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Monday, December 29, 2014

Dealing with Loss: Part 2

I'm having a hard time writing this post, because I think I'm still in denial. Over the past two months I've been grieving the loss of my family dog, Missy. If you have a pet, you instantly get it. If you don't have a pet, you might get it or you might not. But Missy was with us for 15 years...and to us, she was a family member, a source of love, and a constant in our house (my mother would even refer to her as my "sister"). If I close my eyes, I can still visualize her sweet face and wagging tail. The fact that she is gone forever is something I'm having a very hard time accepting.

Baby Missy. Those eyes. I can't!
Missy came into our lives the summer before my senior year in high school...she was born on my grandparents' farm in Mississippi (hence her name) when their dog gave birth while we were visiting.  My brother and I had always wanted a pet but my parents weren't into the idea, so when my mother asked us if we wanted to take home one of the brand-new puppies, we thought she had lost her mind...or was playing a cruel joke on us. But my mom had fallen in love with the puppies and we picked out tiny Missy to take on the 8-hour drive back to Charlotte. She looked like a little black lab...I lovingly called her a "mixed breed" instead of the ugly term "mutt" since we didn't know who (or what breed) her father was!

Everyone that met Missy fell in love with her...she had the sweetest demeanor and was so loving. When I went off to college I wondered if she would forget me, but when I came home for breaks, she would get so excited to see me (even peeing on the floor when I came through the door!) and I knew she remembered me.

Similar to how one might think their child is the smartest, most wonderful being on the planet...I thought Missy was the smartest, most wonderful dog on the planet. She would often run around outside with my dad or my brother, but she always knew when it was time to come home. She loved being in the center of conversation...if a group of people were standing around in my parents' house, she would come and sit right in the middle, often sitting right on someone's foot...she loved being as close as possible.

Who wouldn't love this face?

Once I moved to New York, I couldn't come home as often. But when I did, I was the one who spoiled Missy the most...my mother would tell me not to feed her "people food" but I couldn't resist those big brown eyes and little paws as she begged for food during meals, so I always gave her a few bites.

After I was diagnosed with cancer, I read about pets who knew their owners were sick...a few even helped diagnose them! Missy would always cuddle with me when I was home and I often wondered if she knew that I was sick, if she could sense what I was going through. My mother often said how Missy would comfort her on the days she cried and worried about me, almost as if she knew how my mother felt with me being sick and so far away. When I was really sad or depressed, my mom would send me pictures of Missy saying "hi" to cheer me up.

Soaking up the sun in her favorite spot

Running in the snow

In recent years, every time I left my parents' home in Charlotte, I worried that I wouldn't see her again. But she was always so lively and personable, that despite the gray hairs that begin to appear, she didn't seem to age. I tried to remind myself that she wouldn't live forever, but you're never ready for the news that a member of your family has passed away.

I had just returned to NYC from a birthday trip to New Orleans when I called my parents to chat. My mother said she had something to tell me, and my heart dropped when she said that Missy passed away. It actually happened a few days before I left for New Orleans, but my mom didn't want to ruin my birthday, so she waited until I came back to tell me. Missy was 15 years old, which is old for a dog, but her death still seemed so sudden, so quick, so unfair. My mom said Missy was her usual fun-loving self in the days before her passing. But one day she woke up and had a stroke...she was unable to see or hear, and when my mom brought her to the vet, she passed away on her own. I felt so bad for my mom having to witness Missy leave this Earth, and yet I was also mad and sad that I wasn't there. The day after my mother told me the news, I felt such a great sense of loss, I just felt so empty as I went to work and tried to concentrate. Every time I saw a dog on the street I wanted to burst into tears. My father comforted me that day when he told me a funny story about taking Missy back to our old neighborhood (my parents moved from my childhood home in 2011) and how Missy ran right into our old house (where new people lived and had the door open!) because she remembered the house and thought she could just go inside. I laughed through my tears as I thought about how smart my little dog was (and now the tears have started again!).

Missy was determined to be a part of my bridal shoot.
I had to convince her to not sit on my dress, as
per usual, she tried to be as close as possible
While some people might say she was "just a dog," she was our dog. She loved us and we loved her so much. My mom often works from home and Missy was always by her side. My father was the one who fed her every morning and let her truly be a dog and run wild around our neighborhood. My brother and I often fought over who's dog she really was (mine, of course, duh) as we played with her when we were at home. And she loved Ross...she would run and jump on him when she saw him.

I knew the holidays would be hard...Ross and I spent Thanksgiving with his family in Chicago and we went to Charlotte for Christmas. I tried to prepare myself for it, but the second I walked in the door of my parents' house in Charlotte and didn't see Missy, I lost it. That painful feeling would hit me throughout the holidays, as I missed her falling asleep on my lab or begging for food or running to the door when the doorbell rang. The pit I felt in my stomach grew as I realized over and over again that I would never see her again.

I tried telling myself what people say when someone dies. "She's in a better place." "At least she didn't have to suffer." "God needed a (dog) angel." But it doesn't matter, I want her here on Earth with me and my family.

Doing what she loved, cuddled up on her leopard bed
2014 has been really hard year for me health wise, and losing Missy this year didn't help. Going home was always a safe haven for me, no matter how bad I was feeling, she always made me feel better. So having that hole in my heart has been so hard.

I'm hoping 2015 will present a brighter future. In terms of next steps, I decided that a stem cell transplant isn't right for me at this time. I met with the transplant team at Columbia and frankly I wasn't into it. The transplant doctor was nice, but he was very firm about me having a transplant...and then proceeded to tell me all the horrible things that could/might/maybe/probably will happen. He said that the chance of a cure was about 40% which was higher than I originally thought, but not high enough (and he also said I was at a high risk for relapse. Yet he still wanted me to do it? #fail). My initial thought after our meeting was "hell no!' Then I decided to take a step back and really think about it. I contacted other "Hodgers" to get their opinions. Many of the people I spoke with said to go with your gut. Ugh, well my gut said no, but was that the smart thing to do? I really wasn't sure. Yes, a transplant is scary as hell, but it could also be a chance at a cure. I went back and forth in my mind, trying to convince myself to do it, but not really wanting to.

In the end I met with my doctor (cancer patients usually have a main oncologist and then go to a specialist transplant doc for the transplant) and told him my feelings. I said I didn't feel confident enough in the allo process...40% didn't sound good enough, I needed better. And to my surprise he said he understood.  Over the course of his practice, he's seen the cure rate rise from 20% to 30% to 40%, so there's no reason to believe as technology gets better and research continues, that percentage will continue to grow. And he sounded super excited about all the new drugs coming out in the next year or so. Whew. I was shocked to hear him say that, I thought for sure he would say I needed to have a transplant and I needed to have one NOW (as the transplant doctor basically said). But he didn't. He said it was my choice and he got it.

So I've continued on the regimen of Bendamustine and Brentuximab and he doesn't want to scan me until February since I'm feeling well (the scanning machines expose you to radiation every time you have a scan, so while they're important to have, they are also not the safest thing in the world. I've had like 10 million scans, so that's just great....in theory a scan could cause another cancer because of the constant radiation...what a catch 22). Doctors are leaning toward scanning less often when a treatment seems to be working. Based off of my last scan, he's confident that the treatment will continue to work, but I, of course, have my fears.

When I first started B&B I instantly felt the difference. Now I feel basically fine, but I have pain in my chest every once and a while and that always scares me. Plus I have itching here and there which is another Hodgkins symptom. It's awful to have these thoughts, the evil voice in my head says that the drugs have stopped working and the cancer is growing. But at this point, what do I know? I've had 5 years of pains and symptoms and ups and downs and it's become nearly impossible to predict what a scan will reveal. So I will just pray for the best. Here's to 2015 being a good year!

My sweet, sweet dog. We love you Missy!!