Ode: My life as a two-time cancer survivor, set to music

Mar 29, 2017

Credit Ally Karsyn

I was laying in bed when something freaky happened that gave new meaning to “Radiohead.” Three years ago, after having my brain radiated twelve times to get rid of eleven cancerous spots that had taken up residency there, suddenly the clear, crisp sound of a radio turned on in my mind—no other voices, just one entire song after another. And I began singing along.

From “Ohhh, you gonna take me home tonight, Ohhh, down beside that red fire light…” to “I wanna tell you all a story ‘bout a Harper Valley widowed wife…” to “Thunder only happens when it’s raining, players only love you when they’re playing….” to “All your seven dreams are closer than you believe…” And on and on, full lyrics with blazing clarity streaming. No DJs, no commercials. Just welcome, auditory hallucinations.

I wasn’t scared of this new ability. I knew what was happening, and I found it fascinating. Shuffling out to the kitchen with my walker, grinning and singing, I wanted to tell others, but I knew to only tell a few. My sister knew. You see, people look at you funny, with widened fear in their eyes, when you tell them of an internal station playing continuous music, no matter what’s playing externally. Studying and teaching psychology for a number of years, I knew the inner workings of the brain, but the craziness of symptoms did not stop there.

Creaking through the house, chit-chatting away, my sister told her friend, “I don’t know if Patti is talking to me, the cat, or a spoon.”

Then, there was my first shopping trip to Hy-Vee. Zipping around the store in my electric cart, Joyce would turn and I’d be gone. “I’m not going to kill her. I’m not going to kill her,” she muttered. She found me in an aisle talking to the candy. “Oooh, you look pretty, all the colors, I bet you taste good, too.”

Not so crazy when you consider I was percolating beyond measure. If you’ve ever experienced bone cancer, you know how excruciatingly painful it is, and you have to stay ahead of the pain. Percocet and Fentanyl patches were my dear friends. Thank God, I did not like the feeling or I could have easily cinched a new problem.

Other symptoms from full brain radiation, however, were not so welcomed. My cerebellum, the brain’s organ of agility, was injured. I could barely write. I lost my coordination. I had poor aim. My poor kitty was rather confused by my crappy shoestring throwing. She loves it. I was a Weeble who wobbled and I could definitely fall down.

After nine long months, I was able to put the walker aside. I played outside throwing snowballs, over and under, nailing the strike zone every time. Overjoyed, I shouted out to the neighborhood, “I’m doing it! My cerebellum is regenerating. Thank you Lord Jesus and science for neural plasticity—my neural networks are expanding!”

I made my way slowly down onto the ground, flat on my back and snow angeled my heart out. “My brain is healing. I’m learning to walk again. And while you, my dear bones, have a slow growth trajectory ahead, I love you! This is flipping awesome!”

I did not care if neighbors heard me or not. I did not care what they thought. I had come home from the hospital nine months before in a wheelchair unable to walk, experienced some full-out crazy and heart-wrenching, emotional and energy depleting symptoms, and was able to get to a place—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually—that was a thousand times better than where I had begun.

I didn’t know I had such superpowers. Now I do. I am a transformer.

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Patti Strong teaches courses in psychology as an adjunct instructor at Western Iowa Tech Community College. She is a poet, a writer. A risk-taker. A mentor, a listener. A fighter, a protector. Believer in the good in people. Two-time cancer survivor. Grateful to be alive.

Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.

The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, April 7 at the Peirce Mansion. The theme is “Growing up Is Hard to Do.” Tickets are available at kwit.org. For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.