Adventurer, mom, educator, nurturer
ABOUT DINA, IN HER OWN WORDS:
- I am a very independent person who does not like to ask for help.
- My parents, brother, and I moved to New York City when I was in junior high. Being exposed to the variety of experiences and people there fit perfectly with my sense of adventure.
- As the director of a women’s shelter and then as a special education teacher…I used all my creativity to inspire my own child and all the students I taught. It was simply a rewarding experience that always felt right.
“Breathe, just breathe,” I heard the voice in my head saying over and over as the radiologist spoke the words I both expected and dreaded to hear—cancer. I almost felt as if I was living in somebody else’s body. I had always been told how strong and dynamic I was, but at that moment I was frail and frightened and hardly breathing. But I was still me, so I turned to the doctor and asked, “Will I ever play the violin again?” He wasn’t expecting that and didn’t know how to react, but I was able to laugh for a minute and feel myself returning. And so began my journey through cancer.
When I was young, I lived in New York. My parents, brother, and I moved to New York City when I was in junior high, and I became a child of the city. Being exposed to the variety of experiences and people there fit perfectly with my sense of adventure. I was a creative, imaginative teenager and the city offered me everything I could want.
When I met my husband, I was confronted with a life change. He wanted to move to West Virginia! My family and friends were horrified. They were convinced that the quiet country life would drive me bonkers! But I was always up for a challenge, so I agreed. I found rewarding work: first as the director of a women’s shelter and then as a special education teacher. I used all my creativity to inspire my own child and all the students I taught.
People would ask me how I had the patience to teach special needs students, but to me it was simply a rewarding experience that always felt right. The first time a child can read a sentence out loud, whether they are six or 16, the light that shines from their eyes makes all the preparation and practice worthwhile. Even after my husband and I divorced, I continued to live, work, and thrive in West Virginia. I just couldn’t leave those kids behind.
In the winter of 2010, I received my initial breast cancer diagnosis. The surgeon described it as “garden variety cancer.” Somehow I didn’t feel much like picking any of those flowers! A year and half of difficult treatment followed, accompanied by staph infections, infusion chemo in the hospital, cellulitis, and radiation burns. But after all that and five years of hormonal therapy, my oncologist decided I had completed my treatment. What a wonderful moment that was!
Soon after, I retired from teaching expecting to finish my doctorate, move back to the Northeast to be closer to my son, and work with college students. I was looking forward to my future. My oncologist even told me that I would not need a referral to a cancer specialist, just a good family practice physician.
That fall I had some shortness of breath, so I saw my doctor who told me I was in a-fib, meaning I had an irregular heartbeat that could potentially lead to more serious complications. I needed to go to the hospital right away, and as part of the routine workup, I had a chest X-ray. Imagine my surprise when they discovered a mass in my right lung. This was only about six months after my oncologist had given me a clean bill of health! After further tests, they diagnosed me with metastatic breast cancer. I couldn’t believe it. After such an intense and painful experience the first time around, I was terrified as to what was to come. I felt as if a black hole swallowed me, and there was no air. I had to remind myself to breathe.
The next day, my son, Eli, walked into my hospital room. I could see all the fear, anger, and hopelessness on his face. It was like holding up a mirror, reflecting all that I felt. We had both been through so much the first time around. Later, while my friends gathered around me and offered words of encouragement, it felt like I wasn’t even in the same room as them. Instead, I was a prisoner on Planet Cancer, alone and unprepared.
My oncologist told me about IBRANCE and suggested that, because I was HR+, HER2-, post-menopausal, and had not received prior treatment for metastatic breast cancer, pairing it with letrozole—an aromatase inhibitor—might be a good option for me. But because I had many side effects from treatment during my first run with breast cancer, I had some concerns. My doctor went over the common and potentially serious side effects with IBRANCE, including the possibility for low white blood cell counts and infections. He also told me I’d be monitored with regular lab work so that we could take the appropriate steps if I did experience side effects. I decided to move forward and started on IBRANCE along with letrozole.
Closer As A Family
Having cancer can put you in an otherworldly place. Remember Planet Cancer? I’m still there, I just now see myself as a traveler rather than a prisoner. I have guests who join me and give assistance along the way. Because I am a very independent person who does not like to ask for help, that hasn’t always been the easiest thing for me. One of the key things I’ve learned from this journey, however, is that allowing others to help is actually a positive experience for them. I know how much satisfaction I get from helping others. Why would I not allow them to feel that same sense of accomplishment? So I would just encourage you to allow people to give what they want to freely give you; let their love and kindness wash over you. Choose to be there for the ones you love and let them love you back.
My life has been filled with many challenges. Even now I am challenging myself. I moved to Massachusetts to be near my son and left my support system behind in West Virginia to begin a new adventure. I have not let my cancer define or stop me. I know that as long as I remember to breathe and take each day as it comes, I’ll be fine.