As I sit here listening to praise and worship music, I couldn’t be more grateful to God for his blessings bestowed upon me during my cancer journey.
My name is Jill. My journey started 3 years ago at the age of 34. I discovered something was different with my breast before getting the shower one day. I knew immediately something bad was wrong. I’ve always been taught or have read that any breast changes should be of concern. I immediately made an appointment with my gynecologist and that’s where my breast cancer journey began.
March of 2016 I was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma. I have the luxury of being located only a couple of hours away from the world’s most renowned cancer center. M.D. Anderson (MDA) in Houston, Texas is who I chose as my medical team. Like many of you, I have no family history of breast cancer. My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006, but other than that our family didn’t have cancer running through it. By the way, my father is still thriving now 13 years later from his diagnosis.
I don’t remember all the specifics of the process of how things went, I just remember it was very overwhelming. My life had been turned upside down. I have dealt with heartache and pain unfortunately more times than I’d like to have experienced in my young 34 years of life, but this was truly on a whole other level. I am married to my high school sweetheart, Trey, with whom I’ve been with for 20 years. That’s over half of our lifetime! We have a beautiful daughter Olivia, who will be turning 7 years old next month. At the time of my diagnosis she was 3 ½ years old.
So, there I was, 34 years old, with a 3-year-old child, a husband and best friend, whom I did not want to leave. All I thought of was that I was going to die and leave them alone. I know what it feels like to not have your mom around. I didn’t want to leave my child without a mother for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, this is where my mindset was.
I cried all day and all night, every minute of every day. I prayed and I prayed all day and all night, every minute of every day. I considered myself the rock of our family. And now what? Who was going to take care of the bills? Who was going to grocery shop and keep the house clean? Who was going to get Olivia to school and to her events? Okay, so maybe I’m a little bit of a control freak, but I am just a mom. And that’s what mom’s do. We take care of everything.
And now I was so worried I was going to die and leave my child and who was going to take care of everything?
I had to get a grip on myself. I finally couldn’t take it anymore, after a couple of weeks of being in complete hysteria, I sought help. I reached out to my team at MDA and scheduled an appointment with a psychologist. Immediately after I made that phone call, I felt relief. A huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. As I mentioned before, I lost my loving mother, my best friend, when I was 25 years old. So, this feeling wasn’t completely lost on me. I knew what I had to do, and I couldn’t do it alone.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, after meeting with the psychologist and getting some medication to help me cope, I was doing much better. I don’t want to sound insincere, or not appreciative of the encouraging words “you’re so strong”, but I kind of cringe when people say that. I’m not “STRONG”. I’m not strong at all. I think if anyone is put in an unfortunate situation, they are going to seek a will to live like no other. I’m weak, I’m human, I weep and worry. But when it comes down to it, my will to live was “stronger” than my desire to give up and die. Some may disagree, but I don’t see myself strong nor do I see my journey as making me strong. I just am who I am.
My daughter Olivia didn’t have any idea what was going on. She is VERY much a momma’s girl. So, when I had to leave her for my first surgery, it was extremely hard on her, and I was only gone a couple of nights. I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. That’s what I love most about my surgeon at MDA, he was so kind and so endearing and sincere. He gave me all the options, but in the end, he said it was my choice as to what I wanted to do, that it was my body.
My reasoning for choosing the double mastectomy was because I had previously had issues with my right breast in the past, having a fibroadenoma. I didn’t want any chance of recurrence in my other breast and for symmetry purposes, I thought this would be best for me.
As you can imagine, my curious 3-year-old had lots of questions when I returned home from surgery. Bless her heart, I couldn’t hug her and hold her for quite some time. It hurt both of us emotionally. I know everyone has a different perspective of how to involve their children with their diagnosis but to this day I haven’t ever used the word Cancer around her. In my opinion she is a child, an innocent child and I never want to burden her with fear or worry if I can avoid it.
We said things like “mommy had a boo boo that the doctor had to take out”. As I’ve mentioned before and I’m sure those of you that are mothers can attest that you never get a moment alone.
Therefore, Olivia saw everything. Of course, Trey and I were cautious to not scare her with any bloody or gross dressings, but she saw my scars and drain tubes. I tried my very best to not
make this a bad experience for her and to teach her that the doctors were helping me. It turns out my pathology results and my Syntel-node biopsy showed that my cancer had spread into my lymph nodes. This was a devastating hit again. Previously, before going into surgery, my doctor and team of nurses were praising me for catching this early and even they didn’t suspect it had spread. Thank goodness for modern medicine and science.
This news obviously changed the course of action and I was referred to an oncologist and a radiologist. So many appointments and still so overwhelming.
Prior to visiting my oncologist, I had already decided that I would be open to whatever treatment plan he had in store for me. After he explained his course of action, and I replied with “yes, I will do whatever it takes,” he literally sighed of relief. We had a chuckle about that. I suppose more people are hesitant about chemotherapy and the drugs involved. I tried to remind myself often that chemotherapy was not “poison”, that it was medicine that was going to cure me.
I had about 3-4 weeks from my mastectomy surgery to heal and think about or act towards preserving my eggs for future children. My sweet loving husband left it up to me as to what I wanted to do. He said it was my body. Therefore, I chose to forgo the egg retrieval process.
One thing I have learned most from this journey, is that I am not in control. And if God wanted me to have more children, then he will bless us.
I began my chemotherapy treatments in June of 2016. 4 rounds of Adriamycin (the red devil) and then another 12 rounds of paclitaxel. I eventually didn’t complete my chemotherapy until October of 2016.
Hair loss was the least of my concerns, but there again, I have a young daughter, who, was devastated and couldn’t understand why I was losing my hair. She asked me all the time when my hair was going to grow back. She cried and begged. I hated it for her. I told her it would, but that it would take time. Try explaining that to an almost 4-year-old princess. She eventually became used to it, and she loved telling people in public that I didn’t have any hair (ha ha).
I worked through my entire chemotherapy treatments. During the first 8 weeks of the red devil, I would have my treatment on a Thursday and would be off from work until the following Wednesday or Thursday. Then the cycle would repeat itself and I would go back for treatment the next week. I only had one week of feeling “good” between treatments. My oncology nurse and doctor were amazing and helped me with the nausea and other side effects. I never got “sick” from the chemotherapy, but I begin to develop what my doctor called “anticipatory anxiety” on the days of my treatment. Reminder, I have a 2-hour drive to Houston, and it would start. I would get nauseous, “car sick” is what I thought it was, and even the smell of MDA made me sick (not that it smells, I was just super sensitive at the time). I think I might be getting nauseous just thinking about this. Just kidding, kind of.
I then began twelve straight weeks of paclitaxel, and boy was I glad I had the “hard stuff” first. Everyone has a different treatment plan, and I’m glad I got the hard part over with first. For me, paclitaxel was a breeze. I did lose a few toenails, and developed neuropathy, but nothing medication and treatments couldn’t help. All of those symptoms have subsided, and my nails are just as before. I got to take a break and enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday and began my radiation treatments in December. Those treatments were every day, for 6 straight weeks. And yes, I drove, or a friend or family member drove me, every day to Houston. Our trip there would take longer than the treatment itself.
I must say, I was really scared of radiation. I remember when I was told that I was going to have radiation, I was very upset. All I had heard or read was about bad cases of radiation. To my surprise it was a breeze. Blessings to my workplace and my co-workers because they allowed me to take off for 6 weeks straight to have those treatments. I offered to come into work after my treatment, but they wouldn’t allow it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but radiation was very draining to me physically. Not until a couple of weeks after I was done with radiation did, I realize, how much more energy I had. I’m sure the traveling took its toll on me as well.
After my chemotherapy treatments and radiation, I had to continue to receive Herceptin through my port every three weeks for a full year. Although my cancer was HER2 negative, it was borderline negative, my doctors wanted to treat me aggressively and I was on board and trusted their expertise. I chose to have those treatments done at a local cancer treatment facility. I was also put on a medication called tamoxifen, which I will continue to take for 10 years.
The one-year mark for Herceptin came around in August 2017 and by September I was getting my port removed. I then scheduled my second reconstruction surgery with my plastic surgeon from MDA.
My only option since I had undergone radiation was to do the Diep-flap procedure. Basically, my doctor used my belly fat and skin to create my new breast. Yes, you read that right, they can do that. That was a long operation, longer than my mastectomy, I believe it ran 8-10 hours.
I don’t know how the doctors train to do that but it’s a gift I can assure you. I spent a week in the hospital after that surgery to make sure the tissue didn’t die. My husband stayed with me the whole time. We were so ready to get out of there and get home by the end of that week.
I am fortunate that I didn’t have any complications with either surgeries and that I also have a good caretaker in my husband Trey. Olivia was 5 years old by this time, so she became a good helper too.
In October of 2018 I had my last reconstructive surgery. You know plastic surgeons they are perfectionist. This surgery consisted of some liposuction and fat grafting. I went home the same day of surgery.
So here we are, September 2019. I turned 38 years old just a few days ago on the 1st. These last three years have seemed like a lifetime ago. It’s very hard to explain but I guess because it felt like it took forever to get through all the treatments and surgeries.
This has been one of the toughest seasons of my life. It has also been the most humbling experience. My favorite thing about this journey is that my relationship with God has grown more than I ever dreamed of. I don’t blame God for any of my hardships, I look at him and tell him “thank you” for getting me through them. I thank God for my blessings daily. I thank Him for all the hardships and problems that I endured that are now my testimonies. I would like to think that when the time comes, because it will, when Olivia experiences heartbreak or sadness, that I can provide her with some comforting insight and perspective.
Another thing I would like to say is that through my journey, my faith in humanity was restored.
When all the world is caught up in negativity, I received nothing but positive experiences and praises from people.
I’ve had many strangers come up and hug me (a little awkward but endearing). I’ve had my lunch paid for a couple of times by strangers and wait staff. My hometown community and workplace held numerous fundraisers to help with expenses. They picked up the slack when I couldn’t make it to work. Friends and family gathered together and set up a meal plan for weeks on in, so that I didn’t have to worry about cooking or groceries.
All the little things I was so worried about in the beginning of this journey, seemed to work themselves out.
I hope that my journey and experience will be eye opening to others. Cancer does not discriminate. Disease of any kind does not discriminate. You are not invincible. You must be your own advocate. And as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters; we must take care of ourselves so that we can then take care of others. Put yourself first for once and make yourself an appointment. Quit putting off that “pain” you keep feeling. Go with your gut instinct, it’s there for a reason. Have hope, as I can testify, in the end everything will be alright.
My heart is so full, and I feel so loved.
Thank you Jesus.