On Friday the 13th, January 2012, I was told the news that no one wants to hear. The shock and horror of it all shook me to my core. I went numb when I received the diagnosis—stage IV, estrogen-positive metastatic breast cancer. Treatable, but not curable. “I’m really sorry,” my oncologist said.
Her words echoed in my ear. “Take tamoxifen until it doesn’t work.” What did that mean? Why was the doctor saying, “I’m sorry?” Shouldn’t doctors be looking for an answer to the problem rather than apologizing?
What does it mean to take a medication “until it stops working?” Is that like the prednisone I was told to give our cat, who had incurable cancer, until it stopped working? Would my journey be like my dad’s, who died of prostate cancer 10 years ago?
Two and a half months earlier, in October 2011, after a regularly scheduled mammogram followed by a biopsy, I was diagnosed with a type of breast cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ in my left breast, inside the milk ducts.
I remember lying on the table during the biopsy, trying to be brave, as the needle moved around inside me. Tears were flowing down my face, as thoughts rushed through my head. We won’t be able to adopt a child. All our hard work and our hopes and dreams about adoption were over. How will I tell Michael?
Trying to Conceive
Michael and I had spent years trying to conceive a child. When that didn’t work, we turned to adoption. We had been waiting for 5 years to adopt a child from China. I belonged to a blog site that seemed to have inside information about the process, and the reason for delays. I would check that website daily.
We bought clothes, toys, and furniture in anticipation of the joyful event. We obtained a grant from a Christian organization that would be paid to the adoption agency we were working with.
The words of the radiologist who performed my biopsy snapped me back to the present: “Your lymph nodes look a little puffy.”
“What does that mean?”
“It could just be that you are fighting an infection. We will know more after the biopsy comes back.” More bad news?
More Bad News?
I was still trying to wrap my head around my diagnosis. However, a few days after the lumpectomy in my left breast, I was told that the surgeon removed 12 of my lymph nodes, which were all positive for cancer. The cancer had spread, and I would need chemotherapy. In addition, I had lymphedema, which can occur when lymph nodes are removed and the fluid is blocked. All this was truly a nightmare.
Then I had 2 rounds of chemotherapy, plus intensive rounds of physical therapy. I also wore compression sleeves and a compression bra during the day and night. Then, more bad news. I had a frozen shoulder. Fortunately, my physical therapist was able to stabilize my lymphedema and connected me with an orthopedist, who, I was told would relieve the frozen shoulder while I was semi-awake, but I would “feel no pain.”
In the coming days, I cried and experienced tremendous grief as I contemplated my funeral, and leaving my husband of 15 years. The grief included having to stop our adoption process. Our dream of having a child was no more.
As the shock and horror wore off, I began to pray, which I could not bring myself to do during the grieving period. I had been lying on the couch feeling sorry for myself, when I heard God say, “Wait a minute! You are 50 years old and healthy. You are not going to die right now. You are going to do what it takes to stay alive, and show this cancer who is boss.”
I decided it was time to take action to allow friends and family to assist me on this journey. My sister and my friends suggested that I look for a doctor who specialized in my type of cancer. One of my friends gave me the information about Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and my wonderful, supportive husband made the appointment.
He also researched food and supplements that may help with cancer. He made a special “power meal” for me that included all those ingredients that I believe helped to prevent the side effects of the medicine I was taking. It is worth noting that every cancer is different, and what may help one person may not work for others.
My husband and I became very interested in treating and potentially curing this disease. We were reading books about other people living with and beating cancer, naturally and with integrative medicine. I spoke with other patients with cancer, locally and nationally, and we attended support groups and retreats.
I made a decision that I was not going to get caught up in the whirlwind of chaos and hopelessness. Through prayer, hope, and support, I was going to power through this unknown world and find the answers I was searching for.
I also decided that I was going to live a life as normal as possible. Even after chemotherapy, my hair loss, lymphedema, and a frozen shoulder, I continued to work. Working with children took my mind off the horror that I was experiencing.
I also performed in musicals, sang at church, and attended Zumba exercise classes. Cancer had robbed me of some things, but it was not going to rob me of my entire life and happiness.
After reaching out to the American Cancer Society, I was matched with other people who had the same diagnosis. I also asked for financial help. There are so many generous people giving money to cancer causes. Many hospitals help as well.
A New Life
I started a new life the moment I was diagnosed with cancer. The old life was left behind. I no longer worried about checking the adoption website to see how much longer it would be until we could adopt. My husband and I realized that although we were excited, our dream of having children, first biologically then through adoption, was consuming our lives.
Our interests changed, and my life changed direction. I joined Mike in his venture to sell his “power meals.” I found a job in my field of study, clinical mental health.
My life has changed and I take medications until they do not work anymore. But there is always a new medication that has become available by the time the medication I was taking stopped working. I was given a series of aromatase inhibitors, along with a medication for bone health, when the cancer had spread to my spine.
Fast forward to today. Cancer is always changing, and with it come changes in my health needs. The cancer had metastasized to my liver, and had grown substantially over the past 4 years. I lost weight, and had various health-related issues. I left my budding career as a therapist to take care of myself.
Entering a Clinical Trial
I prayed about the direction of my medical treatment. I was strongly urged by the medical staff to accept chemotherapy. However, I took a leap of faith and entered a clinical trial for estrogen-positive breast cancer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire.
My leap of faith paid off. Although my local doctor said that chemotherapy was the only option for me, my new doctor offered me a new direction.
The clinical trial I participate in involves taking hormones, contrary to all the previous treatments I received over the past 8 years. After the first 2 months of treatment, I began feeling much better. My tumors have shrunk and stabilized. My energy was back, and I was able to eat foods that I could not eat before.
Today, I am happy and content. Being home with my husband, dog, and 3 cats is a wonderful gift. Writing has become my new hobby. I don’t know what the future holds, but I will continue to pray and trust in God’s grace and his will for me on this journey.
God isn’t done with me yet.