Breast Cancer Survivor
A Survivor's Toolbox For Cancer and Life
My story began on April 9, 2010. My daughter Sofia and I had a full day planned to celebrate my husband's 40th birthday. At 11:34am, the phone rang. The doctor and I exchanged pleasantries for a brief moment. The answer could not come fast enough! I felt as though I were standing in a tunnel with bright lights all around me. My auditory senses seemed to be magnified 1,000 times. Then, I heard it: hesitation, concern….and finally, "Sherry, you have breast cancer."
Shortly after hearing those words, my husband walked through the door after a long week of business travel. We exchanged glances. The concern on Michael's face said it all. I felt helpless. I took a notepad and wrote a large "C." The translation was lost. The doctor continued talking and all that I could do in that moment (without saying the word in front of Sofia) was to write on the notepad, "CANCER." It was gut wrenching. The call ended. Michael and I were left standing in our kitchen with the initial impact of the news. I do not remember the entire conversation, but I do remember trying to provide direction, information, and comfort to my husband as unfortunately, breast cancer was not foreign to Michael. His maternal grandmother passed from breast cancer. His father and two aunts were breast cancer survivors, and his sister Denise was on her own journey. And now me!
After Michael and I talked for a while, he took Sofia outside to play so that I could "process." Processing meant one thing – strap on the spinning shoes and blast the playlist and pedal as hard as my legs, lungs, and heart would allow. I went through ALL the emotions on that ride! Sixty minutes after strapping on my spinning shoes, I dropped to my knees, looked up and exclaimed, "CANCER, you WILL NOT take me away from my daughter!" From those emotions, I went into project management mode. I told Michael, "Cancer just messed with the wrong chick!" Honestly, it was a bit more descriptive, but I think you get the idea!
As confident as I felt in that moment, the next phase was so difficult: sharing the diagnosis with my parents. It was horrible to tell them that their 40-year-old daughter had cancer. To add insult to injury, my mom was going through a significant journey as her dad was battling stage IV cancer. True to form, though, my parents did not skip a beat. They would often spend time with my grandfather and Sofia in the same day. This was no small gesture as my grandfather was living over 80 miles away in Latrobe with my aunt Cindy. During this time, I always believed that my mom's journey was worse than mine – knowing that she was losing her father and wondering if she would lose her daughter, too. Through it all, my mom's faith and prayers helped many of us. To this day, she still prays the Novena (a Catholic prayer) to the Blessed Mother. I, too, turned to the Blessed Mother for strength and guidance.
After sharing with our parents and immediate family the news of my diagnosis, I had to determine the best way to communicate with our large extended families, friends, and colleagues from the multiple states that we had lived and worked over the years. I realize that some women like to keep it to themselves; however, my choice was to share through my Caring Bridge website. I was able to stay connected with over 300 of our closest friends and family. The website was more than a page in my life. It brought order to the chaos, provided emotional catharsis, and served as a means to thank everyone for his or her love, support, and prayers. The nurse in me wanted to educate others as well. Most importantly, it was a gift to my beautiful daughter as she gave me the strength and sense of "true north" during this time in our lives. Someday, she will read my entries and they will be part of her personal toolbox. Until then, I want Sofia to know that her gifts, talents, courage, strength, love, hugs and kisses were (and continue) to be the greatest gifts! I love my baby girl!
Many times during my journey, I put my spinning bike through the ringer. But, nothing meant more to me than spending time with Michael, Sofia, family and friends – including, Friday Pizza Parties at my mom and dad's and Sunday dinners at my in-laws. Besides great food, my journey was filled with apprehension, anxiety, tears, fun, and laughter – all that helped me to determine my treatment plan, as I knew that I needed to be at peace with my plan.
I spent several days decompressing and spending time with my parents, Michael and Sofia. I did not respond to emails, calls, or cards received. This truly allowed me to make a choice that was right for me. I knew that I needed to have complete confidence and peace with my choice. I was scared, but not powerless. I refused to be paralyzed by cancer, and I wanted to make the best possible choice for me!
I confidently chose a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction and a total hysterectomy. Many were shocked by my decision because my cancer was less than 2 cm, had not invaded my lymph nodes (despite being in the ducts and breast tissue), the BRCA mutation was negative, and the only family history of breast cancer was my Aunt Carolyn (my dad's sister). Another contributing factor that led to my decision: 10 years prior at the age of 30, I found a concerning lump in my other breast. I had a lumpectomy and was monitored with annual mammography; performed self-breast exams and other self-care practices. In the end, the peace of mind, calm, and confidence rested in this decision. Not everyone supported my decision with some of the nearest to me struggling. I am grateful for my very dear friend, Nancy Hoffmans. Over 400 miles away during a phone call, she said, "Sherry, you must do what brings YOU peace. Assemble the best healthcare team; take all of the information and make an informed decision. Be confident and never look back!" She encouraged me to pray to God and ask others to pray for me. Nancy battled cancer in 1973 and again in 2002, fighting to be with her family until the end. I took Nancy's advice and never looked back.
After my bilateral mastectomy, I was discharged in my new favorite t-shirt, "Yes, they're fake, the real ones tried to kill me." It was a way to celebrate the next phase of the journey as I found that humor and laughter were truly good medicine. Shortly after in September 2010, my grandfather's condition rapidly declined. On September 17th, Pappy Jack, surrounded by his wife and family, took his last breath and uttered one final word, "GOD." He was at peace.
With so much going on in our lives, we decided to take Sofia to Disney. Sofia absolutely loved Animal Kingdom – the boneyard, digging for fossils, and hanging out with all the dinosaurs. We had a blast. One night, as we watched fireworks over Cinderella's Castle in Magic Kingdom, Michael and I held Sofia and we just cried. No words were exchanged, but we were both thinking the same thing: "We made it!"
As many of you know, the journey can be complex with cancer or any other life-changing circumstances. It can be all consuming. During these moments, we have:
•Watched loved ones hurt and be saddened
by the challenges that cancer can bring.
•Found passion when we thought that we
had not one droplet more.
•Supported others when it seemed
•Cried, laughed, prayed, questioned, and
made decisions that were difficult.
•Celebrated mini-milestones and major
milestones along the way.
We have worked to rebuild our strength, wellness, and endurance. At times, I replaced the spinning bike with deep breathing, yoga, affirmations, walking, and just doing the small things to build wellness from the cellular level. I use doTERRA essential oils, acupressure mats, massage therapy, chiropractic care and more. After the physical battle with all of my surgeries (including a rotator cuff surgery that I threw into the mix), conquering the emotional challenges associated with cancer, and learning to TRULY be a survivor was the next step. It does not happen on a specific date or time, as it was more than recovery from the surgical wounds and treatments. It was about finding the next level of peace and strength. For me, that came together near the end of 2011. Shortly after, all that changed.
It was a cold day in December – December 21st, to be exact. My mom, dad, sister, and I sat in the oncologist's office. I could hear my heart pounding in my head; numbness seemed to overtake my body. I began praying to God in a way that seemed beyond frantic. There it was again. Those dreaded words, "YOU…HAVE…CANCER!" Except, this time it was not me. It was my dad. At the age of 62, he received the completely unexpected diagnosis of stage IV cancer and a life expectancy of only three weeks.
Two days after Christmas, my mom, dad, sister and I loaded up the car and took dad's "medical caravan" (as we liked to call it) to meet with his oncologist at UPMC Shadyside. It became a 'tradition' to go as a group to the appointments and treatments. Dad had numerous surgeries; procedures, chemotherapy and radiation, and we shared so much with him. Sometimes, we just sat and treasured silence; other times, we watched "The Big Bang Theory" for hours. We prayed, cried, laughed, and enjoyed some of his favorite snacks: Snickers, 5th Avenue, Peppermint Patties and Almond Joys. Dad's day was never complete until he talked to Sofia or at least had an update. He spent time cuddling while indulging her in all of those things that grandfathers do for their granddaughters. Sofia loved her Pappy Kelly and he loved his baby girl.
Weeks before Dad died, we went to Aruba for one last family vacation. We all treasured this bittersweet experience. Just before departing, Dad and I stood in silence, holding hands. As he closed the door to the unit, he tapped the door handle a few times, turned around, and said, "It's time to go home." He got in his wheelchair and we never looked back. Dad died on September 6, 2013 surrounded by his wife, children, sisters, and extended family. The 22 months of his illness were filled with so much. I look back at life with my dad recognizing that I had utilized every moment to the fullest. I truly had no regrets. It was with that perspective of "no regrets" that I had written this note to my parents at the onset of my dad's diagnosis:
"Mom and dad, my cancer brought me peace and strength to guide you during your cancer journey. I am stronger and more capable than ever. I will walk every step, celebrate every milestone, and continue to love you as you have taught me to love. I love you very much!"
Since then, I lost two very dear friends to cancer: Angelina and Polly. Life is not the same without them.
I have utilized many tools during my journey, with the greatest being LOVE. Love is my compass united with faith, family, friends, and an occasional martini. In all of this, I have learned that I TRULY can do ANYTHING! Regardless of your challenge, remember that you, too, can TRULY do ANYTHING and never forget to celebrate along the way. Celebrate your family, friends, and all that life has to offer. No matter what life brings, remember to celebrate. Here's to you!