Wife, Mom of three boys
ABOUT VAL, IN HER OWN WORDS:
- Having breast cancer has given me a platform to help other women as they deal with the physical and emotional issues pertaining to this disease.
- When I was just 43 years old, I had a lumpectomy. The very next morning, the phone rang. It was the surgeon saying, “You have breast cancer.”
- I couldn’t help but imagine myself being a burden to my family, and that was something I couldn’t allow.
- This situation has truly helped me to experience every day as it comes and not to take anything for granted.
I’ll start my story by saying this: Life is a journey. It’s a roller coaster. Although my ride has been a tough one with a lot of emotional and physical ups and downs, it also has been a blessing. First and foremost, it has deepened my faith and relationships with others. Having breast cancer has given me a platform to help other women as they deal with the physical and emotional issues pertaining to this disease. Good things can come out of difficult times, but I’ll admit I didn’t always feel that way. Learning to find the positives and embrace the changes has been a process, so let me tell you how it all began.
Life for me was simple and rather uneventful. My family owned and operated a dry-cleaning business. They were the second generation to do so. Of course, I felt like that was my destiny. By the end of my senior year of high school, my rather boring life became an interesting one. I bought my own dry cleaner in a nearby town. Life was good.
A Family Forms
I married my husband Jason at the ripe old age of 21. I actually wanted to start a family as soon as possible. I was 23 when we had our first son, Joshua. We had another son when I was 25, Justin. Then Jake came along when I was 27. By the time I turned 30, we bought our dream house on beautiful Lake Huron. We raised our sons there, and it’s where we still live. Life was going so well! It wasn’t always perfect; we did have the usual ups and downs, but at the moment, we were riding high.
The First Diagnosis
Then it happened. At age 42, I felt a lump while showering. I had it aspirated to check for cancer. The test came back benign. My doctor suggested that I go in for a mammogram in six months. Now, my insurance did not cover two mammograms in a year, so I told myself, “It’s no big deal, just a lump, right? I worked out and ate pretty well, so no worries, right?”
One year later, I still had not gotten that mammogram. Then, my good friend told me she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This blew me away. I told her that my lump was starting to change and that it was puckering and hardening. She pleaded with me to get it checked out.
When I was just 43 years old, I finally had a lumpectomy. The very next morning, the phone rang. It was the surgeon saying, “You have breast cancer.” Those words shook me to my core. I think I cried for days. This couldn’t be true. I felt like my roller coaster not only stopped in its tracks but had crashed.
What Surgery Set In Motion
As soon as I got this news, I called one of the best cancer clinics in our state to schedule a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. This was my choice. The doctor suggested only to have a partial, but I wanted to be really proactive, which, in hindsight, wasn’t necessary.
After my surgery, the doctors put me on a treatment to render my estrogen unusable, since estrogen was essentially a fuel for my HR+/HER2- breast cancer. I was on treatment for five years and went for checkups every six months. The oncologists were going to put me on full chemo and radiation treatments but decided to test the tumor to see if it was likely to come back. The results indicated only a small chance of recurrence, so chemo and radiation were ruled out.
My doctors eventually released me from having checkups, saying I could go back to my regular family physician and gynecologist. I celebrated by putting away anything that pertained to cancer. Pink ribbons, plaques on the walls, pictures all went into a memory bin. I just wanted that part of my life behind me.
The Unexpected Emerges
Sometime later, I started having some very bad abdominal pain. Tests revealed that I had an ovarian cyst. Here we go again. I had it removed along with my right ovary. I woke up to the good news that it wasn’t cancer.
The day after my surgery is when everything fell apart. I had a hard time breathing and was rushed to the hospital. A chest X-ray was ordered to determine if I had any blood clots. No clots were found, but the scan showed that I had cancer in the sternum, and it was suggested that I immediately schedule a consultation. The ER doctor announced this horrific news to me just after my family left to go eat dinner. Hearing this news, as I lay in that hospital room all alone, was terrifying.
The very next week, I had a CT scan and full-body bone scan only to find out that I have cancer in my sternum, spine, and both lungs. My doctors also found a 2 cm cyst on my liver that looked questionable.
My nurse put her hand on my shoulder and told me I was living with metastatic breast cancer. “It can’t be that bad,” I said. She cried with me and said, “Val, it’s really bad.” In that moment, I wanted to give up. I honestly did not believe it. I couldn’t. It felt like I was in a dream. The nurse’s words rang in my head. My roller coaster ride had come to a sudden halt.
Understanding the Impact
I went into a little depression thinking that I might never see the flowers bloom next summer or, even worse, that I may never get to see my grandbabies. You see, I am only human, and I love to dream about what the future might hold for me: watching my boys get married, start their careers, and helping them with their own children. I always dreamed of baking cookies with them, taking them on vacations, and teaching them about life.
My husband and I would often discuss and plan for our retirement. We don’t want much really; he wants to hunt and fish while I enjoy just being home, gardening, and volunteering at our church, maybe take a trip every once in a while. Oh, how fun it would be until my reality came crashing down. I didn’t want to live anymore. I felt trapped by this monster. It is crazy how cancer can suck the life right out of you, so much that I felt as if all hope is lost.
Deciding on Treatment
As I trudged through these terrifying days of the unknown, my doctor suggested a myriad of medicines that may help slow down the progression of the cancer. He sounded very optimistic, but to tell you the truth, I was concerned about all the side effects. I couldn’t help but imagine myself being a burden to my family, and that was something I couldn’t allow. As a wife and mother, I feel like I should always be there to take care of them, not the other way around, so, at that point, I told my nurse that I was going to let nature take its course.
At around 8:00 that evening, I received a personal phone call from my doctor encouraging me to give treatment a try. He wanted to put me on IBRANCE and an aromatase inhibitor because I was post-menopausal and HR+/HER2-. He said he couldn’t promise anything, but he sounded optimistic. We talked about the possible benefits and common and potentially serious side effects. I am so glad that I took his advice and started on IBRANCE. I have experienced side effects, including aches, fatigue, and low white blood cell count. This is just my experience and every patient is different.
A New Day
Today I am living my new normal and I try to have fun doing it. Now, I will admit that it took me a little time just to get my brain wrapped around the idea that I have metastatic breast cancer. And, sure, there are times when I feel a little down, so I give myself little breaks when I need to. Physically, I’m more tired than I have been in years past, but overall, I feel pretty good. I consider myself fortunate to be here and I cherish every moment I get with my husband and my boys.
I am no longer waiting for my roller coaster to crash—I am enjoying the ride. My friends and family have been so supportive and loving. This situation has truly helped me to experience every day as it comes and not to take anything for granted. I love my life. No more pity parties for this girl! I am taking life by the horns and enjoying every day.
Although mBC has brought a lot of pain, it has also given me many blessings. Right now, my roller coaster is sitting at the top, and I am enjoying the view!