So this post is a little different than any other post I've ever written, because I didn't write this post, my friend Paula did. My sweet friend, Paula, is a breast cancer survivor and I asked her if I could do a blog post about her breast cancer journey. She said yes, so I sent her some questions and she answered them. I hope this post will touch you, whether you're a cancer patient, cancer survivor, family member/caretaker of a cancer patient, a friend/relative/co-worker and everything in-between, I hope this helps you understand one survivor's journey.
Many of you know me and The Six Sweet Seals but for those who do not, here is a little background on me. My name is Paula and I grew up in Maud, Texas just like Steven and Michelle. I am still a small town girl at heart but living in the big city…the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. Maud, which is a small East Texas city with a population of approximately 1,060 people give or take a few additions like the Fab Five quintuplets or a few deletions like those who might have been on vacation during the census! It’s a great town with great people. Growing up in a small town is the best! People sometimes poke fun about it and everyone may know your business at times you’d rather they didn’t but small town people care about each other and there is no better people to support you when need it. Small town people know their neighbors and step up to help each other. Work opportunities took me to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I remember when my husband Dave and I bought a home in the metroplex and my mom and brother came out to help us move. My mom was standing at the front door wondering who was going to bring the first pie. I nearly died laughing. I told her the metroplex wasn’t Maud and there would be no pie showing up! We’ve lived here 15 years and we have yet to see a pie! Both sides of my family grew up in the Maud area and it will always be “home” to me. I stay connected and visit with friends and family as often as possible and still have a home in Maud.
Michelle asked me to do a candid interview and tell my story of surviving breast cancer. She provided the questions and I have done my best to tell what I could and share with you my fight. I have been very open about my fight and am always willing to share my story with anyone who might benefit. There is always that balance between giving enough information to tell the story and telling more than people really care to know so I have done my best to find the right balance. I’m happy to talk to anyone personally about my journey so feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Here we go…..
- What was life like before cancer?
As with every life, there are ups and downs along the way but my life before cancer was so blessed. I was happy and healthy. I was and still am blessed with a wonderful husband, Dave, who is the love of my life. I have a rewarding job that I love and I work with great people. I traveled often for work and have colleagues and friends from across the globe. Most importantly, I have the best friends and a wonderful family. Family is so important. The hardest thing I had ever faced before cancer was losing my Dad to cancer. It was something I didn’t think I would survive. It still hurts. He was so strong and such a fighter and he had best attitude about life. He was sick for many years and suffered greatly but he was the happiest and most positive person. He was my hero. (I prayed often that I could be half as strong as he was when I was diagnosed.) As hard as that was, and while we miss him daily, our small family survived and we are rich in faith, love, and fun. My two nieces, Maegan and Katelyn, are two of my greatest blessings. I love them like my own. I spent at least a week every summer with them in the metroplex spoiling them and getting quality time with them. Dave and I were not blessed with children but we have many close friends and relatives whose children we claim as ours….including those beautiful Seals children. Overall, we had a wonderful life, we golfed a lot, had the privilege of traveling often and most of all, we enjoyed the simple and very best things in life….family and friends.
- Did you have any signs or symptoms?
No, I really did not have any signs or symptoms. I had my regular checkup and got a good report, no lumps or other indications of cancer. I had no symptoms but I was behind on my annual mammograms, having skipped a few which I might add was very stupid! We all have excuses for why we put things off and are “just too busy”. I was the worst at avoiding doctor visits. But….not any more, a mammogram saved my life. Now for the weird part….I don’t know if it was added guilt of being behind on my mammograms or divine intervention (I like to think the latter) but I kept waking up in the middle of the night thinking about needing to go get my checkup. This happened multiple times. I even woke up one night with my hand on my right breast (which is ironically where the cancer started) and thinking, I really need to go get my checkup. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful because I’m alive today because I went and I’m fortunate because my cancer was so aggressive the doctor told me that it couldn’t have been there a year ago when I skipped but if I had skipped the current year’s mammogram, I would have been in dire straits. I thank God daily for giving me the guilt or good sense to get my checkup and I will never skip a checkup again.
- Describe the day you found out you had breast cancer…
Well, to truly describe it, I will have to start with the day I got the call the radiologist wanted more pictures after my mammogram. I was told not to worry, 80% of women get a call back. I was nervous. Dave and I went back and they took so many pictures. The technician kept apologizing for continuing to call me back in the room for more pictures because she said the areas the radiologist wanted more pictures of were so very tiny she could hardly see them and had a hard time getting them in the center of the film. Well, after all of that, the radiologist called both of us in and told us he just simply couldn’t tell what the tiny area was but that he thought it needed to be biopsied just to be sure. We set up the biopsy appointment and left. When we got in the car, I completely fell apart. It was ugly. I was scared to death and not wanting to face the fact that I might have cancer and I just wanted to go home and forget about it. The radiologist had told me earlier that all of this was a good thing, in that this was what modern medicine was all about, a few odd looking cells could be seen and tested and it could save my life. I thank God today that he took so much time and so many pictures to find and investigate those tiny little cells that were invisible to the naked eye.
I showed up for the biopsy and was assigned a nurse navigator. She tried to ease my nerves and also told us that around 80% of biopsies come back normal. I was optimistic. Afterwards, I was told to expect results in a few days. On a Friday afternoon, right at 5pm, my doctor’s office called and asked me to come in to the office the following Monday to have my biopsy site checked. I truly think this was when I knew in my heart it was cancer. I asked if they had my results and they said they didn’t know but the doctor could find out Monday. No doctor calls at 5pm on Friday wanting you to come in first thing Monday morning….with good news. I spent the weekend praying and preparing for the worst.
Monday morning Dave and I show up for the appointment. They call me back and the doctor comes in, checks my biopsy area, and then it went downhill from there. The words you never want to hear and unfortunately, delivered in the worst possible manner. She hands me a box of tissue and says “I have your biopsy results, you have cancer, and it’s bad”…..and she dragged out the word bad.
- What was your initial reaction?
My initial reaction after hearing these words was that I was absolutely dying. I wasn’t in the medical field and if she said it like that, then “bad” had to mean that something in the biopsy told them that it had not been caught early and had spread all over my body and I was terminally ill. I had killed myself by missing doctor appointments and I had no one to blame but myself. I would miss out on the rest of a wonderful life. I thought of how selfish I had been. I thought about how I would not see my nieces grow up and get married and have families of their own. I had friends, family and friend’s children (yes Sarah, this includes you) I thought were also mine that I wouldn’t get to see how their lives turned out. I would not get to spend my days with family and friends and even more so, I would not get to enjoy my life with Dave nearly as long as I had planned.
All of this flashed through my mind at the same time I experienced my first panic attack. Heat filled my stomach and the burn went all through my veins. I thought I was going to pass out. The doctor was now mumbling something about being sorry and getting me the best surgeon and oncologist…..I didn’t hear anything else….my ears were buzzing. I asked the doctor to go get Dave out of the waiting room. She shot out like a bullet. She delivered the bad news to him in the exact same way in the hallway. He walked in looking white as a sheet and immediately put his arms around me. He had taken the message the same way I did. She gave us some time in the room and we finally were able to pull it together and leave with a hug from the doctor and a handful of paperwork.
All the way home, I kept thinking how my selfishness has cost me everything. I was worried about dying but also about the effects of the illness, we would lose our house, my job, and our savings trying to keep me alive? Was that fair to Dave? Dave was the one who stopped me from continuing the downward spiral. He said we would take one day at a time and no matter what it took, we would face it together and do whatever it took to help me. We could downsize, find another way to survive, we have always gotten through rough times and we would this time as well because we had each other. I knew Dave was strong, he was a good man, and I knew he would think that…..but hearing him say that out loud was so beautiful and so reassuring that he was by my side no matter what, I cried some more. Dave is my rock.
While all this was going on, I had not called anyone that I had said I would call. I just couldn’t yet. I knew when I called I would have to be strong and I just needed a moment. In the meantime, family and friends are waiting for the news. Specifically, my cousin Carey is texting every 15 minutes and commenting that she was getting worried because I haven’t answered. All I could finally text back were the words “it’s not good”. An hour and a half after we finally arrived home, Carey, Adam and my mom rang the doorbell! I was stunned but so glad to have them there to support us. I think Dave was especially glad! He worries quietly, me not so much. Dave started looking at the paperwork (I couldn’t) and trying to set up appointments. They were googling information (I couldn’t do that either) and trying to find out as much as they could. Dave and I were so blessed that while we were miles away, we were not alone. They stayed the night and then the following day. I don’t remember who told Chuck and Robin but someone took care of it. I missed two days of work pulling myself together. I was wrapped up in my blanket and pj’s and cocooning on the sofa. After 24 hours of tears, Carey told me to get my stinky butt up and get a shower, I was going out to eat lunch. I argued that I wasn’t going anywhere. She said she would drag me to the car, shower or not. For one of the few times we’ve disagreed, she won (and I did get a shower). She had Adam and Mom as backups and that’s the only reason she won. It did help to get out. I realized one major thing while sitting in the restaurant, trying to find food I might be able to keep down. Life goes on. No one there knew my world had just collapsed around me. They were laughing and eating. I also realized that although life doesn’t stop because I have cancer, I’m also not the only one who has had cancer. There are many, many more than just me and some of them could very likely be sitting in the same restaurant. I needed to suck it up and fight for my own destiny, not let some cancer dictate everything around me. I thought of my dad and how strong he was suffering through several cancers for many years. When things looked bleak one time and we were sitting and crying, I remember he came up to us and said “I’m not going anywhere yet…but even if today was my last day on earth, do you think I want to spend it sitting around with you crying? Can’t we do something fun?” He was my hero, my inspiration. My mom was too because of how she cared for him through it all and how she faced her own breast cancer without him many years later.
- What type of cancer were you diagnosed with?
My cancer is an aggressive invasive ductal carcinoma that was triple positive for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and Her2 receptors. On an aggression scale of 3 to 9, mine is a 9. Up until a few years ago, there was no treatment for Her2 receptors but thankfully now, there is additional treatment that is given for 12 months to neutralize those receptors.
- What was your age at diagnosis?I was 49 but only a few months from being the big 50. I had complained for months about not wanting to be 50, then, in a matter of seconds, I realized how badly I wanted to be 50!
- Did you have any family history of cancer/breast cancer?As I mentioned, my Dad suffered numerous cancers during his lifetime. He was the strongest man I’ve ever known. My mom also suffered from breast cancer and is a survivor. Her cancer was a little different from mine and she had her diagnosis later in age. No one else on either side of our direct family bloodline that we were aware had breast cancer. Regardless, I still did the DNA test to determine if I had the mutated gene that predestined me for breast cancer and or ovarian cancer. The test was negative.
- What was your treatment plan/procedures/drugs?
Well the bright side in all of this was that while my doctor had a terrible delivery of cancer news, she sent me to the best doctors. My breast surgeon was awesome. When I got to the first appointment, I was a nervous wreck….so bad that the lady working the reception desk discreetly brought me a packet which contained a coloring book with puzzles and pictures of what to expect at the doctor and a pack of colors….something they hand out to small scared children! I think I finished every puzzle and colored a lot of pages while I waited. I should have been embarrassed but it helped and the lady was so sweet. Dave was grateful for the help too!
The best news was after visiting with the surgeon, I left feeling a sense of HOPE. She was much more detailed in her explanation of the cancer I had and she told me I could survive. She described that yes, it was a very aggressive type of breast cancer but she was pretty certain it was caught early. She was sure the bad had meant a bad type of cancer. She was so reassuring and she also told me that there were so many women surviving breast cancer now that there was beginning to not be enough doctors to handle all of the post cancer care. She was extremely sharp, young and on top of the latest procedures and most of all, she was so kind.
Short of the day my dad passed away, the week and a half waiting to see her was the worst time in my life. I knew I was going to fight for my life but going from thinking I was terminally ill to now having hope, I was strong and I knew I could and would survive. There was no other option for me.
After multiple tests and consults, Dave and I agreed that my best option was to undergo a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. My cancer was small but it was very aggressive and we didn’t want to take any chances. It was the right decision. After the surgery, the lab tests showed precancerous cells in the other breast and the original cancer had already spread into the ducts and into 2 lymph nodes. I would need chemotherapy but not radiation.
I will admit the chemo was tough. I took 4 rounds of Adriamycin and 4 rounds of Cytoxan and then a year of Herceptin. Adriamycin is nicknamed the red devil because of its color and punishing side effects. They weren’t exaggerating! You can only have so much of it or it will damage your heart so I had heart tests and was cleared to take the chemo and got the maximum dose. It was mean. I had another surgery to implant a medi-port. Adriamycin can’t be put in a small vein, it needed to go into a main artery. I had my first chemo treatment and left feeling pretty good. We stopped and ate and I was thinking this isn’t so bad. That didn’t last long. By midnight I was full on sick. It was ugly. It didn’t get better for days. They called out extra meds and I thought, I must be a wimp. Turns out that no one knew I had contracted the c-diff infection when I was in the hospital for surgery and it was just lying dormant, waiting on my immune system to weaken so it could move in and take over. Three days after my second treatment, I was hospitalized. I barely remember being taken to the doctor and I was in the hospital for 9 days and I only remember 3 of them. That was enough. A lot went on that I don’t need to know or remember. I had colitis and c-diff. I don’t think any of us realized how serious it was until I was past the critical point and starting to improve. After worrying about dying from cancer, I almost died from c-diff. Mom and Dave took turns staying at the hospital with me 24/7. I barely remember it. Once they realized I had c-diff, I was put in isolation and I worried that Mom or Dave would get it. I remember when I finally realized what was going on, I was so weak that I was scared. I asked Mom and Dave what all had gone on; it’s very tough to wrap your mind around being alive but not having really been conscience for days. I wasn’t in a coma but I simply was out of it. They both said I spoke little and just seemed to sleep a lot. I suffered from uncontrollable and irritable bowels with the c-diff. It was bad. They won’t tell me how bad it really was and I am pretty sure I don’t want to know but I can just say how thankful I am for nurses. They are a special group of angels; wonderful people who do some incredible things with love and care.
I realized after coming back around that I missed a lot of things I will never know about. I also missed having a shower for over a week….I asked “How long has it been since I’ve had a shower?” I knew the answer. I asked Dave to help me get a shower. I knew the hospital shower would have a chair if I could just get to it. He was so kind and so gentle. He helped me but when I got in there I was too weak to lift my arms so he had to bath me like I was a little kid. I remember just sitting in the shower and crying. It was a sign of things to come, I would cry in the shower a lot. It gets it out of your system and no one has to see the weakness in your eyes. I remember telling him to just “hose me off like a farm animal”. We laugh about that now but it was too real at the time. He was so sweet. I told him I knew it would be hard but I never knew it would be this hard….he just kept telling me that it wouldn’t always be, we would get through this and it would get better.
I was so worried when my chemo had to be stopped for me to recover from the c-diff. I kept worrying about the cancer coming back and asking my oncologist about how it would affect my percentages of survival. He was pretty blunt in saying that c-diff can kill as easily as cancer, and if you’re dead you’re dead, no matter what the cause. Had I had the third round of chemo, I wouldn’t have survived as I had nothing to fight with. For now, I needed to just focus on getting better and I did. I was so weak when I left the hospital that I couldn’t walk without help. I went from a wheelchair, to a walker, to a cane, to my own two feet. It took a long time. There were sad moments as well as really funny moments during the recovery. We laugh more now about those events than we did then but we are truly grateful for all the help we got during that time. My mom stayed with us for weeks. When she needed to take care of things at home, my brother Chuck and my sister-in-law Robin came and stayed several times. Carey and her family came. Melissa and Sarah came and helped. My Aunt Gin and Uncle Howard came and helped. Howard took me to appointments too when Dave had to work. My work colleagues brought food and big care baskets. Our long time family friends Donnie and Karen Stanton were in the metroplex and Karen cooked, visited, took me to doctor appointments, chemo, anything I needed she was there! Our very good friends Tom and Kristen came, brought food, ran errands and kept me company when I was house bound. I was so blessed.
- What effects did the treatment have on your health? Personal life?
Chemo is tough; chemo with c-diff is tougher. It just weakens you so much. There are many kinds of chemo and many side effects. I had the worst time with the weakness of both chemo and c-diff. It took me longer to get over that than anything. I had mouth sores and bad body aches along with the nausea and c-diff issues. Everything tasted weird, mostly bad. It completely changed my tastes for certain foods and I now like things I didn’t before chemo and can’t stand the tastes of things I used to love. After the Adriamycin, I can no longer drink anything red in color. These are small sacrifices to survive but also very weird! My fingernails and toenails changed color and the skin on my hands shed like a snakeskin over and over. My hands were so tender I could hardly hold anything. The Cytoxan didn’t make me nauseous but it made my bones hurt really bad. I felt crippled my legs hurt so bad. They ached deep down in the bones and I would cry at night in my sleep because they hurt so bad. Pain meds helped but nothing seemed to completely take it away. Every other part of your body felt like you had been run over by a truck. The c-diff wiped me out physically.
Having double mastectomies and reconstruction is not for the weak either. I’d never had surgery and suddenly I had 4 surgeries in the span of six months. My plastic surgeon worked in tandem with my breast surgeon. He was so good. I had had just as many in-office procedures as surgeries. It’s a long and sometimes painful process both with the mastectomies and reconstruction. My upper body looked like a battle field. I had 5 major incisions, 4 drain tubes with bulbs hanging from the incisions. I had to wear a vest to hold them close to me and they had to be carefully monitored. I worried that I would be less of a person after the surgery. What would Dave think? Dave was my rock. He loved me no matter what parts I had or didn’t have…whether I had real breasts, fake breasts or no breasts. I don’t think there is a right or wrong decision about what path you choose. It’s a personal and individual decision based on each person’s circumstances. In the end, I opted for reconstruction. You don’t just have new breasts overnight. You get expanders first to stretch the skin and they add volume to those every two weeks by injecting saline into the valves of the expanders. You have to heal. After all that and when you are finished with chemo and any other treatments, you get the final implants…another surgery opening up some of the scar lines you just spent months getting healed up. I was very concerned about scarring because I tend to scar easily. I must say that my surgeons did a wonderful job. My incisions healed nicely and my scars are minimal. Then I had my last surgery to reconstruct the remaining parts of the breast. The final stage of this process involves tattooing. I would have never dreamed I would have tattoos…..and after going through the process, I can’t imagine why anyone else would either….I know it’s popular but it’s not for me!
Dave was with me through it all and was so supportive of me. He had to be strong for me and do so much but he was the best! He’s a survivor just as much as me. Cancer is hard on your loved ones. You and your loved ones both feel helpless at times but no matter what, you have each other. Cancer completely turned our world upside down but we also realized what was most important and we truly appreciated our life and each other even more than ever.
- How did your cancer impact your family?
I’m not sure I can answer that but I know they pulled together and supported us without fail. It was very hard on my mom having gone through a lot of the same things but I am so grateful she was there and able to help. She stayed for weeks at a time. My brother Chuck doesn’t say much, he internalizes most everything but he did finally tell me that I wasn’t going to die. I know he was worried and maybe just by saying that statement he thought it would make it a fact, I don’t know but for once, I was glad to say he was right! I know that he and Robin and the girls were there for us and we couldn’t have made it without them. Robin worked at keeping the girls informed but not telling them so much they would be overly worried at their young age and tender hearts. They came and cleaned, washed clothes, took care of me and gave Dave a break and some company. My Aunt Gin and Uncle Howard did the same. They lived in the area so they would take me to appointments and bring food and help out however they could. As I’ve mentioned, there were many more who came and helped. Through it all, we kept our sense of humor. You can’t get through all the tough stuff without some laughs and we had plenty of those. Laughing keeps you from crying and sometimes you can do both! We also kept our faith.
- What advice would you give to women?
Don’t skip doctor visits! It’s way too important and too easy these days. One in eight women will face breast cancer. Everyone thinks it won’t be them. I did too but guess what, cancer doesn’t discriminate and it can happen to anyone, regardless of your health. One in eight is an alarming statistic. While I failed in keeping up with my doctor visits, it surprised me to find out how many women don’t get regular checkups. It’s important. It truly can save your life. Lastly, listen to your body. I just had that odd feeling I couldn’t shake. Even when I got a checkup and it was good. The mammogram found what neither my doctor nor I could physically find. Don’t take no for an answer. If you feel something is wrong, get a second opinion. You know your body better than anyone else.
- What advice would you give to cancer patients?
Everybody is different but I would say the best advice is to stay strong, let people help you (even when you think you’re strong), keep your faith and your sense of humor. One thing I found pleasantly surprising was that cancer patients are some of the happiest people you will meet. I’m sure there’s a crabby exception somewhere but I was dreading getting chemo and having to spend all day in the infusion lab. I thought it would be one of the most depressing places on earth. While there are all sorts of people of every age in the lab suffering from any number of cancers, these patients are some of the most positive and happy people you will ever meet. I think it’s because they truly appreciate the blessings of each day. Facing cancer makes you stop and appreciate the little things in life and it makes you realize that each day is a gift. What you do with it is up to you but cancer patients don’t waste it! I met some of the most amazing people. There were days when we were too sick to visit but other days where we laughed and tried to have a little fun. I pulled my share of pranks in the infusion lab. My oncologist nicknamed me “trouble” and still calls me that to this day, in part because of my humor but in part because I had so many complications with the c-diff. He also told me they always look forward to me coming in but hope one day they never see me again!
- Would you change anything/choices made during your cancer journey?
Other than making sure I don’t miss doctor appointments, I really can’t say that I would change anything. It wasn’t a journey I chose, but I did choose how I would face it and I did my best to face it with courage, purpose, strength and faith.
- Did your diagnosis change your outlook on life? Did your diagnosis affect your faith?
The simple answer is yes. It changed everything. I have always tried to be a positive person and that hasn’t changed. Like many cancer survivors, I appreciate each day. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I see people and sometimes when I would normally think “what an idiot!” (you know we all do it!) I stop and try to think about what that person might be going through that I don’t know…..they could be like me that day sitting in a restaurant facing cancer for the first time or walking into someone on the sidewalk with my head down because I was trying to keep the wind from blowing my wig off my head. The old saying about you don’t know what someone is going through until you’ve walked in their shoes is very true. I smile at strangers and forgive quickly. Life is too short.
As for my faith, it is stronger than ever. Your faith can be tested in many ways but I never doubted my faith or the plans God had for me. God had seen me through too many things for me to doubt him. My prayer life improved and my faith was stronger. I needed God more than ever. I knew when I survived that it was for a reason. I may not know for sure what that reason is but I have some ideas and I know that no matter what lies ahead I will spend my life being thankful and faithful.
- What interventions are you taking to prevent a relapse?
I am still taking an oral chemo medication named tamoxifen that I will be on for several years. It has a few side effects that I hate but does not make me ill. I follow any advice my oncologist gives me. He says I’m in excellent health but my immune system will be compromised for some time so I try to stay healthy by eating well, exercising and staying away from people who are sick! I don’t listen to all the fads that’s can cure cancer. Everyone has to decide for themselves and as I’ve said, it’s a very personal choice. I chose to do what my doctor recommends and I pray for God to give him the wisdom to care for me. I have confidence in my doctors and I have never doubted God’s abilities so that’s enough for me. I Iost weight with the first round of chemo but have gained weight and fluid with the last chemo and the oral chemo medication. It’s very frustrating but I remind myself I am alive and cancer-free at the moment and I should be grateful.
- What was the toughest part of your cancer journey? Did you ever want to give up?
Mentally, the toughest part of my cancer journey was thinking I wouldn’t be around for my family and friends. I would miss so many things I never thought about because I was young and healthy. Physically, battling the chemo and the unknown c-diff was the toughest fight of my life. I had no strength. I couldn’t stand up without help. I couldn’t get out of bed. When I got out of the hospital, I could only say a few words at a time, I was too weak to speak an entire sentence. It was tough although I think a few (no names mentioned) might have secretly enjoyed my inability to speak for very long. You can become weak so quickly. I got scared when I realized how bad I was and I prayed so hard that I would live. I had more to do in this life. I never gave up but in complete openness, I have to admit that out of the entire journey, there was one day that I was not sure I was going to make it. It was my first day out of the hospital after the c-diff infection. I had to get home. Two doctors and Dave didn’t think I was ready to come home but I knew I had to get out of that hospital. I had hospital sycosis and was hallucinating and having nightmares. I begged my oncologist. I offered him the chocolate cake off my lunch plate, I offered to wash his car that he said hadn’t been washed in years, I was offering just about anything to get out of there. He signed the papers and I was on my way home. (He didn’t take any of my bribes in case you wondered!) The first night home was rough. Dave wanted to take me back to the hospital but I begged not to go. I got through the night and then the next day I was in so much pain. All the stomach issues associated with c-diff had kicked in and I was in agony. No fever but the pain was almost unbearable. Nothing helped and I was so weak. I had called and asked for help but there was not a whole lot they could give me that I didn’t already have with me. I suffered most of the day and I have to admit, there was a small window of time that I began to think “this is it, I’m not giving up but my body is not going to make it”. I prayed hard. The pain got worse. I finally broke down and prayed that if this was it, if my time on earth was done, then I was ok with it. I could say I had given it my all, I knew I was loved, I would finally be pain free (and skinny because after all, it’s heaven!). Best of all, I would get to be with my Daddy. I would be fine on the other side. Everyone here on earth would be fine. They would miss me but life would go on. I wouldn’t be a burden to anyone either. After I came to terms with those thoughts, the doctor’s office called and had given me another medication to try. Within a couple of hours, I was beginning to feel better. I laugh now and tell everyone that I prayed hard again, only this time praying “uhhh, wait a minute God, I take that back! I’m not ready to go yet….unless you really need me!” I continued to improve so I knew that I was going to live and that I still have purpose here on earth.
- What was it like to loose your hair? Wear a wig? Any advice on loosing hair and wearing wig?
Let’s face it, women fret about their hair! I didn’t want to lose mine but I was so set on whipping cancer’s butt, hair was the least of my worries. I had gone from thinking I was terminally ill to knowing that if I was tough enough, I could likely beat this cancer. I had seen what my mom went through losing her hair. It is traumatic but it’s a necessary evil to surviving. On day 14 of my chemo, my hair started falling out. It started out slow but then big long clumps would land on the shower floor. Carey had always cut my hair and she had already shortened it for me. She laughed and said that I was finally going to lose my 80’s hairstyle! I took offense! I loved my big hair, you know what they say “the bigger the hair the closer to God”…..but it was time to get rid of it. I asked Dave to shear it off with his clippers. I sat in a chair and he gave me a military buzz. I admit I cried. I have some ugly pictures of it being cut but at the end of the day, it was somewhat freeing as well. I could get ready in 15 minutes flat….I had no bad hair days. The wind blowing no longer messed up my hair. I was starting to see the benefits that all the bald men had been keeping from us. And let’s talk about hair products; I saved a fortune on shampoo, conditioner, gel, hairspray etc!
Wigs aren’t for everyone but I decided I would wear one. Carey went with me, we had a lot of laughs and a few tears trying on wigs but she was great. She found the perfect one and got it for me.
I wore it when I went out and when I was able to go back to work. I also wore a lot of cute hats. I wasn’t much into the scarves, never could figure out how to tie them and make them look cute like other people. I rarely wore anything on my head at home. Sometimes I would forget my wig and I would walk outside to get the mail or something and I would scare the neighbor kids. I had some fun with it too. I would be in the car at a stop light. I would look for a car with kids in it. I would yank the wig off and watch their reaction, putting it back on before the parents could see me. I left it laying around the house all the time…..it looked like roadkill….a blonde squirrel. I could lay around and then just grab it when I needed it and it was always perfectly styled! I tried to laugh about it. In fact, that Halloween, I was too sick to get out, but while mom handed out candy, I waved at the kids dressed like Uncle Fester. I had gotten a brown snuggy and wore it with a rope tied around the waist. I blacked my eyes and used my already bald head. I had one of those battery operated magic lightbulbs that would like up in your mouth or hand. I think I looked pretty authentic. Mom was horrified which made it even more fun. It was a small gesture but more fun than I had had in months.
Advise to those who are going to lose their hair:
- The minute it starts coming out in clumps, cut it or buzz it. It doesn’t fall out nicely, it looks mangy.
- Don’t shave your head. Buzz cut it as short as you can get it but if you shave it, it will hurt when the hair follicles fall out. It will also itch like when men complain their beards itch when they start growing it. If you just buzz it short, it will fall out without making a huge mess and it will be painless.
- Embrace it as another step toward your survival. Most people don’t care if you have hair as long as you survive.
- You may lose your hair, but it’s not just about a hairstyle. Enjoy being hairless, you don’t have to shave for months! Of course, you don’t have eyebrows or eyelashes either but you can get by with so many products for that.
- Remember, you don’t have eyelashes or eyebrows…..water and soap will run directly into your eyes in the shower. You don’t think about these little things but you learn quickly!
- Protect your skin. Without body hair and of course with all the meds you are on, you are super sensitive to the sun. Don’t forget sunscreen for your head neck and ears if you’re outdoors!
- If you lose your hair during the winter months, wear some head gear at night. So much of your body heat escapes through your bald head. I had some really soft thin head covers and a toboggan that I wore and it made a world of difference. Chemo patients are always cold!
Today, I have scans every 3 months and will move to every 6 months for my next appointment. They scan my brain, my chest and my pelvic area. If my type of breast cancer metastasizes, it typically comes back in the first 3 years and in the brain or liver so I am watched closely. My prognosis has been good. I trust in God to continue to take care of me. I have my final implants and although I am heavier than I ever wanted to be, I am healthy and working to gain back my strength. I still have my med-port. I get it flushed every 6 weeks. I still have brain fuzziness or “chemo brain” as they call it. It’s real and it’s hard to describe. For me, I suffer with names. Even people I’ve known my whole life. I know who they are but their name just will not be there. I will think of it but usually well past the point of embarrassment. I am hoping that improves but since I’m getting older, I may have to milk that one for a little while! My immune system is still compromised and I am slightly anemic but most importantly, I’m alive!
In closing, I have to say that I am so blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful family, friends, church family, coworkers, and colleagues. I have the very best support system. I know I am fortunate for that and I thank God for all of you. I had access to a multitude of support resources but I was so surrounded by love from all of you that I didn’t need anything else. My journey was made easier because of the love and support I received from everyone. I wish I could personally name everyone who did something for me but I have already made this interview way too long and I would hate to leave anyone out. You are all the best of the best! If I could ask for one more thing, it would be for each of you to reach out to someone who might be in need. It doesn’t have to be anything big….a simple smile for a stranger, a phone call or a note to someone struggling or simply giving someone the benefit of the doubt when they are having a bad day. You don’t know how much the smallest of things means to someone silently struggling. Michelle talks about how much we did for them by letting them move in and helping during the time the quints were born and their long stay in the NICU. That family and those quints lifted me up! They helped me as much as we helped them. There is nothing like coming home from chemo and being able to hold a sweet baby. It was crazy and fun and scary all at the same time. There was a lot of praying going on in our home for many months….and God answered them all!
After I was able to return to work (I missed 6 months) and then finally able to travel again, I made my first airport conference and was warmly welcomed back. Not only had my family and friends been supportive but so had my colleagues. I was treated to two standing ovations, one at the welcoming remarks to the conference and again at the final banquet. I received a special award. The president of the American Association of Airport Executives recognized me as a colleague and a friend. He said my courage and strength reminded him of a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson which reads “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us”. I was so touched. At the same time, I don’t think I deserved special attention because I didn’t do anything that any other person wouldn’t do in the same situation and many have already done before me…..you fight for your life!
Surviving and thriving, living life to the fullest……that’s me.
|First day of chemo|
"Red Devil" chemo
|Hair coming out|
Fourteen days after chemo.... Looking like a creature from Harry Potter!
I will say, my mom begged me not to share this photo. She hates it and says it's hard to look at. It is. But it was part of the journey and I can look at it now and see just how bad it was and know that I survived it, so I'm okay with it.
My finished buzz cut from Dave.
|Looking like Mr. Clean|
|For someone who never wore pink, I think Paula looks pretty awesome all "Pinked Out"!!|
|Chemo and c-diff do mean things to the body.|
|Snuggling with Brant|
|Snuggling with Tessa|
|Sweet babies can make it all better.|
|My family at Christmas|
|Representing survivors with my new scarf.|
Thank you God for bringing Paula through this very difficult journey. She is such a wonderful person and an even better friend. This world is a better place with her here. I hope and pray that a cure for cancer is found very soon. I pray for all cancer patients, their caretakers, family members, and everyone in the medical profession. God is good....Keep praying for a cure!!!!
Thank you for following our journey! You can see more pictures and updates on our Facebook page at Six Sweet Seals.