Sunday, April 14, 2013

Guest Blog: A Tiny, Peeping Spring Chick -- Just What the Doctor Ordered

This week we've got something special for you all: A guest piece written by April Johnson Stearns (my big sis)! April and her blogs I [Heart] My Life and Green Tea and Chocolate have gained a avid following online and have been featured numerous times in her area's newspaper.

A year ago April was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Here she relates how for her and her family bringing three baby chicks into their home in the midst of the cancer turned out to be a wonderful decision.

I hope you enjoy this piece and take a moment to check out her blogs!
A Tiny, Peeping Spring Chick -- Just What the Doctor Ordered

If I said a chicken once saved the lives of my family, I wouldn't be telling you the whole truth.
Sweet Cecily
It was actually three tiny chicks.

A black and white Barred Rock, a so-black-she's-green Australorp, and quirky, beardless Americana.

To us, they are Kiki, Poppy, and Sweet Cecily. And they rule the backyard.

A year ago, getting backyard chickens for our urban home (not homestead mind you, just a simple home) was a dream I looked forward to. The idea had popped into my head the previous year, and had refused to budge (they say, once your mind has been expanded by an idea, it will never shrink back – doh!). At night, I lay in bed trying to picture chickens in our very urban backyard. We couldn't have many pets in our tiny postage stamp lot, but a few chickens, I was thinking, we could manage. Pets, eggs – win/win. The pet that makes you breakfast!

I'd received a few chicken books as Christmas presents that year and as I read through the winter I was simultaneously prepping my then-3-year-old on chicken farming dos and don'ts.

But then, right before spring, everything changed. I was diagnosed with aggressive, stage 3 breast cancer. I found the lump myself one evening and when I asked my husband to feel it, he immediately said, “What the hell is that?!” It was enormous and had seemingly come out of nowhere.

With the arrival of this malignant lump, everything changed. Chemo, surgery, radiation... I was diagnosed on March 12th – when I asked my brand new oncologist how long treatment would take he said nonchalantly, “I think we can have this wrapped up by New Year's.” New Year's?! It was only March!

Suddenly I felt like I could literally hear my dreams and this little life I'd created with my family crashing down all around me like sheets of glass crashing on the floor. In the days following my diagnosis, I was haunted. Late into the night, I'd sit in bed, staring at the moon-lit oak tree in the backyard, listening to the twin sounds of my husband and child breathing in their sleep. And I would cry. I cried for me and I cried for them.

Two weeks after my diagnosis, I started chemotherapy. Chemo bridged the span from winter to summer: 5 months of intravenous treatments. My hair fell out, I was tired, and sometimes nauseous, though thankfully I was never throwing up. Mostly I was tired. I took to napping daily.

Life in our house began to revolve around treatments – receiving them & recovering from them –  and doctor appointments. This is hard enough for grown-ups. Unbearable for children.

Something needed to shift our focus.

At this time, we received such an outpouring of support from friends & family, and even strangers. Everyone wanted to know how they could help. My husband's aunt was aware of my pre-cancer dream to have a little flock of hens. Being a carpenter, she set to work creating a lovely, little hen house for us, made almost entirely from salvaged materials.

While she built the hen house, we debated whether it was a good idea to get chicks this year. Was it too much to add on a new venture on top of chemo? With my weakened immune system, was it safe for me to be around the chicks? Was another new thing really what our daughter needed?

One June morning, mid-way through my course of chemotherapy, we decided to take the plunge.

I'd done a little research on the more gentle chicken varieties and which ones tended to get along with each other. I decided on the Barred Rock, Americana, and Austrolorp. Of course they were not all to be had from the same feed store. That would be too easy, right? So on brilliantly sunny morning, my daughter and I drove 30 minutes into the mountains to acquire our first-ever chicken. In her car seat, my daughter held the little white box with the air holes. Inside, the 4 day-old chick peeped and peeped. Within five minutes, she was named Sweet Cecily. (All our chickens ended up being named from favorite fictional characters.)

We took Sweet Cecily directly to the second feed store, this one closer to our house, and bought fuzzy Poppy and tiny Kiki. And then we took our little flock home to a cardboard box with a heat lamp in the garage. There they lived for 8 weeks.

It became our habit to spend lots of time in the stuffy garage, holding the chicks, laughing at their antics, watching them explore, snuggling them as they fell into sudden, exhausted baby sleep. I have many happy memories of that time of sitting in a folding chair with my daughter in my lap, with a chick in her lap.

During this time I continued my chemotherapy. Right about the time we got the chicks, my treatments changed and I went through 3 infusions that were much more difficult than the previous drugs. I was more tired, more nauseous. I felt myself becoming mentally adverse to the drugs – I was just ready to be done (to this day I cannot look at red Kool-Aid because the medicine was this very shade of red).

But adding the chicks to our daily mix was always a blessing and never a burden. In the realm of livestock, chickens require very little care – nothing you can't squeeze into 10 minutes a day (on chemo even!).

And that chemo? Well, it did the trick – I had my last treatment on Aug. 8 (the same week the chickens moved from their now-cramped infant cardboard box out to their big girl spacious, custom-built, fancy-schmancy hen house). At the end of chemo, the lump in my breast was no longer palpable. And when I had a radical modified mastectomy in September, the surgeon found no evidence of disease either in the breast tissue or my lymph nodes.

In retrospect, getting those little chicks was the best thing we could have done during my cancer treatment. Having a sick mother is always stressful for children, but having a sickness that goes on and on is something else entirely. The chicks became the perfect distraction. Something to keep the mood light & fun – something to look forward to every day... Those chicks have grown up being handled. My daughter carries them around them yard, balances them on her swing, sets them on balls. She hugs them tight. They were just what we needed.

And when we got our first eggs at Thanksgiving... well, we had a lot to be thankful for that year.



April Johnson Stearns is standing right behind you. A work-from-home mama, April lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her husband, daughter, black cat, gold fish, three chickens of various colors, and two in-laws. You can find all her musings about parenting, cancer, (parenting with cancer), nutrition, and everything in-between at her two blogs (cuz she's an overachiever like that) at I [Heart] My Life and Green Tea andChocolate.


Cameron VSJ said...

Hi Kyle and Whitney,

I have a quick question for you regarding your blog, but I couldn't find your contact information. Do you think you could send me an email whenever you get a chance?




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