When I was growing up, my parents had this huge group of friends. We would all go to the beach together. The children would play in the ocean and the adults would do adult things that involved drinking beer, dancing and a theme that included costumes and songs and choreographed routines. It was a lot of fun, and I miss those days. One of the wonderful people who was a part of my life back then is Mary. Through the glories of social media, we’ve reconnected, and I was dismayed to hear about her battle with cancer. Until I, myself, was diagnosed at 35. While I was still troubled by her illness, I found an encourager, a friend and fellow warrior in Mary.
I am profiling people in my life who have been diagnosed with cancer in an effort to remind all of my friends and family and anyone else reading this that cancer can hit anyone at anytime. You don’t have to be afraid of that – because so many cancers are so treatable if you would just check out anything unusual and advocate for yourself so these cases can be caught early.
Here, Mary, who discovered her cancer through PAYING ATTENTION TO HER BODY and CHECKING IT shares her story in her own words:
My cancer was found by accident. In August of 2011, I went to MedExpress for some discomfort in my upper rib cage that I assumed was my gallbladder. I was 48 at the time and I just assumed body parts would start to give me trouble. They sent me for some blood work and a scan of my gallbladder, liver and pancreas. That, my friends, is how it began. My liver enzymes were high and the scan of my liver showed something very bad. After seeing a liver specialist, a battery of tests ensued in the next few weeks including a liver biopsy where it was determined I had breast cancer that spread to my liver. Now to find it in my breast, I kept feeling for lumps, pressing, pushing, nothing. I went for yearly mammograms and was about 3 months late in getting my annual exam. How could this be? Soon thereafter, I met with my Oncologist, Dr. Lembersky at UPMC. he wasn’t convinced it was breast cancer since we couldn’t feel the lump so he sent me for a mammogram. Upon having my mammogram, they scanned and saw nothing, I showed the technician what I thought may be something – it was a thickening on my breast, sort of like having a hive. It wasn’t very hard, it wasn’t a lump, but a thickening. Sure enough, a biopsy determined that was it. He confirmed that I had Stage IV metastatic breast cancer that spread to my liver. I was Her2 positive which is an aggressive type of breast cancer that tends to grow faster and is more likely to spread and come back. It’s also fueled by hormones so they threw me into Menopause to shut it down. Dr. Lembersky was stern, said there’d be no surgery, just chemo and that they’d hit me hard. I said “listen, I have a 16 year old who needs me and a 401K that I want to spend. You do whatever you need to to make sure I stay here.” He said he’d do his best, but I could tell, he was very concerned as we were too.
So the chemo began every 3 weeks for 6 months. My body was in shock, I never get sick, not a cold, the flu anything and my body was feeling the ill effects of chemo pretty quickly. After my 2nd treatment, I ended up in Shadyside Hospital as my white blood cells were dangerously low. I became Neutropenic and they thought I had an infection. No infection, but the chemo was wracking my body. They brought me back after 3 days in the hospital. Along the way, I lost my hair, and had terrible side effects from the chemo that got worse with each treatment. By the time I was done, I was cooked and I’m not sure I could have gone on any longer. But with the presence of family and friends, I was able to push through.
Luckily for me, the chemo worked beautifully. It was squashing the cancer and my Oncologist was thrilled. I continue my cancer fight with an IV infused drug of Herceptin every 3 weeks and a pill called Tamoxifin daily. This will continue for the rest of my life or until we need to do something differently. I began post-chemo scans every 3 months and now I’m out to every 6 months. It’s been 4 years since my diagnosis, I’m in remission and to this day, Dr. Lembersky calls me his “miracle patient.” I don’t consider myself a miracle, just lucky this time around.
In the beginning, I felt that cancer was controlling my life and would do so forever. And in a sense it is a bit controlling, which I absolutely hate. As I continue treatments, there’s a constant reminder when I visit the Hillman Cancer Center and see so many people young and old suffering at different stages of this awful disease. There’s times I “room” with another patient and try to be their cheerleader, giving them my bleak story and telling them there’s a chance, to fight hard, to stay strong and that makes me happy. Then there’s times that I break down because it’s so scary that I’m not in control and I hate to see people suffering. I’m truly traumatized by the whole event and when I talk about my chemo days, often times I break down because it brings back so many memories of pain and suffering. But the one thing I can say is a cancer diagnosis to me meant that I needed to make some lifestyle changes. This was where I was going to be a little more in control. After reading some books and educating myself on the disease, I truly believe cancer can be fueled by what we eat. I am trying to do everything I can so that my cancer does not return. I work with a nutritionist, try to eat clean, have an Integrative Medicine doctor that I see for the lasting side affects of chemo and continue follow-ups with my Oncologist. I had genetic testing done for my family (yes, even though I have a son, it matters) and I don’t carry the gene, nor can they find a genetic reason for the history of cancer in my family. My mom has ovarian cancer for the 2nd time (does not carry the gene) and her sister passed from the same disease. There’s something there, they just haven’t discovered it yet.
I do look at life differently since my diagnosis in both good ways and bad. Unfortunately, I don’t have much sympathy when someone is sick with a cold or something minor and whines about it – now that’s bad. But then there’s the good – this has opened my eyes to how strong I actually am, to all the blessings in my life – my husband and son, my family and friends and the simple things in life. I pay it forward however and whenever I can. I don’t sweat the small stuff and try to put things into perspective. I think Jim Valvano captured it when he said “”Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul.” I think that sums it up.
Mary’s story has encouraged me greatly. She fought hard and continues to fight to keep that pesky cancer at bay. And she’s making it. She looks great, travels for fun, and recently married her sweetheart, Harry. Mary has been an example to me of a fighter and a person who has figured out how to enjoy life even when it’s really hard.
In addition to encouraging me, she introduced me to Chef Colombe. Chef is part nutritionist, part life coach. She had cancer, herself, 20 years ago, and though she went through treatment, she also believes in our ability to help heal ourselves through healthy foods, clean eating and other lifestyle changes. Mary has been working with her for a while, and I started as well. Though I have studied and researched a lot that is out there, regarding different opinions on what foods contribute to cancer and what foods fight cancer, Chef Colombe has significantly deeper knowledge. And my favorite part of her approach is that she knows there are no one-size-fits-all answers. Every body is different. Every cancer is different. Every chemo protocol hits each person differently. She asks a lot of very good questions and takes your entire health situation into consideration. She works with people facing all kinds of issues from cancer to celiac’s disease to general low energy. She can be found at www.lifemadeedible.com