Peggy Barnhardt: The Challenging Game Of Cancer

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 3, 2016

Special to the Post

May 20, 2016: I started this article without a formal introduction, feeling very non-descript as one of the 51,000 plus patients diagnosed with cancer in North Carolina, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. However, knowing my background can only serve to emphasize further the non-discriminating character of cancer, a respecter of none.

I have lived in North Carolina since the early ’70s, wrote freelance articles for this paper, three books, collaborated on a program for the judicial system, contributed to the artist communities and taught the Bible for forty-five years, none of which prepared me for this story.

Part one

My name is Peggy Baxter- Barnhardt. I was diagnosed with Stage 1A Uterine Cancer March, 2016. It really took me by surprise, as I had no pain, discomfort or any identifiable symptoms. I had spotted blood every now and then over the years, gone to many doctors, had many pap smears, and ultrasounds, but they all were clear and within normal range. I had fibroids that I was assured were not cancerous. I was told that because I was heavy and African American that my tissues held estrogen and could occasionally cause spotting. So I continued dwelling in my house of cards in security. If it had not been for a diligent GYN in Salisbury who noticed a polyp while doing the Pap smear and decided to biopsy it, the cancer might have gone on undetected.

I was rudely awakened to two facts: 1. You can have cancer even if your pap smears are in normal range, simply because the sample is small, like an individual puzzle piece, indicative of the subject matter but not displaying the whole picture.

While fibroids rarely become cancerous I was told, they can do a good job of camouflaging other growths that are, as was mine. A tangerine size cancerous tumor was discovered among the fibroids upon the completion of my hysterectomy. Even though at my age I was certainly not in need of reproductive organs, it still felt like a security blanket was snatched out from under me, requiring stages of acceptance, so I write.

An attempt at positive thinking: Stage One

I feel okay today, why am I crying, I feel okay today,

I can feel the breeze like refreshing cool water pour over my weary soul, I feel okay today.

Why am I crying?

I can look out of the window and enjoy the sunlight, see budding Spring with each unfurled petal of tulips, the colors of the rainbow in its repertoire,

Why am I crying?

No doctors visit today, no test, to mount anxiety on, no results to ponder, today

I keep telling myself I feel okay today

But I can’t force my heart and mind to agree, I keep wondering is this my last Spring, will I recover and will I ever stop crying,

But, I really do feel okay today.

Too many unknowns, insecurity makes me cry, but I feel okay today, what about tomorrow when I face my face with tears, will I be okay?

Can I take each day as a singular unit having its own element of happiness, disconnect it from ongoing future, can I cherish this day, evaluate it on its own unique merit and say it is good?

Can I play on the harp of hope and be lost in its melodious banter of notes and rhythms and escape reality?

Can I take a deep breath, a cleansing one and be infused with comfort, not exhaling but keeping it corralled in my inners in reserve,

for days that I am inundated with fears, and smile, remembering the lush feel of velvet on my radiated skin

And feel okay?

Analytical Thinking : Stage two

I feel okay today

The sun is smiling, complimented by a strong breeze, flexing the muscles of each branch, spreading beams to each flower.

I feel okay today, not crying but thinking

Is this some kind of trickery, or DNA shenanigans, This feeling okay while there is an internal war quietly being waged

Red blood cells, white blood cells against cancerous invaders

Casualties being absorbed without notice

My body being the master of ceremonies and an unwilling host

The uninvited guests go awry, much like terrorist

Subtly radicalizing healthy cells to the enemy camp

You are so unprepared for such covert and subversive action

Your mind regresses, recalling dismissed signs, attributed to

Something less foreboding or age appropriate normalcy

That’s the trick, Camouflaged ID.

And even now, after discovery, the aggressive cells morph, spread and hide

Mounting an insurrection, to escape the death sentence

So I am rejoicing that I feel okay, today in this war-torn body

Not crying or sighing, not questioning, hopefully not dying, possibly winning and praying

And smiling

Smiling with the sun.

There are many women that do not get regular checkups for whatever reason, and many that do that put full confidence in the findings, this article is to arouse the thought processes of both in hopes to save some from this grueling ordeal.

However, discovery and acceptance are just the beginning. The accompanying list includes further tests, second opinions, more doctor visits, transport, money, good insurance, operations, chemo-therapy, radiation therapy (never to be taken while alone), a willing person to be with you through it all and many overwhelming decisions. Keeping in mind each case is individually assessed, both with differences and similarities, we move forward haggardly.

Part Two: Decision Having Been Made

First on the horizon would have to be a second opinion. Hoping against hope for another diagnosis, one more palatable, we proceeded. Second opinions are not always portrayed accurately, at least according to my thinking. I envisioned a re-evaluation based on newly preformed test etc., using a different lab, ensuring that no mistake could have been made, not so. Basically the second doctor looks at the first doctor’s conclusions and either agrees or not.

However, the oncologist does his own exams, so it seems to me that doctor number two could have been omitted, co-pays kept in pocket. This might be of special interest if your insurance has a low ceiling for payment.

I found myself in a precarious situation because my first diagnosis was that of pre-cancerous cells and I was offered an option of a marina implant, which dispenses medicine in a timed release form to kill off these cells before they convert. It apparently works for some, and in view of my risk factors, age, weight, and an unwavering religious conviction not to accept blood, we thought this was a viable one. A two month follow-up revealed true cancer cells, leaving surgery as the only choice.

I chose to go to Duke Hospital Oncology Center, because of their reputation, plus they have a bloodless surgery program that is stocked and prepared to accommodate the wishes of patients in this regard. I have never regretted that choice: the service was great and the surgery was performed without a hitch. Unfortunately floating cancer cells were discovered, requiring chemotherapy, another leg in the race to recovery.

My doctor advised me not to do my own research on the procedure, saying that it would cause confusion, so I controlled my inclination to go dumpster-diving on the informational highway. He assured me that I would be given all I needed to know.

The center did take a holistic approach, providing physical and emotional support. However, in their attempt to keep my head in a positive space, I was not told the worst case scenario: that you can have a severe allergic reaction to the treatment — code blue — and have a respiratory or cardiac arrest.

This is exactly what happened to me. Of course no one could have foreseen this event. The treatment was to last five hours, but my system only tolerated eight minutes before I stopped breathing and passed out. I was unable to call for help, but my daughter had insisted upon staying with me, fortunately, and rallied my rescuers.

The second treatment was well prepared for. Premedication was given for two days to offset the reaction, medical personnel were placed in my room, machines, and bells and whistles were employed. Still the same situation occurred. But this tim, having been forearmed, I was able to identify the onset so the complications were managed much faster.

So as it stands now my treatment is in limbo. Obviously the body was not meant to ingest poison for any reason, not even to kill invading spurious cells. Waiting and wondering about the next step is difficult.

Ed. note: Peggy Barnhardt is receiving her next round of chemo as this article goes to press.


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