Blends first met with Debbie one hazy morning at her lovely home over some fresh baked cookies. With so much of media influencing our perception of cancer, meeting Deb was quite the opposite of what we had anticipated. The positivity and vibrancy that she emanated was nothing short of amazing.
I felt that it was an interruption in my life, an inconvenience. Looking back, I know that attitude helped me get through each day, because I still had things to do in my life.
It started on the day before my birthday of 2014, March 19th. I went in for a [routine] mammogram. I’m very good about it, I may be a few days late but I get them every year. The very next day on my birthday, about 2 ‘o clock, I got a call saying there’s something suspicious on my mammogram. I really didn’t think much about it because of my age. I’ve already had a few things where they’ve said that there’s shadows or dense spots so it didn’t alarm me. The following Monday, I had a sonogram. The doctor came in and said, “Yes, there is something there. It’s about the size of my thumbnail. We need you to do a needle core biopsy. That was Monday the 24th, John [her husband] and I were leaving for Italy to celebrate our anniversary the following Monday. They couldn’t get me in before that, so it was scheduled for after the trip to Italy. I didn’t even think about it. I really thought it was just another dense spot or something. I went in for the needle core biopsy – very, very painful, but I did it. Tuesday, April 15th, I got the phone call [at] about 5 ‘o clock that ‘Yes, I do have breast cancer. It’s invasive ductile carcinoma stage 1.’ It was a shock and I think I started crying or tearing up but I didn’t lose it. I really was shocked because breast cancer is not in my family. It was a routine mammogram and that’s what started our journey, April 15th.
The first oncologist appointment.
My first appointment with an oncologist and a surgeon wasn’t until the end of April. I couldn’t get in any sooner, about ten days later. My husband went with me and it was a good thing because I was just in a daze. I know I didn’t hear everything so my husband is really good at repeating everything. He [the doctor] told me it was a double negative and that it’s invasive and the surgeon told me that I would have surgery but after chemo. It was the appointment later that day with the oncologist and she told us that it’s [the lump] 2 cm, which is about ¾ of an inch; it’s invasive, it’s fast growing, it’s aggressive. I would have six chemo treatments, one every three weeks.
The treatment process.
It’s the chemo that makes you sick, I had no symptoms [and] I felt great. It was the routine mammogram that told me, "No, you have cancer" but I felt great so it was interesting. It’s the remedy that’s going to make you sick; it’s the medications that made me sick 'cause [sic] I felt fine.
So chemo started May 19th; six treatments until September. I had surgery for a partial mastectomy but actually, it was a lumpectomy, where they just remove the tumor or what was left of the tumor after the chemo. My surgery was on a Tuesday. On Friday, the surgeon called and said, “It’s all clear, the cancer is gone.” I just thought so really, from May 19th, when I started treatment, to September, it’s gone. I was in shock, that really it’s gone.
I feel very lucky they didn’t find it in the sentinel lymph nodes, which would’ve meant more radiation than the 33 rounds that I had. It would’ve meant not only removing the lymph nodes, but possibly more of the breast. So I was very, very lucky that it hadn’t gone into the sentinel lymph node. My surgery was September 23rd, I started radiation mid October, I went Monday through Friday everyday for 33 rounds and I finished December 9th. When I was leaving my last chemo [appointment] in September, I remember saying to my chemo nurse “You know what, it’s been a pleasure knowing you, Rachel, but I mean this lovingly, I hope I never have to see you again” and she says “You don’t know do you? One of the four chemo drugs that you’ve been getting, you have to be on it for a full year. You’re going to continue coming back for three weeks.” My last Herceptin IV drip was May 19th of this year .
[Throughout] my six chemo treatments, my daughter, Caitlin, went to every single one. Matthew [her son] joined us for most of them [and] Jake [her son] joined us for the last one and it was kind of fun. I had a private little room, we’d sit and talk, we’d play cards, [and] we’d read. Whoever was there would go get lunch and then I would lay back in my recliner, listen to music, and fall asleep. We were there for seven hours and it went by pretty fast. It was a full year of treatment, including the chemo, the surgery, and the radiation. The day before I would have chemo, I would have to get blood work done. The day after, I would get an injection so that the nausea wouldn’t set in. There were lots of appointments in between the chemo but someone always went with me. At my very first one, it was John, Caitlin, and Matthew. It’s like I brought my own little entourage. It was actually fun, a little camaraderie.
On losing her hair.
I lost my hair, I lost my eyelashes, [and] I lost my eyebrows. So I was quite bare and what I learned is that I have a decent shaped head. I knew I was going to lose my hair but I wasn’t proactive in shaving my head. I was curious to see what was going to happen. After my first treatment, they’re three weeks apart, I leave my first treatment and my nurse Rachel says, “Okay, that hair is going to be gone when I see you next time” and I thought hmm really, we’ll see. Sure enough, within two weeks, it started coming out in clumps in the shower.
It was about a week and half in, my family and I had a buzz-a-thon; each family member took the razor to my head and we buzzed each other’s head [but] I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t buzz it. My next treatment three weeks later and [my hair was] real short but more of it was starting to come out. I told Caitlin when we got home, "I have to buzz it" and so Caitlin buzzed it. Within a few weeks all the hair was gone, the eyebrows [and] the eyelashes. That was probably harder than losing my hair. When I first found out about the breast cancer, I knew I was going to lose my hair and that was really hard. But, once I got past that, that it’s just hair, it’s going to grow back, all of sudden, I was ok. I guess part of it was my dad [and] part of it was I finally just accepted it. You’re going to lose your hair and what are you going to do?
Around the house, I’d have a scarf on or a hat on when people would come over. Then it got to the point where it got so darn hot I thought what the heck, it’s my home I don’t even care anymore. So, when I was around the house, I would be bald, but, when I would walk my dog or went to the track with John, I would wear a baseball cap or something. When I would go for doctor’s appointments, I would have a hat or scarf on or something. But it was around the house that I didn’t care. Then it grew back.
The emotions experienced.
I really surprised myself that I didn’t feel sorry for myself and I believe everybody can do that. You’d be surprised what you have in you. It’s amazing what you have inside to get through. There’s no breast cancer in my family but my mother has leukemia. My father passed away from lymphoma 11 years ago. When he would go for chemo I would call him on the day and say, “How you doing dad?” “I’m swell” “You’re swell?” and he would say “Well, what’s the alternative?” and I didn’t get it until I was diagnosed. What are you going to do?
What helped her through treatment.
I remember thinking once I started treatment just get me to my next birthday. I just wanted my next birthday and then it was all behind me.
I believe in prayer. I believe in attitude. I believe in the love and support of those who were so generous. I mean it was absolutely overwhelming. They were always thinking about me. It was just incredible, it really was. I just had a good attitude. Those around me had a great attitude. That’s what really helped me too, having everybody be so positive around me.
I decided in the beginning to just have fun with it and to document it. I would text my friends with a picture of me at chemo. We would take pictures, we’d laugh, we’d have a good time and I just felt this surround[ing] of love and kindness and just support that was there that I never realized; I mean I have good friends, I have a great family. They were all there for me and by updating them, I just felt like I was bringing them along on this journey, which really helped me deal with it. I would let them know that I’m okay, that if you want to call me or visit, I’m not here feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t want to lie here [on my couch], my kids feel[ing] sorry for me. I didn’t want friends not to call me. There was no time to feel sorry for myself because I felt pretty good most of the time. So, I really think I dealt with it in a much better way than I would’ve expected myself but I think I did [well].
Advice to those recently diagnosed
My big thing is getting women to take care of their mammograms. That really has become something important to me because I’m very, very lucky that they found it so early and so small and that’s why it was only stage one.
My advice is to stay positive even on those bad days where you just can’t lift up your head from the pillow, [where] you can’t stand and you have to lean against the chain link fence. I remember thinking oh my gosh this is it, this is it for four and half months but that was the worst of it, that first treatment. For some reason, they got easier.
Surround yourself with those that love you [and] that you love. I know that’s not always easy for a lot of the diagnosis but I really believe that’s what helped me: a positive attitude and just acceptance. Worrying about the breast cancer isn’t going to change anything.
Another thing is, I had a constant stomachache for a whole year. So I’m reading about all these women typing in their stories about how they have a stomachache constantly even after all their treatment and their doctors don’t know how to help them. They don’t know what to do about it. This is what I would share with women, get that routine mammogram but if you have that stomachache [after chemo] I’m telling you, no carbs. It helped me. I don’t have a stomachache for the first time since May of last year. Within the first two weeks, it was gone.
On femininity after breast cancer.
I have an amazing husband; he really is incredible. I go, "Do you look at me differently?" and he goes, “Deb, no, you’re fine, you’re still Deb.” At first I didn’t know if I was going to lose my breast, if they were going to go for the sentinel lymph nodes, [or] more of the breast. I [am] very lucky that this is still me. I did worry about that and is that going to change me, how I feel, or how I look but no I still feel the same. I kind of look the same except my hair is darker but other than that, I still feel like I’m the same Deb, the same Debbie. I don’t feel any less feminine.
The bizarre moments.
It was like I was there but I wasn’t, I was just in a daze. I would make these phone calls and I’d hang up the phone and think: Those are for you Deb. No, they’re not for me. Yeah, you have cancer. No, I don’t have cancer. I mean I’m having this bizarre conversation in my head ‘cause [sic] I’m just taking care of business making appointments but it was every time that I’d hang up the phone I’d think that’s for you, you have cancer. It was a real shock. It just opened up a whole new world for my family that we had no part of before.
I remember my sister called and she says, “I know you don’t need it yet, but I want to take you shopping for a wig.” She lives in Santa Barbara and she wanted me to take the train to Union Station and she was going to drive to pick me up because she knew of a good wig store at UCLA Medical Center. So we went there. She bought me a wig, she bought me hats [and] scarves, and then we went for a lovely lunch. Then we went to her favorite candy store in Brentwood and she drove me to her house in Santa Barbara. We went to Chumash Casino to play bingo and I came home on the train the next day. [The] bizarre part of the story is I’m sitting on the train and in the seat next to me is a bag with a wig, hats, scarves and I still had a head full of hair. I didn’t feel sick.
Shedding light on popular misconceptions.
Don't leave the cancer patient alone, thinking she doesn't want to talk about it. She wants to talk about it, because it is an entirely new world, and a bizarre one. She wants to share. I appreciated my alone time when everyone was at school or work, but an unexpected text or a quick phone call from a family member or a friend simply asking how I felt that day was a reminder that I was not on this journey alone, for I was not forgotten even though everyone else was going on with their lives around me. Life was continuing. Another misconception is that breast cancer runs in the family. Again, there is no breast cancer in my family, on my Mother's side, nor on my Father's side. But it is now something my daughter is to be aware of, and she will begin her annual mammogram at a younger age, according to my oncologist.
What occurs after treatment.
It was my last Herceptin drip being put into the port. I told the nurse and then I told the doctor, “I just feel really kind of melancholy today, kind of sad. Am I sad ‘cause [sic] this is over? What is wrong? This is my last treatment I should be so happy” and she goes, “You know, we see that a lot women become so emotional. For the past year, we have told you how to feel, we have told you where to go, where to be and now you’re on your on your own. You’re confused.” I thought oh my gosh, that’s so weird that she knew that. But, it explained everything. Everybody is telling you what a hero you are and how strong you are and what a survivor [yet] you don’t feel that. I thought that’s so true maybe that’s what it is, because I couldn’t pinpoint it. I just felt kind of overwhelming melancholy and kind of sad and she said, “Yeah, we see that a lot.” I thought that was kind of interesting, that that’s how we feel after it’s all over. It’s time. I have to get back to my life. You walk out of chemo and think okay back to my life, I’m okay now, but no, the drugs stay in you for a while longer.
A Note from Debbie
I went on an amazing journey, and the people in our lives were right there with us. I thank all of you for being there for me during my journey. It was a roller coaster ride of emotions with multiple side effects, some of which I have already forgotten, thank goodness. I was absolutely overwhelmed and blown away by the love, support and extreme generous acts of kindness from those around me. I believe all the thoughts and prayers, along with a good attitude, helped me fight. I love you all for being there for me.
Blends would like to extend our gratitude to Debbie and her family for graciously allowing us into their home and for their time.