That’s how chemo weeks go. I dread them leading up to the week, going through it sucks and causes all kinds nasty symptoms (at least for me), and then when it’s said and done, you look back and realize you survived. It’s hard, but you realize it was just something you needed to do.
Even when you think it should, life has a funny way of not working out exactly how you planned it. I only got through six cycles of chemo. I got super sick with extended chemo symptoms and ended up in the hospital every time I was in-between treatments. The hospital ended up being my second home. I spent an total of two months there from October thru December. NOT FUN AT ALL. I’d be lying if I said I was happy daily, but my support has been incredible. Just like when I was in goal, I could count on my defense and middies to support me and get open on a clear. It is comforting knowing that even though I am tackling a monster, I do not have to do it alone.
Coach Buck always tells me, “Either you run the day, or the day runs you.” I have chosen to run the day several times throughout this journey, and will continue to do so. On January 12, 2017, I had a left distal femur resection with endoprosthesis and total knee replacement, which is just a fancy name for limb salvage surgery. This involves replacing half of my femur and the top of my tibia with metal. Kind of cool. Along with my spinal fusion I got in 8th grade, it is safe to say that I am now the new bionic woman! The last few months have had their challenges. I went from a wheelchair to a walker. From an always bent knee, to learning how to reuse my leg. They had me walking 13 hours after surgery. I was released from the hospital two days later, and was coaching lacrosse 3 weeks following that. I am now entering my fifth week post-op, and I am riding a bike and trying to walk without a walker. I don’t know if it’s my stubbornness or persistence, but I am well on my way to normalcy. I’m sure other sick people would agree, I just want to be normal. Throughout this process, I have had to constantly remind myself to run the day.
After they removed the tumor, my Oncologist was hoping that the pathology results would show that the cancer was gone. Unfortunately, the tumor was made up of about 60% active and living cells. This means that as much as I dread it, I have more chemo ahead of me. On February 16th I went back to my oncologist, and I always get nervous before appointments or chemo days. It is kind of like on game days, I wake up jittery and just wanting to get going, and this morning was no different. I wish I could share that the meeting was all good and I left confident of my future, unfortunately that’s not exactly how it happened. He confirmed that more chemo was in fact happening. I have about 9 rounds left. He also reviewed my CT scan from earlier in the week and said that a small spot showed up on my lungs. Because it is small, they are unclear if it is really Cancer or just a smudge that can show up sometimes. So the next step is to continue the chemo schedule and get another scan in two months. If the smudge shows up on that scan, then we will discuss removal. For now, I focus on kicking cancer and chemo’s butt (I started on starting February 20), and who knows when the journey will end, but we are on the road to the ultimate victory of being cancer free. I like to refer to it as my “Cancer National Championship.” The game in which Team Mego gets the big W. But for now, I rock a bald head, enjoy eating whatever I want, and gather the small pieces of whatever life is going to throw at me, because as you all can probably guess, we are making a big batch of a darn good lemonade here.