Breast cancer survivor.
I still can’t believe those words. My mother is a breast cancer survivor. I have prayed about this post – asking God to help me find the right words. I strongly believe that sharing my mom’s story here could save a life. My sweet mama has given me permission to post here about her journey. I am so grateful for her and always have been but never more than I am today after these past 5 months. I’ll tell you all one thing that’s for certain – I never went into 2012 thinking that we (the Sullivan family) would deal with the very real fears of cancer in the coming months.
Here’s my mom – who my sister and I lovingly call Mama G. Some know her as Gretchen. Close relatives know her as Gret. Noah knows her as Grammy. Her students know her as Mrs. Sullivan. She’s a mother, wife, sister, grandma and a best friend. She’s silly, loud, compassionate, generous, intelligent, and pretty adorable (though I’m biased). Of course these are but a few characteristics that define my mom. Perhaps the most notable characteristic as of late displayed by this silver haired knockout is her incredible strength.
It was September 21st when my mom called me. In the thick of my busy season, I was at my desk editing away. My mom’s voice sounded shaky. We all know what it’s like to get a call and know within seconds that something isn’t right on the other end. Scariest feeling ever? You bet. You see – my mom had recently had her annual mammogram and her doctors found “something”. The speck they saw on her X-rays was unusual so they did a biopsy . Upon hearing that her doctors found an unusual speck on her X-rays, I almost immediately turned to my Making Things Happen community to ask them to help us pray. Oh how I LOVE that community! I (we) didn’t want to worry any of my close friends and extended family just yet – not if what we thought was a serious deal wasn’t a serious deal after all.
But that’s just it. It was a serious deal and that’s why my mom was calling. One of the not so lucky traits I inherited from my mother is that we are messy criers. (I love you, Ma, but you can’t deny that it’s true!) Slobbery, puffy eyeballs, the whole nine yards. I could hear in her voice on the other end of the phone that she had been there and my heart broke for her. She explained that the doctors had in fact found ductal carcinoma in situ cancerous cells in her right breast. My heart sunk to the floor. I of course told her I loved her, that everything was going to be alright, and that I’d be over later that night to talk more with her about what happened at her doctor’s meeting and the next steps.
Ductal carcinoma in situ!? What the h*** is that? Yes – I was angry. So angry and so terrified. I stayed strong for my mama on the phone, hung up and then sort of lost it there at my desk. I got sweaty and super flustered. I forcefully typed “Ductal Carcinoma in Situ” in the google search box.
DCIS – Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), or intraductal carcinoma, is breast cancer in the lining of the milk ducts that has not yet invaded nearby tissues. It may progress to invasive cancer if untreated.
DCIS – Suck. Suck. Suck. Suck again.
I cried big, messy alligator tears. Nothing quite as terrifying as knowing there’s cancer in your mother’s body and there is literally NOTHING I could do about it. Thankfully Kyle was around when I got that phone call. He held me tight and told me everything was going to be alright.
Of course my brain goes there: But Mom, what about my kids? Beth’s kids? Dave’s kids? Colin’s kids? Me getting married? Beth getting married? Dave getting married? Colin getting married? Future Disney trips?!? (kidding, sort of) Ugh, such a gross and scary place to let your mind wander but honestly, this was my first time dealing with cancer on a very personal level and it was one of my immediate reactions.
The “beauty” of my mother’s particular scenario was that her cancer was stage zero. But, we didn’t really care. I suppose it made us feel a little better that it was stage zero instead of say, three, but it was still a stage. Either way, it was still cancer in my mother’s body and that wasn’t okay. What if it’s spreading as we speak? What if it has already spread and this time we’re spending figuring out what to do next is only making things worse?! What happened over the course of the next two months seemed like an eternity. I can compare it only to that sensation you experience when you’re falling in a dream – terrifying and seemingly never-ending. We just wanted to “land”. We wanted to wake up from this scary dream.
Another immediate reaction I had upon hearing my mom had breast cancer was, quite simply, “Get. It. Out!” Unfortunately, as seen in my mom’s experience, things in the medical realm don’t move that quickly. That’s not to say her doctors were doing a poor job. Oh, quite the opposite. What I (we) didn’t fully understand was that there were decisions and research and homework to be done to figure out the best plan of attack given my mom’s circumstances. In those moments of uncertainty, those 8 weeks wherein my mom woke up each morning with cancer in her body, I pulled closer than ever to my faith.
Once it was determined that my mom had DCIS, her radiologist sent her to Dr. Bowling. Dr. Bowling would later be the hero that rid my mom of cancer : ) After looking at my mom’s patient history, Dr. Bowling recommended that my mom have genetic testing done for the breast cancer gene: BRCA1 and BRCA2. While she didn’t have a history of breast cancer in her family, she does have history of pancreatic cancer in her family. Pancreatic cancer has recently been clustered with the BRCA2 gene. There is no definitive evidence that BRCA2 and pancreatic cancer are linked, but it has been noted in the medical field there there may be a relationship.
I’ll never forget sitting next to the fire with my mom at her house one day in October. We were waiting to hear the results of her genetic tests and this “waiting game” was definitely taking a toll on us emotionally. My mom had big tears in her eyes as she said to me, “What sucks most about this is I may have passed this on to you and Beth!” Classic Mama G. Always thinking of others before herself. “Mom”, I said, “You either had us or ya didn’t!” She smiled. At some point we have to trust that God is control and has our best interests at heart. I told her not to worry about Beth and I. In hindsight, I see that one of the hardest things about those months for my Mom were those feelings of being coddled. I can imagine but I guess that’s what to expect when you’re surrounded with so many people who love you dearly.
My mom’s results came back: She tested negative for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene! Finally, some good news! Not only did she test negative for the gene but that also meant that Beth and I were in the clear. In the meantime, Dr. Bowling insisted that my mom have an MRI done on both of her breasts and low and behold, another cancer was found in the same breast. This cancer was also very small but differed because it was invasive. From this point on things moved quickly. The doctors scheduled my mom for a partial mastectomy and with that, we all breathed a little easier knowing that action would soon be taken.
My mom had her surgery on November 16, almost two months after her diagnosis. My dad, my sister and I stayed with her at the hospital. Dr. Bowling was so wonderful and I’ll forever be thankful for her. Even after the surgery, my mom wasn’t in the clear just yet because the doctors had to check to see if the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. In the event that the cancer had spread, my mom would have had to have stronger radiation and chemotherapy.
We are still thanking our lucky stars that the cancer hadn’t spread! : ) My mom finished up with 19 radiation treatments. Her last radiation treatment was just 2 days before we left for Florida to run the Disney marathon. Our family joked that God’s timing here was comical – how fitting that my mom could celebrate having survived this scary ordeal in one of her favorite places on earth! So thankful to have seen her smiling face at the finish line.
It’s taken me a bit to blog about this experience. I struggled at first because I didn’t want to conjure up all of those unsettling feelings again. It was a very scary time and yet a time that I saw God working like crazy in my life. I myself don’t know that I can offer up valuable insight on how to deal with cancer in your life at any level but what I can share is what I’ve learned from this experience and that is this: Cancer is not a sentence. The first time I heard my mom had cancer my mind went to a dark and scary place. Fortunately, my mom did everything she needed to do. She did everything right. She’s gone every year for her mammogram and this year they caught something – but they caught it early.
It is my hope that sharing my mom’s experience inspires you to encourage the women in your life to be diligent about their annual mammograms. I don’t even want to know what our future could have looked like if my mom skipped her mammogram this year. Keep a tight leash on your health. You’re worth it!
To all of you prayer warriors out there who have prayed for my mom in the past 5 months – I sincerely thank you. Our family is so grateful for your support. Just thinking of the texts I received the day of my mom’s surgery brings tears to my eyes. We love you!
Now would you take a look at this gorgeous breast cancer survivor…Our sweet Mama G. Love you and so proud of you xoxoxo