A wife, a mom, a businesswoman and an “old soul”
ABOUT URSULA, IN HER OWN WORDS:
- I got the call. “It’s cancer,” my doctor said. I don’t remember anything else that she said after that.
- Even with my history, I had never thought for one second that this was my cancer coming back—and here it was.
- I’m not glad that I had to take this journey, but I am a stronger, wiser, more patient, more loving person because of the journey.
I’ve always had an “old soul.” I was raised in a very small town in central Pennsylvania and born into a family that was not expecting me. My parents tried for many years to have children, but with no success. They happily adopted my two brothers in their late 20s. And then, when my parents were 40, they got the surprise of their life! The doctor said, “Well, Shirley, you’re pregnant.”
The 10- and 12-year age difference between myself and my brothers left me feeling somewhat like an only child. I remember very little of us all living at home, as they were both grown and gone by the time I was nine. I never really minded, though; it was nice to have my parents all to myself.
After high school, I attended business college. I was so ready to be on my own. I wanted to be a grown-up with a big-girl job, a car, a house, a mortgage, and a husband.
I started working for an insurance agency as a receptionist. After getting my insurance license a few months later, I started selling insurance and never looked back. Twenty years later, I can say with certainty that I found my calling in life. I’ve had a great career and have made a nice life for my family.
I met my husband when I was 21 and he was 46. An example of that “old soul” that I was talking about. We hit it off so well, and I fell head over heels in love with him. He was so kind and loving, and I’m going to use the old term...he was my soul mate. We were married four years later and then moved 250 miles away from our families to start our new adventure. It was just him and me, taking on the world. And what a great time we had. We enjoyed those early years so much. We started traveling and realized that there was no point in putting all the extra money away for retirement—we should enjoy it also!
Many cruises, and a few dogs and cats later, I realized that I was missing something. All those years I thought I didn’t want children, but there I was, 30 years old with my biological clock ticking louder and louder. I wanted a baby, and my selfless husband—at the age of 56—said, “Sure!”
The First Diagnosis
It was August of 2012 when in the shower, I noticed a dull ache in my left breast. I felt it, and there was the lump. We were leaving for vacation, and I couldn’t be bothered with it at that time. While on vacation, I waited until I had my husband alone and then I told him what I’d found.
A few weeks later, after a mammogram, sonogram, a biopsy, and several doctors saying, “I’m sure it’s nothing,” I got the call. “It’s cancer,” my doctor said. I don’t remember anything else that she said after that. I was standing in a conference room at work, looking at the floor, crying, and picturing my three-year-old son. He’s all I could think about. I left work early, picked him up from preschool, and the hug he gave me…I will never forget it. I had never longed for or enjoyed a hug so much in my life.
Telling my husband and parents was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I could hear their concern and see their tears, yet they were trying to be strong and encourage me. I knew they were scared to death. I’ve always said that I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m afraid of the hurt that others will feel when I’m gone.
My breast surgeon advised that a single mastectomy was needed, and the option to do a double was up to me. I started to do some online research but quickly gave up on that. Some of the images of life after a mastectomy were starting to intimidate me. While I only had cancer in one breast, my gut told me to get rid of them both and be as aggressive with treatment as possible.
I made the decision to have both breasts removed at the age of 35. It seemed that each doctor, nurse, radiologist, and tech that I came into contact with during this time remarked on how young I was. But they didn’t know about my old soul.
After the double mastectomy, the pathology tests reported a positive margin. Chemo and radiation were soon to follow. My first chemo treatment was three days after Christmas, and I had already written off 2013 as a year that would be lost to cancer. No fun vacations, no date nights, no successes with my job. Just a crappy year ahead of me.
By June 2013, I was done with treatment and began a maintenance prescription. One quick reconstruction surgery ahead of me, and I would be done! Done forever! Afterward, it was hard to let go and stop fighting. As time went on though, I thought about it less and less, and while having fought cancer was still a huge part of me, it wasn’t running my life anymore. I was back in control. I loved it!
Staying in the Fight
What I didn’t love was the little cancer monkey on my back that every now and then would tap me on the shoulder and whisper to me, “It’s not over yet.” He was relentless. He would whisper to me at night while I was trying to sleep, when I was working, driving in the car, and when I would put my son to bed. He just didn’t stop, and he had no boundaries. I spent four and a half years being thankful for every little thing in life. I remember crying at my son’s soccer game. Just a normal everyday soccer game. And that right there, I realized, was the gift that came out of my cancer. A type of clarity and appreciation for life that many people may never attain, and I was blessed to have it at such a young age.
I have always been fairly active, and after my first round with cancer, I started hitting the gym more often. Four and a half years went by. I was using the treadmill almost daily. I was pushing through some pain in my left leg for about six months when I decided it was time to get it checked. I had a touch of arthritis in my shoulder, so I thought that’s probably what it was. It felt exactly the same. My primary care doctor agreed and sent me for an X-ray just to make sure. I wasn’t home five minutes when she called. “I need you to come back to the office,” she said. Well, that wasn’t good.
I’d known this doctor for about 10 years, and we had sort of become friends. She came into the exam room with tears in her eyes and told me that I had a lesion on my femur. I have never been more shocked in my life. She just hugged me, and we cried.
In fact, she didn’t say anything. I just knew. A dear friend of mine had died of metastatic breast cancer about nine months before that, so that was fresh in my mind. When I came home from that doctor’s appointment, my husband was waiting for me and I just collapsed into his arms and I said, “I’m so sorry.” I had just watched my friend go through it and I had seen what had happened to her family. I thought I had seen a preview of what was going to happen to mine. I knew it wasn’t my fault. I was just sorry for the pain he was feeling. I apologized profusely to my father because he was sobbing. My dad said, “Why are you sorry?” And I said, “I’m sorry that you’re hurting.”
Even with my history, I had never thought for one second that this was my cancer coming back—and here it was. I was more determined than ever to live a good life and be here for my son. I was ready to fight again.
A Return Home
We packed up our house and moved back home to central Pennsylvania where I grew up—mainly so my son could get to know his extended family better, and in case something was to happen to my husband and me. I plan on being here for as long as I can, but as a mother, I needed to have peace in my heart knowing that my son would be with family in my absence. My husband and my family have been very supportive. I see a therapist as well. I find it very helpful to voice my thoughts and fears to a neutral party.
After my diagnosis with HR+/HER2- mBC, I felt the need to alter my treatment team to better serve my needs. My initial oncologist didn’t seem to know what was going on all the time with me and didn’t give me the clear information and answers that I needed. My new oncologist was a much better fit for me. I needed a specialist who would direct, counsel, and guide me, and I have that now. We make our decisions together. He’s the one who started me on IBRANCE, which is a prescription medication for adults to treat HR+/HER2- mBC in combination with letrozole, an aromatase inhibitor. Before I began treatment, my doctor and I went over the potential benefits and risks and common and serious side effects. The ones I’ve experienced include low white blood cell count, fatigue, and thinning hair, and I’ve worked with my doctor to find the right dosage for me. Other patients might experience other serious or common side effects, including lung problems, infections, or nausea. My doctor and I have been pleased with my results on IBRANCE in combination with letrozole, and I continue to get scans every six months.
I work out when I feel up to it, but this is just my experience and yours might be different. Yes, I’m tired sometimes. But I’m here, and I have hope. I hope that a cure will be found and that we can end breast cancer once and for all. In the meantime, I will keep living each day with a clarity and appreciation for life that I would never trade.
With my doctor’s approval, I am still working full time, raising my son and helping with his activities, and volunteering in the community. Everything in my life is great, except for this one cancer thing. And yes, metastatic breast cancer is just one part of my life in the grand scheme of things. It’s not running my life. I’m grateful, and I’m focusing on the things that are important to me.
I’m going to make the most of every day. I know there will come a time where more choices need to be made, but right now I’m determined to enjoy this life and this “gift” that I have been given. You see, I’m not glad that I had to take this journey, but I am a stronger, wiser, more patient, more loving person because of the journey. And, in the end, all is well with my old soul!