Have you ever read or seen someone’s story of challenge and survival and wondered how the human spirit survives in times of distress?
Did that story make you wonder how you would handle a time in your life when the odds were against you?
There have been many times in my life when I experienced challenges, and I made the choice to work through them. It may not have been the easiest thing to do, but I always chose to face my problems and get through them to find a solution.
Giving up during tough times has never been a solution to my problems, and in every situation, I can look back and see that I was much stronger than I thought.
This prepared me for one of the biggest challenges of my life that began near the end of 2021.
An Unexpected Journey
“YOU HAVE CANCER.”
No one wants to hear those words.
Each word was a slap in the face, and the word ‘cancer’ was the punch.
When those words were spoken by the breast surgeon I was meeting with, I immediately had an out-of-body experience.
The moment felt like one of those scenes in a movie where the spirit of the main character hovers above their physical body, watching the events taking place in their surroundings.
But wait, before I go too far, you may want to know how I got here.
I have been faithful with my health checkups, especially mammograms, since my 40s. I was aware of the fact that my maternal grandmother passed away from breast cancer in her 60s when I was a child and took that family history very seriously.
My mammogram results in 2018 & 2019 warranted concerns that needed to be double checked via ultrasound. In both instances, after review by a radiologist, I was cleared to return for my yearly mammogram.
The pandemic did not stop me from returning to my doctors office for my 2020 mammogram. When there are no changes from the previous year, there is no callback from the nurse at the doctor’s office, and a letter in the mail confirms that everything looks normal.
On October 21, 2021, I walked into my doctor’s office to check in for my appointment. The practice I visit makes mammograms convenient for patients by having a machine in the same place as the doctor’s office. On this particular day, the machine was having problems, so I visited my gynecologist first for a routine examination.
While I was checking out and confirming my appointment for 2022, the technician informed me that the mammogram machine was back up and running. I had an order from the doctor to have my mammogram completed on the first floor of the hospital, so I was happy to be able to have it done before leaving my doctor’s office.
That was a Thursday, and I left the hospital in high spirits. I didn’t think about my visit for the remainder of the week.
The following week, on a Tuesday, my cell phone rang, and my Caller ID lit up with the name of my doctor. When I saw the number on my phone, my first thought was, “Here we go again.”
I knew the routine quite well. The nurse would tell me that something looked different on my mammogram, recommend visiting a breast surgeon, and then transfer me over to the Imaging Department to make an appointment for a follow up ultrasound. Even though the breast they needed to re-examine changed from right to left, I wasn’t worried.
One of the things I remembered was that the machine used for my mammogram was on the fritz on the day of my visit. I told myself, “It’s probably a glitch that caused the image to look different, and another scan will correct the issue.” I made the follow up appointment without a second thought.
A week later I checked in for my second imaging appointment. The ultrasound technician checked the area identified on my mammogram, but she kept looking at the area around it. She told me that she saw an enlarged lymph node in addition to the mass identified in my first mammogram and that the radiologist would have to come in and take a look.
This was very different from the second screenings I had in the past, and my heart beat a bit faster. I took a few deep breaths.
The radiologist asked the ultrasound tech to identify the areas again, and after a minute or so, she told me that I would have to come back to have a biopsy on both places.
This was new and not at all what I expected. I was shaken. Because I knew that there was a possibility that the results of the biopsy could be negative, I pulled myself together and made the next appointment. I had to consult with a breast surgeon on the same day as the biopsy.
On the day of my biopsy, I was scheduled to meet with a breast surgeon before my biopsy was performed. In a nutshell, she told me that because of my age and a history of breast cancer in my family, I needed to be prepared that my results might come back as cancer.
After this consultation, I was not a happy camper. I was mostly shocked and somewhat upset that someone who had no final test results to share with me could tell me such a thing. When I look back at this moment, I realize that it was my doctor’s job to prepare me for the worst.
After my biopsy, I had to wait an agonizing week for my results. The interesting thing is that life goes on, and there were social events going on in my family that somewhat distracted me from the biopsy result appointment that was looming over my head like a dark, ominous cloud.
While I waited, I experienced moments of fear. I wondered what my life would look like if the biopsy came back with a positive result. I wondered how my kids and husband would be affected by someone in the household with cancer. I wondered if I would survive cancer. Every movie and TV show I watched in the past that had a character affected by cancer came back to my mind. I’m almost sure that the amount of cancer commercials I saw on TV doubled.
Somehow, in the middle of all the fear I felt, I experienced a refreshing of my faith. When I recalled the scriptures that I’ve known since childhood, each word lifted my spirits in a way that no other encouragement could provide.
I needed each word like I needed to breathe.
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Isaiah 41:10, ESV
A Day Like No Other
It was not easy for me to wait for the results of my biopsy, and I returned to the breast surgeon’s office on November 11, 2021. My husband accompanied me, and we were both hoping and praying for the best. While I waited in the small exam room, I could hear my doctor give good news to the person in the room next to mine.
While I sat on the examination table I thought, “I’m going to get good news too.”
Life completely changed for me that day, and the cancer whirlwind began.
As soon as the words “you have cancer” were uttered, I was in shock. I surprised myself because I didn’t start crying. The analytical part of me took over, and all I wanted were the facts.
Dr. Cuntz pulled her seat closer to me. In her hand was a printed sheet that contained my biopsy results.
I heard her describe my cancer as Stage II.
I heard that it had spread to at least one lymph node in my left breast.
I heard that this cancer was “aggressive.”
There was no down time to process what was happening. If I used the word ‘conversation’ to describe all the medical jargon that was being spoken, I would be lying. My mind was reeling.
The shock of hearing that I had breast cancer pulled me into an alternate reality. I remember asking questions when I didn’t understand something, but that was about all I could do.
After all the talking, my doctor handed me a binder with a pink cover that read “My Journey”. She opened the binder and turned to a page titled “Cancer Flow Chart”. This page presented breast cancer in easy-to-understand tidy boxes that determined the course of everything that would happen from diagnosis to completion of treatments.
Truth be told, I didn’t feel tidy about the treatment process.
My mind was whirling and my insides were quivering.
When she finished explaining the page, the tears started to flow.
I couldn’t believe that I was having this conversation.
I couldn’t believe what was happening.
My husband was sitting beside me, and I leaned over to cry on his shoulder.
As soon as I left the exam room with this devastating news, I had to pull myself together to get to the main floor of the hospital to undergo more testing and exams. I held my husband’s hand, and we went onto the elevator going down.
A woman was already on the elevator and commented that she admired our closeness. By the time we got to the first floor, she asked us to pray for her marriage. We asked her to pray for strength to go through the journey ahead. We joined hands in the lobby of the hospital and prayed for each other.
That moment in the hospital lobby is a moment that I will always remember. It was no accident that I boarded an elevator with a person who needed prayer and who would pray for me. It let me know that God knew exactly where I was, He knew what was happening to me, and He would be with me through this journey.
When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your unfailing love, Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.
Psalm 94:18-19, NIV
An Emotional Journey
Before I describe the process I had to go through to fight breast cancer, I’m going to be honest and open about the emotional toll that comes with a cancer diagnosis.
The fight against cancer is a battle fought on three fronts: mental, emotional, and physical.
The mental battle against cancer is the most difficult one of all because it controls the emotional and physical parts of the battle.
After my diagnosis, there were many nights that I cried myself to sleep. There were some nights that I couldn’t sleep. In the middle of restless nights, I would cry. My heart literally ached, and that made the muscles in my body ache. The fear that gripped me was tangible. I was afraid of what my future treatments would do to me physically and didn’t know how to handle my fears.
I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in my life.
In the middle of all my tears, I had conversations with close friends and family members that helped me begin to gain control of my emotions. Even though I was in shock, I recognized the need to come to terms with my diagnosis. This was not an easy thing to accomplish, but I found the strength I needed to prepare for the journey ahead.
When something like this happens, resources that you never knew you had or never used begin to surface.
My husband reached out to his aunt, an expert in cancer treatment. During our conversation, she advised me to begin thinking differently about the words I heard on the day of my diagnosis. She told me to eliminate the word ‘aggressive’ from my vocabulary because the use of that word triggers the mind, and the body responds. She instructed me to look at cancer on a cellular level in order to begin healing. Chemotherapy would do its work, and before I started treatment, I had to shift my mindset.
I also had to be able to let things go and realize that, more than anything, my body would need rest.
Letting things go was difficult for me. By nature, I am a doer. I am the person that finds a way to get things done. Even though I knew this about myself, I was surprised how much I struggled with not trying to make sure everything was done.
Wisdom for the journey ahead also came through a friend who is a breast cancer survivor. She listened to everything I said about how I felt and echoed my family members advice. It helped to hear from and be encouraged by someone who walked the same road. The insight, knowledge, and scriptures she spoke to me brought hope to my aching heart.
The World of a
Cancer Patient Person with Cancer
Almost immediately, I realized that it was important for me to know that a cancer diagnosis did not make me a cancer patient. That statement sounds strange, but remember that the battle against cancer is mostly a mental battle. When I called myself a cancer patient, I felt weaker. When I saw myself as a person with cancer, I felt stronger and more in control of my circumstances. The great thing about the doctors and nurses that I met throughout my treatment was that they treated me like a person, not a patient. This made all the difference in my journey.
Because I had never received a diagnosis like this before, I had no idea how many different doctors and specialists were going to be involved in my care. Before I left my breast surgeon’s office, appointments started to fill my calendar, and there were tests and scans that needed to be completed before I started treatment.
On the same day that I received my diagnosis, I had a chest x-ray to make sure that the cancer had not spread. I also had to submit bloodwork for genetic testing. My breast surgeon needed to know if I carried the BRCA1 (BReast CAncer gene 1) or BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene 2) gene mutation. If either of these genes were detected in my genetic test results, I would have to undergo a mastectomy (both breasts removed) when the time came for me to have surgery.
That day was a blur. I was still in shock while the testing I needed was being conducted. I know that technicians and nurses are professionally trained because they did their job in an efficient manner, but I wanted to scream, “Do you know that my life has just been turned upside down?”
The week after my diagnosis, an appointment with an oncologist was scheduled. Based on the biopsy results and the stage of cancer, my oncologist was in charge of determining the course and length of treatments that would help me fight this dreadful disease.
Walking into a facility that I have driven past so many times and never dreamed of entering was surreal.
I never imagined parking my car at a building with the words ‘cancer center’ on it.
The meeting with my oncologist made everything real. Dr. Zatarain had a calm, reassuring voice and manner, but she meant business when it came to fighting breast cancer. My husband attended this appointment with me, and the questions he asked made it evident that even he was still in shock about my diagnosis.
Dr. Zatarain approached his questions with understanding, and then she laid out the plan of attack:
|Chemotherapy||6 rounds every 21 days||4 months|
|Targeted Therapy||1 injection every 21 days||1 year|
|Surgery||3 weeks after last chemotherapy treatment||Outpatient procedure|
|Radiation||Every weekday (M-F)||4-6 weeks |
(dependent on surgery outcome)
Along with my treatment plan, we discussed possible side effects of chemotherapy and targeted therapy and the type of diet I needed to follow to reduce the symptoms associated with these treatments. I also learned that I would have to see a cardiologist before, during, and after treatment because there is a rare risk of heart damage from chemotherapy.
During my visit, outpatient surgery was planned for me to have a device called a Mediport implanted in my upper right chest. My image of receiving chemotherapy was that drugs were delivered intravenously through a vein in my arm, but I was wrong. Medical technology has come a long way and a “port” as it’s commonly known, reduces the risk of infection and allows the drugs administered through the IV to pass through larger veins than the ones in a patient’s arm.
The date of this visit was November 15, 2021. Surgery for my port placement was scheduled for November 29, and it was determined that I would begin chemotherapy on December 2.
After meeting my oncologist, I still felt like I was dreaming and that this was not my life. But I knew that it was time for me to begin to figure out how to live as a person with cancer.
Before starting chemotherapy, I moved up the celebration of my 27th wedding anniversary to December 1. Emeril’s in New Orleans was closed during the pandemic, and when I learned that the restaurant had recently reopened, we made reservations and dined there the night before my first chemotherapy treatment.
It was a memorable evening, and I was thrilled to hear that some of the appetizers and main course dishes brought to our table were prepared by Chef Emeril Lagasse who was in the kitchen that night.
Fear or Faith
I would have despaired had I not believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for and confidently expect the Lord Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for and confidently expect the Lord. Psalm 27: 13-14, AMP
The initial reaction that I had to hearing the words “you have cancer” was fear.
Fear sat at the top of the list of my emotions…until I decided to allow faith to replace it.
Somewhere in the middle of fear, tears, and the unknown, I found the strength to get my mind, emotions, and self-talk to join forces. I began to read and apply God’s Word to my situation.
One of the first things I had to address was blaming myself for my cancer diagnosis.
When my mind couldn’t figure things out, the what-ifs bombarded my thoughts:
What if moving into a new home caused cancer?
What if I had performed better self-exams?
What if my diet wasn’t good enough to prevent cancer?
When I allowed such thoughts to dominate, they drained my energy.
Dwelling on what-ifs caused depression, and depression brought tears.
Addressing each thought helped me to move past the what-ifs.
Another step in my mental battle was to remind myself that I was not immune from difficulty in my life. Somehow I had forgotten that past events in my life that made me stronger did not come from a place of comfort and ease.
It was extremely difficult for me to say the word ‘cancer’, and I referred to it as “the ‘c’ word” when I spoke to my breast surgeon and oncologist.
However, faith is a very powerful force, and my choice to fight cancer caused me to address it by its name.
Cancer was not who I was, it was something that I was going to overcome.
One of my favorite scriptures served as a daily affirmation that brought me strength and comfort.
Every day I woke up, Psalm 118:24 was the first thing out of my mouth:
“This is the day the Lord has made. [I] will rejoice and be glad in it.”
Words are powerful, and saying this scripture out loud altered the course of each day.
Exercising the mental muscle of faith changed the way I processed and handled discouraging thoughts when they surfaced. I had an awareness of my thoughts on a level that I had never experienced before and was able to recognize and quickly address thoughts that were contrary to my faith.
Thoughts that would hinder my healing were not welcome!
Before I started chemotherapy, I made the decision not to share my diagnosis publicly.
The time would come for me to share my journey, but while I was still in shock was not the right time.
Every time I told someone I loved about my diagnosis, there was silence on the other end of the phone while I shared my treatment plan. Many times, I couldn’t get through these conversations without crying. When the person on the other end of the phone replied to this shocking news, I could hear the tremor in their voice as they offered words of hope and encouragement.
Imagine having this conversation several times. It took an emotional toll on me.
After my family and circle of friends were informed, I stopped sharing my diagnosis.
I started to process the shock of my diagnosis by going through the five stages of grief, and I recognized that going public with my diagnosis was something that I would not be able to handle mentally or emotionally. Instead, I directed all my strength to the fight that was ahead of me.
Also, as my calendar began to fill with doctors visits and chemotherapy treatments, there was a part of me that craved normalcy. Outside of the infusion room, I wanted to function as a person without a cancer diagnosis. Whenever I could, I wanted to participate in whatever parts of “normal” life that I could physically handle. It was freeing to function without everyone knowing that I was undergoing treatment. It made me feel better to participate in life despite my circumstances.
Finding the Upside
Not everything that happened to me after my diagnosis was terrible. The results of the scans and testing that were performed gave me reasons to find light in my darkest moments.
The results of the chest x-ray that I had on the day of my diagnosis came back cancer-free.
The bloodwork I submitted on the day of my diagnosis was sent to a lab for genetic testing, and part of undergoing genetic testing is receiving genetic counseling from a genetic counselor. The genetic counselor prepared me for the different types of results that can come from testing for the BRCA1/BRCA2 gene mutation.
The genetic counselor is also the person who contacts patients with their final test results. Two weeks from the date of my conversation with the genetic counselor, I received my test results, and they were negative. This came as a relief because I knew that my surgery after chemotherapy would be a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy.
A few days after my chemotherapy started, I underwent a PET scan that was ordered to make sure that cancer had not spread to another part of my body. The scan came back clean, and it detected a nodule on my thyroid that needed to be biopsied. I underwent a thyroid biopsy, and the results were negative for any kind of cancer.
Part of the chemotherapy treatment plan for every patient at Woman’s Hospital Cancer Pavilion is chemotherapy teaching. This is when a patient meets with a nurse to go over what to expect during chemotherapy. The day I showed up for this part of my journey was another step in the realization of my breast cancer diagnosis. I tried my best to pay close attention to the information that was being presented, but there was still a certain amount of shock present while I breathed deeply and attempted to listen to the nurse.
Surgery had already been scheduled for the placement of my mediport. I learned how to prepare for my IV treatments before arriving at the infusion center. After I met with the oncology nurse, I met Robin, an Oncology Social Worker. She presented me with a basket filled with socks, snacks, handwritten words of encouragement, and other items that might be needed during my treatment sessions. The basket was curated by a local sorority, and it moved me to tears.
Robin also gave me a tour of the infusion center, where I would be spending anywhere from 4-5 hours every 21 days to receive chemo. Near the entrance of the infusion center was a table filled with assorted handmade items that had been donated to the hospital. Robin informed me that the assortment changed often, and I could feel free to take something anytime I had an infusion appointment. The nurses’ station had warm blankets for patients, and each cubicle had a comfortable chair, a chair for one guest, and a television.
I received two pieces of infusion center advice that I kept in mind throughout my treatments: the dress code was comfortable, not cute and to “sip and drip,” meaning that I needed to stay hydrated during the 5 hour treatment session. Proper hydration played a huge roll in the way my body processed and reacted to the drugs I was taking.
On the morning of December 2, I arrived at the hospital for my first chemo treatment. After completing my bloodwork and visiting my oncologist, I checked into the infusion center. A nurse made sure I was warm and comfortable, checked my blood pressure and temperature, and treatment started.
I’ll spare you the details of how an IV is inserted into a port, but I learned that if I needed to go to the restroom or move around, the IV pole was my best friend. I didn’t leave my seat without it.
During the five hours that I received treatment, Robin visited with me again. An Oncology Dietitian (also named Robin) met with me and discussed foods that I needed to increase my intake of and avoid during chemo. The nurses that started my IV checked on me periodically to make sure that I did not have any kind of adverse reaction to the drugs being administered during chemo.
Chemotherapy reduces the white blood cell count of a cancer patient. This count needs to be built back up when 24 hours after treatment has elapsed. During my first session, I received patient education via a video and learned that I would be going home with a patch on my upper arm that would slowly release a bone marrow stimulant. This medicine came with its own set of side effects, the most troublesome being bone pain, and I received a refresher on what I needed to manage the symptoms.
After my first treatment, I went home and got some rest.
Because of the patient education I received prior to treatment, I had everything I needed at home to manage the possible side effects of chemo. The day of treatment and the day after are pretty normal. Symptoms did not begin to affect me until the 3rd day after chemo.
The greatest challenge I faced was extreme fatigue. I was relieved that I wasn’t throwing up! During my entire treatment, I experienced nausea once in the middle of the night, and I was already prepared with what I needed to help relieve it. The fatigue I experienced caused me to scale back on everything. I didn’t have the energy to clean my home, do laundry, work at my computer, or go grocery shopping. My family did everything for me, and despite my tendency to want to do it all, I had to let them help.
On December 8, I noticed a change in the way my food tasted.
I ordered my favorite cookie from my favorite café, and when I started chewing the first bite, it tasted like I was eating raw sugar. The taste disgusted me, and I stopped eating it. I avoided anything sweet during treatment. I even had to change the kind of creamer I put in my coffee.
During my meeting with Robin (my Oncology Dietician), I was advised to avoid spicy foods. When my husband cooked with what he thought was less seasoning for the first time, I couldn’t eat what he prepared. My diet quickly became more bland, and even then, most of the time, I couldn’t taste what I was eating. I ate small portions only because the alternative (not eating) was not a healthy choice. If I craved a certain food, someone in my family would get it for me.
They were just happy to see me eating!
Before my second round of treatment, I experienced a week where I felt pretty good. It was still necessary for me to rest throughout the day, but the symptoms associated with fatigue were milder. I also noticed that food tasted somewhat better. I learned that I could expect this pattern to be consistent throughout my treatment, and I looked forward to those days.
Hair loss was a topic that was at the top of my mind when I met with my oncologist the first time. The methods that were available to try to preserve hair were either expensive or not worth the side effects that would present themselves in addition to what I was going to experience with chemo.
My mind was already made up about how I was going to handle hair loss.
For most of my adulthood, my hair was always styled and cut short. I wanted to experiment with wearing my hair as it naturally grew (without using hair relaxers to change its texture), but I heard from others who went through the process that it required a lot of attention and care. I was comfortable with having to shave my head because it meant that I could grow my hair back naturally. The only thing I wanted to avoid was waiting until the last minute. My oncologist warned me that waiting too long to shave my head could mean waking up with clumps of hair on my pillow.
The person I talked to first was my hairdresser, Jacque. He was compassionate, supportive, encouraging, and understanding when I told him about my diagnosis. He asked if I was going to wear a wig and offered to go shopping with me for the right one. He told me to call when I needed him to shave my head, and he would be there.
That time came about a week after my conversation with him.
After my first chemo session, I noticed some shedding of my hair when I brushed it. I remember thinking that as long as there wasn’t hair on my pillow, I was fine and could probably wait until after my second treatment to order something to cover my head. One afternoon I was sitting on the couch with my husband. He ran his hand over my hair, and I saw him look at his hand after he pulled it back. He didn’t have to say much because I knew what was happening.
The movement of his hand on my head left strands of hair on his hand.
HATS SCARVES & MORE is a small, woman-owned business that caught my attention while I was doing research on headwear for chemo patients. After I watched a YouTube video on the website, I listened to the story of the owner, Nicki Serquinia. Nicki started Hats, Scarves & More after one large scarf was the only head covering available during her battle with ovarian cancer in 1988. She understood that women and kids with cancer wanted beautiful, fashionable headwear that adequately covered a shaved head or had enough room inside to be worn with a wig. She created products using fabrics she personally selected. These fabrics are tested and proven to keep a bald head warm during the winter months and cool during the summer months. Nicki stars in the videos on her website and shows different ways to wear her products.
Every cancer patient handles the day that they shave their hair differently.
I wanted to keep it simple and met with my hairdresser at his shop. We visited a local wig store and didn’t find what I needed, so he browsed Amazon with me and helped me choose a wig that looked similar to my soon to be former hairstyle. After that, he assessed my hair and saw the shedding. At first, he shaved it low. The shampoo bowl told the truth when that hair came out on his hands.
We walked back to the salon chair, and all my hair was shaved off.
The way I saw it, my hair regrowth journey started the day I shaved my head. I was ready to start over and looked to the future when my hair would grow back and I could wear it naturally. I drove home and was highly aware that I had no hair on my head. Being bald was a strange sensation. I revealed my new look to my husband and kids that night, and they were full of compliments and praise for taking this step. They said I looked beautiful, and I felt beautiful.
After the wig I ordered was delivered, I went back to my hairdresser, and he cut and shaped it to customize it for me. Even though I felt more comfortable wearing my hats and scarves when I left home, it was comforting to know that the wig was available for me to wear when I wanted a different look. It was also nice to wear something besides a hat tomake my head feel warm.
Twenty-One Days At a Time
It is difficult to process a cancer diagnosis, and I was well aware that life as I knew it had changed.
Because of all the appointments associated with my treatment, the calendar became my best friend. Even though I did not want to be ruled by a constant countdown to my next treatment, I was very conscious about making each day count as 21 days elapsed between my treatments.
When the days got closer to another round of treatment, I developed a system of prepping myself mentally for the day of treatment. I knew the symptoms that would appear a few days after treatment, and I also knew that I felt most like myself two weeks before my next treatment. I savored the days that I felt physically like myself, and I savored the fact that food tasted almost normal during these days.
The majority of my chemo treatments were scheduled early in the morning, and I am not a morning person. In order to help my body adjust to early morning treatments, I made sure that I had a good night’s rest.
While getting dressed for treatment, I played music that spoke words of faith and healing. My faith-building playlist traveled with me to and from the hospital.
My husband accompanied me to every treatment, and my daughter gave me a brightly colored alpaca stuffed animal named Skittles as her stand-in since she could not come to chemotherapy with me.
After my second treatment, instead of leaving the infusion center wearing a device that administered the medicine I needed to rebuild my white blood cell count after chemotherapy, the insurance company approved a drug that had to be administered at home. Prior to the first delivery of my medicine, my husband and I met with the oncology nurse, and we were taught how to administer the injection I needed. My husband administered the injection 24 hours after treatment.
As my treatments progressed, I noticed that the muscles in my legs ached like I had done a leg workout, and they hurt when I would sit or stand for longer than 15 minutes. Before treatment, I could touch my toes, but the pain in my muscles no longer allowed me to get my hands past my knees.
The fatigue I felt worsened because the drugs in my treatment were compounding in my system. One day, I walked to the mailbox in my neighborhood, and I was so exhausted on the walk home that I wondered if I would have to stop and sit on the sidewalk. The only way I could run an errand (and I mean one errand) was if the destination wasn’t far from home and I only needed a couple of items that would have me in and out of the store in minutes.
Victory and Triumph
March marked the beginning of the 21-day chemo countdown that I was looking forward to the most. The date of my final chemotherapy treatment was March 21. After experiencing a chemotherapy treatment that was 2 days before Christmas in 2021, I was happy that my treatment would be complete before my birthday. I was excited that I would be ringing the Victory Bell in the infusion center, and I invited a few close friends and my family to witness me ringing the Triumph Bell after my treatment was complete. After completing my routine blood draw, I met with my oncologist, Dr. Lauren Zatarain.
Throughout my treatment, Dr. Zatarain’s calm, grounded, and patient personality helped me as I faced each chemotherapy session. She is an excellent listener as well as an exceptional oncologist, and on this day, she knew that I was ready to celebrate.
Ready for the final day of chemotherapy!
Even though I was going to continue to visit the infusion center every 21 days for targeted therapy, and I knew that surgery and radiation therapy were on the horizon, nothing could stop the joy I felt about my final chemotherapy treatment.
Completing chemo meant that my tastebuds would slowly return to normal, and my hair would begin to grow back.
During treatment, I kept my hair salon appointments on the calendar on my phone. It was my way of telling myself that I would eventually have enough hair to return to the salon. I had already planned that my first haircut would be in September.
The Victory Bell ringing was only the beginning of the celebration as family and close friends were ready to celebrate the ringing of the Triumph Bell on the first floor of the Woman’s Cancer Pavilion.
The In-Between of Cancer
The world of a person with cancer is constantly moving.
While I was on the high of celebrating the end of chemotherapy, there was the reality of meeting with my breast surgeon and a plastic surgeon to finalize the details of my surgery. Dr. Cuntz and Dr. Bourgeois worked together before and during my lumpectomy.
I also had to meet with a radiation oncologist to plan the next step of radiation after surgery. Radiation, like chemotherapy, has side effects that vary from patient to patient, and it felt like I was starting all over again with treatment.
Before I met Dr. Castle, I watched a video that educated me on how radiation works. Even though I had successfully completed chemotherapy, this was still a scary part of my journey that was full of unknowns that I had to face.
A tentative date for my first day of radiation was set, and I had time to mentally prepare myself for surgery.
Medicine and Miracles
On a very early morning near the end of April, I checked into the hospital for a lumpectomy.
During the biopsy that led to my breast cancer diagnosis, small bow-tie shaped clips were placed at the site of the mass and at the affected lymph node. These clips would help my breast surgeon find the biopsied sites, and the surgical plan included removing a small number of lymph nodes and any of the mass that remained.
While I was being treated for breast cancer, I knew that the prayers that were being said on my behalf were being heard. I knew that God was going to heal me, but I didn’t know when and I didn’t know how. What I did know was that I had to trust the course of treatment prescribed for me and believe for a miracle while I followed my doctors’ instructions.
A nurse wheeled me from my room to a room where the biopsied mass, lymph node, and clips would be detected via ultrasound. A guide wire would be placed to direct my surgeon in removing any cancer that was detected with a dye that would be injected during surgery. The ultrasound tech moved the wand near the site of the original mass, and I could tell she was looking for something. She put the wand away and then told me that another tech would come in and look for the mass and clip. The second tech applied more gel and moved the wand around. I could hear them say that the mass from the original ultrasound couldn’t be seen. The tech that started my ultrasound told me that they were going to bring in a more powerful machine because at this point neither the mass or the bow-tie clip could be seen.
When everyone left the room, I whispered, “Thank you, Jesus!” because I knew what was happening.
The manifestation of my healing was taking place right before my eyes!
The second ultrasound machine was wheeled into the room with the same result. No mass or clip detected.
By this time, there were two ultrasound techs and my nurse in the room, and I was told that I would be going to another room for a mammogram that could see the mass and the clip.
I knew they weren’t going to find anything.
This mammogram machine was under a huge steel table, and after I laid face down on it, photos were taken, and no mass was detected. My nurse told me that she would call my husband, who had been waiting for me to return to my room, with an update. I was told that the mass was no longer present and that I needed to go to another mammogram machine, where the only thing that needed to be located was the clip that was placed during my biopsy. The guide wire had to be inserted for my breast surgeon to remove the clip, find the lymph nodes, and test them for cancer.
The nurses and ultrasound technicians that I encountered during this experience thanked me for my patience and positive attitude. They provided excellent care and concern for making sure that I was prepared for my surgery.
The nurse wheeled me to another room, and another mammogram using a standard machine was performed. The clip was located and the guide wire was inserted for my procedure. I returned to my room in great spirits. I didn’t have time to tell my husband everything that happened because the time spent doing ultrasounds and mammograms put me right at the time for my scheduled surgery.
When my lymph nodes were removed, they were the color that indicated no presence of cancer, and they were sent to pathology for further testing and analysis. The outcome of the testing completed in pathology would determine the length of my radiation treatment.
The radiology report that was recorded after my surgery makes me marvel at the goodness of God.
No mass and no cancer. I was declared 100% cancer-free on the day of my surgery!
Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! -Psalm 126:5, ESV
One of the things that helped me during each of the steps I had to go through to win the battle with cancer was to photograph the machines that were involved in my treatment. It was my way of facing fear and helped me address any conscious or subconscious fear I had about my treatment.
In early May, I had a PET scan that helped map (with waterproof stickers and permanent marker) the areas of my left breast that needed treatment. Treatment is based on the results of a patient’s original biopsy, and because cancer spread from a mass to the lymph nodes under my arm, radiation would treat any undetected cells that might still carry the disease.
The PET scanner helped map the area that needed treatment during radiation.
A week after my PET scan, I returned to visit Dr. Castle to discuss and finalize the length of my radiation treatment.
Part of my visit included seeing the radiation room and meeting the radiation technicians. I was thrilled to see that there was a Victory Bell located at the entrance of the radiation room. I immediately visualized completing treatment and ringing that bell!
One element was absent from my pathology report, and after receiving this information and consulting with colleagues, Dr. Castle called to tell me that there was no scar tissue present in the lymph nodes that were removed. Scar tissue would have indicated the presence of cancer prior to surgery.
I was thrilled to find out that my treatments would last four weeks instead of six weeks.
Radiation therapy was delivered daily via this machine.
During this time I was still receiving targeted therapy treatments at the infusion center every 21 days. The wonderful difference was that targeted therapy was administered by injection, and instead of being at the infusion center for five hours, I was there for about one hour each visit.
The port that was implanted to deliver chemotherapy was removed during surgery, and I felt free when I returned for targeted therapy. I no longer had to bring the IV pole with me everywhere I went, and sang “I’ve Got No Strings” from Pinocchio like a true Disney fan!
Radiation treatments started near the end of May. My husband drove me to radiation every weekday, and each treatment lasted for about 10 minutes. Radiation affected my energy levels, but not to the same degree as chemotherapy.
The amazing team of nurses and radiation techs made each visit pleasant. Sometimes we would chat about everyday life before and after my treatments. Four weeks flew by, and before I knew it, the time had come for my final treatment.
After ringing the Victory Bell, I received my second bell with the completion date of my radiation treatment written on it.
I chose to make this a much smaller affair than the first time I rang the Victory Bell and the Triumph Bell. There were plenty of people there to celebrate with me, though. I met some very special people during this part of my journey, and my heart will be forever grateful for their care and kindness.
Life Between Treatments
After chemotherapy was complete in March, it took a couple of months to regain my strength and stamina. My bloodwork showed that my white blood cell counts were slowly returning to normal, and hair was slowly beginning to reappear on my scalp. It was mostly grey, but every little sign of progress counted.
I attended my son’s college graduation ceremony at Southeastern Louisiana University and went to the movies when I knew the theater would not be crowded. Slowly but surely, I could walk from my house to the end of my subdivision without feeling like I had run a 5k. It felt good to be out, even if I could only handle small doses of activity.
The taste buds that were damaged during chemo started to grow back and I could taste food again, so I tried a new Indian restaurant for dinner on my birthday. I also ate dinner at one of my favorite restaurants on Mother’s Day. Taste is one of the five senses that I took for granted before this journey, and I was so happy to have it back!
While I recovered from surgery, I noticed that my appetite was getting smaller. When I ate food, I could only eat half of what was served. I made protein smoothies at home and craved salads with healthy greens and a protein. If I wanted a snack, I ate fruit or a handful of natural almonds in between meals. It didn’t take long before I shed the weight that I gained during the pandemic.
During a visit with my radiation oncologist, I mentioned that my left arm was experiencing a limited range of motion. In the area where sentinel lymph nodes were removed under my arm, there was something that felt like a strained muscle. I found out that the correct term for this event was ‘cording’, and that it needed to be treated with physical therapy. Left untreated, the cording could get worse and the range of motion in my left arm could be permanently affected.
In June, I started 45 minutes of physical therapy twice a week for 8 weeks. I still had radiation treatments during this time, so there were some days when I had both a physical therapy session and a radiation treatment. After eight weeks of physical therapy, my range of motion and cording were drastically improved, and I “graduated” to medical exercise sessions.
Medical exercise sessions taught me how to improve the gains I made in physical therapy. Whereas physical therapy was more about movement, I used weight machines in conjunction with movement in medical exercise. Medical exercise therapy also addressed the muscle weakness in my legs that was caused by chemo.
During my sessions, it was a pleasure working with my trainer, Jada. She made sure that each visit challenged and improved my fitness level, and she did not go easy on me. Even though I work out at home now, I remember everything she taught me.
Jada made sure I completed my exercises. No excuses!
After my medical exercise sessions ended, my targeted therapy treatment schedule remained the same.
I reached another hallmark of my journey when I was able to go to the infusion center without a wig.
That was a happy day!
During this visit, one of the nurses told me that Woman’s Hospital was going to hold its annual Celebrate Life Car Parade.
The parade celebrated cancer survivors, and even though I had not revealed my diagnosis publicly, I wanted to participate in the parade. Completing chemotherapy, being cancer-free, and completing radiation and physical therapy deserved to be celebrated.
At this point, I felt that if someone I knew saw me in the parade, it was okay.
Being a parade participant was liberating for me, and it opened the door for me to begin writing about my journey.
Large groups of Woman’s Hospital staff lined the parade route. They cheered, waved, and offered words of encouragement to each parade participant as they drove by. They held signs with positive affirmations written on them and waved pom-poms. At first, I sat on the passenger side with my window rolled down and waved back, but then my husband and kids encouraged me to celebrate. 🥳
I took off my shoes, stood on the passenger seat, put my head out the sunroof, and woo-hooed and cheered.
By the end of the route, I felt like a new person. It was another hallmark in my journey.
November to Remember
The date of my final treatment was November 7, 2022.
I wore a t-shirt that read “Friends don’t let friends fight cancer alone”. The t-shirt was a gift from a friend that attended my first Victory Bell ringing. On the day I received this gift, I tucked it in a drawer and made a memo in my mind that I was going to wear it at my final bell ringing. Even though I had just finished chemotherapy when I received my gift, my plans to wear my Victory t-shirt was an indicator that I was determined to have a successful conclusion to my treatments.
Robin, my Oncology Social Worker, provided insight on survivorship and made me aware of the “What now? What next?” feelings and emotions that might come after the celebration of my final treatment. Survivorship is dealing with the new normal of life after cancer treatment. Robin reminded me that she was a phone call or email away if I needed to talk to her.
A cancer diagnosis is a traumatic experience within itself, and the constant battle to cure and heal the body took a toll on me mentally, emotionally, and physically. Reaching the end of my journey was a victory that I looked forward to, but it also came with adjustments to the way I progressed with daily living. I remain aware of these adjustments as I go about my daily life.
I rang the Victory Bell in the infusion center and received my third and final mini-bell to commemorate the end of my treatments for breast cancer. Meanwhile, family, friends, and the nurses and radiologists from radiation oncology waited for me to arrive on the first floor to ring the Triumph Bell.
A Survivor’s Life Lessons
The National Cancer Institute defines a survivor as one who remains alive and continues to function during and after overcoming a serious hardship or life-threatening disease.
I am a survivor, and with the lessons I’ve learned, I see life differently now.
Before cancer, I believed that each day was a gift, but I did not always treat each day that way. Now I am able to identify the things that cause stress, address them, and rediscover the joy in each day.
Before cancer, I found joy in the little things inwardly, but I did not always express that joy outwardly. Now I’ve learned how to openly express that joy and celebrate each accomplishment that moves me forward in my journey.
Before cancer, I did not know how strong and resilient I could be in the face of a health crisis. Now I know that when I am faced with a serious challenge, I have the strength to overcome.
There were certain pieces of advice given to me during my journey that have become life lessons:
Punctuate each day with something positive. Words such as ‘severe’, ‘fatigue’, or ‘pain’ were written on a calendar to keep track of my symptoms before, during, and after treatments. I reported these symptoms to my doctors, which aided them in my care. When I shared these symptoms with my husband’s aunt, she listened carefully, gave her advice from a medical standpoint, then told me to add something positive to my calendar. It was usually something small, but writing something good made a difference in the way I handled the negative parts of my health.
Never stop planning for the future. A breast cancer diagnosis put a bookmark in the chapter of my life that was being written. I had to cancel travel plans for the year, and I didn’t have the strength to plan the decor of my home like I loved to do. When a friend emphasized planning for the future, she helped me look past the temporary bookmark and into the future. The days spent resting on my couch helped me to take note of things I wanted to update or rearrange when I had the strength. I talked about places I wanted to visit after treatment. Planning for the future gave me hope.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
-Jeremiah 29:11, NLT
Rest. This advice came from every medical professional that I encountered during my journey. It may seem obvious that a person going through chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation needs rest, but I discovered that rest can be found on a level deeper than the physical act of resting.
When my mind was at rest, my body responded and allowed me to heal through each stage of treatment.
- I found rest in trusting God for the outcome of my health.
- I found rest in allowing my family to take care of me.
- I found rest in knowing that my journey was not without purpose.
Self-care. Caring for myself during cancer treatments and post-treatment was self-care on an elevated level. I took time to care for myself physically and mentally, and I believe that had a lot to do with the way I recovered. Even now, during remission, I recognize that something as simple as applying strengthener to my fingernails that were weakened during chemotherapy is a small but important part of taking care of myself.
One Coin, Two Sides
Cancer is a disease that I can compare to a coin with two different sides.
There’s one side that boldly proclaims:
“I kicked cancer!”
“Not today cancer!”
“I’m a survivor!”
Every survivor needs this side of the coin to celebrate hallmarks of their journey. It’s the side filled with encouragement and hope. It fills the gap between appointments, testing, and treatments. Without this side of the coin, there would be no respite from the manner in which a cancer diagnosis bombards life. This side of the coin is needed and necessary. It’s bright and shiny and helps me look forward to a cancer-free future. On this bright side of the coin are things like fulfilling goals that were made during chemotherapy treatments.
Remember my goal of returning to see my hairdresser in September? After my hair grew out enough to warrant an end to wearing a wig, I booked an appointment and had my natural hair (which was also a goal) washed and colored. This visit was a complete turnaround from my last visit that involved shaving off all of my hair. This time I drove home with a new hairdo.
My hairdresser Jacque has been and remains an instrumental part of my journey.
The other side of the coin is the way a cancer diagnosis changes everything about life.
After my treatments were complete, follow-up visits with my medical team remind me that my life will never be the same again. The funny thing about these appointments is that they can easily flip the coin to the celebratory side.
One example of this is when I met with Dr. Bourgeios, my plastic surgeon, in early January. She told me, “You have graduated,” and I won’t have to visit her office again. She and her amazing staff always made my visits pleasant, and it made me happy to reach this milestone.
There are scars from surgery and a scar that reminds me where my port was placed. The port scar reminds me of a year of treatments. When I reach for mascara or a brow brush, I’m reminded that my eyelashes and eyebrows (which fell out after chemotherapy… go figure) are slowly growing back. Sometimes there are tears that fall for no reason other than the fact that they are the after effect of trauma.
When the coin lands on this side, even though I don’t like the feelings associated with the memories of this journey, this is when I find the strength to activate my faith, and I’m able to square my shoulders and plan for the future. I have faith that despite the detour of cancer, my future is bright.
“Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.”
-Hebrews 11:1, NLT
A New Path to Travel
At the beginning of this post, I asked if you’ve read or seen a story that made you wonder about how the human spirit survives in times of distress. I believe the human spirit needs something far beyond its understanding and comprehension to survive during life-changing events. Knowing that God had a plan and a purpose for my life that had not yet been fulfilled gave me the strength to fight the battle against cancer. You would think that a devastating diagnosis like breast cancer would weaken my faith in God, but for me, it only made my faith stronger. I talked to God more than I ever have before in my life, and as a result, I experienced a closer relationship with Him that carried me through this journey.
After my treatment was completed in November and I had time to think, I realized how much my life has changed.
I am now a part of a community that I am still figuring out. What I do know is that my journey was not in vain, and I plan to figure out how to make a difference in the lives of other people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. While I was in chemotherapy, I discussed my will and desire to do something with a hospital chaplain that visited with me during one of my treatments. She told me, “God sees you are willing to serve, and He will be faithful to guide you.” I believe this with all my heart.
When we think we know our purpose in life, something comes along to redirect us and help us move along the right path. I didn’t think that a cancer diagnosis would be the thing that entered my life, altering it in ways that I never imagined. Initially, I didn’t see anything positive that could come out of this. I just felt heartbroken. I am still finding the strength I need to move forward as a survivor, yet I’m excited and expectant about what life has to offer beyond cancer.
9 thoughts on “A Survivor’s Journey”
An encouraging and uplifting story. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you Lori. My journey has been one of faith, hope, and healing.💝
Reading this brought goose bumps and tears to my eyes. I am so glad that you fought and I know that you will be a huge support in your new community. Love you always!
Thank you for reading about my journey Becca. Love you so much! I am excited to see how my experience will be able to help others going through the same challenges I faced after such a devastating diagnosis.
Love this! Thank you for sharing & telling your journey. You are an amazing & strong woman! 💗
Thank you Melissa. This journey helped me find a level of faith and strength that I didn’t know I had. It meant the world to me to have you and the other nurses as a part of the team that helped me beat breast cancer.💓
It was such a pleasure working with you Mrs.Alecia. I’m glad to have been a part of your journey. I hope all is well !
Hi Jada! I’m so happy that you had the opportunity to read my blog post. Thank you for leaving a comment. I am doing well and staying strong. Not only were you an important part of my journey, you were a positive influence on me to maintain my exercise routine. I hear your voice whenever I’m tempted to cheat on my workouts.😅🤪🤣