At 4:01 pm on Sept 27, 2021, ASAP administrator Elisha Upchurch’s world came to a numbing halt at Arkansas Otolaryngology Center. “Cancer” echoed as she sat white-knuckled and chilled in exam room 3.
Prior to her official diagnosis, Upchurch noticed a growing tumor on the side of her face. Predicted as a parotid tumor, removal surgery was scheduled, followed by a brain CT, ultrasound, and 5 biopsies. When each biopsy came back negative for malignant cells, she sighed a breath of relief.
It was not until the pathology results returned shortly after that her fears were confirmed – she had Metastatic Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma. “I could see the surgeon’s mouth moving but the words I cannot recall,” Upchurch said. She sat in silence as she gripped her husband’s arm on the 30-minute drive home. As they took the exit, Upchurch braced herself for the moment she recalls as the hardest of all – breaking the news to her children and parents.
“The hurt I had for my daughters and husband was so deep.” Still, she knew embracing a support system would help carry her through the journey of uncertainty that lay ahead. “My family stayed strong. My husband and daughters never left my side. From holding my hair back while I was sick and making sure I had my meds, to sitting with me for 6 hours during chemotherapy visits and driving me to my daily radiation for 7.5 weeks, my family was there for it all,” she said.
There is no correct approach to receiving a cancer diagnosis. Digesting news this disruptive to normalcy evokes a wide range of emotions from patients on the receiving end.
“Once you hear the word cancer, your mind is taken to a dark place,” Upchurch said. “In the past 8 months I have fought death, I have grieved my own loss and have written letters to my family. I wrote letters that said things I wanted them to hear on their wedding day, the birth of their first child, birthdays, and holidays – letters telling them how to move on without me,” she said.
After battling through months of chemotherapy and radiation with skin burns and neuropathy, Elisha entered remission on March 14, 2022. “It took me hearing the word remission to realize I might be here to say the words in the letters myself. Remission is absolutely a gift from God.”
A survivor, she admits that entering recovery is not a magic solution to normalcy and comfort. “There are still days I fight demons in my head,” Upchurch said. “I still struggle with side effects from chemotherapy.” She continued, “It takes time for your body to bounce back.”
Back in the office full-time, Upchurch understands the importance of taking recovery day by day. “Cancer changes you, not just physically but emotionally and mentally. I am learning daily I must be patient with myself,” she said.
Though her journey remains an uphill battle, she is grateful to have gained a deeper understanding and compassion for the patients at Arkansas Spine and Pain, and a deeper respect for cancer survivors everywhere. “Our patients are so much more than pain. Our patients are parents, siblings, daughters/sons, and friends. Their story did not start with pain, and it does not need to end there.”
Every patient’s journey looks different – from diagnosis to treatment to recovery. To tailor to each patient’s needs, Arkansas Spine and Pain offers a unique variety of pain management approaches, including access to mental health resources. Often, patients are referred to therapists throughout their pain treatment plan, if needed. Before enduring any major surgery, all patients must have a full psych evaluation.
Arkansas Spine and Pain knows that health encompasses far more than pain felt in the body – it nourishes the mind, body, and spirit. As administrator, Elisha strives to embody this truth, using her experience to help others navigate their cancer journeys.
She writes blogs, manages a Facebook support page, creates educational and encouraging social media content and stays in touch daily with cancer warriors amidst their battle. Realizing her own journey could have taken a different trajectory, she has found a newfound appreciation for life, health, and a fresh start found in every morning.
“Each day is not just a gift. It is an absolute triumph,” Upchurch said.