Meet our Guest Blogger, Lisa Milkovich
It is our great pleasure to introduce our Risk Blossoming Guest Blogger, Lisa Milkovich. In our opinion, Lisa and her sister Kristine are one of the premier realtor teams in Seattle. But the reason we reached out to Lisa to be a Risk Blossoming guest blogger has nothing to do with her stellar success in her chosen profession, but rather, her fearless journey that involves cancer and living her fullest life.
When we learned Lisa had been diagnosed with metastasized Stage 4 Lung Cancer, we watched in awe and respect, as she tenaciously fought this horrible disease and took the risk to absolutely blossom and live a life she had dreamed.
Her journey is about Exploration, Discovery, and Growth. That is why Tim and I asked Lisa to share her story of a Risk Blossoming life. Please travel along with Lisa and her amazing journey.
Finding Cancer by Luck
In April of 2016 during my annual checkup, I asked my doctor if there was a test to check a person’s heart health without waiting for chest pains or a heart attack. She told me about a simple Calcium CAT (CT) scan that scans for the calcium level in the heart. She gave me a referral for the scan and I called that same day and was told that they take walk-ins. I went and had the scan that afternoon.
As I was walking out of office, my doctor was calling. I thought, my God, is my heart that bad!! She told me the radiologist saw something in my lung next to my heart. This turned out to be Stage 3 lung cancer that had spread to a lymph node. Since I was 52 and had never smoked, this was devastating and shocking news.
For those that have heard those cancer words, the initial thought is always “Am I going to die?”
My next thought was, “What can I do to fight this?”
By the next month I was in the hospital getting my lower left lung removed. Once I woke up from the surgery, I looked up at the same lights that I was looking at as they sedated me and said to myself, “I am alive, and I can breathe!
More Bad News
My wonderful surgeon from Swedish Hospital came to visit me after the surgery. He reported they were able to remove the entire tumor but the cancer had spread to a lymph node. The doctor also stated that because the cancer had spread to the lymph node, they weren’t able say that I was cured.
He had the tumor tested and it came back positive for the ALK (anaplastic lymphoma kinase) mutation. I started crying as this sounded very bad and very scary. I found out this form of lung cancer is very aggressive and is likely to return.
It was too much to comprehend. I didn’t believe what the doctors were telling me at the time! The positive news about the ALK mutation is that they had a treatment drug that was successful with targeting the ALK mutation should it return.
The Healing Begins
After a few weeks of healing from the surgery, and 1 round of chemotherapy, I focused daily on being healthy, strong, and cured. Those words became my mantra and I had a new appreciation for everything in life! I started trying to increase my lung capacity by taking baby steps around the neighborhood.
I Will Not Let This Disease Define Me
As my healing journey unfolded, I had a strong mindset that I would not let cancer defeat me! I put my focus on living well and enjoying every moment of life. Everyone’s path is different. For me, I chose to not be defined by my disease. In fact, I didn’t publicly share I had cancer until it returned in 2017.
Since I have not looked or felt sick, the hardest part has been to know each day I have cancer but to feel strong and healthy. When asked how I am doing, I respond by saying I feel great and I am living well with cancer!
While researching cancer survivors, I found some common threads. I adopted those lifestyle changes and believe passionately that they are why I am still here and why I am strong and thriving.
I have a filter system on my faucet that alkalizes and cleans the chemicals out of the water I drink. I also eat the colors of the rainbow with organic and vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables. I visualize and say my intentions around my health out loud every morning, and I exercise on a regular basis.
Cancer Brings Out Your Real Friends
Having cancer has a way of showing you who really cares about you! For example, to my surprise, my best friend, from my twenties, Lisa Marie, showed up unannounced from Boise as soon as she heard I had cancer. At first, I was like, who shows up without calling?
I was worried my house wasn’t clean enough. I was worried about all the little stuff that really doesn’t matter!! I quickly realized this was her way of showing me her love and concern. We spent three days filled with laughter and reminiscing about all the fun and trouble we got into in our twenties.
Since we lived in Southern California at the time, Las Vegas was a frequent road trip. Lisa Marie, being a singer, would inevitably end up singing with the bands each time we went out dancing. I will always cherish her dropping everything to come to see me to show me her love and support.
Cancer Teaches You to Say Yes
Cancer has a way of teaching you to say Yes!! It has taught me to spend time with the people I care about. That October (2016) I went on three vacations!
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
First, I went to Coeur d’Alene in Idaho with my husband Dang and our friends Eric and Liz. We rode our motorcycles around the lake and golfed the floating greens course. We made it onto the floating green! We trailered our bikes and rode around Lake Coeur d’Alene. The lake and area are picturesque and worth a visit! My bike is the orange one!!
Next, Lisa Marie (my friend that showed up unannounced) and I went to Michigan. Both of us are natives of Michigan and that is where our fathers and other family members still reside. We stayed at Lisa Marie’s charming cabin on Houghton Lake, where we went 4-wheel riding in the woods. Luckily, I had the Bombardier so I was able do a “MacGyver move” and pull her out when she got stuck. Fun times!
We also made our way to Mackinac Island, a quaint, charming island on Lake Huron. It doesn’t allow any motorized vehicles on the island. Transportation is either by bicycle or horse. We chose bicycles and rode around the island.
It was on this bicycle ride that we decided to train for the 200-mileSeattle to Vancouver, BC bike ride the following year, August (2017). At that time, I was having a hard time making it around the islands 6 miles, let alone riding 200 miles!!
The third trip was to Paris with my dear friend, Sharon, who was also in her own battle with Stage 4 metastatic throat cancer. Sharon is a retired Art Teacher, High School Principal and Superintendent from Montana. She is a true artist and Renaissance woman., and is another person who has a positive attitude and says “Yes” to life! Her support was so meaningful as she has been successful in fighting and beating cancer in many areas of her body. She had never traveled abroad and always dreamed of going to Paris to see all the wonderful art and history.
I was blessed to help her fulfill that dream by taking her to Paris. What a trip we had! We went to Claude Monet’s home, d’Orsay museum and strolled Champs-Elysees! Even though we were both battling cancer, we were able to walk 8 to 10 miles and climb hundreds of stairs every day! Looking back on this trip, there likely will never be another time when we both are as healthy and strong as we were on that trip.
The Cancer Returns
In January of 2017, I had my routine Chest CT Scan at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) and it came back clear of cancer. We were all happy with the news. My oncologist was checking me every three months. At my next doctor’s visit on April of 2017, my oncologist came in very late to the appointment, which was unusual for him.
At the time I wasn’t alarmed, but soon would be! He walked into the room and announced that he had bad news. I had 5 tumors in my liver! It was as if time stood still…. I felt this was not really happening. My first thought after the initial shock, was that I was going to die!! Immediately, what came to my mind, is where these same tumors in my liver in January?
He said,” Well now that they know to look for the tumors, they could see them on the January CT Scan”. I thought, what???? As a precaution once the cancer returned, I also had a brain MRI to see if it had spread to my brain. It came back clear. I was put on the drug that my surgeon had originally shared with us. It targets the ALK mutation. The drug is Crizotinib. However, this drug does not penetrate the brain.
The Bike Training
The big crescendo for 2017 was supposed to be the 200-mile bike ride I was training for, not cancer coming back! The bike ride was from Seattle to Vancouver, BC in August. We had a small group training for the event, and my friend Lisa Marie was coming from Boise to do the ride with me / us. Our bike riding group of six also included my sister Kristine, her wife Chris, friend Colleen and Lisa Marie’s friend Jean.
I also had a new friend, Janna that works with our preferred lender. I had called her one day asking if she would like to go to weekly spinning classes with me. From the day I called, she joined LA Fitness and never missed a spinning class or going on long bike rides with me to help me prepare for the upcoming 200-mile ride. She was an angel sent to lift me up!
As I was training for the ride with extended bike rides and weekly spinning classes, the bike riding made me feel so strong and gave me the feeling that I could beat the cancer that had returned to my liver. The more I rode, the stronger I felt!
During this bike-training summer, I went to Boise in July to visit Lisa Marie and do some bike training together. She was coming to Washington in August to do the ride with me. While I was at Lisa Marie’s, I had a pain in the back of my head that was not going away. I was taking Advil, but it did not eliminate the pain. When I returned to Washington, I called SCCA to let them know I was having a pain in my head that wasn’t going away.
They initially said I had just had a brain MRI 3 months earlier and that I didn’t need another one. I thought about that for 3 days and found myself crying in my spinning class. Somehow the exhaustion of riding the bike and the spinning class had a way of bringing me clarity. I called SCCA and said I needed to have an MRI.
They scheduled another brain MRI and it showed a brain tumor in the exact spot I was having the head pain. I asked if the tumor was on the last brain MRI and was told, now that we know to look for it, it was there! What??? The Cizotinib medicine I was on doesn’t penetrate the brain.
My oncologist then suggested a new drug, Alectinib. This drug works throughout the entire body and is specific to treating the ALK mutation. I started this new chemo drug close to the ride, and it was affecting my breathing.
Suddenly, I was having trouble with my 26-mile ride around Lake Washington. The smallest of hills were making me short or breath. I was having to get off my bike and walk. It was looking like I was not going to be able to do the ride after all.
But, I just kept going on rides, and going to spinning class, and days before the ride I had a breathing break through. I could miraculously breathe normally on inclines again!! It was a miracle.
We had a wonderful sendoff party the weekend before the ride. My mother, Nancy, gave us all Viking Hats, because after all, we are Strong Viking Women!!!
Seattle To Vancouver On A Bike
On August 18, 2017, our riding group of 6 met in the parking lot of the University of Washington. I had overcome the new chemo drugs side effect of not being able to breathe. At the start of the ride, I felt a sense of anticipation, joy and trepidation. It was the knowing I had a tumor in my brain and 5 in my liver and trying to manage my emotions. But, I also knew that I was feeling healthy, strong and was ready to tackle this ride.
This was about me showing cancer I am stronger than it is!
The six of us started together but split up according to our capabilities. This ride was not a race for me. It was me showing cancer I am stronger than it is! Lisa Marie was with me the entire ride. The first day the ride covered 108-mile, which spanned from Seattle to Bellingham. The ride seemed to become one hill after another. As the hills became steeper and harder, I put my head down so that I didn’t know how much further I had to go to get to the top.
Instead, I focused on all the things I am grateful for in my life. I did this hill after hill until I eventually make it to the top of each one. As I rode into the last coordinated supplies stop of the first day, I was overtaken by emotion. I cried because I could not believe I was able to make it up so many hills when a few weeks earlier I couldn’t even ride up a small incline.
At this emotional stop, it was pointed out I could stop if I didn’t think I could go on. That was the furthest thing from my mind. There was no way I wasn’t going to finish this ride. It is not in my DNA to quit, no matter what!
The last portion of the first day turned out to be the most challenging. We had to navigate Chuckanut Drive, the last stretch of road before coming into Bellingham, the first day’s destination. Chuckanut Drive is a breath taking 21-mile stretch of winding cliff roads that overlook Samish Bay. There is not a designated bike lane so we biked on the regular highway. It is mostly winding blind turns. By the time we were on this section, there were no other riders with us. I was flashing my hand behind me in hopes the cars coming would see us. I worried that the turns on the road are blind and drivers were not expecting to see bike riders on such a road!! We survived Chuckanut Drive and I want a tee shirt to prove it!!
The Support Team
It was joyful to see our own cheering squad of nieces / nephews, in-laws and Colleen’s family. We also had amazing support from our friend Lori, who was our support vehicle.
We had amazing support and cheerleaders along the route. Two sets of my nieces and a nephew showed up with signs they made to cheer us on and Colleen’s family that lives in Canada, greeted us once we made it into Canada. We so appreciated everyone’s support, they helped keep us going!
On day two, we rode our bikes into Canada and eventually into the city of Vancouver. This ride was serene, beautiful and hilly!! I could not believe how steep the Vancouver neighborhoods are. It felt as if we were bike riding in San Francisco! I was so grateful to pass through the finish line in Vancouver! Our riding group met for dinner that night to celebrate the ride and time together. My sister Kristine was asked how I can stay strong and positive even while fighting the returned cancer…her reply was Lisa has a strong constitution…character, faith, positive attitude, determination and will to survive!!
The next night when we were out having a cocktail in Vancouver, I told the 2 men we met at the bar that we had just rode our bikes there from Seattle!! It sounded so funny to say that, and they looked a bit like, yah right!! They asked us how long did it take? I said only 2 months!! It was two days, but felt like 2 months!!
When you have cancer, you learn to say yes! In October of 2017, Kristine and I had an opportunity to go on a painting and cooking trip to Tuscany and stay in a 16th century working organic vineyard. When the trips details were presented to us by the trip proprietor, we immediately said YES. We spent 10 wonderful days exploring Verona, Florence and Tuscany.
On the flight with Kristine, we both knew we were in for a trip of a life time. Verona, Florence and Tuscany were like being in a movie they were so breath takingly beautiful. Another amazing adventure with my sister Kristine.
The Treatment Journey
The Alectinib drug that I am on statistically helps 1/5th of the patient’s tumors go away, 2/5th have them shrink in size and 2/5th have no change. From the moment I learned these statistics, I focused on being in the top 1/5th. The top 1% of the drug results.
I visualize, daily, that the Alectinib drug is going through my body and killing any cancer cells and shrinking my tumors until they are gone. I also say this intention out loud to Kristine on our daily morning business call and she says it back to me.
As I have gotten scanned every three months in 2018, this powerful intention has come true. First the brain tumor went away, then 1 of the liver tumors, then 2 more liver tumors, then another and now I am virtually tumor free! I have one last tumor in my liver that is so small my oncologist believes it wouldn’t get called out if the radiologist didn’t know to look for that spot! There have been Zero side effects from the 8 daily oral chemo therapy pills Alectinib I take and there is a 2 page list of possible side effects!! Without exception, I also daily visualize that my body and organs are strong and healthy and say it out loud like I do the drug results.
My Lessons Learned
In closing, today cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. The treatments have come a long way but so have we!
It is lifestyle and mindset along with the traditional treatments that I believe have made the difference for me. Going to spinning class and pushing myself physically to ride 200-miles of unending hills gives me the strength to know I am truly stronger than this disease.
It’s All About The Bike!
My Bike and Spinning Classes have become the tool to keep me strong, riding gives me the confidence to know I am stronger than the cancer!
I want to thank my mom, Nancy, for being a constant support at the hospital and during my recovery and my husband, Dang and sister, Kristine for always believing I could beat this disease. There have been so many friends to reach out and many people I know and don’t know have been praying for me.
It all matters and it all helps.
I Am Here for You
Should anyone reading my story be going through their own cancer journey, I am available and welcome you to reach out to me. I also encourage you to trust your gut with your treatment and push back or get a 2nd opinion if something doesn’t feel or seem right. My number 206-683-3265.
Some books that have made a difference for me:
Author Kelly A. Turner, Ph.D – Book: Radical Remission
Author Kris Carr – Book: Crazy Sexy Cancer Survivor – She taught me that food is medicine and the grocery store is the pharmacy!