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Our Cancer Story

Cancer is something that touches each one of us in some way. I lost my brother to colon cancer in 2018, just days before he would have turned 40. My father is a cancer survivor. My grandmother had breast cancer. Some of my dearest friends have suffered through their own cancer battles and have the scars to prove it. And others have lost their lives to this merciless disease. I never would have guessed that cancer would touch my life so personally in the early years of my marriage. But let's start at the beginning.
I'm Lori, and this is my husband Allen. We were married in 2006 as two young, naive 21 year olds. I was finishing my degree in contemporary vocal performance at Brigham Young University when Allen returned from serving a two year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Concepcion, Chile. We had dated on and off in high school and it didn't take long for Allen to come home and sweep me off my feet. We were engaged and married in just a few months time, and I still tell him he's the best thing that ever happened to me. As we settled into our new married life, he jumped back into school pursuing his degree in business and I started my first company.
The years that followed were adventurous to say the least! We moved from state to state for jobs and internships (Utah, Washington, New Jersey, Arizona...), had four beautiful children, worked professionally for several years, and returned to BYU where Allen completed his Master's degree. It was then that we set off on our biggest adventure yet, though we didn't know how big at the time or how much it would change us.
In June 2014, we moved our family to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a job post graduate school. We had zero family nearby and knew no one in the area. It was also proving impossible to find a rental home in the school district we needed our kids to attend, so we stayed in an apartment while trying to buy our first home.
I remember getting ready one morning when Allen told me he had this weird bug bite on his neck. It was near his collar bone and didn't hurt at all, so he figured it would just go away.
A month or so later, we closed on our new home and started settling in. We decided to drive out to my sister's home in Atlanta, Georgia, to spend a few days with their family over Labor Day weekend. They love boating so we spent some time out on the lake with them. Allen was in his element doing tricks on the wakeboard and the kids got to try out tubing with their cousins. Everything seemed completely normal.
We came home from that trip and got back into our daily routines. Our oldest two kids were starting 1st grade and kindergarten in their new schools, and Allen was getting into the swing of things at work while I was getting things settled at home with our two youngest. The bug bite was something we had talked about here and there, but with all of the moving and new jobs and new stresses, a doctor visit kept getting brushed aside since Allen really didn't have any other reason to be worried about it... and Louisiana does have crazy bugs! 
A few days later, Allen had a coworker point out the bump on his neck and told him he needed to see a doctor to have it checked. Hearing that from someone else was just what we needed to make it a priority. We both decided it was a good idea to make an appointment and called the only specialist that made sense to us: an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT). They were able to get us in the very next day.
The rest of the story is filled with so many details. It was a whirlwind of appointments, tests, information, specialists, and more. The ENT told us Allen most likely had lymphoma. We were blindsided. He took a biopsy and made an appointment for us to see a head and neck surgeon the next day. I still remember talking to Allen's parents on the phone after our appointment. Everything seemed so surreal.
At the appointment with the head and neck surgeon the next day, they confirmed it was not lymphoma but it was indeed cancer. He sent us on to the radiologist. The radiologist ordered more tests, explained possible treatment options if radiation was indeed necessary, and sent us on to the oncologist. After visiting with our oncologist and doing another biopsy, we were able to determine that Allen had stage 3B testicular cancer. The cancer had metastasized, following the typical route of testicular cancer: testicle, back, lungs, neck, brain. By some miracle, it had skipped his lungs and they had no reason to believe it had reached beyond his neck and into his brain.
You can imagine all of the feelings we were having throughout this process. It came as a huge shock to all of us, especially considering he was only 29 years old and was doing tricks on the wakeboard just a few weeks before. Allen always says he honestly felt like the healthiest guy on the planet. Most testicular cancer patients will experience significant back pain as the tumor metastasizes and grows there, but Allen didn't have any back pain until two days before his chemotherapy started. It was just so bizarre to hear professionals tell you that you had something in your body that would kill you if you didn't treat it, but you felt completely normal.
We felt overwhelmed at the news and for the next few days, I felt completely vulnerable, scared, and hopeless. Fear was consuming me and I didn't know how to face the day without running through all of the "what if's" and planning for the worst. During one of these dark moments, I had the distinct impression that I needed to get on my knees. I learned right then that I could choose to stay in this place of fear and darkness, or I could choose faith. It was my choice. Heavenly Father was there waiting for me to seek Him and His help. He would guide me every step of the way. My Savior was standing there, waiting for me to come to Him for His strength and comfort. He understood everything I felt and could help me get through this. It was like turning on the light when I dropped to my knees that day and turned it over to the Lord. He helped our family get through this tragedy and see the beauty in the trenches.

Between radiology consults, oncology appointments, and waiting for results, we made a conscious choice to escape with our family to the beach for just a few days of normalcy before everything medical took over our lives. It was the best choice we made, probably because we felt like we were taking charge and not at the mercy of cancer.

Over the next several months, Allen underwent intensive chemotherapy and multiple surgeries. Our chemo plan consisted of a 3 week cycle that repeated itself. The first week was the hardest since Allen had to endure chemotherapy daily. We traveled down to Baton Rouge, did bloodwork, and met with the oncologist before heading up to the cancer unit to receive chemotherapy. That was Monday thru Friday the first week. The second and third weeks we went just one day a week to follow the same procedures, but by then the medicine was really taking its toll and Allen was feeling pretty miserable. By the end of the third week he started to feel better again, but it was just in time for the process to start over again. Chemo is brutal that way.

One of the hardest things for me was figuring out how to be there for Allen (he really hates needles and didn't have a port for some reason, so it was important to him that I could be there with him as much as possible for bloodwork, IV placement, etc) and coordinate help for our young kids. At the time they were 6 years, 5 years, 2 years, and 6 months old. We had some incredible people from our church and community rally around us. It was the biggest miracle and tender mercy in our lives. They cared for us like we were their own family. They lifted us in our darkest hour. I learned so much about service from the hearts and hands of these people who are now dear friends. Watching our kids so we could go to Allen's chemotherapy treatments together 5 days a week that was a sacrifice on their part for sure. We had family fly out to help us as well and it was such a strength and blessing for us. I don't love accepting help, but I'll always be grateful for the love shown and sacrifices made and what it taught me about service.

One of the biggest setbacks with chemotherapy happened during Allen's first round of treatments. He somehow contracted C. diff which is a bacteria that can cause various symptoms, but for Allen it made it so he couldn't keep any food down or in him. He lost 15+ pounds that week. We tried every medication the doctor could offer, but things didn't improve for several days. Since this was his first round of chemo, we didn't know if this was just a part of the process and what should be expected. It wasn't. Our doctor was able to determine the infection and keep Allen hydrated. But by the next round of chemo, I was pushing Allen into the cancer unit in a wheelchair since he was so weak and unable to walk himself. The nurses could visibly see the significant weight loss he had experienced in that short amount of time. It was scary but we were reassured that he would bounce back and stop losing weight so rapidly, which he did. I think his overall weight loss from chemo (start to finish) was 25-30 pounds. As a 6' 2" male, that seemed like a lot.

After completing all of his chemotherapy treatments, Allen had additional scans and consults to determine how big the remaining tumors were and next steps. They decided that Allen would need to have a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (RPLND) to remove what remained of the tumor in his back, along with a simultaneous surgery to remove the remaining tumor in his neck. Because of the invasiveness of the surgery and technical hand required, they recommended we travel to a more experienced doctor who frequently performed these operations. We were able to secure Dr. Foster, a world-recognized authority on RPLND surgeries, and traveled to Indianapolis for his procedure. It was difficult and nerve wracking, but we were in good hands every step of the way and the surgery was a success.

We returned home after about a week to complete the rest of Allen's recovery and follow up with our oncologist in Louisiana. After final scans were completed, the results came back and we heard the incredible news that Allen was cancer free. It was a long road and such a relief to hear those words! 

It's almost hard to believe that cancer is such a big part of our past. Allen still has a schedule where he goes in for scans and bloodwork, but it feels surreal that we experienced all that we did. Our lives are in such a different place now. Our kids are older. Allen's just as active and fun-loving as he was before cancer hit. It's like a distant memory that will always have a place in our hearts for the growth, hurt, and healing it brought with it. But it's not something that continues to define us or be with us. I still find it hard to explain.

When we first heard of Allen's diagnosis, I had a friend put me in touch with someone that had also experienced testicular cancer with their spouse. In her email to me, she said that cancer was something that they never would have wanted or asked for, but now it's something that they'd never give back. I didn't understand what she meant at the time, but now I completely agree. Some of the experiences we had are so tender to me. They're things I never want to forget experiencing. They shaped me as an individual and I know Allen would say the same. I don't wish for anyone else to experience cancer or tragedy in any form, but I know everyone faces their hard things. And I hope we can see the growth and the beauty that can come when we face those hard things together and with the Lord. And when we allow others into our lives to help us through the struggles we face.

We met so many angels in Louisiana. They were ordinary people like you and me who just wanted to do something to help. They brought by meals or treats or things they thought might help Allen... or thoughtful gifts to brighten my day. They took the kids out to get a happy meal or invited them to go on an adventure fishing. They called and sent texts to check in on us. They mowed our lawn and picked our weeds without asking. They dropped by just to say hi and give a hug. Every little bit made a huge difference. Their service truly changed us. It lifted us + gave us the courage to face the hard days + cry when we needed to, but still get up each day + keep pressing forward. That's when I started to see how one person can truly make a difference.

If you know someone who I can help, I'm happy to answer any questions they might have about chemotherapy, cancer in general, or testicular cancer specifically. I hope our experiences can be a strength to them. Just send them a link to this page so they can get in touch or say hello here.

I'll be writing a blog post with ideas for what to include in cancer care packages, ways you can help people when they don't know what help they need, and more... so let me know if you have specific questions or ideas! If you have someone on your mind or hear about someone who's  struggling, I hope you'll have the courage to just do something. Show them you care and that you're there for them. We can all #liftwherewestand.

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