Debbie's story: I am living proof that early detection saves lives

Columbus, GaAugust 29, 2011 

It was supposed to be the luckiest day of the century, 7/7/11. It started out as an ordinary Saturday morning. I was on my way to see a client out in the country. Being a Realtor, I had to go when duty called.

Earlier in the month, my youngest sister found a lump in her right breast and had it biopsied. Suddenly my cell phone rang. It was her on the line telling me to pull over to the side of the road. The news was not good. Her lump turned out to be stage IV triple negative cancer that had invaded her lymph nodes and was rather large in size. The wind was being sucked out of my sails. It was so surreal like it wasn't happening to us. Not our family. She proceeded with a mastectomy and had reconstruction in the same surgery.

I don't know if I could have done what she did. I can only imagine the pain. She ended up with a staff infection and became septic. After all this, her reconstructed breast had to be removed. On top of all the surgeries, she was still taking chemotherapy infusions. The week my sister was diagnosed, I took out an Aflac cancer policy on myself and my husband. I felt it was inevitable that I would also be diagnosed with breast cancer. I prayed that God would give me the cancer and cure my sister.

Well, I lived up to my end of the bargain. In March, 2009 I was diagnosed with stage III her2positive breast cancer with lymph node involvement. I found the lump during self-examination. I had the lump biopsied. The doctor called and once again I was asked to pull over to the side of the road. He didn't want me driving when he gave me the news.

I knew what my decision would be. I opted for a bi-lateral mastectomy. I was not about to worry about cancer invading the remaining breast. Take both of them. On to treatment. Radiation was worse than I expected. My chest was burned with second and third degree burns. Chemotherapy was rough too. I lost close to 60 pounds from the nausea and not being able to eat. There was a silver lining to the weight loss, though. I have been an insulin dependent diabetic for about 10 years and my blood sugar was now under control. The doctor even reduced my insulin dosage.

I had a wonderful boss. Our office was about a mile from the John B. Amos Clinic and my boss completely understood that some days after chemo I just wasn't feeling so hot. I continued to work as much as I could. For awhile I went from working 50 hours a week to only working 10 hours per week. I knew my employment position with the company was secure. I loved my work family and appreciated their continued love and support. The majority of our office staff stepped up to the plate and filled in the gaps from my absence.

In August 2011, I started having bouts of nausea. My general practitioner referred me to a gastrointestinal specialist. The plan was to scope me out from both ends to find out what was going on with my digestive tract. CT scans didn't show anything abnormal. Labor Day weekend I ended up in the ER again for the second time in less than two weeks. Every time I laid down on my left side, I would vomit. I was becoming dehydrated and very weak.

I was seen by the same doctor who attended to me a few weeks earlier for the same symptoms. This time he ordered a CT of my head. I already knew what the findings were from the CT. How could this be happening to me? Just a month ago, my oncologist declared me to be in remission. Blood test revealed that the cancer markers were not there. I was supposed to be celebrating not planning brain surgery. I was referred to the neurology clinic at Emory hospital in Atlanta. I was told Columbus didn't have the equipment necessary to treat my cancer.

Now the plan was to perform radiosurgery on four small tumors in my brain and conventional surgery on the remaining larger one that was very near my spinal cord. The radiosurgery involved placing a cage-like device over my head and securing it to my forehead. Then I was bolted down to the treatment table. Once the treatment begins, beams are aimed at the tumors guided by a CT scan. I begin to see bright neon colored streaks of light going off in my head. I see them but not with my eyes. The treatment was somewhat successful. Four of the tumors were zapped from my brain. There was a larger one still there at the base of my brain. This required a craniotomy, where the skull was opened. I awoke in the recovery room with an awful headache and my husband by my side. I needed something for pain, NOW. I spent the next four days in the hospital trying to get my speech, balance and control of my hands and feet back to normal. My husband is an over-the-road truck driver and needed to get back out on the road soon. My mother was my saving angel.

She lives only a few miles from our house and came over in the mornings to make sure I was okay and if I needed any help. I was still taking oral chemotherapy drugs at this time.

The incision was not healing very well. I still had stitches in my skull and developed an infection. Back to Emory and another surgery to remove the tissue that was infected. Emory has an infectious disease clinic that specializes in these types of infections. I was prescribed IV antibiotics that I had to administer to myself through the infusion port in my chest. This lasted for six weeks. I spent a total of nine hours each day hooked up to the IV. One good thing about the IV was it gave me a good excuse to take a nap. All of my doctor appointments and errands had to be scheduled around my IV time. The medication was successful, the infection cleared up. Two weeks later, my surgeon's nurse called me with bad news, I needed additional radiosurgery. I am currently waiting for her to call me with the surgery date.

I may have lost a few battles, but not the war. I have so many people depending on me to be there. Early detection is our best weapon against breast cancer. A woman knows her body and anything out of the ordinary should be taken seriously and be examined by your doctor. I am living proof that early detection saves lives.

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