Nurse, mom, devoted caregiver, wife
ABOUT LIBBY, IN HER OWN WORDS:
- I loved my job, and it was hard to think about leaving.
- My husband, Merv, and I met on my 17th birthday, and I have loved him since. He has been my best friend, my anchor in life, and the man I planned to grow old with.
- I trust I’ll have the strength to deal with what comes my way.
My First Diagnosis
My first experience with breast cancer was in 1999. All I wanted to do was get home to my husband, Merv, and have him hug me and tell me it would be okay. Merv was always my rock, and he was beside me as I progressed through the surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. He loved me without my hair or eyebrows or eyelashes. Once, when even the smell of soap made me nauseous, he drove me to the store late at night to smell soap and pick out one I could tolerate.
I admit my diagnosis with Stage IIIB breast cancer was overwhelming. There was a point where I would have liked to have curled up in a ball and let the world pass me by, but my oncologist had other ideas for me. He posed an important question: If you had five years, would you spend it living or dying? I decided right then and there to not just survive and write the final chapter of my life’s story, but to live and write a whole new book.
After I completed treatment, I decided to return to school to get my nursing degree. I was also working full time. I was so busy, I didn’t have a lot of time to worry about my cancer returning. Soon I was working as a nurse, and I loved it! Our four sons were now grown with wives and families of their own. When Merv and I became grandparents, life felt complete.
But then our story took an unforeseen plot twist. In 2009, my Merv was diagnosed with early-onset dementia. I watched helplessly as the man that I had loved since my 17th birthday lost his abilities. It was devastating for me and our family, to say the least.
By October 2012, Merv lost the ability to walk, talk, feed himself, or care for himself in any way. Being his caregiver became increasingly difficult physically and emotionally, and tragedies kept mounting. During the next few years, both of my parents died. I threw myself into my work and focused on just getting through each day. It was easy to ignore my own health issues.
Finding Out I Have MBC
One winter, I developed a cough that was different, deep and dry. I ignored the symptoms. I kept getting upper respiratory infections and was having trouble breathing. By summer, I was truly having shortness of breath. By the fall, I could no longer pretend I was just suffering from allergies.
Then came the sign that I could not ignore. On my way home from what I thought was a routine appointment at a walk-in clinic, my mobile phone rang. It was my doctor. He told me to go straight to the hospital. After multiple lab tests, X-rays, and scans, I was diagnosed with bilateral pleural effusions, which meant I had a buildup of fluid on both lungs. The following week, my doctor told me that malignant cells had been found in the fluid drained from around my lungs. My breast cancer from years before had metastasized.
This time, Merv wasn’t there with his hugs of reassurance. I sat for a long time staring at the phone before I began calling my sister-in-law and then my four sons, one by one, to let them know my diagnosis. Telling them was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
My greatest fear was that I would not be able to care for myself or for Merv. As someone who’s cared for other people throughout my career and my life, depending on anyone else was frightening. I am the one in control! I am the one who makes decisions. I didn’t want Merv to go to a nursing home where he’d be looked after by a staff that didn’t know what kind of husband and father he had been. I asked our youngest to serve as durable power of attorney, then did some research and suggested my choice of nursing homes. I even started to talk about how I would like my ashes buried under a tree on a hillside in the country. Crying was getting to be too common and I was having enough problems breathing.
During my first appointment with an interventional pulmonologist, my respiratory symptoms worsened, and I was admitted to the hospital for a thoracoscopy. When the results came back as ER/HR positive breast cancer, it was almost a relief to finally have an idea what I was facing.
I soon met my new oncologist. He didn’t talk about my outlook. Instead, he stayed positive and focused on what we could do to treat the cancer. Based on the lab work, my cancer was HR+/HER2-. He recommended that I start letrozole and since I was postmenopausal, he suggested adding an oral medication to my treatment plan—IBRANCE.
We discussed the potential for common and serious side effects, including the possibility for a low white blood cell count, infections, and nausea. I decided to move ahead with IBRANCE, plus letrozole (an aromatase inhibitor), as my treatment plan. I actually allowed myself to feel some sense of hope. We weren’t just accepting the cancer; we were doing something to fight it.
During those first six weeks, I visited the cancer center regularly for labs. My white blood cell counts, red blood cell counts, and platelets dropped, but my doctor reassured me that since I was already careful not to bring stray illnesses home to Merv, he wasn’t worried. I experienced other side effects, including my hair thinning and fatigue. Keep in mind that this was my experience—not everyone responds to treatments the same way. I am no longer taking IBRANCE with letrozole and am now receiving a different treatment.
I juggled work, caring for Merv, and caring for myself for another year. I wanted to keep things status quo, but the emotional and physical trauma of a cancer diagnosis marked the end of a chapter for me. It was time for a new chapter to start.
I have to admit—retirement is great! I am still caring for Merv at home, but I get help from our sons and family. The grandchildren come over, and I get to spend time with them. I make plans for tomorrow and for the future.
Yes, I’ve been given challenges, but I’ve decided to meet those difficulties head on with all the resources I can muster. What will my next chapter bring? I don’t know, but it is my road and my story, and I am grateful to share it.