It’s the last Monday of the month. It’s my final budding bonus “awareness” post. I’m pretty sure we all know October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. I wanted to share a personal story of someone’s battle with this disease.
My co-worker Terry is now cancer free. When I asked to talk to her about her diagnosis, treatment and recovery I thought I was going to hear a story of heartache, struggle and pain. It was quite the contrary.
Terry proved to be a walking, talking Superwoman survivor and inspirer. “Life” was the only option Terry took seriously.
Terry’s diagnosis pretty much came out of nowhere. Money was tight, so she decided to skip annual mammograms for a couple of years to avoid paying a hefty co-pay. When she was able to make an appointment, doctors found a very small spot on her left breast. The spot was pre-cancerous. It had to go.
While a doctor was removing that spot, he discovered swelling behind her right arm in the lymph nodes. He decided to take a lymph node out just to see what it was.
So, Terry had to wait on test results. For about three days she waited. Was she nervous? No. She said she was never a nervous wreck. “It is what it is,” she said.
The results came back. It was full blown, Stage 3 breast cancer. Stage 4 is the worst.
Not only was it Stage 3, it was an extremely rare occurence. There was never a noticeable lump. No one knows how long the cancer had been feeding in her body. In her doctor’s ten years of experience, he had seen about six cases like Terry’s.
They had to act. They had to act quickly. They had to act aggressively.
But first, Terry told her mother. It wasn’t a huge shock. Her mother survived breast cancer. She was the first one in her family to be diagnosed. And now, there is Terry. She told her three sons next. She says they seemed to be more freaked out than she was, but they still handled it as best as they could and just wanted to support their mom.
It was all of that support from loved ones and her positive outlook that helped Terry trudge through the rigorous sessions of chemotherapy.
She started chemo almost immediately after being diagnosed. If I thought Terry had been brave up until then, she really proved her superstrength when the treatments began.
She went through chemo for a year. It was always on a Monday.
It started with one big chemo session. The two Mondays after that involved smaller, less taxing sessions. Then the cycle re-started with a “big” session. Those were the worst. Three hours hooked up to an IV. Sitting and waiting as killer drugs enter the body and try to attack the cancer.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, instead of falling into a bout of depression during this trying time, Terry made the decision to laugh. There were no bucket lists to tackle “just in case.” There was only a new portable DVD player and DVDs of comedy shows. She watched those during her chemo sessions, laughing while the drugs went to work.
Terry didn’t notice any physical effects of the cancer. But, the chemo–that was a different story. After her “big” chemo session, she said it felt like she was “kicked in the butt with the flu.” She was tired and achy. She didn’t want to move, but she never threw up. It was only a couple of days after those big sessions that she missed work during this phase of treatment. This Superwoman trekked through her daily routine at two jobs because this Superwoman had bills to pay.
But no capes are necessary for this Superwoman. She didn’t even need hair. Terry opted not to wear wigs or scarves to cover the peach fuzz that remained on her head. Terry took the whole process in stride.
One thing she was really annoyed by, however, was the inability to enjoy the taste of food–another side effect of chemo. She could smell it, but not taste it. And a couple of days before her next chemo session, she would start to taste hints of her meal, but then it was time for another treatment and the tastebuds rendered useless.
When her four months of big chemo sessions were over, she still continued smaller sessions. But now, she had to think about surgery.
Terry had BRCA testing done to determine if she carried the breast cancer gene. She did. It revealed, cancer was likely to return if she didn’t undergo a double mastectomy. The doctors recommended the surgery. Her family encouraged it.
But Terry didn’t want it. She thought she handled the chemo pretty well. She wanted to take her chances. It was the first time she wanted to stand up to her doctors and rebel. But eventually, after a few weeks, she gave in. She knew she would be playing Russian Roulette with her life and it just wasn’t worth the risk.
Both of her breasts were completely removed–inside and out. As a result, she lost the feeling in her chest. She went to her mother’s home to recover.
And that’s when Terry cried for the first time. Maybe she is human after all. The tears flowed after she felt the pain of trying to tie her own shoes. It was the simplest thing that she used to be able to do, and she couldn’t. She was bandaged, in pain and unable.
She had expanders implanted where her breasts used to be. They would be stretched out during weekly visits to make room for real implants when the time came for reconstruction.”Uncomfortable,” Terry called it, but not anything she couldn’t handle, of course.
She was also still undergoing her smaller chemo treatments, but now that her surgery was over, she was then able to begin the final phase of treatment: Radiation. It was also, what Terry considered, the easiest part of the treatment process. Every day for six weeks, she went through radiation–fifteen minutes under a machine. She compared it to the feeling of a sunburn and it was the light at the end of the tunnel.
When that six weeks was up, Terry only had two more months of little chemo sessions remaining. After that–that was it. Terry was officially cancer-free. Almost as “undramatic” as the cancer seemed to have arrived…it had gone.
Six months later, she was able to complete the reconstruction process (her implants were about the same size as her original cup size–sorry, I had to ask!). During the reconstruction she also had her ovaries removed as a result of her BRCA test. That eliminated the risk of developing Ovarian Cancer. That was when the relief really set in. She knew it was finally all over (with the exception of period check-ups).
From chemo to reconstruction, about a year and a half of Terry’s life had passed. A year of appointments, tests, sickness, pain, discomfort.
But it was also a year of unforgettable love and support. Terry realized just how many people cared about her. Each time someone stopped by her desk at work to check on her. Each phone call of support or message of concern. All of it helped boost her morale. It helped encourage her to fight. To live.
Terry is an amazing woman. She’s stronger than I realized someone could be during this process. She said she’s even stronger than she thought she could be herself.
Terry’s advice for anyone battling cancer: keep a positive outlook, work to reach personal goals (her was taking part in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure) and surround yourself with a great support system. And if you’re a woman, in particular–get those mammograms!
To learn more about Breast Cancer, detection, treatment, recovery and prevention, here are some helpful links:
By Vanessa Culpepper