Diane sent me her breast cancer survivor story during October - Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Her story impresses me because she admits and faces her fears with courage. Diane had many challenges in her life when she was diagnosed, but she drew upon support from her family and faith community. She also enlisted the services of the best doctors and nurses she had access to, even traveling out of town for a second opinion on her second diagnosis. Diane learned all she could about her cancer, found ways to reduce her stress, took charge of making treatment decisions, and leaned on her faith to carry her through her journey.
Diane's Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Age at Diagnosis: 41 and 45
Breast Cancer Types: Invasive Ductal Carcinoma and Inflammatory Breast Cancer
Lymph Node Status: N2
Surgery: Lumpectomy, Sentinel node dissection, Bilateral radical mastectomies
Treatments: Chemotherapy, Radiation, Ongoing Herceptin treatments
Time in Remission: 4.5 years
A Simple Itch
My story began with a simple itch. There was no lump, no pain, and no symptoms at all - just a simple little itch. My mammograms had been regular and I had no obvious reason to be concerned. But there was something about that itch, and somehow I just "knew." I was diagnosed with a common type of breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma, in the fall of 2001, at the age of 41. I underwent a lumpectomy to remove the tumor and a sentinel node dissection to remove positive lymph nodes. By the beginning of 2002 I had begun a long regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. The prognosis was good, and the shock and fear of the previous weeks slowly turned into acceptance and then optimism over the next year as tests showed that I was responding well to the treatment plan.
Trying to Keep Life Normal
It was a difficult time in my life for many reasons. My husband and I were separated and I was the mother of two teenagers, one of whom was a foster child, and both of whom I was caring for completely alone. The three of us - Meredith, Joseph and I found ourselves in a world that was surreal at times. They were frightened that I would die, and I was frightened that I would not live to see them into independent adulthood. I tried to keep their lives as normal as possible and did everything I could to make sure that the cancer that was in my life did not become my life. I had a great deal of support from outside our home, but on the inside it was the three of us in this fight together, and we bonded in a way that no other experience could have resulted in. That was the first thing that helped me through this difficult time.
Receiving Great Support
The second thing was the outpouring of love and support from my families - first, my mom, brother, sisters and extended family who live in Tennessee; and secondly, my church family at Landmark Church of Christ. There is no way to adequately describe the experience of being surrounded by enough love to carry you when you cannot carry yourself. I learned to be a receiver of such great love, and I learned how to be the giver when the shoe was on the other foot.
My Quilting Bees
Thirdly, I met a precious group of ladies who gave me one of my lifelong dreams; they taught me how to quilt. The ladies of the Hons Quilting Bee (Marzee Tew, Beth Cline, Ruth Taylor, Julia Godwin, Jewel Spivey, Joann Norris, Nancy Mustin) welcomed me as a temporary visitor in their Thursday afternoon group while I was on medical leave from work. They taught me how to quilt, as they would say, by osmosis. They also gave me peaceful afternoons in their gentle presence, encouraging me, applauding my small accomplishments and distracting me from the world of cancer for a few hours each week. Most of them have no idea to this day what they really did for me or what they still mean to me. And on top of all of that, they gave me the gift of quilting which has become my most passionate hobby.
Five-Year Milestone Brings New Challenge
In May of 2006, having been in remission for four and one half years, I was eagerly approaching a milestone that all survivors are familiar with - the five-year mark, when the odds for long-term survival increase. Unfortunately, the tide turned and for me, that milestone has not yet been reached. Tests revealed a recurrence of breast cancer in the rare and frightening form of Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC), usually considered incurable, in both breasts.
IBC is different in that instead of being a lump or tumor on the inside, it forms in larger sheets in the skin. This makes it more difficult to contain and results in faster spread through the lymph system. The rate of survival is much lower; still only 40% for five years and 25% for ten years, according to the M. D. Anderson IBC Center in Texas this year.
It's No Picnic
"Oh boy," I told myself, "here we go again." I remembered something a friend and breast cancer survivor had said to me back in 2001, "It's no picnic, but it's do-able." And indeed, after all was said and done, it had been do-able. I knew that it would just have to be "do-able" again and immediately went to work learning all I could about the disease while my doctors, both at the Montgomery Cancer Center and University of Alabama Birmingham's Kirklin Clinic went to work on the best treatment plan for me. "Do-able" was more difficult this time.