Thursday, March 23, 2023

‘This is my reality now … how do I make the most of it?’

Emily Waldon looks back at how cancer journey changed her this year

“Personally, I’m in the best place mentally that I’ve ever been. I just don’t care about the stupid stuff anymore that I used to care about. I’m content, I’m happy.” Emily Waldon, 39, poses on the blue bridge near downtown Grand Rapids in September. — DN Photo | Elisabeth Waldon

Jan. 7, 2022.

Day 1.

After three months of undergoing tests to check out some usual symptoms, Emily Waldon of Grand Rapids received the phone call as her Friday work day drew to a close.

Stage 1 noninvasive ductal breast cancer.

Tough news for what would prove to be a tough year for my sister.

“Driving home from work that evening, I made a promise to myself that I would make it my mission to point people back to the faithfulness of Jesus, despite the ugliness of the season I was about to enter,” she recalled. “I made that my mission. Regardless of how ugly the days were — and some got ugly! — I chose to focus on God’s promises over my life.”

Today, 275 days later, Emily has undergone six rounds of chemo, two surgeries, two unexpected trips to the ER and lost all her hair.

She also celebrated her 39th birthday, took in the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, wrote baseball features, attended baseball games — and inspired a whole lot of people.

“Nobody’s story is the same when it comes to cancer,” Emily is quick to point out. “Everybody’s story is different. If you take five women who all have the same types, they’re all going to have different experiences. But personally, I’m in the best place mentally that I’ve ever been now. I just don’t care about the stupid stuff anymore that I used to care about. I’m content, I’m happy.”

Prior to her diagnosis, Emily was the kind of person who went out of her way to avoid conflict and to be independent. This year, she became tougher — and more vulnerable.

“The majority of my adult life, I never had to deal with the healthcare system in earnest,” she noted. “I never had to deal with insurance. I never had multiple specialists and multiple offices and juggling medical scheduling around my work schedule. Everything suddenly became very complex and hectic. I learned how to put my foot down for the first time. I was requesting second opinions, I was setting the bar for my scheduling, I was refusing to take on extra stress just because someone else dropped the ball.

“One of the biggest areas I grew in personally: Make yourself a priority and speak up when you need to speak up,” she said. “You are your biggest advocate. If you don’t say something or if a family member doesn’t pick up on something and bring it to your attention — nothing’s probably going to happen.”

Emily is a different person today because of her cancer journey thus far. But she’s still my strong-willed, independent, confident, beautiful sister — younger but taller than me — who has great taste in clothes and music, is always down for a road trip, is more knowledgeable about sports than anyone I know, and makes a mean green bean casserole for our family Thanksgiving dinner.

Everyone’s cancer journey is unique. Here’s some of my sister’s story so far:

Day 33

Emily underwent her first of six rounds of chemotherapy on Feb. 8. She ended up in the ER after the first and second rounds — the first time due to an allergic reaction, the second time due to some other unpleasant side affects. Her medical team soon found the right mix of treatment that worked for her.

I attended her second round of chemo on March 1, watching as a parade of specialists came in and out of her room for hours to do blood draws and discuss prescriptions, genetic testing and advice on preparing an end-of-life plan. In between their questions, she tried to eat a chicken cobb salad, most of which ended up in the trash.

I felt overwhelmed and could only imagine how she was feeling. I guess one good thing about chemo treatment is how sleepy it makes you. I watched her doze on a reclining chair — a baseball cap covering her thinning hair, a blanket covering the rest of her, a cup of melting Starbucks iced coffee on the plastic table tray next to her — and felt overwhelming love and emotion for my youngest sister.

Emily’s planned fifth round of chemo was postponed for a week due to her blood cell and platelet count, but otherwise her treatment schedule was fairly straightforward, taking up most of six Tuesdays from February to the end of May. She soon got into a routine, which went something like this:

• Week 1: Chemo on a Tuesday, during which she would immediately feel tired. She grew increasingly tired on Wednesday and Thursday, slowing losing her appetite along the way. By Friday she would crash, taking that day off work and feeling sick and low all weekend.

• Week 2: She would be back at work on Monday but had to force herself to eat. She lost all sense of taste in her mouth, save a nasty metallic flavor. She drank a ton of fluids.

“I lived on Tic Tacs, the white ones,” she recalled. “I would eat Mentos and Tic Tacs like crazy just to try to get the taste out of my mouth.”

• Week 3: She would start to feel better. Her appetite returned and she almost felt normal again.

• Week 4: Then another round of chemo on a Tuesday and the whole cycle started all over again — six times.

She feels fortunate though. She knows many cancer patients undergo many more rounds of chemo and complications than she did.

“There were several points where I had to mentally psych myself up because I knew after my treatment I was going to get sick,” she said. “I would tell myself out loud, ‘You have to do this, you don’t have a choice.’ It’s messed up — you have to make yourself sick to make yourself better. By round four or five, there were a couple nights where I would just lay there and cry. I was so over it. It was like clockwork. When you know what’s coming, it makes it harder.”

Day 68

Emily celebrated her 39th birthday on March 15. At a family birthday party for her, us siblings wore gray T-shirts with a pink Pitching Ninja emblem created by the Roto Wear company in support of Emily (all the T-shirt’s proceeds went directly to her to help with the many unexpected expenses that arose this year — a major gift from the apparel company). Emily wore hoop earrings and a cute cap to cover her now-bald head (she remained unfailingly stylish throughout her health issues this year, controlling what few aspects she could, down to her manicured, polished fingernails).

“I was never a hat person, but now I love myself in hats.” Emily Waldon is interviewed during a West Michigan Whitecaps baseball game this year. — Submitted photo

“I was never a hat person, but now I love myself in hats,” she said.

Early on, Emily decided to go public with her cancer journey — on Facebook, Instagram and especially Twitter where she has a devoted following of nearly 40,000 baseball fans who tune in for her Major and Minor League observations and quips.

Publicly, she was defiantly upbeat in posting personal medical updates, thanking people for their well wishes and encouraging those who were fighting cancer themselves.

“I had multiple women reach out to me who said they went and got mammograms because of what I had shared,” she said. “One lady got a mammogram and they found a spot and they were able to remove it successfully and she said she wouldn’t had done that if she hadn’t heard my story.”

Privately, Emily was working to stay positive as well, but she increasingly allowed herself to become bluntly honest with her family and to ask for help as she dealt with an array of physical, mental and emotional challenges and limitations.

“I embraced the fact that it was OK to be angry and frustrated,” she said. “I asked people to be patient with me. I had a great support system. I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have those people around me — my family most of all.

“Some days you get to the end of your own mental strength,” she said. “Everyone said my positivity and my faith would get me through a lot — and I firmly believe that it did — but you still see the mental strain. I think you have to be willing to acknowledge it and take a moment to do what you need to do to walk through it.”

Day 96

Emily has never missed a West Michigan Whitecaps home opener, and thankfully this year was no different — even though she had a round of chemo that same day. The Whitecaps made special accommodations for her so she could attend the April 12 game.

Emily Waldon, right, met Georgene Jarecki, the mother of West Michigan Whitecaps General Manager Jim Jarecki, at the Whitecaps home opener on April 12. Georgene, a 30-year breast cancer survivor, passed away six months later, on Sept. 16. — Submitted photo | Jim Jarecki

“I had six hours of chemo, came home, slept an hour and then went to the park,” she recalled.

“I didn’t want to break my streak, I’m competitive,” she added with a laugh.

While attending the home opener, Emily met someone very special who knew what she was going through: Georgene Jarecki, the mother of Whitecaps General Manager Jim Jarecki.

Georgene was a longtime breast cancer survivor, having undergone surgery in the early 1990s.

When Jim learned of Emily’s diagnosis, “I told her ‘you’ve got this,’” he recalled. “Then I said ‘you’ve got to meet my mom. My mom always comes to opening day.’”

“They met on opening day and it was the one of the best introductions I’ve ever seen,” he said. “My mom is 79 and Emily is 39, but you saw the immediate support system there.”

Just six months later, Georgene died on Sept. 16. She had fought for and received another 30 years of life after her diagnosis.

“Cancer may have taken your body, but it could never take your legacy,” Emily posted in a tweet thanking Georgene for her support (she added the hashtag #StandUpToCancer, which has become her motto).

“She was an inspiration,” Jim said of his mother. “She was more concerned about Emily than she was about herself. I told Emily, ‘now it’s your turn to be positive and show people what you can do.’ Her fight and competitiveness — nobody is more competitive than Emily. I think that helped her out. Nobody’s going to let her give up. It’s always great to see her at the ballpark. The players, the managers … even the opposing team, they’re like ‘we hear Emily’s in Grand Rapids, we want to meet her.’

“She’s inspirational,” Jim said. “Emily has inspired so many people and she’s supported by so many people. What she’s doing for Minor League players and baseball in general with her writing and basically being a trailblazer the industry — she’s got so much support. And she’s kicking cancer to the curb.”

The Whitecaps home opener was one of several baseball games Emily managed to attend this year in her eighth year of covering Minor League Baseball for a variety of publications. She wrote nine articles for Baseball America this year. She attended a Detroit Tigers game on May 14 (Pink Out in the Park), and another Whitecaps game on May 15 where she was honored as part of Women in Sports Day (that same day, she pinned a new tweet, which remains: “I’m going to beat cancer”). She attended a Toledo Mud Hens game on Sept. 25 for Breast Cancer Day and most recently a Chicago Cubs game on Oct. 1 (our late Illinois grandpa’s favorite baseball team).

Emily has always been there as an advocate for the baseball community, and this year that community has rallied around her in countless ways during her journey.

“People talk about baseball being a family, and this year has showed me that more than anything,” she said.

Day 145

Emily underwent her final round of chemo on May 31.

I took a picture of her walking out of the building for the last time so she could post some inspiration for her online followers.

Then I drove her home, where she took a long nap.

Day 190

Emily underwent a major surgery on July 15. The surgery had been planned for June after a lovely family vacation we all enjoyed in North Carolina, but the procedure ended up being pushed into July after Emily got COVID.

Short hair, don’t care: Emily Waldon hanging out with Minor League Baseball players Kody Clemens (the son of Major League Baseball legend Roger Clemens), left, and Daz Cameron (the son of former Major Leaguer Mike Cameron), right, at a game in Toledo this year. Clemens and Cameron both played for the Detroit Tigers this season as well.— Submitted photo

Doctors said the chemo had been very effective but they still recommended surgery to remove any of the tissues that didn’t respond to chemo. Our parents, Clinton and Marva Waldon of Winfield Township, took Emily home the day after her surgery and our mom stayed with Emily for several days and nights as she recovered.

“She’s been a real trooper,” our mom said. “It’s been an up and down challenging journey but she’s really worked to keep a positive attitude. We’re proud of her. I know she’s grown in ways we probably haven’t even seen yet. The biggest thing I’ve noticed is she learned to say yes to help. That was really hard for her. She loves to do things for other people, but it’s hard for her to receive help sometimes. This year, she made herself say yes. She learned to receive.”

“The valley of the shadow of death is dark, but the light of God’s presence is so comforting,” our dad said. “I’m sure Emily had serious bouts of discouragement, but she must have dealt with it internally for I rarely saw signs of it. Emily is a warrior.”

Emily hoped — as did we all — that her surgery would show no more cancer; however, cancer was detected in an area of tissue on one side of her chest. She underwent a second surgery on Aug. 12 to remove that tissue.

The news was frustrating as it meant radiation is now in her future, but Emily stayed positive, looking ahead to the next challenge to conquer and focusing on the fact that all visible cancer was removed.

Meanwhile, her hair was growing back. She honestly looks really good with short hair and she’s experimenting with cute new hairstyles she never would have tried before.

Day 275

Today, a Saturday in October, Emily is preparing to gear up for radiation — an anticipated six weeks’ worth of five days per week, totaling 30 rounds. Each round only takes a few minutes, but it means six more weeks of revolving her world around medical scheduling. She’s still recovering from her two surgeries and her medical appointments will continue into next spring. She will likely be taking a pill every day for five years as well.

“Personally, I’m in the best place mentally that I’ve ever been. I just don’t care about the stupid stuff anymore that I used to care about. I’m content, I’m happy.” Emily Waldon, 39, poses on the blue bridge near downtown Grand Rapids in September. — DN Photo | Elisabeth Waldon

She’s not the same person she was last year — and she’s good with that.

“I’ve always been a planner and someone who looks into the future and this year has drastically changed my perspective,” she said. “It changed from ‘what’s going to happen in six months?’ to ‘what’s going to happen tomorrow?’ It became, just get through one day at a time. I just have to get through today. If I can get through today, tomorrow is a new day. My planning helped me get through it, but it also took a new form in regards to reshaping planning my life.

“I’ve changed in a number of ways for the better,” she said. “I don’t think you can go through any form of cancer and be who you were before. It will change you and it will turn you into a different person. It is a trauma. Your body is having to deal with an attack on itself and you can’t control it, you lose all control and you just take all the steps you have to do to save your life.”

Emily became emotional here, taking a pause while looking back on her journey to date.

“Before, I always used to feel like some rules don’t apply to me because I am strong and I can push through anything,” she admitted. “That fighting nature got me through this, but it changed me. For myself personally it came down to — and I’m still walking through this now — embracing that fact that I don’t feel like myself right now. Like I do, but I don’t. It’s not going to happen overnight. Healing is such a multi-faceted process, not just physically but spiritually and emotionally. The sooner that you can embrace your new reality, the sooner you can put your own stamp on it. It’s not going to go away and no matter how bad you want to go back to how things were before, you have to ask yourself: How do you reshape your new reality? This is my reality now, how do I make the most of it? How do I rediscover my confidence and my value and what I can contribute to this life that I’ve been given?

“Because the new reality is that you’ve been given a second chance,” she said. “What are you going to do with it this time around?”

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