“How’s it going?”

My partner’s response to the titular question has been “Hanging in there!” with a forced smirk. She says it so much to her colleagues at work that she was even gifted a mug with a cat hanging on a clothesline with those words. The reality is there was a lot of tumultuous events that happened in the last half year that has pretty much changed our outlooks on life quite quickly.

Ever since March 2021, there has been a little cyst on Amanda’s ovary. While the baby was growing, the statement from the doctor was “oh, that’s usually benign, we’ll take a closer look after you give birth.” After six ultrasounds over the first 1.5 trimesters and the cessation of her pregnancy, it was always on the back of our minds because doctors kept saying “we should keep an eye on it.” The doctor also re-iterated that it was “probably nothing.”

One of these follow-up appointments to keep “an eye on it” in September showed that this cyst was now big. The cyst was found to be nearly 8.9cm surrounding the ovary, so a surgery to excise it was scheduled. The cancer marker bloodwork looked fine during this time, so the surgeon wasn’t worried. During a laparoscopic surgery that took twice as long as it should have, the surgeon removed the cyst, along with the ovary it was attached to. The surgeon also expressed concerns that it looked more “solid” than the previous imaging had made it appear, so they sent it to pathology.

Fortunately, the removal of a single ovary does not typically affect hormone generation or fertility, but does cause the body to reconfigure what it’s been accustomed to. The surgeon told us that they would follow up with us after they received the pathology report.

Well yep, you guessed it: pathology returned a result that the solid portion was cancerous—and the rare mucinous form too (2-3% of all ovarian cancers). The symptoms of this type of cancer are similar to pancreatic cancer in that they are extremely minor until the cancer has spread. Somewhat serendipitously, the focus of pregnancy imaging had likely identified and focused attention on the cyst, prompting the removal before it had the time to spread beyond stage 1.

Of course, this tumble of an experience wasn’t over yet. While Amanda was able to take off two weeks from work, she was immediately referred to a surgical oncologist for a scheduled combination biopsy and appendectomy. This form of cancer has been known to be mobile, and this surgery was to remove the appendix (as per the surgeon’s recommendation) and to determine if there were more cancer cells elsewhere not found on imaging (biopsy). The minimum time between laparoscopic surgeries is six weeks, so the follow-up surgery was scheduled for a few days after Christmas.

We had a pretty good Thanksgiving and Christmas, all things considered. I tried to take some of the routine tasks off of her plate, including making / mailing the holiday cards, but she still went bonkers with her impeccable organization of Thanksgiving foods. We had a bit of an adventure trying to get a COVID PCR test for surgery the day after Christmas when it snowed (an unusual) eight inches in the Seattle area: riding buses, evacuated out of a light rail station whose fire alarm was sounding, and walking from one hospital to another to find nurses that could themselves make it through the snow.

Amanda + Alper selfie in the snow

It snowed again the morning of the surgery, and surgeon had difficulty getting out of his driveway! Regardless, the surgery went about as well as we could have hoped for—all biopsy results were negative for any other cancer cells. However, getting cut into and having organs excised twice in two months is enough to knock the strongest person down six/seven notches, and Amanda took it hard. She took nearly the entire month of January off, which was difficult for her as she had never taken more than one or two days off in a row as a teacher.

Thankfully, she had the support of her school and staff. Her school community was very understanding (even not knowing the whole story) and leadership was able to secure a strong long-term substitute through their network. They helped us through cards, meals, and tons of texts throughout the recovery.

Recovery was difficult over the next several weeks. I was thankful for the ability to work from home, allowing the flexibility to physically and mentally support my partner. After the first surgery, Amanda was diagnosed with post-operative pneumonia due to limited mobility. We wised up the second time around and made an effort to get up, walk around, and exercise her lungs as often as possible. She is a trooper, and it was a long recovery process. While it was a difficult time for both of us, her spirit never wavered.

While chemo isn’t currently a part of her treatment plan, we are monitoring with imaging and bloodwork as a follow-up to check for recurrence. We have a timeline mapped out for the next year; she has already a GI test that has not identified any visible growth, a common spreading pathway.

While I’m still thankful we were able to survive the experience, she’s gone proactive. One of my favorite things about Amanda is how pragmatic she is—one of her coworkers pulled me aside and told me one of the things they admire most about her is her penchant to call out nonsense (nice word) and propose immediate solutions, regardless of whether she is interacting with adults or children. She set a goal for 10,000 steps a day, and a healthy eating regimen to reduce the likelihood of further complications. Often, I feel as though I am not doing enough, but she invariably assures me that I do.

So why bring all this up? I feel like I’ve been letting a lot of my other responsibilities go, and somehow it feels important to communicate personal events. The pandemic makes me feel like we haven’t been able to communicate this to many of our close friends—how in the world do you start a text chain or a call to explain all of this? Amongst all this chaos, I was able to deliver the virtual website construction for VIS 2021 and get promoted through a tumultuous experiment in spinning up a remote vendor team… but I ignored a lot of other tasks and “extra credit” I wanted to tackle such as building my impact across the company, volunteering for the Red Cross, and commenting on visualization research/practitioner overlap (and relative lack thereof). I’m looking forward to picking this work back up since Amanda has been rocking recovery. Regardless, there is no question in my mind that this work gets dropped immediately in service of physical and mental care.

As she recovered, Amanda received a suggestion to help create closure around the miscarriage. While the baby did not survive, it did bring undue medical imaging attention that allowed for early detection of the cancer. The little life we never met ended up saving her life. Our solution was to construct a fountain in our yard to honor them. (Water plants will be added when Seattle breaks out of its last frost date!)

Most of what I realized in the last year is that everyone’s going some sort of nonsense, some of it controllable but a lot of it not. Even in this post I’m not describing the circumstances of other close family that weighs heavily on us. Empathy is the name of the game here, and finding a goal and working toward it is often the best thing we can do. I only hope I can continue to honor putting empathy and support first going forward.