January 1, 2012

Year In Review: A Roller-coaster 2011

I haven't been posting as much as I would like during the last few months. There are so many things I want to share and yet I'm either too busy, or uninspired. I don't want to make excuses, but this has been a rough year for me, full of ups and downs. So here are the highlights (and lowlights) of my 2011:

I started the year off continuing to study and prepare for my comprehensive exams, which are quite possibly the biggest hurdle towards getting  PhD. The plan was for me to take my exams around the month of April, but that never happened.

My 95 year old grandmother died early in the year after years of dementia and alzheimer's. As terrible as it sounds, I think death was the best and kindest thing for her. My family drove through bad weather to meet her body two states away, where she was to be buried next to my grandfather.

A few weeks later, my boyfriend moved in with me. I'm still amazed at how easily we both made the transition to co-habitation. We've been together almost two and a half years now and we haven't had a single fight or argument. He is such a calm, understanding, and level-headed guy, which has been very comforting for me this past year. And I love him for that...and so many other reasons.

About a week after my boyfriend moved in, the scariest thing that has ever happened to me occurred. I was told that I might have cancer. At the time, I told very few people about it. The people I did tell were very upset and concerned and I didn't want to make more people feel that way than necessary. Over the previous few months I had developed three enlarged lymph nodes in my groin. I've had reactive lymph nodes my whole life (especially the ones in my neck), so I didn't think much of it at first. The nodes in my neck often get enlarged and tender when I have a cold or allergies and they usually go away after a week or two. But these ones were different. The nodes in my groin were non-tender, persistent, and slowly increasing in size.

After some testing, I visited a surgeon who scheduled me for an excisional biopsy to remove the tumors.  I was told that I could have lymphoma, which is fairly common in my age group. I could also have some sort of infection or illness that was causing my lymph nodes to enlarge. However, I hadn't been sick in years, I hadn't had any cuts or scrapes, I hadn't visited any foreign countries recently, and I otherwise felt perfectly healthy.

In the end, it didn't turn out to be any of those options. After going in for surgery, they removed four tumorous lymph nodes (I guess there was an extra one hiding in there somewhere). My boyfriend got to experience the joy of sitting in various waiting rooms with my dad and slightly hysterical mom for almost 12 hours throughout that day.

I had to wait several days to hear my biopsy results. Luckily, "no cancer" was among the results. I didn't really pay much attention to the rest of the stuff they told me. I later found out that was I did/do have is called progressive transformation of germinal centers (PTGC), which nobody seems to know much about. Basically it means that the germinal centers of the lymph node (where new cells are made to replace old cells) go haywire and keep pumping out new cells even though they aren't needed.  PTGC has been found to occur prior to or concurrently with lymphoma. So basically, I'm cancer free now, but the fact that I have/had PTGC could be an indicator that lymphoma is in my future. Oh great!

During this whole ordeal, I was trying to study for my comprehensive exams, even though I couldn't focus on anything for more than 10 minutes without worrying about having cancer.  Needless to say, my exams got pushed back to mid-summer.

At some point during the spring semester I inherited some money from my grandmother (mentioned above) and was able to pay off the rest of my mortgage. Although it was kind of bittersweet, I'm really appreciative to have the mortgage monkey off my back. Between buying an inexpensive foreclosed property, making a huge downpayment, making double payments many months, and the inheritance money, I was able to pay back my mortgage in less than two years and save myself from paying all kinds of interest!

Come exam time (July-ish) I was feeling pretty confident. I thought I had put in the time and effort to expect and deserve success. My written exams went okay (not great), but I passed all four of them. Next came the oral exam (what every PhD student dreads the most). Again, I felt really confident going into it. I was shocked to find out three and a half hours later that I "had not passed" (which is nice-person-speak for "failed"). I almost never cry, and I cried in front of my entire committee...like a fool. Later that day, my boyfriend got to see me cry for the first time, with the exception of when I woke up from surgery and was simultaneously crying and laughing uncontrollably (anesthesia side-effect, I'm assuming?).

It took me a while to "get it together" after that.  I was angry and I felt like an idiot. But after I accepted that I failed, I knew I wanted to try again (you can take the exam twice before you get kicked out of the PhD program). I knew I would pass the second time. It would take a lot of work (and more studying, ugh!), but I could do it.

Meanwhile, I had been seeing an oncologist regularly to monitor my health and check for early warning signs of cancer. They wanted to see me after my surgery, 3 months later, 6 months after that, and so forth until "the coast was clear" (however long that would take?). About a month after my 3-month appointment, I started having lymph node issues again. I start thinking the worst (it's hard not to). This time I had several much smaller (but still enlarged) nodes on the opposite side of my groin. I saw the oncologist and he said that I could have another surgery if I wanted, but that since the nodes were still small and I wasn't showing any of the "bad symptoms" (i.e. extreme weight loss and night sweats), that I could probably just "wait and see". I decided to wait on it. And since then, the nodes don't seem to be getting any bigger (but they also haven't gone away on their own). I'll go in again in February for a checkup.

No sooner did I get that aspect of my health in-check, did I find out that I had all kinds of dental work in my future! I hadn't been to a dentist since before I started grad school. Prior to then, I had never had a cavity or any other dental problems so I thought I could go a few years without seeing a dentist. And now I was finding out I needed 7 fillings and a root canal! I'm not sure how this happened? I haven't been a soda drinker for over 10 years and I've been taking better care of my teeth the last few years than I ever did as a child or teenager. I guess that as you grow older, your hormones continue to change, and obviously something changed in my pH-balence (or who knows what) that suddenly made my teeth give up the fight. And for some reason, I find nothing quite as demeaning as sitting in a dentist's chair getting your teeth drilled (and over the course of about 6 months, I get to do just that like 5 times).

Now it's 2012 and I'm faced with some big decisions. I obviously haven't been super successful during grad school (failing my comps was like a punch to the face). I'm starting to wonder if this is even the right thing for me right now. Do I really even need a PhD to reach my career goals? What are my career goals? What are my other options?

I never thought I would be thinking these things, but here I am seriously considering stopping school early with a Master's degree. I've always been a very ambitious person, and getting a PhD is just about the most ambitious thing you can do educationally. However, "just because I can do it" doesn't mean "I should do it". Hopefully I'll figure this all out soon. And hopefully 2012 will be a little less like a roller-coaster ride.

So there's my rant for 2011. I've been saving that up for a while now...Phew!


  1. Wow. I had no idea about the cancer scare. Glad you are healthy now. Thinking good thoughts you direction for the new year as you decide what's next.

  2. Oh gosh, Daedre, I'm so sorry to hear that you were going through those health crises on top of everything else that was happening in your life. When you have health problems, everything else seems insignificant in comparison. Hopefully, with constant monitoring everything will stay under control. I'm not in the medical profession, but I recall reading there have been some advances with understanding cell replication (mostly in the context of cutting off blood flow to cancer tumors) that might offer some help. It's terrific that you have a family and BF that can be a sounding board and provide emotional support. Not everyone has family that can be counted on to be helpful during difficult times.
    I've been a regular reader of your blog since last Spring, when I first came across it, and I've enjoyed reading about your ideas, activities and projects. I'm about to place my seed order with Baker Creek. Even though I saved seeds from last year, you've inspired me to try some of the many unusual varieties offered.
    I hope that 2012 is filled with many more highlights than lowlights for you.

  3. What a rough year! I can't imagine getting all the way to my final exams, and then failing the dang oral test. Is they all you would need to retake for your degree? I would suggest giving it a few months, and thinking about it. You might change you mind after you've had a break?

    Although you year has had its issues, I would still be excited about the mortgage. We're so far away from paying off ours, I just need to keep plodding away at it...

    Good luck for a better year in 2012!



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