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My Wonderful Life!

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According to the American Cancer Society, about 207,090 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in women in 2010. I was one of those women. But I’m more than a statistic, more than a number.

That April, I began seeing some subtle changes in my left breast, but couldn’t really feel any defined lump. But something just sort of looked different. But still I found myself putting off that phone call … why… no one wants to get bad news. But then one morning, there was an article in the newspaper about a local woman who survived her own bout with breast cancer. I knew it then, God was shouting at me to get to the doctor. My doctor too thought there was some slight irregularity, but neither of us could feel much of a defined lump. But she sent me on for a diagnostic mammogram and an ultrasound. The process begins.

The diagnostic mammogram showed nothing. The ultrasound showed something, and that something would have to be biopsied. Then came that fateful phone call — June 10, 2010 at 4:45 p.m. — it’s never good news when the doctor herself calls you. She said it was breast cancer. Sneaky little cancer — it was very close to my chest wall, hard to get to with a mammogram. I was so scared, all I wanted to do was cry, but I had to go home and face my family. I didn’t want my kids to know yet, because all we had was a diagnosis, no plan for treatment, no idea of what was ahead of us. We told them in the in the following weeks. So I somehow pulled myself together and went home. I’m sure my husband and I spent hours that night searching the American Cancer Society web site, looking for information and answers.

How does this happen? I was a good girl, I went for my yearly checkups, I’ve gotten mammograms since I turned 40, no history of breast cancer in my family, exercised regularly, ate somewhat healthy, no smoking, limited alcohol … why me? Cancer doesn’t discriminate.

Soon we met with a local surgeon who explained the various options. It appeared to be small, shouldn’t be a big deal. Surgery was July 1 and I opted for a lumpectomy. And there was great news — lymph nodes were negative — that’s great news, right?

But wait … there’s more.

After the lumpectomy, I was going to begin chemo, but first my oncologist wanted to run a few tests — an EKG to get a baseline on my heart, and a CT scan. After the CT scan, a PET scan had to be scheduled, and yet another nuclear medicine test. What was going on? Surely I’d be starting chemo any day. Something was showing up on my liver. And that something too would have to be biopsied. Again, it’s never good news when the doctor herself calls you. The breast cancer had metastasized to my liver. Wow, that was a tough, tough blow. Remember those negative lymph nodes – how does this happen? Cancer doesn’t always follow the rules.
If you read the statistics, you know this was bad news, really bad news. I stopped reading the statistics. Here I was a Stage IV breast cancer patient. My doctor said that it was no longer considered curable, but was treatable. It’s easy to let the fear and anxiety take over, but somehow I pulled myself together and found out what we needed to do next. I was otherwise healthy, I felt good, so I just kept going.

And for me, I found one piece of good news to hang onto, to give me hope. My oncologist told me that when breast cancer goes to the liver, it’s usually found throughout the liver. The cancer on my liver was in one spot, confined to one area. And it appeared to be operable. There was my hope.

Chemo finally began in late August, with treatments every three weeks. We were hoping to shrink the tumor away to nothingness but that was not meant to be. Anyway, soon enough, my hair started falling out. The hair just comes out the handfuls. I had shoulder-length blond hair so it was quite a change. Eventually my husband got out his hair clippers and shaved off the remaining straggly hairs. I paid a visit to the local American Cancer Society office where I must have tried on 20 wigs until I found something that I thought might work for me. I also selected a hat and scarf from their collection. I also signed up for the makeup class. You’re losing your hair, chemo changes how your skin looks — for me, I found it was important to make an effort to do normal things in this midst of all this chaos.

I wore a wig to work a couple of days, but decided it just didn’t feel like me. So I started wearing my one lovely scarf to work, and my husband purchased a new pink ballcap for me. I was all set!

Well, the fine folks I work with must have grown weary of seeing me in the same pink scarf and hat day after day. A fellow co-worker was having a birthday and we always bring in food. But for this particular celebration, there was more food than ever. As we all went to the conference room to eat lunch, there were presents on the table. Now, we all love this co-worker, he’s a great guy, but presents? We don’t usually do presents. No, it wasn’t a birthday party for him, it was a hats-scarves-earrings party for me. There were cute hats, a multitude of scarves, and dangly earrings for me, and I was surrounded by the love of all these good people. I’m forever grateful.

I finished chemo on December 14th and we met with a surgical oncologist on December 15th to talk about this liver tumor. He proposed removing half of my liver. Silly me, here I was hoping for a nice little laparoscopic procedure. No, this was going to be a big, major surgery and I would likely be in the hospital for 7-10 days — Surgery was scheduled for January 25th. We managed to get radiation treatment completed before the January 25th surgery which was now fast approaching.

Surgery day came and went and the doctor removed 60 percent of my liver, leaving me with about a 10-inch scar across my mid section. While all of you endured the Blizzard of 2011, I watched it from the window of my hospital room. I was in the hospital for 8 ½ days, going home the Thursday after the blizzard into a winter wonderland. I was sore, slow-moving, and so very, very tired. The pace of recovery was ever so slow, and I just wanted to feel like my old self. But during recovery at home, a wonderful thing began to happen — my hair started to grow back. It’s great having hair!

A February CT scan showed no sign of cancer and the liver was functioning as it’s supposed to. A recent CT scan again showed no sign of cancer. And I’ve completed my final round of an oral chemo drug.

Cancer is hard – surgeries, chemo, radiation, looking so different when you lose your hair, dealing with all of it emotionally and physically, being strong, staying positive, collapsing into tears on occasion. But in the midst of all of that, there’s the kindness and the love. My husband and kids who had to be so scared, but they took care of me and just loved me. My mom and dad who were at the hospital day after day (until the blizzard came.) My boss and co-workers who’ve been so supportive during this long difficult journey. Neighbors, friends, family and co-workers who visited me in the hospital, brought food for my family, sent cards, flowers, a balloon bouquet , two warm lap blankets to keep me cozy while I recovered, and good wishes.

I’m on the prayer lists of my church, churches all over town, in other towns, and in other states, and at my kids’ school. Someone even lit a candle for me at a church in Budapest while on a business trip. People I know only in passing ask how I’m doing, they’ve been praying for me. It felt like something out of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

In an instant, your whole life changes, you see things differently. It’s the absolutely ordinary that are so extraordinary. Getting to sit at the kitchen table to help my kids with homework; taking my daughter shopping for her Homecoming dress and she looked so beautiful; shooting hoops with my son one spring evening — ordinary moments I hold close to my heart. My husband, telling me months later how absolutely helpless he felt when there was nothing he could do to take away the pain or ease my fear.

Websters Dictionary defines a survivor as one who continues to function or prosper despite many hardships, opposition or setbacks. Yeah, that sounds about right. We have our battle scars, we may be tired, we may be scared, but we’re here.

What does the future hold for me? The statistics are daunting, but I’m more than a statistic, more than a number. Before cancer, I’m thinking we all go through life thinking we have a lifetime of tomorrows — to see our kids grow up, to go on vacation, to celebrate birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries, to live our regular ordinary lives. But tomorrow is uncertain. I have today and that’s a glorious thing. And then I’ll just keep going.

And now the rest of the story … My husband’s uncle — Uncle Leroy — gave me an extraordinary gift. Uncle Leroy’s wife died a few years ago. After her passing, Uncle Leroy’s health was failing, and he often wondered why he was still here. Then he found out I had cancer. He and I don’t know each other well, acquainted really only in passing, but when he found out I had cancer, he started praying for me. Several times a day. Really praying for me. His daughters even said that his health rallied a bit.

In July 2011, Uncle Leroy was in the hospital and we went to see him. My husband was in the room first and when Uncle Leroy woke up, he asked right away if I was there. I then went to his room, held his hand and we spoke for a few minutes. We visited him again that weekend, on a Sunday night. He again asked if I was doing okay and I assured him that I was. He then said something along the line that he was ready to go now, he’s had a good life. He died on Monday. At the funeral visitation, one of his daughter’s told me that she was certain that he saw that I was doing well, and he knew it was okay for him to go on now. What a humbling and extraordinary gift.

That’s my story. I would never wish a cancer diagnosis on anyone, it’s a terrible, terrible thing. But one thing I’ve learned from this experience is the goodness of people — family, friends, acquaintances, people I don’t even know — it really is a wonderful life!

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