My name is Meghan Blomquist. I have many roles and titles; I’m a mother, wife, sister, daughter, aunt, granddaughter, cousin, niece, in-law, friend. I am a second-grade teacher. I’m a baseball mom and an avid reader. A new role, that of cancer patient, came to me very much uninvited and unwanted in 2014. I’ve tried to accept this role and integrate it into my daily life; to live as if this was my choice. I’ve tried to follow my intuition and make room for joy.
Like many others with Appendix Cancer, getting my diagnosis was not simple, straightforward, or swift. In 2014, my dad had a brief cancer scare that turned out to be nothing. However, I’m so grateful because it motivated me to follow up on a suspicious spot from an ultrasound several years prior. The follow-up ultrasound looked “messy”, according to my doctor, so she suggested a laparoscopic procedure. When she got in there, what she found was shocking: my appendix was ruptured. It had separated from its original spot and settled on the opposite side of my abdomen, and my body had walled it off and ‘encapsulated’ it, keeping me safe. My doctor called in a general surgeon who removed the ruptured appendix, cleaned things up, and they sent me home the same day. In the weeks that followed, I just could not wrap my head around the fact that I had been walking around with a ruptured appendix and never knew it! And it wasn’t even recent – according to my doctor, it was clear that my appendix had been ruptured “for quite some time, maybe even years”. To this day I’m not sure exactly when it happened.
I thought that was the end of it, but during the next five months my abdomen swelled up and I went from being pretty trim to looking about six months pregnant. My second grade students kept asking if I had a baby in there! I didn’t feel right; I was bloated, I was exhausted, and I was hurting. I was convinced it was mono. No one had answers. During a long weekend in Kansas City, I experienced excruciating pain that left me breathless and immobile. I immediately called my doctor. Fighting back tears, I told her that I knew something was wrong, and that I was scared. Despite seeing several doctors, nobody seemed to be able to help me. My doctor gave me the name of another new doctor to visit, and that doctor referred me to Dr. Gaertner at the University of Minnesota.
FINALLY!! Dr. Wolfgang Gaertner and his colleague Dr. Todd Tuttle knew immediately how to help me. I was so unbelievably relieved to have answers at last! I found out that I was full of tumors and mucin, and that I needed HIPEC surgery– hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy. This surgery would remove the tumors, as well as a jelly-like substance called mucin that is created by these tumors. I would also have several organs removed. My head was spinning with all of this new information. I still did not have a diagnosis of Appendiceal Cancer – that would come after the surgery – but I was terrified, nonetheless. At that point I was pretty naïve and so utterly overwhelmed that I accepted what the doctors told me without asking many questions. Given this, I am so very lucky that I ended up in the care of THIS particular medical team. They are highly regarded appendix cancer specialists and their diagnosis and medical advice was sound.
In May of 2015 I had a 12-hour surgery. Six more organs were removed, tumors and mucin were removed, my remaining organs were cleaned and scraped, and I had the hot chemo bath. They discovered that one of my ovaries had completely ruptured before surgery – probably accounting for all of the pain I experienced in Kansas City. I stayed in the hospital for a week and continued my recovery at home with lots of help from friends and family.
A month after surgery, I was finally diagnosed with Appendix Cancer. The initial weeks were a study in polar opposites. It was an unimaginable shock and yet given the surgery, it was not at all a surprise. I experienced a dreadful feeling of isolation while at the same time being held close by my friends and family. The imagery of an iceberg was so vivid during this time; I felt that I was on a chunk of ice that had broken free of an iceberg. My family, my life, my whole existence was on the iceberg and I was all alone on my little piece of ice, drifting away from the world as I knew it. I experienced, and continue to feel, a deep grief; my life as I knew it was over. My expectation of longevity was gone, replaced by an enormous question mark. Would I see my son make it to middle school? High school graduation? Adulthood? Would I live long enough to become a grandparent? And yet, despite this enormous grief, everyday life persisted. I was still a wife and a mom to a first-grader who needed me. We made dinner, did dishes, tucked in our son at night. We went to my son’s baseball games, did puzzles, went to family gatherings…all the trappings of a normal life. It was unimaginable agony and beautiful, everyday life. A study in polar opposites.
The surgery had been a success and the medical team was able to remove all visible cancer. But because of the extent of the disease, I was told to expect the cancer to return within one year. Well … challenge accepted! I made many changes – some shorter term, but many have endured. I immersed myself in healthy living. I read everything I could get my hands on. I took a year off of work. I cut sugar out and ate a whole-foods, plant-based diet. I made appointments for Reiki, Healing Touch, and Massage. I meditated. I took up yoga. I did anything and everything to make my body a place that was inhospitable to disease. I figured that if cancer had been able to grow profusely, I needed to change the environment inside my body so that the disease couldn’t take hold and grow again. Oh – and I got a dog! Lucky has been my shadow, my protector, and my walking companion ever since.
All of that hard work paid off, until my one-year scan when more disease was detected. It was devastating. I started chemo and stayed on it for three years. Every three months I had CT scans and labs to monitor growth. At every 3-month visit, I requested another HIPEC surgery and was consistently told I was not a candidate for another surgery at that facility. I was told to expect to be on chemo “indefinitely”. This did not feel right for me, so I sought a second opinion. At Mayo Clinic, I was considered a good a candidate for another HIPEC surgery.
Things moved quickly once I decided to go to Mayo, and my surgery happened in
December of 2019. Dr. Travis Grotz performed my second marathon surgery. I had more organs removed or partially removed (in all, I’ve had nine organs removed and parts of 4 other organs removed!) Dr. Grotz and the surgical team were able to remove almost all of the cancer, and still do the HIPEC. Unfortunately, some cancer had to remain in my body, but they felt that the hot chemo might have a “stunting” effect on what was left. A lot of my digestive organs were affected, so I’m working hard to adjust to this new normal. My body is having to re-learn how to digest food the way it used to when I had all of my organs. It’s slow and frustrating, but when I stop to remind myself what my body has been through it helps me to be patient. I’ll continue having scans every three months to keep a close eye on things. Perhaps I’ll need chemotherapy again… but for now, I sure do not miss it!
Here I am and it’s been six years. The grief is still here, but I’m learning to live with it. I am figuring out how to manage this weird existence of fully living my life, while treating incurable cancer, while also experiencing deep grief for what I’ve lost. However, I must acknowledge that this disease actually has been a gift in some ways. I have gotten really good at trusting my instincts. I’ve experienced that the help I need is often there right when I need it. I’m starting to understand that there’s a difference between healing and curing – some of us with Appendix Cancer won’t ever be cured, but that doesn’t mean we can’t heal. This disease has turned mere acquaintances and online support group members into true friends. I’ve learned not to take personally the manner in which those around me process my cancer. With time I’ve learned that what may outwardly seem like a lack of support is most likely emotional struggle; this cancer doesn’t only affect me. I’ve learned to just be, to breathe, and to be where my feet are. I’m grateful. Most importantly, I have learned that there can always be joy and happiness, even with a diagnosis of Appendix Cancer.