Contemplating Cancer: Julieann’s Story
Everybody has a story. We all have challenges that we face in life; trials we have overcome, lessons we have learned, hearts that have broken. Do we ever look at the people around us and wonder what their challenges are? Do we stop and think about why that mom may be flustered with her kids? Or why the lady in front of you in the grocery line seemed a bit cranky? Or why the impatient driver rushed past you on the road?
Now, what if you found out that the flustered mom was a single mom, working 12 hour shifts every night just to keep food on the table for her children? What if you were told that the lady in the grocery store had recently lost her husband? What if the impatient driver was rushing past you because he was racing to the hospital to see a loved one for the last time? Would it change your perception of that person? Would you feel anger or annoyance at their shortcomings, or would you be forgiving and compassionate of their shortcomings?
Sometimes, we have to go through a major challenge ourselves to change our perspective on life, and on the people around us. For Julieann, this was the case. Her whole world and perception of it, changed in February of 2016 when her 28 year old husband was diagnosed with Sarcoma cancer.
Prior to his diagnosis, Julieann and Ken were a young, healthy couple. They lived what would be considered a normal and happy life. They had a beautiful two year old son and were just beginning to think about having another. Their careers were starting to take off and they had recently purchased their first home. They had no idea that their lives were about to be turned upside down and absolutely no idea that cancer could disrupt their young family.
It all started with back pain. The pain seemed to concentrate in one location on Ken’s back. Despite his visits with a chiropractor, his pain seemed to worsen over the next couple of months. Some days, it was so debilitating that he could hardly get out of bed. The decision was finally made to see an orthopedic doctor who took x-rays. His best guess was a bone spur but the x-ray revealed far more devastating results: it was a tumor, eight centimeters in size.
The doctor called Ken and Julieann together and delivered the news. He explained to them what sarcoma cancer was (cancer in the connective tissues) . The specific form that Ken had was called mesenchymal chondrosarcoma, which is a very aggressive cancer that affects the cartilage. For Ken, it originated in the cartilage that connected the spine to the ribs.
Over the next couple of days, Julieann could barely move as she tried to make sense of what this meant. She felt numb; debilitated. How could this be happening to them? Was her husband going to survive? The more she learned about sarcoma cancer, the more discouraged she became. The long term outcome for this form of cancer is generally not good. Fortunately, Ken’s cancer had not spread outside of the tumor, but there was no telling what the future held for Julieann and Ken. The world went on for everyone around her, but hers stood very still. While people around her were lounging at the pool or trying to decide what to make for dinner, Julieann was trying to decide if she should start planning a funeral for her husband.
Over the next 315 days, Ken became very sick. He was in and out of the hospital more times than they could count. He underwent painful surgeries, 14 cycles of chemo therapy and 25 cycles of radiation. Consequently, it became difficult for Ken to walk and perform simple, daily tasks for himself. Ken became bedridden for an entire year while he fought this debilitating disease. Julieann remained by her husband’s side, tending to his needs and helping him to get dressed and to bathe.
On top of caring for her husband, Julieann had their little boy, Tanner, to think about. Naturally, she had wanted to shield him from the hurt and sadness in the world but as the monster named Cancer reared it’s ugly head, there was nowhere they could hide. Julieann and Ken decided to be open with Tanner and teach him what his little boy mind could comprehend about cancer, and how it made his daddy sick. They answered his questions and reassured him that it’s okay to be scared and it’s okay to cry. They encouraged Tanner to come to them when he had those feelings so they could talk together as a family and work through the fears and the pain together. This insight that they gave their son helped him to sort through his emotions and feel more secure. In spite of their struggle, they grew closer as a family during this time.
After Ken was finished with his treatments, Julieann felt the need to process all that their little family had been through. They had been on survival mode for so long that she hadn’t fully sorted out her thoughts and feelings of all that had happened. For her, writing was a way for her to make sense of her thoughts and all that had transpired. She began writing a blog, more for herself than for anyone else; it became her coping mechanism. It wasn’t long before other people stumbled onto her writing; families who had been through their own journey of cancer. Julieann’s thoughts and words resonated with people on so many levels. She started receiving emails from people who had also gone through similar trials, thanking her for opening up and finding the words to describe what they too were feeling. For the first time, she began to realize that she was not alone. Social media makes the world feel so much smaller, and connecting with other people helped Julieann to heal and gain new perspective.
Julieann and Ken became involved with a charity organization called “Rein in Sarcoma”, which raises awareness of the disease and money to fund research. Julieann serves as a writer and editor for their newsletter; writing about upcoming events, highlighting survivors and summarizing the latest research that has been done. They speak at events, sharing their story and giving hope to others who find themselves in the midst of this disease.
Today, Ken has no evidence of disease. While this seems like a happy ending, the fear always remains that the cancer will return. Ken visits the doctors quarterly for scans and medical test to make sure that he is still in remission. Though her heart is sometimes filled with sadness, Julieann is learning to be patient with herself and to find joy in her life and in her family. She has found that there is much to be grateful for!
Though it sounds cliché to say, cancer has changed Julieann’s perspective on life. She notices so much more now than she did before Ken’s diagnosis. When she walks into a grocery store, she looks at those around her and wonders what their challenges might be. She realizes that everyone has a story and though their challenges may differ from hers, nobody is immune to struggles in life. When we think about people in that perspective, it gives greater compassion and insight to the world around us. We are all here with our own story, and we each have the power to use our stories to help inspire and help those around us, just as Julieann has done. While the fear of the cancer returning remains a part of their daily life, they move forward in hope, embracing the little things in life and inspiring those around them.
Follow Julieann and Ken in the following places:
Julieann’s blog: Contemplating Cancer