Wife, Mom of two boys
ABOUT JONI G, IN HER OWN WORDS:
- For me, family comes first, always. You never know when you or they will go, so I want to make the most of the time I have with them.
- I have always listened to my little voice—it has never steered me wrong—but, this time, I didn’t listen. He’s the doctor, I thought. I guess he’s the expert.
- After working, saving, and planning for retirement for 40 years, cancer was something I never planned for.
- Even though I was taught to be able to stand on my own, the beauty of this journey is that I don’t have to.
Growing up, my family was the only family of all my friends in the neighborhood where both parents worked full time outside the home—it was a necessity to make ends meet for a military family with three kids. My mom drilled into me from junior high school on: “Never rely on a man.” She taught me that I should able to stand on my own in case something would happen to a future husband, and I would need to “bring home the bacon.”
As a teenager, I had various jobs until, on a fluke, I ended up working for a small public accounting firm when I was 19 years old. Turns out, I’d spend my entire career as a tax accountant, most of it as a certified public accountant. I was the first woman in my family to graduate from college, and that would take me 14 years, as I got married, raised two boys, and worked part time.
Keeping Family Close
Cancer in the family had been a distant memory. My dad’s mother found out she had breast cancer while in her 40s and, after a double mastectomy, lived 50 more years. My mom died of brain cancer at age 56, 14 months after her diagnosis. Having lost my mom when I was 35, I wanted to be sure to spend time with my family—as often as I could with my busy work schedule and as often as they were willing and able.
For me, family comes first, always. You never know when you or they will go, so I want to make the most of the time I have with them. In fact, before my cancer diagnosis, I retired early, and for my retirement celebration, I took the family to Disneyland, where my husband, our boys and their families shared a three-bedroom suite and were all still friends at the end.
I had a regularly scheduled mammogram that seemed to have identified something suspicious, and after a second, more refined mammogram, I was told, “It’s nothing to worry about—just tissue folded over inside the breast.” This didn’t make any sense to me when the doctor said it, and the little voice inside me said, “You should pursue this.” I have always listened to my little voice—it has never steered me wrong—but, this time, I didn’t listen. He’s the doctor, I thought, I guess he’s the expert.
Since I have dense breasts, the doctor did recommend I come back every year for a mammogram. I had tried doing monthly breast self-exams, but I have breasts that feel like the insides of a bean bag chair, so how was I to know if any of those lumps I felt were cancer or not? The next year, I went in for my mammogram, and it showed the same suspicious area. An ultrasound was performed, and abnormalities were found, so a biopsy was recommended.
I had no symptoms of breast cancer that I knew of at that time. After my ultrasound, I researched a lot of information on the internet about breast cancer and found medical jargon to be like the tax world—lots of words you don’t understand and the use of many acronyms. From reading the reports of my ultrasound and biopsies, I was fairly certain that I had a high likelihood of having cancer, after I deciphered the meaning of numerous medical terms.
After my research, I was not surprised when I got the call from my primary care physician one evening to tell me I had HR+/HER2- breast cancer. At the time of my diagnosis, my husband and I had been married 37 years. When discussing the diagnosis with my husband, I told him, “My grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40s and survived 50 more years. Since I’m in my 50s, I promise you 40 more years.”
A couple of weeks later, I had a PET scan and then a bone biopsy. It was determined that it was metastatic and the breast cancer had spread to numerous lymph nodes, my left lung, left ribs, and left pelvic bone. Who knew you could have breast cancer in places other than the breast?
Next Steps Along the Way
After working, saving, and planning for retirement for 40 years, cancer was something I never planned for. Will I be the person who gets lucky and lives longer than most? Should I hurry up and finish the “survivor file” I had started for our boys so my husband has all the information he needs to know?
No one knows when their time will end, and I couldn’t dwell on it. So I told myself: My faith and my family are going to help me along the way. There is nothing I can do about having cancer, but there are things I can do today to take care of myself and to take care of my family. I went into research mode again to understand treatment options.
My mom chose not to have chemotherapy after her brain surgery, and I have always wondered if she would have lived longer had she followed her doctor’s recommendations. So I knew I wanted to listen to what my doctor had to say.
Treatment With IBRANCE
It helped that I found an oncologist I could trust—one who was up to date on treatment options, transparent, and answered all of my questions.
We talked about a number of treatment options, but her recommendation was to take IBRANCE in combination with an aromatase inhibitor, a first-line treatment for post-menopausal women with HR+/HER2- MBC. This recommendation was consistent with the research I had done. So, listening to my oncologist explain IBRANCE’s possible benefits and common and potentially serious side effects and listening to my little voice, my husband and I chose to go with IBRANCE combination therapy for now, and we were happy with the choice.
I experienced some side effects, including low white blood cell counts, fatigue, thinning hair, hot flashes, and occasional joint pain/stiffness. This was only my experience—everyone is different. Other patients might experience common side effects, including infections or nausea. That’s why it’s so important to talk to your doctor. While I worked with my doctor to manage side effects, there were also a few things I’ve learned along the way. For example, I learned that I needed to set up pill reminders on my phone. Often, the alert to take my medication was my first thought of the day about my cancer. I stopped taking IBRANCE in combination with an aromatase inhibitor in July 2019, and now receive a different treatment.
It is not common to be initially diagnosed with breast cancer that had already spread. While I could worry about “What did I do to get this disease?” I have resolved to accept the fact that I have it and to deal with it using the resources available through medical professionals, treatments, and lots of prayers.
The Journey Ahead
The cancer diagnosis put a little dip in my retirement plan, but today, I have a strategy to manage it. While I still plan to travel with my husband, I need to be a little more practical about the planning and the locations. So, rather than taking one long road trip, I will arrange shorter trips to make things more manageable for me.
Daily, I try to live a normal life and enjoy the day without the continuous thought of cancer. I have faith in God to help me through this, however it ends; a great husband and two sons standing by my side; family, friends, and doctors who understand my situation; and a life that I cannot complain about. So, I’ll continue to take one day at time, thinking about the things I want to do—today, not tomorrow. Because even though I was taught to be able to stand on my own, the beauty of this journey is that I don’t have to.