a person's silhouette with a tornado in it

The Cancer Tornado

Saturday, April 24. 1993, Catoosa, Oklahoma, was hit by a deadly tornado. Catoosa is my second hometown. I started teaching for Catoosa Public Schools in 1978 right out of college, so it was my fifteenth year of teaching. I used to dread Monday mornings, but my attitude changed forever on my drive to school the following Monday. We, of course, had canceled school. I was on my way to a planning meeting, driving the same path as the tornado that had ripped through Highway 66 just two days earlier. I saw pieces of metal just hanging from power lines. What looked like insulation was stuck in fences along the way. The Oklahoma Welcome Center was gone! There was nothing ordinary about that Monday morning, so I started looking forward to routine mornings after that experience.

Many teachers were interviewed for the Tulsa news stations that week. One teacher looked tearfully around her destroyed classroom and said it best, "Tornados don't care where they go!" The same is true for cancer.

Learning about my MDS diagnosis

Shortly after I retired from Catoosa Public Schools in 2017, I learned that I have myelodysplastic syndromes. What in the world is that? I thought. It sounds like a disease Mr. Spock would acquire on Star Trek. Myelodysplastic syndromes are a group of blood cancers of the blood and bone marrow. It happens when the bone marrow is damaged. Bone marrow is the soft tissue in the center of bones. It manufactures three general types of cells: red blood cells needed to carry oxygen, white cells needed to fight infection, and platelets needed to form clots and stop bleeding. MDS keeps the blood cells from maturing correctly. It makes me tired, stressed, and sometimes fearful. I felt like there was a tornado going on inside of me.

What do you do when you find out that you have cancer? I had often wondered. Sometimes people keep it secret, not wanting their family to worry. Some people go into a deep depression. Others have admitted to drinking too much. Many get closer to God. I needed to quiet the tornado inside of me; I started studying.

Quieting the tornado inside me

June 2, 2017, the same day I learned that I have a Star Trek illness, I contacted the MDS Foundation by email. Within days, I had a packet of materials. I even received a phone call from them! I would warn anyone newly diagnosed that they shouldn't trust Dr. Google. Remember, some information on the web is dated. What was accurate ten years ago may no longer be correct.

MDS is considered a rare disease. I have met only one person with MDS, and that was at MD Anderson in Houston, Texas. Facebook groups have helped me learn about MDS. I have also learned a lot from watching webinars. Learning makes you hopeful.

The year of the Catoosa tornado, students returned to school in August. It was amazing to see the reconstruction that had happened over the summer. Returning to familiar routines felt comfortable. Some mornings I wake up and think, do I really have cancer? Just like the tornado forever changed my adopted hometown, I know dealing with cancer has changed me. I am stronger than I thought.

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