A little bit about you:
Name: Dreefy (Andrea) Staudinger
Age: 38! Aaaaack!
City: Alix/Red Deer, AB
What was/is your diagnosis?
My first diagnosis was low grade B-cell follicular lymphoma (Aug 2012) and the second diagnosis was diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (Non-Hodgkin’s).
What year was it? What was your age at the time?
I was diagnosed August 28, 2012 at age 33, and April 16, 2013 at age 34.
What is something you’ve done that you’re really proud of?
My schooling and career path! I first studied at Red Deer College for BComm and was a dropout, as the academic side of business and I didn’t get along. From there, I went straight to managing a business and turned it around to bring a profit within two months. That took me to Edmonton where I walked out of another business after they refused to change their unethical practices (right after I gave the entire staff sheets listing their lost wages and told them I tried to fix it). I took a job at The Bombay Company and worked there for three and a half years while I returned to school. I studied Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine at Grant MacEwan and went on to have my own practice.
While working full time as an Acupuncturist, I once again returned to school, this time at the Alberta Institute of Massage, first for my Reflexology certification and then for my 2000 hour training to become a Registered Massage Therapist. I built a strong practice and worked six days per week until my cancer took me out because I could not breathe enough anymore.
April 22, 2013 was my last day of work. I’ve probably shed more tears over the loss of my work than the cancer itself.
What is a top item on your life to do list?
Marry Justin. He is my best friend of 10 years and boyfriend of almost five years (our first kiss was November 16, 2011).
What are your hobbies?
Creating things! I write, sew, crochet, make cards, paint, draw, sculpt…
What was your life like before your diagnosis?
Busy! I spent my days at the clinic, and my evenings with my sweet kitty, Spazzler; my boyfriend, Justin; or getting together with friends and family to do card-making or other crafting, host home parties, wine and cheese nights, church Sunday mornings, etc.
How did you find out you were sick? What led to your diagnosis?
I had hard, swollen nodes at my groin in January 2012. Justin and I had been in St. Croix over the new year and I had scraped my foot in the ocean. My doctor first thought it was that I was fighting an infection. He told me to come back in about 4 months if they hadn’t gone down, or sooner if they got bigger. They stayed the same and I sort of forgot about them.
Mum and I went to Europe in the spring and when we returned, I went back to my doctor. It was the end of June. He sent me for a pelvic ultrasound (booked for July) and it was unremarkable. I was sent for blood work and they noted nodes along the sides of my neck, in my armpits, and along my clavicles. I was immediately sent for another ultrasound and the Radiologist came in and said I needed a surgery consultation. He was alarmed because I didn’t have one or two enlarged nodes; all of them were enlarged.
I phoned the doctor’s office upon leaving and was told I’d already been scheduled. I had my CT Thursday, August 23, 2012; drove to Washington for my cousin’s wedding; flew home Sunday; had my biopsy Monday, August 27, 2012; and received my diagnosis at 4:30 p.m. on August 28.
What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?
My first thought was that I needed Justin (he was in the waiting room), and the next thought I recall was that I didn’t want to think. My parents were on their way back from my cousin’s wedding (they drove home) and I had four and a half hours until they’d be home. I told Justin I didn’t want to be in my world and he asked, “Do you want to go to a movie?” and I fell in love with him all over again. It gave me a dark and anonymous space to cry and live in someone else’s world until I could tell Dad and Mum.
In which hospital(s) are/were you treated?
I was admitted to Tom Baker Cancer Centre on May 3, 2013, and stayed there under the care of Dr. Jenkins and her angels until the 23. I received chemo May 3 and 4, and again three weeks later. I returned four more times to Tom Baker for my chemo, and it feels like another home. I celebrated three years in remission on Thanksgiving Day, and am set to go for my next six month checkup on November 4.
What did your treatment consist of?
I had chest tubes inserted through my back to drain the chyle from my chest cavity so I could breathe (May 3). I had a complication called chylothorax as a result of the lymphatic duct being squished like a straw inside my chest by massive nodes. It caused my lymphatic fluid to drain into my chest cavity between the wall and my lungs, effectively suffocating me from the inside.
Then a nurse named Dani administered my first chemo. She was amazing. My protocol was R-CHOP + E (Rituximab, cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, Oncovin®, prednisone and etoposide) as I had a dual diagnosis and they had to hit both types of cells. I believe they left out the E during the first chemo and gave me the R the next day to not over stress my broken body. Each time after that, for my full six sessions, I was infused over approximately six hours, then sent home with encapsulated etoposide to take the next day. I had to self-inject with Neupogen to boost my blood count so I could stay on a three week treatment schedule.
I never felt afraid. I spent the months between my initial diagnosis and when I developed the second and aggressive form, praying. I asked God, almost every day, to bring me health, and if that were to be through chemo, to give me peace about it. I wanted to avoid chemo if at all possible, so I undertook an intense overhaul of my life.
I continued working as it brought me great joy and I needed to stay physically strong. I adopted a strict vegetarian diet in combination with an herbal and vitamin regimen. My Auntie Paula is a natural practitioner in Langley, BC and I was under her care. Our primary focus was to strengthen my body to fight the cancer by increasing the alkalinity of my body and optimizing my digestive system. I had acupuncture from Dr. Wu in Red Deer when I was home. He believes my cancer journey started many years ago with an event (still to be uncovered) that drastically affected my adrenal system. At the time of diagnosis, it was estimated that I had had cancer growing for three to five years. By the time my cancer progressed to my second diagnosis, I was at peace with chemo and trusted fully in the angels at Tom Baker.
I seemed to sail through treatment with my only immediate side effects being hair loss and gradually worsening fatigue. I didn’t experience a single day of nausea, so never took any of the meds they sent me home with.
Emotionally, I was ok until my very last infusion when I was in a different area of the treatment wing. I saw a very tall, thin blonde girl come in, barely walking. She walked around the nurse’s station and took a seat in a chair along the far wall. When the nurse cleaned her port, she looked shattered. Then her infusion needle was brought over and as the nurse began the infusion; she turned her head to the side and tears streamed down her face. I reached for Justin’s hand, in tears myself, and said, “Oh babe. That poor girl. She barely walked in here on her own.” He squeezed my hand, smiled sadly at me and said, “Baby. I think you’ve forgotten that I carried you to the vehicle and you came in in a wheelchair. It was eleven days before you were strong enough to walk, and you couldn’t walk that fast.”
I had forgotten. I had forgotten that I hadn’t laid down to sleep from March 8 to May 18. I had forgotten that when I was admitted, I could speak three words before gasping for a breath. I sat and wept, thanking God for the gift of forgetting. That was the one time I embraced “chemo brain.”
What is your current medical status?
I am in my third year of remission and am thankful for that every day.
Life after cancer:
How is life different for you now post diagnosis?
This is a heavy and involved question. Life is extremely different. I cannot work anymore, as I have lost approximately 50 per cent of my strength and 90+ per cent of my endurance. I cannot be around people for longer than a few hours on a good day, and in the last year have developed anxiety, which I am now seeing a counselor for. I miss my clients incredibly and talking about missing massage therapy still brings me to tears every time. I used to be a social butterfly and being with people energized me and I thrived on organizing events. Now, attending something as simple as a Tupperware party is tiring.
Socially, things have changed as I had to give up my apartment in town and move back to the farm. I don’t have the freedom to randomly visit friends or spend an afternoon writing in a coffee shop. I tend to spend a good portion of my time at my boyfriend’s because it is quiet and I can rest as much as I need to. Being at the farm is beautiful, but busy, and life starts at 6 a.m., whereas I need more sleep than that. I go through bouts of insomnia and it wreaks havoc on my system, so I do have to use sleeping pills if it gets really bad. I try to utilize meditation and sound, like classical music, to assist in my sleep.
The one really phenomenal blessing that has come from cancer flipping my life upside down is that now I have time. I have time to spend with my family. I have time to pick up my art and writing more seriously. I’ve always wanted to write a book (or two, or twenty) and have actually begun writing a children’s series. I struggle with remembering to write at all, as my chemo fog has never cleared, but I am instead using visual reminders to help me remember. Post-it notes have become my ally.
Justin is a constant blessing as well. He always asks me if I’ve written, or made a note when I’m having a break through. Having him in my corner has been uplifting every moment of every day. I’d imagine that the amount of cheer he’s brought me couldn’t be painted into a full day of sunshine. He has held my hand for almost every IV, CT, ultrasound, blood test and doctor’s appointment. He and Mum took turns driving me to Calgary for my chemo infusions, and sometimes they’d both come. He’s held my hand and brushed my tears from my cheeks as I worship in church on Sunday mornings. He grins at me when the words overwhelm me and asks, “Baby? Are you pouting again?” My faith has grown and solidified more with him on this journey than ever before in my life, and it is a beautiful curiosity for me because he doesn’t know what he believes yet. I love that he encourages and defends my faith when he doesn’t understand it. If it works for me, he supports it.
What is/was the toughest part about having cancer as a young adult?
The fact that it changed my life when I wasn’t planning any changes. It took control away from me and it has re-written my path. I can no longer have children, I lost my career, I’ve gained time to write and fulfill some dreams, I am another poster child of “too young for cancer.” There are so many things, but more than all of these, it was awful to watch my parents be helpless.
What really helps you to keep going?
God, Justin, my family, my friends. Origami and puzzles. Laughing with my sisters and brother. Sharing a wicked sense of humour with my goddaughter, Kyra.
What kept you you busy during treatment?
I did a lot of origami while I was staying at Tom Baker. My window ledge was a zoo. Once I was home, I read a lot and made puzzles.
How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer Canada? How did it happen?
I was a part of a pilot group for an online support group in early 2015. It was amazing and I miss our Thursday chats. I sort of lost connection afterward and was reconnected after a YA Creative Journaling class at Wellspring Calgary.
Do you feel isolated from your peers since your diagnosis? If so, how does that affect you?
I feel isolated only in that I am no longer as involved in so many lives. I’ve had my social schedule almost deleted due to lack of energy and I’ve lost contact with some friends because of it. We keep in touch via social media, but we’ve become more like acquaintances. With my closest friends, nothing has changed.
Did anyone talk to you about fertility options before treatment? If so, how did that affect your decisions? If not, what do you wish you had known?
My friend, Aleah, was the one who first asked me about freezing eggs. I didn’t know chemo could affect my ovaries so drastically, but I spoke to Dr. Jenkins about it after that. Justin and I hadn’t decided whether we wanted to be parents in the first place, so it gave us too many “what if’s” to deal with:
What if we only freeze eggs? They’re less viable and if we chose not to use them, disposing of them would sort of be like a laboratory period. Could we donate them? That would be sort of like giving away a child. Ugh.
What if we froze embryos? They’d be our children. Conceived. Waiting. Perfect and sitting in a lab somewhere. If we chose to use them, how many would take? Would any? Would they all? Were we ready for that? What if we chose not to use them? We couldn’t dispose of them, because it would essentially be a laboratory abortion and neither one of us would let that happen. We could donate them, but then we’re back to giving away a child. Ugh.
What if (HUGE what if) I wasn’t meant to be a survivor? What if God needed me more than life on earth did? Then Justin would be left to make these decisions on his own.
What if going through the fertility treatment to farm eggs was detrimental to my already compromised health? I know my body can’t handle extra hormones of any sort when it’s healthy, so what about with cancer? Not a good idea.
We were given all of our options, and decided to let God take it. It is a struggle for me all the time. As it stands, I’ll never hold our child and I’ll never see Justin’s blue eyes blinking up at me from the face of a little cherub. It aches deep in the very heart of me when I see a pregnant woman or when friends announce they are expecting. I pray that God will let me know His plan when it is time.
On the funnier side of the topic, I took the opportunity to respond to my doddaughter’s “How did your OB appt go?” text with “My ovaries are officially ‘over-ies’” and she replied with “Only you, Godmother. Only you.” Might as well look for the bright bits, right?
Has your cancer diagnosis affected any of the relationships in your life? If so, how, and how are you managing them?
I’ve lost contact with many of my friends in my larger social circle, but the close knit portion hasn’t changed. My friends look out for me and make sure that I’m not overdoing it, and they all seem to just know when I need them, and when I need a little push. I have fantastic people.
How has your cancer experience affected your body image, and your relationship to your body?
UGH. I’ve had to navigate losing a HUGE amount of muscle tone, strength, and ability. I have vowed to regain as much as I possibly can as I feel that being “farm girl strong” is much better for my soul than being weak. I am squishy and it’s not ok. I have clothing I cannot wear because my body fat distribution vs. muscle mass has changed and it’s odd. I no longer have a clue what 130 lbs or 140 lbs should look like. The muscle loss is heartbreaking for me, but I am slowly mending it. Justin still wraps his arms around me the way he always has and tells me I am beautiful, so that helps immensely.
What are some lifestyle changes you’ve made since your diagnosis?
I am much more conscientious about my diet, sleep, and stress load. I no longer say “yes” to everyone for everything, and I’ve discovered the joy of leaving events early. It’s actually ok for me to bow out and simply say I’ve had enough. It’s refreshing to be a little more concerned for myself in that aspect.
Resources and recommendations:
What would you add to a treatment-day playlist?
I would definitely add P!NK to a playlist. So much of her music is upbeat and inspiring, while other bits of it are more confrontational. I think a certain amount of “I’ve been where you are” mixed with “bring it” and “I’m tough on the outside” can work wonders.
Which books/movies/podcasts/TV shows/etc. would you recommend?
Psych! It’s on Netflix and is one of my favourites. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is great, too. Suits, if you’re into something a little more serious and sexy.
What are your favourite blogs and websites for passing the time?
I usually spend time on Pinterest, or watching Laura Vitale on YouTube. She’s got awesome recipes and actually cooks with, and for, leftovers!
Have you participated in any other retreats, conferences, programs, or support groups you’d like your cancer peers to know about?
My counselor works with my local PCN. She specializes in dealing with mental health related to chronic conditions, so she’s been amazing for helping me to search for what constitutes my new normal.
Stay in touch:
What would you like to say to other young adults dealing with cancer who are reading this profile?
It’s truly ok to feel out of control. No one knows just how to deal with everything cancer throws at us because every single one of us reaches the summit via a different path. Not knowing why you feel how you feel, or even understanding how you feel, is ok. It’s a brand new game, with new rules, and the playbook is written with invisible ink. We all have to find our own magic paintbrush to sweep across the pages and sometimes whole chapters will remain unread. It’s ok. Our lives are meant to be an adventure and a journey and we are meant to struggle and succeed and thrive and crash and on and on and on. Try to stay strong and inspired, and if you can’t do it some days, know that we are all warriors in one another’s armies, and I will fight for you when you cannot lift a hand to defend yourself.
Are you interested in helping others facing cancer challenges?
Perhaps, depending on how much of a challenge it is for me.
(If you are interested in getting in touch with Dreefy, please send a message firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll pass it along for her consideration.)