Beginning in June 2006, my byline appeared frequently in the Statesman. Whether writing about residents who faced eviction from Coffey Mobile Home Park in Garden City or the way the Boise community came together to help a little girl with a brain tumor save the city as a superhero, I loved helping people tell their stories.
In June 2007, my byline disappeared from the newspaper.
In May 2008, I was back in the Statesman, but this time it was a story about me on the front page.
As I am reminded frequently as I meet people, many readers remember that story: A woman, pregnant with triplets, completes 12 weeks of strict bed rest to help her babies get as close as possible to full term.
Only to learn, at the end of her pregnancy, that she has breast cancer.
More than five years after my last byline in the Statesman, I can write to tell readers how fortunate I am. I have reached five years of cancer survivorship. The triplets, who display an incredible bond and who are each amazing and unique individually, started kindergarten this fall. And in May I graduated with my second bachelors degree this one in nursing. I am now beginning a new career serving others in the Orthopedics Unit at St. Lukes Boise Medical Center.
By chance, crazy luck, karma, God, angels, medicine, poison and/or the willpower of a new mom, I am here today to celebrate these milestones. Because I listened to my body and took control of my care, my cancer was diagnosed at an early stage. I learned that my disease did not have to dictate my experience. I hope sharing my story can help others find their own way to thrive in the face of challenges.
A SECOND OPINION, THEN A THIRD, THEN
I discovered the lump about 24 weeks into my pregnancy. I felt the hard spot on my chest when my husband, Chad, gave me a hug as I lay in the hospital. I had landed in St. Lukes about a month earlier because of preterm contractions, and I had at least two more months to go.
At the hospital, my world revolved around having healthy babies. Carrying triplets to a viable gestation was not only a physical feat but also a journey requiring mental stamina. Because I needed to keep a positive outlook to get us through the months ahead, I should have been reassured when one of my doctors dismissed the small lump in my breast as one of the normal changes of pregnancy.
But three weeks later, the lump seemed larger, so I asked a second doctor to check it. He ordered a breast ultrasound, which showed nothing of concern.
At 30 weeks, I saw a coin-sized spot of blood on my shirt. The blood had come from the nipple of the same breast with the lump. I pleaded with a third physician to figure out what was wrong and treat it before my babies were born. He, too, told me not to worry. He actually said the lump would resolve itself when I began to breast-feed.
CANCER IN THE FAMILY
My mother died at 60 of ovarian cancer. My maternal aunt died in her 40s of breast cancer. After watching their own mother die of ovarian cancer in her 50s, my mothers and aunts fear of cancer was so paralyzing that they both waited too long and their cancer was detected too late.
Their hard-learned lessons were on my mind.
So, the next day, I pushed a fourth doctor, who listened. He sent a surgeon to meet with me. The surgeon measured the lump and said he would return in two weeks to remeasure. If the lump grew, he would order a biopsy.
When he came back, it had grown by 2 centimeters. I had a biopsy.
On the morning of Aug. 21, 2007, I was alone in my hospital room; Chad had not arrived yet for his usual visit before work. The surgeon strode into my room, my nurse trailing him.
We have a carcinoma, the doctor said abruptly. Gather your family together, and I will come back this afternoon to talk with you. A nurse sat on the edge of my bed and held my hand until Chad arrived.
I thought the cancer was the most horrible thing that could happen when I was about to bring three tiny babies into the world. They deserved 110 percent of their mother. Not only did the cancer threaten to take away the nourishment I longed to provide through breast-feeding, but I knew half my energy would be tied up in this fight when I should be focused on my newborns.
We had reached 33 weeks of gestation, and I longed to reunite with Chad and finally bring home our babies the moment for which I had been waiting for 11 weeks. Now, I figured our time at the hospital was only just beginning.
The future seemed uncertain, and I wondered whether I would live to see my children off to kindergarten, let alone college. This wasnt part of the plan.
A LESSON IN RESILIENCE
Initially, the hardest thing was feeling that I was not in control; instead, the cancer was in control. Then I met another breast cancer survivor, who helped me find my way.
Jan Goodner was a nurse and breast-feeding consultant in St. Lukes Newborn Intensive Care Unit. Thanks to her, in the days after the diagnosis, I realized that I had many options to consider and important choices to make.
For example, my surgeon discouraged me from breast-feeding because it would complicate the surgery. Jan researched whether I could breast-feed on my healthy side and concluded that I could. I trusted Jan. Though I credit him with saving my life, I changed surgeons.
With each decision, I took back control. I decided to fight the cancer by having a mastectomy, but I was able to find a way to breast-feed for 2 months with one breast before I began chemo and had another surgery to remove my healthy breast and ovaries to help prevent recurrence.
I also decided that no matter what, the day our babies were born would be a joyous day. After all we had been through, my new family deserved that. Four days after the diagnosis, I was rushed into an operating room for an emergency cesarean section. With Chad at my side, I cried with joy as each baby announced his or her arrival with a soft cry.
In spite of our sons immature lungs and the girls low weight, I felt peace that they would be OK. Soon, the triplets were regarded as the easiest nursing assignment in the NICU because they needed little medical care and just needed to gain weight before going home. I was in awe of their resilience. I realized that they came from me, so I must have some resilience, too.
My first mastectomy was scheduled 10 days after the babies were born. The surgery went well my lymph nodes tested free of cancer, and the tumor was designated Stage 1. Most of all, because my nurse was an undaunted advocate for me, I was able to experience the miracle of breast-feeding before losing both my breasts. I had not thought about it quite that way, but Jan must have known the experience would help to heal my mind, body and spirit.
I was able to breast-feed until I started 12 weeks of weekly Taxotere chemo. The babies started sleeping through the night about the time that the extreme fatigue of chemo set in.
Chad stayed home for four months to take care of us. A hundred friends and family members who helped us care for the babies during my treatment were amazing and generous, and they made the impossible possible for us.
INSPIRATION TO LIVE ON
The inspiration to become a nurse hit me like a ton of bricks four years ago. Sometimes, a survivor makes the right decisions and fights her best fight and the cancer spreads anyway. Jan, the nurse who made such a difference for me, died in September 2008 after her breast cancer metastasized.
I knew then that I was to become a nurse. Although I was about to have my last breast reconstructive surgery that October, my final infusion of Herceptin in November and the triplets had just turned 1, I planned to begin prerequisite classes in January.
Just weeks before classes started, my oncologist ordered a bone scan to follow up on an abnormal chest X-ray. I did not want to pay my tuition until I had the results.
The X-ray had shown a mottled rib. Knowing that bone is a common site of metastasis for breast cancer, I couldnt help but worry while waiting for the test results over the Christmas holiday.
I wondered whether my back pain meant anything more than back pain. I wondered whether the reason I was more tired and always seemed to be fighting a cold was because the cancer had spread. I didnt tell my friends about the bone scan. I didnt want to worry anyone or worse, seem overly worrisome.
During that week of waiting, my mind couldnt help but prepare for possible bad news. Where would I be when my cellphone rang? Would Chad be with me or would I be alone again? Would I run out of the house and scream? Would I just scream in front of the babies? Was I ready for another fight already?
When I found out that I was OK, my worries turned to contemplating whether I would survive to complete school or whether the time and money spent on my education would be for nothing. So I did what gets many people through their challenges like so many people whose stories I reported on: I did not give up hope. When I was down, I could not stay down. I had to get up again.
Importantly, not knowing the future did not stop me from beginning classes. Each day is a gift, and I lived as though I would live on. That was the end of my cancer story, and the beginning of a new one.