Wife, mom, persister
ABOUT JAMI, IN HER OWN WORDS:
- In two months, I had gone from Stage I “everything’s going to be okay” to Stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
- My husband held me and reassured me. “We will just handle this…whatever that looks like.”
- I couldn’t keep fighting it without my faith and my family…but I also like to be actively involved in my own care.
There’s a quote from the Bible I’ve heard many times in my life: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame.” I really didn’t grasp what it meant until I received my breast cancer diagnosis.
On that morning as I got out of the shower, I noticed a small indentation in the outer edge of my left breast. I remember thinking, “Oh it’s nothing.” I’d been diagnosed with fibrocystic breast disease five years earlier, so I figured that’s what had caused the change. I drove to Little Rock for my routine mammogram with my son Drew, who was 12 at the time. I remember leaving him in the waiting room and saying, “This shouldn’t take very long, and then we’ll go to lunch.”
After my mammogram, I returned to the dressing room to wait for the okay to leave. Finally, the tech returned and said we needed to do an ultrasound because there was a place in each breast they wanted to examine further. As I watched the monitor, I could see the place in my right breast was fluid filled. But when she moved to my left breast, I knew in my gut something was wrong. The tech returned with the radiologist, who said I needed to get a biopsy on my left breast. I advised him that it would be a week before I could get an appointment with the breast surgeon I’d been seeing since my fibrocystic breast diagnosis, and asked him point-blank, “What am I dealing with?” I’ll never forget what he said: “It’s most likely cancerous.” It was as if he had slapped me across the face. I felt the tears falling down my face as I thanked him for his honesty and for being so thorough. My thoughts went to my sons and my husband. How was I going to tell them? I couldn’t even bring myself to think the word “cancer,” much less say it out loud.
Shocked By Cancer
I went back to the dressing room and began to cry uncontrollably. My phone beeped, and it was Drew texting me from the waiting room, “Mom how much longer, I’m hungry!” I needed to figure out something to tell him. I called my husband; no answer. I called my best friend, Kathy, and just cried as I tried to form the words to explain this news. She reassured me, saying “Everything is going to be fine.” I pulled myself together, wiped the tears from my face, and went out to face my son. He looked at me and said, “Mom, why have you been crying?” I fought back the tears, saying, “Oh I just didn’t get the news I wanted today, but everything is going to be okay.” We went to lunch, and I picked at my food. I just felt numb.
When I got home, I pulled my husband aside and gave him the news. I cried again as he held and reassured me. “We will just handle this…whatever that looks like.” We decided to talk to our boys and let them know that the next several months would involve a lot of tests, appointments, and possibly surgery. I told them I may have breast cancer, but I would have additional tests to make sure. I told them it wouldn’t be easy, and I would need their help around the house. They both agreed, and have been amazing.
Coping With Another Diagnosis
Ten days after my mammogram, I had a bilateral lumpectomy. Two days later, we got the results of the pathology report: I had Stage I infiltrating lobular carcinoma, or ILC, in my left breast, and I was HR+/HER2-. A month later, a second procedure on my left breast and lymph nodes yielded a Stage II pathology report; it had moved beyond the breast and into the lymph nodes. I was scheduled to have a port placed in May so I could begin chemotherapy. During my presurgery appointment, I asked about a PET/CT to see if it had spread anywhere else. I’d worked in radiology for the previous 10 years, and I knew that I didn’t want to take any chances. So, on my 46th birthday, I had my first PET/CT. I really know how to party! One of the radiologists was concerned about some sclerotic changes in my spine and hips. A week later I underwent a bone biopsy. They were metastatic lesions.
I couldn’t believe it. In two months, I had gone from Stage I “everything’s going to be okay” to Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. In the weeks that followed, I ran through the whole gamut of emotions. I had a lot of angry moments, where I thought “why me?” and “I’ve been a good person, this isn’t fair!” Then I’d bottom out into a deep sadness and just cry for hours and days. I kept going back to my children, one about to graduate high school and the other only 12—I wanted to see them grow up…I wanted to see my grandchildren one day. I spent a lot of time alone in my bedroom, in my pajamas. I thought I was going to go crazy.
One day while watching TV, someone said, “No one is guaranteed tomorrow. We only get one life; what you choose to do with it is how you will be remembered.” I asked myself, “Is this how you’re going to spend what time you have left?” So, I showered, got dressed, and cleaned up the house. When the boys came in from school, they said, “Mom, you’re dressed?!” I hadn’t realized they were seeing their mom giving up. I couldn’t do that to them or myself.
Deciding To Take IBRANCE
At my next oncologist visit, we started talking about my treatment. He wanted me to begin an oral medication called IBRANCE. He told me it was for the first-line treatment of postmenopausal women with HR+/HER2- metastatic breast cancer and was taken in combination with letrozole, which is an aromatase inhibitor. My doctor said his nurse would call me when they had approval from my insurance. I immediately went home and researched the dosage and side effects online. About a week or two later, my insurance signed off.
Soon after, I began taking IBRANCE and letrozole. I experienced some side effects, including nausea, low energy level, and some hair falling out. Other patients might experience serious and common side effects, including low white blood cell counts and fatigue. Keep in mind, this was my experience, and others’ could be different. I am no longer taking IBRANCE with letrozole and am now receiving a different treatment.
I couldn’t keep fighting it without my faith and my family—but I also like to be actively involved in my own care. If I hadn’t pushed for the PET/CT, the places in my spine might have gone undetected. So please, ask questions, lots of them. If you don’t understand what’s going on, you can’t be involved with the decisions. And if you don’t feel comfortable with the relationship you have with your healthcare team, it’s okay to look for help elsewhere.
Fighting metastatic breast cancer can be overwhelming, but as my friend reminds me, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” So take one day at a time and embrace the opportunity to turn this struggle into something positive. Remember that struggles teach us perseverance, perseverance develops character, and character develops hope.