When I reached out…

Brieonna’s Story

It was mid-March 2020 and I believe the whole County was in denial at that time with what was happening as Covid took hold. We learned to live amongst our loved ones, work from home, school from home, cooking 3 meals a day at home, etc. Perhaps it was just me, but I thought that was hard enough.

Until April 2020 rolled around and we learned that my husband, Codie, had stage IV cancer. Wow…what a blow. How can this be happening, is this real? It was almost like a dream world; I remember the few days following the diagnosis and the monumental days of chemo treatments and surgeries. But otherwise, I don’t remember much of anything. Auto-pilot perhaps, survival mode; call it what you will, it was an absolute blur.

In those immediate days after the diagnosis, I contacted Living Journey’s. I was nervous, scared, overwhelmed and guarded when I reached out. Why did we deserve assistance from this organization, would we “qualify?” Julie emailed me back almost immediately and we had a phone conversation shortly after. I have never been in such a hard place in life and felt so welcomed by an absolute stranger. Especially at a time like that. She instantly made me feel like I/we weren’t alone and told me all the ways that LJ’s could assist. Not to mention, she gave me hope.

I had no idea the extent of their program and the many ways they support families with cancer in the Valley. Codie and I honestly felt more overwhelmed some days from the support we received than anything else that was happening. LJ’s started bringing us meals, delivering produce boxes, offering travel reimbursements to/from Denver for appointments, the list goes on. Not to mention the quarterly grants and coverage of therapy appointments.

Like I mentioned before, I don’t remember much from the months of appointments, caretaking, raising our son and everything in-between. What I do know now is that Codie has made a miraculous recovery and is doing amazing! It was a whirlwind but we are so grateful to be moving onto sunnier days.

The last handful of months have been really hard, as I’m not sure the diagnosis and journey is worse before or after. There are a lot of flashbacks, fear, doubt, and overwhelm some days. But one of the constants in our lives has been Living Journey’s. They understand what it takes to pick up the pieces and assist after the fact. We are still receiving meals, will get produce boxes once the season allows, are able to apply for quarterly grants, and receive therapy assistance. There are days I feel guilt allowing them to still support and embrace our journey, but I am slowly learning to let that go. The aftermath has been hard and coming home once a week to a meal, or not having to pay for therapy is such a relief. I’m sure from their perspective (as we heard this a lot), “it’s the least they can do.” However, from our end, it means the world. Without LJ’s my caretaking responsibilities and our financial strain would have been a lot more of a burden. We can’t thank them enough for their compassionate and loving programs that are truly from the heart. This community showed a side of itself we knew was there but hadn’t fully seen for ourselves. And honestly, it’s bittersweet…

 

Codie’s Story

My name is Codie Aljets.  I am forty years old, a father, a husband of almost 10 years, a son, a firefighter/emt, a jack of all trades.  I mean, I try about anything I can to make, fix, etc.  I’ve always been told to try any experience or chance to learn things once so you can truly get a taste of it to know if you want to go farther.  If you don’t enjoy it then you can at least say you’ve tried it.  I do all the thing most do in the Gunnison valley for entertainment and exercise.  We have enjoyed a wonderful winter watching our four, just turned 5, year old son progress as a snowboarder and enjoying every minute together.  Did I mention?  I am a stage four colorectal cancer survivor!  Notice how I left that part for the end.  Save the best for last, right?

On April 16, 2020, I went in for a colonoscopy for what was diagnosed as hemorrhoid six months prior.  I remember waking up during the procedure and hearing, “was that eight Polyps?”  I asked if I heard correctly and was quickly sedated.  Waking up I was preparing myself for the news.  The dreaded “C” word!  Well, as you know I was told I had cancer and needed to get to Anschutz in Denver immediately.  I had a mass in my rectum 15 cm long and 7 polyps, suspected of being in me for 10 yrs. or more.  How could this be? I had just built our home.  I had won the firefighter agility course 3 years prior.  I felt strong.  How did I know to get checked is something I get asked often?  I had blood in my stool, especially after cardio activity.  I just want to add that because I have found its more common than I thought after having conversations with people.

On the drive home there wasn’t much said.  I do however remember telling my wife, Brie, “You are going to see why I love this valley through this.”  We were already seeing the love and generosity of our valley, restaurants, communities, and non-profits during the beginning of Covid.

Within days we were receiving calls from Living Journeys and Tough Enough to Wear Pink with help setting up our hotel rooms, transportation or fuel cards, meals, and emotional support.  Off to Denver we went for a heavy situation.  Immediately made easier with this support and more importantly, a small amount of mental freedom to deal with our situation.  After what seemed to be the longest 48hrs of our lives we had some answers and a plan.

My primary tumor had escaped my rectal wall and was in my lymph nodes, as well there were four spots on my liver.  My plan consisted of six months of high dose chemo to start, most likely followed by another 6 months of it.  Radiation after as well as multiple resection surgeries with an ostomy bag and reversal at some point.

Wow! What a punch to the gut!  We were all just starting to understand this Covid distancing and now this.  We prepared ourselves, the best you can, for the long haul.  How do you do this?  We have never dealt with this before.

Living Journeys has, and have set up a wonderful program to help you navigate this journey from the beginning.  Within days of returning we were getting at least 2 meals a week, plus a produce box most weeks for the next several months.  This put an amazing amount of relief on my family because what came next is the good part but one hell of a whirlwind.

I started my chemo treatments the following week after returning from Denver.  We completely changed our diet, which my delivered meals met.  I was put on disability at work due to Covid and the nature of my job.  I do have insurance but how were we going to deal with the financial part of this?  Once again Living Journeys was there to help!

Chemo hit me hard!  I mean so hard that with 44 days of treatment my blood was so toxic I was within days of death.  I had lost 70 pounds, felt so weak I was crawling to the bathroom and hiding that from my family because I didn’t want them to know how bad I felt.  I turned grey.  The only people I had ever seen grey had all died.  I didn’t even take any pictures during this time because I’m okay with never seeing myself like that.   My body wasn’t processing the chemo and I was just building it up in my systems.

This changed my entire course of events.  Not sure of what route to take we did more scans.  My interventions, diet, alternative treatments had made huge changes in my tumors.  I was given a month to try and get stronger and was scheduled for radiation after that.  I was able to do the Living Journeys Peak hike on July 25th.   How could this be?  This was supposed to be more than a year away.

I truly believe a positive mental attitude and environment for this does amazing things.  Knowing you have healthy meals, mental health support options, and financial support were all small pieces to my family being able to fare through this fight but had huge meanings to us during this time.

After a month we were off to Denver for a week of high dose radiation.  Once again we had support for lodging, and fuel.  Two weeks later I went in for my resections.  My primary tumor had shrunk to just over 3 cm! They removed 26 lymph nodes and only 2 spots on my liver.   I was given an Ileostomy, a bag where your small and large intestine connect.  The plan was to be in the hospital over a week for recovery.

I was walking my hospital floor the next morning and was the first patient allowed outside privileges during Covid.  I had my surgery on July 27th and walked out to go home on the 30th.  I found out my margins and lymph nodes were clear and my spots on the liver were dead on July 31st!  I had felt what I hope is to be at my lowest point physically and mentally and was determined to use this experience to come out better and stronger.

Two days later I was on the boat recovering on the Mesa.  I had my ostomy bag for the next two months.  It felt like an eternity.  It really opens your eyes to your food intake seeing it come out of your stomach through a hole.  After a couple weeks of resting I started to push myself.  I remodeled an old slide in camper so we could take a trip.  I did some hiking to start with and even did a fourteener and flapped my bag at the top!  We took a two week trip north with no real plans.  We took all two lane roads and just soaked in every minute.  I even did some moto rides out at Hartman’s a couple days before my reversal.

On Sept 30 I had my ostomy reversal and walked out of the hospital 24 hours later.  I was on my way to recovery!  The doctors still wanted me to do another six months of chemo.  A different kind.  I still can’t bring myself to do that route again.  I will probably do Mistletoe in the future.   After several weeks of rest, I was able to start pushing again.  I was able to return to full duty work on Nov 5.  I am currently able to do 75 push up in a row and 15 pull ups.  I have a goal of 100/20!  I’ve never been able to do either amount.

I write this ten days prior to the 1-year anniversary of finding out I had cancer.  It’s truly amazing to even think about it.  I was supposed to still be doing treatments.  I am one of the lucky ones in this fight.  A true fight for your life.  An ongoing fight that I didn’t expect.  You remember how I mentioned being a cancer survivor for last.  I don’t like to even talk about it but it truly helps myself grow out of this.  I also know it spreads awareness and have had several people go get checked after hearing my situation.

I won’t be the person that celebrates being a cancer survivor each year.  I don’t think its fare to the others and to me it’s just a countdown in reality.  My type of cancer has a 5-year survivor rate.  That’s what they tell me anyway.  I’ll just be 42, 43, 44, and so on. It will never be on my list of greatest accomplishments.  Definitely on the list of hardest things I’ve had to do.  As I mentioned the ongoing fight is something I didn’t expect.  We will be better and healthier in the long term and saying your cancer free is amazing, but it still just part of this.

Living Journeys understands this.  We graciously continue to enjoy a meal each week and are getting produce baskets soon.  We utilize the mental health options and join both the caregiver and cancer groups.  The calls and outreach start to slow after the good news.  No one’s fault and we appreciate everyone during this.  I think it’s just human nature.  Life moves on and we are moving on also.  The thing most don’t realize is that how much life changes after cancer also.   Each meal is a reminder.  You notice more of the cancer commercials and how many people you hear about that are going through this fight.  You have lifelong repercussions of your surgeries.   You have scans that you just have to wait and see what the results are.  Having the continued support is once again a piece of this puzzle to success and happiness.

We cannot express our gratitude to Living Journeys and the supporters that make the program possible.  I would love to personally hug and thank each and every one of you that are involved.  You have helped a family in the Gunnison valley have an unbelievable  outcome!

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