multiple myeloma (MM)
My name is Tee, and I am a survivor of multiple myeloma (MM), a rare blood cancer. Before my diagnosis, I was an active principal at the school where I worked, was involved in my community, and lived a life of purpose. And then I was diagnosed with the “Big C.”
Today, I still have a purpose-filled life, it simply looks different than before. Telling my cancer story is a part of living a fulfilled life after a cancer diagnosis. So here is Tee’s story.
The first moment I can recall feeling like something wasn't right was a day in May. While brushing my teeth and cleaning my tongue, I gagged. Then, I heard a loud crack in my head. I asked my husband if he had, in fact, heard the crack in my head, but he said no. Suddenly, I felt the room moving and became overheated. I quickly lay on the bed. Despite the abnormality of what I was experiencing, I felt better after a few minutes of lying down, put it out of my mind, and went to work.
In June, my husband and I traveled to my cousin’s wedding in Los Angeles. When the dancing began (the best part of any wedding), I was prepared to spend the rest of the evening on the dance floor. A song I love came on, and I quickly made my way onto the dance floor, ready to shake and shimmy my heart out. But I got up there, and I couldn’t move. I peered down at my unmoving feet and noticed they were swollen and stuck in my shoes. The following morning, my feet returned to their normal size, and we headed home. Arriving home, I felt exhausted but put it down to travel and work and continued life normally.
After all the odd symptoms, my sister, Yadira, recommended that I go to a doctor. I dismissed that there was something wrong with my body, but I did visit my chiropractor. I went in complaining that my back and legs were hurting. He adjusted me, but I was not feeling any better. Again, I put it down to stress and simply having too much on my plate. Looking back on it now, I was getting glaring signs that something was wrong with my body, but I thought it was just fatigue.
All through July, I was exhausted. By August, everything had come to a head. My husband and I had decided to go on vacation for a few days before school started. We boarded a plane in Texas to reach our connecting flight in South Carolina. I felt tired as we boarded the plane. But when we landed, I started to feel so much worse. I struggled to walk and felt like I would pass out while making our way to the next gate. I told my husband I needed to stop for a second. After taking a minute, we tried again. I was nervous about making it through the connecting flight, but I pushed through and boarded the plane. When we landed and made our way to the rental car, I felt I would pass out from sheer exhaustion. I struggled to climb into the rental car. We arrived at the hotel, and I could not get out of the car. My darling husband rounded the car and placed my arms around his neck, and we took slow steps to the hotel room. A short walk from the car to the hotel room took 20 minutes, but he patiently repeated “Take your time, baby.”
Once we reached the room, I was deeply uncomfortable and in pain. My back and legs were killing me. I struggled to sit on the bed because it was too high. I couldn't sit on the toilet because it was too low. I did find some solace on the hotel room couch. My husband made it up for me to sleep in, and that is where I fell asleep. However, sometime during the night, the pain got so bad that I asked my husband to drive me to the hospital.
What should have been a straightforward process to getting some pain relief and help was anything but. We would make multiple trips to the emergency room on that vacation. When we reached the emergency room for the first time, I began to cry because I was in so much pain; my back was killing me. The hospital staff assessed me, gave me painkillers, and sent us home. But the pain didn’t get any better. The next day, I asked my husband to take me back to the hospital. Again, I was assessed and given painkillers. I was sent home without taking an X-ray or blood work. We returned a third time with the same results.
I wasn't sure I could cope with the flight home. My husband suggested we drive back to Texas instead of taking a flight. In tears, I said no. I’d rather take my chances with a four-hour flight home than sit in a car for 24 hours.
Once we landed in Dallas, I wasn't able to walk. Once home, I only wanted to lie down. Once I'd laid down, I quickly realized I needed help and asked Cavangh to take me to Urgent Care.
We went, and I was assessed, and, yet again, given painkillers. I returned to the hospital two more times before getting any effective help. My sixth visit to Urgent Care was when a doctor finally helped me. They said, “You have been here several times in the last few days, but we don’t have any drugs strong enough for your pain level.” At first, I believed they thought that I was seeking drugs. But this was the first doctor to take an X-ray. Once she had done this, she noticed something was wrong with my back. She told me I would need an MRI and scheduled me for one. However, I never made it to the scheduled MRI. A few hours later, my husband rushed me to the emergency room. We chose to go to the county hospital because I had no luck with the other emergency rooms.
I was immediately registered into the county hospital system. They drew blood and took a urine sample. After being seen, I followed the nurse's instructions, who told me to sit in the waiting room. After waiting a short while, an orderly entered the waiting room, yelling my name and pushing a wheelchair. They ensured I was the right person, bundled me into the wheelchair, and admitted me into the hospital. I was hooked up to many machines when I woke up in my hospital room. The attending doctor entered and asked me a startling question, “Ma’am, have you been in a car accident?” I responded, “No.” The doctor told me I had broken my T9 and T12, and surgery was required.
The following day, I was wheeled into surgery for a kyphoplasty procedure to fix my spine. Once the surgery was over, the nightmare diagnosis was only just beginning. A doctor in cowboy boots walked into my room and dropped a bomb much worse than a broken back. He said, “We believe that you have a form of cancer.” I couldn't take my eyes off his cowboy boots. I could only say, “Only tell me when you know for sure.” He then explained that my kidneys were not functioning fully, and my blood work was completely out of whack. He explained that I would not be here today if I hadn't visited the hospital within a few more days.
After an extended hospital stay, I had a follow-up appointment. There I was given the official news, “You have cancer.” I burst into tears. I was crushed, shattered. I could not hear anything beyond those damning words. I managed to mumble out two questions amidst the tears.
Number one: How long do I have to live? Number two: How did I get this?
Cowboy boots answered my questions. He said the lifespan of a person with MM is five years. And getting it was just simple “bad luck.” He said that I would need to start chemo treatments the following day, which I did. That's where an entirely new way of life began for me. My diagnosis is something I am sharing with the world to bring awareness about MM but to also bring some hope to cancer survivors about finding purpose within an entirely new way of living.