My beautiful, long, blonde hair was completely gone just after I turned 42. I will never forget the look on my 7-year-old son’s face the first time he saw me bald—his sad eyes broke my heart. He could not wrap his mind around the thought that a doctor would give me medicine that would make my hair fall out.
I was diagnosed with locally invasive breast cancer a week before Christmas 2014. I had 2 tumors in my right breast, and 2 different types of cancer—one tumor was ductal carcinoma, the other was lobular carcinoma. One tumor was the size of a lime, the second the size of a penny. The tumors were deep in my breast tissue.
My PET scan revealed the presence of cancer in several lymph nodes around my right breast. Basically, I was a mess! My wonderful oncologist, Stephen Davidson, MD, at the Montgomery Cancer Center in Alabama, determined that an aggressive course of treatment was necessary. First, I needed chemotherapy to shrink the tumors. I was given 8 rounds of chemotherapy, 1 round every other week.
Chemotherapy has a compounding impact on the body. The first couple of rounds, although bad, were tolerable. As the treatment continued, my fatigue was extreme, I experienced sores in my mouth, had constant nausea, and of course I was bald.
After chemo, I had a mastectomy, then 28 rounds of radiation. Radiation, like chemo, was easier at first, but toward the end caused burning and extreme pain in the radiated area. After I healed from radiation, I had a 14-hour reconstructive surgery at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. This surgery involved a second mastectomy and double reconstruction. My breast cancer fight lasted for an entire year. But let’s go back to the beginning.
Chemo and Self-Pity
I stayed home the first week of the new year, wallowing in nausea and self-pity, but the time came for me to go back to work. As Vice Chairman of the Montgomery County Alabama Commission, I had a commission meeting that I did not plan to miss.
I woke early, smoothed on some makeup, and fidgeted with my wig until it didn’t look too fake. I had to sit and rest in between putting on each article of clothing. The exhaustion pulled me back to my warm bed, but I fought it.
I forced on a smile and walked out of my bedroom to find my precious 6- and 7-year-old children sitting in the kitchen. They had gotten themselves up and dressed for school. They had no idea how sick their momma was, but they instinctively knew they needed to step up and be helpful.
We drove to school in silence, because I was too exhausted to speak. I dropped them off with a mumbled, “I love you,” then headed downtown to the commission chamber.
Fear of Infection
As I walked into the crowded board room, I was greeted by friends and colleagues who expressed genuine concern and warmth. It was the first time they had seen me since I started chemotherapy.
Although well-meaning, I had to wave off their hugs and handshakes. It was January, the height of the cold and flu season, and because of chemo, my white blood cell count was at a dangerously low level. The risk of infection loomed large, and infection would have landed me in the hospital, which would have delayed my treatment.
The Montgomery Cancer Center put me through patient education, or as I called it, “cancer school,” and taught me what to do and what not to do to avoid infection. In addition, online resources, such as www.Prevent CancerInfections.org, provide information and reminders about what to do in case of fever, nausea, shortness of breath, and other signs of infection. There was never a moment that I wasn’t keenly aware of the danger of infection, and what it would mean for me to get an infection. I worked hard to avoid it.
The commission meeting ended, and I left. I continued to attend every commission meeting I had during my chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Normalcy was the goal, and although it required remarkable toughness and perseverance, it was a goal I was determined to achieve.
Knowing the facts and means to preventing infection gave me confidence to keep my life as normal as I was physically able. Fighting cancer is a marathon, not a sprint. Keeping my mind focused and my attitude positive made all the difference.
The Bad Days
If you’ve ever had to endure the misery that is chemotherapy, you know you have bad days, really bad days, and days that you would prefer to be dead. On one of my really bad days, after dropping the kids at school, I collapsed on the couch at home, and opened my Bible. It was February, it was cold outside, and the landscape was barren and lifeless—the way I felt!
I was beat down, discouraged, and felt horrible. I asked God, or rather begged God, to comfort me in some way, big or small; I just needed to feel His presence. I knew intellectually that God was with me, but that day I truly needed to experience Him in a tangible way.
A Gift from God: Chocolate-Covered Berries
Later that morning, as I was curled up on the couch watching TV and feeling miserable, I kept seeing commercials for Shari’s Berries. Those plump, juicy berries covered in delicious chocolate. The ads go in heavy rotation around Valentine’s Day, and it was early February, so they were frequent. I think those ads came on during each commercial break. By lunchtime I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to have a chocolate-covered strawberry!
I went into the kitchen and searched the fridge up and down for a strawberry and some chocolate, to no avail. There wasn’t a single thing in my house that would be considered fresh. I did find an almost empty bottle of chocolate syrup, and I got a teaspoon of that, but it didn’t do the trick. I didn’t have the energy to drive to the grocery store, so my craving for a chocolate-covered strawberry had to go unsatisfied. Back to the couch I went to watch TV and feel sorry for myself.
That afternoon I had to pick my children up from school. Devoid of energy, I didn’t talk much on our short drive home. As we pulled into our driveway, I noticed something on our doorstep— it was a box. As I got close enough to read the writing on the box, I began shaking like a leaf, and tears welled up in my eyes. I could not believe what I was seeing.
It was a box of Shari’s Berries chocolate-covered strawberries sitting on my doorstep! They were sent from my friend Jessica, who lives in Washington, DC. I had never in my life asked anyone for Shari’s Berries. I don’t know that I ever thought much about them until that very day. But that morning, in my weakness, I asked God to comfort me in a tangible way, and He sent me exactly what I asked for—a box of chocolate-covered strawberries.
A New Perspective
It took me a full year to fight the cancer, and I’m happy to say I won that fight. Now, 5 years later, I’m still doing fine. Better than fine, actually. Yes, I deal with grief, pain, and fear every single day. But for all that cancer took away from me, it gave me something extraordinary.
Cancer gave me a new perspective on life. Cancer gave me the opportunity to live my life in the moment, with intention. Cancer was my reminder that life is short, and tomorrow is not promised.
I often hear people ask, “Where has the time gone?” but not me. I can honestly account for every minute of every day since my diagnosis.
I don’t take one moment for granted. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I don’t back down from a challenge. And I savor each moment with the people I love— cancer did that, and for that I am grateful.