Surviving the storm

A few months ago, after I’d written my column in The Times Leader about my battle with cancer, a lady by the name of Margi Roberts contacted me. She ran a support group for cancer survivors and wondered if I’d be willing to share my experience with her group at a meeting. I was honored to do it-after all, if I could help just one other person, it would make what I went through seem worthwhile.

Roberts, a resident of Martins Ferry and an employee of East Ohio Regional Hospital, told me that the group has been together for 21 years (and I was lucky enough to be present when the group kicked off its 21st year) and has served more than 85 women. “When I started the group, there wasn’t anywhere in the Valley for women to go,” Roberts said. “We started with six women, and we now average over 20 at any given time. They are a wonderful group of friends and many have been in the group for over 15 years. Four years ago, I started a flower garden at EORH in honor and memory of our members. It has grown into a beautiful place with the help of several of the nurses in our long term care.”

I found the longevity of this group to be absolutely remarkable. But when I attended the meeting, I immediately realized why this group was still running strong. This group felt much more like an extended family, not at all like a formal, business type of support group meeting. Women were sharing pictures, talking to each other about family members and enjoying each other’s company. These were not ordinary women. They were all breast cancer survivors, Margi Roberts included, and they were all amazing.

Roberts and the rest of the group are strong advocates for early detection and self-exams. “I’m a 26-year survivor, and my cancer was found on the first mammogram I ever had,” Roberts said. “I believe, as does the American Cancer Society, that baseline mammograms should be done when women are 40, and if you have a strong family history, sooner. I wouldn’t be alive if I had waited until I was 50. Mammograms today are so much more specific, especially with digital mammograms available here in the Valley. I also believe in self-exam. It’s all part of being pro-active in your health.”

I felt extremely privileged to speak in front of these extraordinary women. In fact, one of the amazing women in attendance that night was my own mother.

Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in February. Things happened so fast. Just a few weeks after her diagnosis, she had a mastectomy, and not long after that, she started chemotherapy. Her cancer was called invasive ductile carcinoma and unfortunately, it was extremely aggressive and fast-growing. None of the tests that came back were very encouraging. However, she knew what she had to do and boldly announced to the family, “Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere. You’re stuck with me for a long time.”

Her positive attitude helped, but I realized that even with my wealth of knowledge on dealing with cancer, this was uncharted territory. Being a cancer patient was definitely not the easiest thing in the world, but it was not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Acting as the concerned family member and caregiver-THIS is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s 10 times worse on this side of the fence.

Mom and I have already joked a bit about our cancer experiences. Right from the start, I told her, “Don’t think you’re going to try and top me!” referring to all the trials I’d faced in my own battle. During a recent stay in the hospital, after doctors discovered she had an infection, she laughed at me and said, “Ha ha. This tops you.” I just shook my head and replied, “Talk to me after you’ve had your entire immune system wiped out and then had a new one put back in. You’re not going to top me, so just stop trying!”

One-upsmanship battles and other joking aside, my family does have a history of cancer, specifically breast cancer. My grandma, my mom’s mom, had breast cancer and had a double, radical mastectomy. Pretty much like all the women on my mom’s side of the family, she had a fiery determination to beat it and get well. Her diagnosis came back in the days of cobalt treatment. After her surgery, the doctors told her she’d never be able to raise her arms above her head. Six weeks later, she was in the basement hanging laundry. She lived for another 25 years and died from something other than cancer-it never did come back.

Back in 2003, I felt a lump in my breast that turned out to be just a fibrous, benign growth. They removed it, but it was certainly enough to scare me, especially knowing the family history of breast cancer. But I figured between me, my mom and my sister, we had this knowledge, this history, in the back of our minds and would do what we could to prevent it. So you can imagine my surprise when, right after her diagnosis, Mom admitted to me that she’d skipped “a few” mammograms. How many was a few? Five.

I asked her why she skipped so many in a row, and she answered, “Because I was taking care of you.”

Of course. Those five she missed were over the last five years that I’ve been dealing with my own diagnosis. At first, I thought it was my fault she was sick. If I hadn’t been sick, maybe she wouldn’t be sick now. But then my next thought was disappointment. I wasn’t totally bed-ridden during my illness. Surely she could have found time to go for a simple mammogram. After bouncing these thoughts around my head for bit, I did the wise thing and let it go. No amount of conjecture and speculation would change my mom’s diagnosis. Instead of looking back, we all needed to look ahead.

And that we did. Mom made it through chemo, not without issues, unfortunately, and finished 25 radiation treatments. Through it all, she managed to help plan my bridal shower and continued to just be a mom. During my experience, I’ve noticed how determined and focused cancer patients are. They just want to get better, and most of them will do anything in their power to recover. They are some of the most amazing people I’ve met.

I still think about Mom skipping those mammograms. Even though my sister and I are both in our mid-30s, we both had a baseline mammogram after Mom’s diagnosis. Early detection is key in treating this disease. And I’ve always felt that every day, every month, every year I’m a survivor, that’s just many more treatment options discovered that can help me live even longer.

I’m glad I can help my mom through her cancer battle. I feel like my battle prepared me, and the rest of the family, to fight her disease head-on. She’s also got a strong support network of friends. And for women who are fighting but are looking to connect with others, I urge you to attend one of Margi Roberts’ support group meetings. The group meets on the fourth Monday of each month in the R.H. Wilson Room at East Ohio Regional Hospital. While the group was set up for breast cancer survivors, anyone with cancer is welcome to attend.

Every cancer affects every person differently, whether it be as a patient, a doctor, a nurse or a caregiver. What makes the experience special, however, is when you can share it with others. You never know whose angel you might become.