Written by Brian Kirkwood, Brother of Multiple Myeloma Patient Michelle Peterson, after her diagnosis
(Picture taken at Michelle & Corey’s wedding on August 15, 2014)
Fill a jar with rocks, sand, and water then tip it over. The heavy blend of material binds together and creates a monolith that will not spill. Not even the water will escape because it forms a bridge to the sand particles, unifying them creating a pliable, non-flowing mixture. Remove the water and the items separate spilling out like a river feeding a hungry sea.
Like a jar of rocks and sand, my thoughts have been heavy; so much that I haven’t known what to write. For the past three months I have stared at a blank screen while the cursor taunts me with each pulse of its wanting insistence. My mind has been numb as my fingers dome the keyboard eager to plunk the keys with hopes that my feelings would spill out and splash the screen with words to channel my thoughts and expose my feelings; but I couldn’t make it happen. The weight has been too arduous.
Anger, hope, and fear congealed my thoughts to form a hardened callus of unfeeling, incoherent thinking that refused to flow. Perhaps it was of my own doing; maybe I subconsciously chose to bottle these ingredients together as an effort to protect myself from the terrifying attributes of the anxiety looming in the shadows of my intellect.
It’s amazing how quickly that can change.
It was a late September evening when my phone rang interrupting a movie I was watching with my wife and children. I immediately knew something terrible had happened because I recognized the anguished tone of my dad’s voice; after I accepted his call he returned my greeting with a heartrending and meager “Hi.”
“Oh, dear God! What has happened?” My mind jolted with the buzz of panic before he continued. The familiar sound of despair echoed from a similar call when he informed me that my oldest sister was dying 17 years ago.
“Michelle is in the hospital and has just been diagnosed with cancer” he said, confirming his state of despondency.
Cancer: A relentless “… phenomenon perceived to be evil or destructive and hard to contain or eradicate.” It is uncaring, unfeeling, and does not discriminate. It can kill a saint and leave a sinner unscathed. It doesn’t matter what you eat, how you live, or how far you can run. There are, of course, lifestyle risks that can increase your chances of an encounter with it, but there are no guarantees against one of the more than 100 types of cancers finding you and attempting to destroy your life. No one is immune.
The chill of fear, doubt, and anger flowed through my veins and paralyzed voluntary movement while my dad continued explaining the details of my sister’s condition. As he described her ailment and how the doctors discovered the problem I defensively began blocking my feelings, packing them into a jar with hopes that they would never surface; I was not going to allow myself to be crippled by the fears of a terminal aftereffect; doubts of my own mortality; and anger for having to endure another family trial.
Even hope and faith were immediately removed from my sentiments and tossed away to never be opened. I instantly replaced those feelings with a firm resolve that Michelle will be just fine. There simply is no other option. To imagine a different outcome seemed silly.
We later learned that doctors have given her form of cancer a name: Multiple Myeloma, which affects the plasma cells created by bone marrow and ultimately reduces the body’s ability to fight infections and keep bones strong. With multiple lesions, breaks, and fractures scattered throughout her skeletal system, including her skull, spine, ribs, and pelvis the pain she suffers seems dreadfully unimaginable.
In spite of her pain, you will find Michelle is usually outwardly optimistic, full of strength, and keeps a sense of humor about her situation. Characteristics that probably do more to comfort her friends and family that to settle the torrent of emotions and pain that must be raging inside her. When she does submit to the pain and fear, her loving and supportive husband always seems available to hold her and fill her with more vigor and determination to fight. Her strength comforts me. It inspires me. It confirms my resolve that everything will be just fine. Because it has to be.
It has been nearly four months since her diagnosis and Michelle has proven her might as a warrior. Shortly after receiving the news, she openly declared war on the myeloma cells that have been causing her so much pain. She has even given those cells her own name: Gnomes, because they have always given her the heebie-jeebies and she abhors the creepy little devils that pretend to work in your gardens and sweep your porches; it’s much easier to be victorious over something you loathe.
With each passing week the war-front news reports have always been positive:
- In spite of her extreme pain, Gnome casualties were up to 98% by mid-December as a result of her chemotherapy treatments. Only 1%-2% Myeloma cells remain in her bone marrow. “Better than expected,” she reports on her Facebook page set up by our sister to track her journey to restored health.
- More good news: Blood tests confirmed that Michelle has an identical twin. Really? Growing up, I always had suspicions, but nothing I could substantiate. Here I thought that she changed outfits and hair styles too often. Or made frequent, long trips to the bathroom. Sometimes I even felt that she ate twice as much food as a normal girl. Now it makes sense; now I feel so much better about the two different husbands that have been showing up to family gathering lately. Twins! Who knew?
- Even more good news: Because Tracie and Michelle are identical twins that means they have spare and interchangeable parts. Specifically, healthy stem cells from Tracie’s bone marrow. During the past few weeks Michelle and Tracie have been submitted to a battery of tests and procedures to be sure they are both healthy and capable of living through a stem cell transplant. One that is necessary to replace Michelle’s Gnomes parasites with Tracie’s healthy cells. The best news is that Michelle may get to keep Tracie’s immunities rather than having to risk secondary illnesses or start anew to battle the onslaught of germs and viruses we all face each day.
- More good news: After thorough physical examinations and liters of blood draws, Tracie and Michelle have both been deemed healthy enough to go through with the stem cell transplant. The duo will don battle gear and prepare for one final end-all skirmish scheduled to begin next week. She will launch a series of chemical weaponry that will target all remaining Gnome combatants. Unfortunately, there will be many civilian casualties; this is the part where healthy cells are also eliminated resulting in a compromised immune system and likely total hair loss. If all goes as planned, however, Gnome forces will be completely eliminated. Forever.
With all this great news building up to fortify Michelle’s Gnome-ending battle, why then, have I been feeling guilty about my lack of feeling? Everyone else is concerned. Michelle is terrified. And I have been so certain that everything will be just fine that I fear I have been oblivious to the direness of what she will experience in the weeks and months to come.
Tracie and I were talking over the phone the other day while I busied myself with mindless tasks at work. As usual, our topic of conversation was Michelle. We discussed our admiration for her might and valor. We expressed to each other how grateful we are for the timing in which she met and married a wonderful man from whom she can draw strength and courage when she is feeling vulnerable. When we started talking about the what-ifs, however, I caught myself opening my jar to stuff my feelings in with the others.
“She’s going to be just fine.” I said repeatedly after Tracie began crying at the terrifying thought of living her life without her twin.
My response bothered me. My sister’s battle with cancer is just about to get real and I’m treating it like I have control over the outcome. “She’s going to be just fine” like it’s my decision.
Finally I confronted my feelings and confessed to Tracie that I have been troubled by guilt for not being worried. Isn’t it worry that inspires faith? After a short discussion I was startled to discover how loosely I capped my jar of emotions. Acknowledging my guilt was all it took to weaken the seal and allow the water to pour out and release the bond that held them captive.
With trembling voices Tracie and I shared a beautiful cry that helped me understand. At that moment I realized that I had been blocking my thoughts as a selfish response to fear and I distanced myself from the emotions needed to be a supportive source of strength for my sister. I’ve already lost one sister to the results of a tragedy that faith, hope, prayer, and love couldn’t prevent and this event has a lot of scary similarities. With that realization I suddenly had the clarity of thought I needed to channel my emotions and feel the optimism of reality and allow faith and hope to carry me through the pain of worry and fear.
I can offer nothing tangible for Michelle to use in her upcoming fight; I have no usable spare parts, no money, and no resources that she can use to fight her war, but she does have my support. And I can give her all my love. And with that love comes a perspective of how I’ve seen her live her life. Despite her challenges, I have never seen her give up. In spite of being taken advantage of and being trampled and abused, she has kept her dignity. From the effects of messy divorces to the challenges of being a single mother with barely enough, she has always strived to be a mother first. Her trophies are her children and her children are the recipients of the purest kind of love that can ever be shared. Her children are all nearly grown and I am proud to call them my niece and nephews.
A lot of time we experience challenges and we link it with past events as a way to understand how it came to be. Many times we even do it as a way to predict things to come. If Michelle’s past is any indication of her future then I’d say her odds of survival are extremely high. If you look at the pain and emotional suffering she has endured throughout her life you would agree that her challenges have been conditioning her for the war she is now fighting. She has never been stronger or more prepared to beat this.
I believe that the world needs more stories of strength, courage, and perseverance. And I know that Michelle is writing her story of victory with each passing day.
I love my Michelle and I’m ready to watch her fight the battle that only she knows how to win, but I’m here when she needs me.
about the author
Myeloma survivor, patient advocate, wife, mom of 6. Believer that patients can help accelerate a cure by weighing in and participating in clinical research. Founder of HealthTree Foundation (formerly Myeloma Crowd).