The Turning Point

October 20, 2016

I was one of the lucky ones: a suburban white girl with upper-middle class parents who have supported my every dream. I attended a private catholic school and was starting on the varsity volleyball team. I have loved horses since my first meeting with them in 2010 at Madison Grove Farm in Fall City. Madison Grove Farm (MGF) is a non-profit farm that rescues and rehabilitates horses and then connects the horses with disadvantaged children. I did everything at MGF including cleaning stalls, organizing several of their annual auctions, and giving pony rides. My passion was clearly for horses and I volunteered over 5000 hours a year. Months of searching led me to my current horse Rockos. He was a challenging project, but we had already taught each other so much. Everything seemed to be going my way.
It was July 30, 2013, and I had just finished my morning workout preparing us for the upcoming volleyball season; honestly, I only played for the exercise. I arrived early for a routine doctor’s appointment in an office just down the street. As I sat there in the waiting room chair, I sucked in my stomach and tried to sit up taller to avoid a bulge of fat from rolling over the top of my jeans. Once in the room, I sat down on the exam table, careful not to rip the strip of paper covering it. We went through the exam as usual, doing a head-to-toe systems check of eyes, ears, nose, throat, heart, lungs, gut… the list goes on. Everything came back normal. Why wouldn’t it? The doctor asked if I had any questions or concerns before I left, and I had nothing to say other than how I felt pretty bloated. It seemed like nothing, but she palpated my stomach to be sure. I laid there embarrassed. What used to be a flat firm stomach now looked like I just had eaten my entire pantry. My doctor got a dazed look on her face and left the room. Confused, I laid there looking around. As I was about to get up, she returned with another older looking woman, apparently another doctor. They both stood above me, taking turns pressing on my stomach and talking in a medical language I couldn’t even pretend to understand.
Numerous tests followed that day. I wasn’t allowed to eat all day before my appointments and my stomach seemed to be gurgling curse words at me. Then I would have to lay in a tube for what felt like forever, forced to dwell on my worried thoughts. The results showed that what I thought was bad eating habits was a tumor growing on my right ovary. That was unexpected to say the least. My biggest concern wasn’t about life or death; it was when I would be able to work with my horse again. A surgery like that meant two days in the hospital for recovery and six weeks of no physical activity, meaning no horses. The farm was the only place I could go to distract myself. Horses are a hundred times more sensitive than humans and I could tell they felt the pain in my heart. I was on a journey of healing along with these previously abused rescue horses.
A week later, my ovary was removed along with the five pound tumor. The results of the pathology test showed that the tumor was both solid and fluid — called a mixed germ cell tumor in medical terms. Certain parts were cancerous. The chances of it returning were 50/50, and those seemed like pretty good odds to me. Why worry about it when theres nothing I could do? So I stuffed those emotions deep down and continued on with my life.
Who cared about the thirteen inch scar it would leave down the middle of my stomach? Actually, I thought it looked pretty cool. The time I spent away from Rockos only made me realize how important that aspect of my life was. He always knew how to cheer me up. Six weeks on the couch can really drive a person crazy, I couldn’t wait to be a healthy fifteen-year-old girl again. I got butterflies the first day I was allowed to go back to the farm. As I walked out to the pasture and called Rockos’ name he ran to me as if saying, “Mom where have you been all this time I missed you so much!”. I promised myself I would never leave again. Eventually, the one hour-long supervised visits to the farm turned into two, then three, until I could be left alone. There was no longer a concern that I would bust a stitch and be sent back to the hospital. My life was back to normal.
Going back to school was the last thing I wanted to do but I had signed up for all advanced courses and missing class was not an option. The school held an assembly to explain my situation so there would be no hushed rumors going around. Afterwards, they handed out forest green ‘Team Lauren’ Livestrong bracelets to each student. Apparently that was a close enough color to represent teal ovarian cancer. It was unnerving seeing my name on everyone’s wrists as I sat in class. I felt like I had already died and this was their way of honoring me. Each moment there was a constant reminder of how much my life had been circling the drain.
For the rest of the season I started every volleyball game. We even made it to state that year, and everyone was ready to win. Maybe it was good I was already in a fighting mindset at the time because my weekly blood test came back elevated. My heart sank, but maybe it was just a mistake, the CT scan could still come back clear. When the doctor called to inform us that there was a new golf ball sized tumor growing in my abdominal wall, all those emotions I had previously ignored came rushing back. I cried and my parents held me tight, which only made the tears fall faster. How awful it must have felt to know you could lose your only child to an incurable disease, and all the love and time spent raising them to be strong and confident would mean nothing if they were gone.
Luckily, there was a treatment plan, with a fairly good survival rate. Starting November 18, 2013, my life revolved around the hospital . My plan included another surgery to remove the new tumor and three rounds of chemotherapy. I would spend five straight days in the hospital, then go in once a week for two weeks, and repeat. The pain, fatigue, and discomfort consumed my every thought. Cotton mouth was a side effect of the drugs and my throat was always dry no matter what I tried. Each time the nurse came in to administer the chemotherapy drugs they had to completely suit up in a gown, gloves, mask, and goggles. They couldn’t even touch it, and yet these toxins were being pumped through every vein in my body. I still can’t smell hospital food without gagging.
Journal entry 12/2/13: No visitors. Second day at the hospital and already wanting to go home. I wish I could go outside and be with Rockos; that’s where I belong. Right now I just feel nauseous but hungry. Everything I eat tastes bad so I have to constantly brush my teeth. I’m lucky I haven’t thrown up yet but its bound to happen soon. Needles don’t bother me anymore, but sometimes it’s hard for the nurse to find a good vein because it’s so scarred already. I hate always having to worry about something going wrong. This shouldn’t be happening to me
It was possible that I wasn’t going to lose my hair. Just as I thought I would be lucky enough to keep my long gorgeous hair, my scalp started to itch. As I ran my fingers through, strands would fall to the ground accompanied with a tear. To avoid shedding everywhere I had to put it all in a braid. The next day my mom brought over the clippers and we shaved it down to a buzz cut. Each day more and more hair came loose. Eventually, I laid strips of duct tape down my head and pulled out what was remaining. I finally looked how I felt: sick. With my new pale bald head, I was basically the poster child for NOFA (no one fights alone) at school. I remember walking down the halls repeatedly telling myself, you look fine no one cares just keep your head high. It was a daily struggle to stop caring about what everyone else thought. I had already missed moths of class and had a boatload of work to catch up on. Some teachers spited the fact that they had to deal with my special situation and made my life a living hell. Students told me they were praying for me, an easy way to feel like you’re helping without actually doing anything. Though they said I was never fighting alone, that is exactly what I had to do
I don’t know how I got through it all: the hours spent waiting, the number of needles stuck into my arms, and the “Get Well” letters I received from students who had never said a word to me. People love to have a cause to support so that others can see their sensitive and caring side.
In all honesty, if I would have died, they would have forgotten within the week. Dying can really show you a side of humanity you wish you hadn’t experienced. I came away more aware of the world than I should be at this age.
December 11, 2015, I went in for my third surgery to remove yet another tumor growing in my abdomen. Death was testing my patience for this felt like more of an inconvenience and distraction from my work than anything. The surgeon was able to do the operation laparoscopically and the biopsy revealed that the tumor was benign, all good news. The next week I spent confined to the couch drove me crazy once again. I was so happy to finally be cleared to ride again that I promptly went to the barn and jumped on my horse in the field. We had only gone a few steps before he spooked, took off to the left, and I fell to the ground on the right. But it felt good to be covered in dirt and bruises again. I hope to live the rest of my life this fearless
Though I may sound like a cynic at times, I still made many positive changes in my life as a result. I learned to stop doing the things that don’t make me happy and focus on my passion for horses. Volleyball and other clubs I had joined to build my resume were cut out of my schedule. Every available second of my day is spent at the barn, and I am grateful to have this motivation and knowledge of what I want. My horse has healed me in ways that medicine couldn’t, and I owe him everything.
Lauren Goodrich