By Kali Owens
On August 2, 2014, I married my best friend, ready to live my happily ever after in a bubble protected from the outside world. Today should have been our one year wedding anniversary, but life can change in a millisecond. Five months and 24 days after my wedding, I had a grand mal seizure. I woke up in an ambulance, and that day, doctors delivered unimaginable news: I had three brain tumors. There is no way to prepare yourself for the news, “you have three brain tumors.” I now understand shock, to feel everything and nothing at once.
The following day I chose a neurosurgeon who booked me for surgery three days later to remove the largest tumor. Family and friends rushed into town, including my parents and three sisters. I stopped working. The combination made me feel like I was going on vacation. I even packed my bag for the hospital without a panic attack or a tear shed. The surgery on January 30, 2015, successfully removed the largest of the three tumors, and I went home two days later.
Throughout several doctor appointments and three brain scans that week, I ignored the word cancer. There was no way I had cancer at 27. Everything my doctors said went in one ear and out the other, including when they told me I had Glioblastoma Multiforme, Grade IV. Instead of focusing on the negative and attempting to comprehend my diagnosis, I lived like I didn’t have cancer, like a girl on holiday with her friends and family. I chose to be positive, to smile and laugh my way through the unthinkable.
Despite enduring a barrage of emotions on a daily basis, somehow, I was happy. My biggest blessing turned out to be all the prayers and positive vibes coming my way. There is an unbelievable power in prayer. The entire town of Billings--family, friends, strangers--rallied together, made donations, and held fundraisers. It was a constant, humbling reminder that there are good people in this world, which gave me hope. I took this hope and used it to keep fighting.
One week after my surgery, I went back to the gym. I loved working out. I loved going to the gym, jamming to music, and bringing out the athlete in me. It was my daily stress relief, my happy place. That was no longer the case. One of the medications caused my muscle mass to completely dissipate, leaving me frustrated and disappointed as I watched all my hard work disappear.
As the smaller tumors were inoperable, I began six weeks of daily, oral chemo and radiation treatment at St. Vincent’s Frontier Cancer Center. Thanks to their amazing staff, my Monday through Friday radiation visits resembled a social hour. I will be forever grateful for their care, for making me forget I was in radiation with my head buckled down under a fitted mask because I had cancer.
Due to the location of the remaining tumors, I experienced focal motor seizures in my right leg and foot, which eliminated my ability to drive. I had a hard time walking and spent the majority of the day exhausted. If I pushed myself, I triggered additional seizures. I couldn’t be left alone longer than a few minutes.
I lost myself. I never had a moment to myself to digest any of the information coming at me. Family and friends sent me research about my condition. Daily, people gave me advice about how to beat cancer. It felt like cancer defined me. But I still felt like Kali, the same person I was before my diagnosis.
One of the worst parts about my treatments was hair loss. I had thick, long hair; it was my thing. I lost the top half of my hair from the radiation. It fell out suddenly and did not stop. I could not brush or wash it without sobbing. Losing my hair felt like losing my identity.
With all the emotional stress and baggage that comes with cancer, my husband and I ended up separating. Witnessing your spouse go through the unimaginable was extremely hard, and it turned out that running was easier.
During our separation, I moved from denial to acceptance and anger. I cried uncontrollably for the first time in months, tried to find a way to a beach in Mexico to escape reality, which failed miserably. My life was in complete chaos. I coped by using humor, smiling, and laughing. I don’t know if it's normal to feel such a spectrum of emotions after going through a significant life changing event, let alone three events in one year. Marriage. Cancer. Divorce.
I woke up one morning and realized that if I wanted my story to change, then I had to do it. Though scared to leave the life I’d lived for seven years, I moved back to Arizona to be near my family and best friends. I left Billings with a heavy, yet hopeful heart. I had the chance to start over again. I had a clean slate to do whatever I wanted, to change my career path, to find happiness, to see a positive in any negative, to hold on when I had every reason to let go. When life hands you lemons, make some lemonade (preferably, add some vodka), and throw the rinds back at it.
I believe that cancer was a huge blessing in disguise. I don’t know if other cancer patients refer to their cancer as a blessing, but I have managed to find the beauty in it. Believe me, it has not been easy, but I have made it this far, and I know I can beat this. I am amazed by the strength I have somehow found.
To this day, I have not heard my actual prognosis, and I do not want to know. I do not want to view my life as a ticking clock or time bomb because a statistic and my disease said so. I want to live my life like I never had before. Cancer has changed my life. I thought my life was over, just as it began. In many ways, I was lost before my diagnosis, but I find myself growing into a stronger version of myself. I was forced to be a big girl, to grow up quickly, to test myself, to witness my strength and capacity.
I’ve been back in Arizona for two months; my last scan in June showed that my initial radiation treatment and chemo shrank the remaining tumors. I am driving again, making strides in all of my workouts to restore the strength in my leg, and surprising myself every day. Happiness is not defined by the absence of problems and trials. It’s the ability to see past problems and choose to accept what you can’t change. It’s moving forward with your head held high.
I hope to inspire others by sharing my story. There will be days when the storm refuses to stop. The best thing to do is put on some rain boots, grab an umbrella, and stand your ground. There is life after loss. Get back to your life because your life means so much more than the trials you go through.