Disclosure :: As you all know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. This week, we are excited to bring you our Moms Supporting Breast Cancer Awareness series sponsored by Touro Infirmary. We will have personal stories from local breast cancer survivors, as well as information from local medical providers about early screening and detection of breast cancer.
In May 2010, life was busy and hectic. I was a 32 year old stay at home mother of two. Eliza was 2 ½ and Libby Kate was 10 months old. I was consumed with the day to day chores of a wife and mother. Making snacks, breastfeeding, and changing diapers were my main chores. I did my best to attend play dates so we could all socialize. I struggled daily to balance keeping my house clean, cook dinner, and play with my girls. Just thinking about that time period makes me anxious. My lifelong dream of being a stay at home mom was in progress, but much harder than I had ever imagined. It was fulfilling and completely exhausting at the same time. I was in love with my family, but not my life. I placed so much pressure on myself to do too much. I focused so much time on worrying about insignificant details. I was constantly stressed…or so I thought.
In the midst of this whirlwind I began having neck pain. This was not unusual for me. It had been something I dealt with off and on for a few years. I got relief from physical therapy in the past, so I did just that. The pain did not subside. It only increased. My primary doctor gave me a couple injections for the pain over the course of a few weeks. They only took the edge off for a few hours. By June, the pain was so extreme that my doctor took a few preliminary x-rays at her office and scheduled an MRI for the following week.
That day was the last day of my old life.
The last day I would ever take anything for granted. The last day I would be able to say that I was “healthy.” The last day I would be “normal.”
Ten minutes after I got home from my x-rays, I got a phone call from my doctor. I will never forget the urgency in her voice. She told me to go to the emergency room immediately. She saw something terribly wrong in the x-rays and wanted me to have further testing. I was a bit relieved because I felt like they would finally be able to stop the pain since they found the cause. I was anticipating a few hours in the ER. I was pretty sure that the diagnosis would require a surgery or round of medication. I knew it would be fine, because I was young and healthy. After all, my 15 year high school reunion was the next night. I planned on having quite a tale to tell to my old friends. I knew that the pain was not going to stop me from having fun and enjoying my reunion.
The next 20 hours were spent in the hospital. I was poked, prodded, scanned, and questioned constantly. It was horrifying. My husband and I left the hospital with no answers. I was advised to take it easy and call my primary doctor on Monday. Needless to say, I did not make it to my reunion.
My doctor called me Monday and asked me what hospital I would like to go to for testing. I told her Touro. I had a great experience delivering my second daughter there, so I felt very comfortable at Touro. My doctor told me she would get me an appointment with an oncologist there. Most people would have realized what that meant. I knew an oncologist was a cancer physician, but why did I need to see one for neck pain? I did not have cancer!
First, I was sent to the imaging center for a mammogram and biopsy.
I had a biopsy of a lump in my breast that I had for a little over a year. It appeared during my pregnancy with Libby Kate. I was avid about exclusive breastfeeding and never used bottles. I did not spoon feed my babies until they were 6 months old. My gynecologist knew this and believed I had an enlarged milk duct that would shrink once I began nursing. The lump remained the same size when I nursed and never caused pain, so I ignored it. During my yearly well woman exam a few months later, my doctor recommended that I get a mammogram when I was done nursing. I planned to be done nursing in early August. I did not see how this lump could be involved in my neck pain. I was totally confused. I spent the next two weeks in a daze going to the oncologist, the radiologist oncologist, and others I cannot recall now. I had x-rays of every bone in my body. I learned my way around Touro quickly going from test to test. I had never been to so many doctors.
The final diagnosis came from the oncologist two weeks after this crazy process began.
You have “metastatic breast cancer which will require multiple surgeries, medications, chemo, and radiation.” I do not know what he said after that. I was numb all over. My husband and I just sat there in a trance. We left after the appointment and went to the car. We sobbed and held each other. We immediately prayed for the strength to tell this to my family. I had to face them and say, “I have STAGE 4 CANCER.” I had to tell them that I had spots in my bones, in my chest, pelvis, and spine. I kept thinking to myself that I did not do anything to cause cancer. I never smoked. I nursed two babies. I had never had a health problem before. This could not be possible! My family came over, and my husband told them the news. I sat there crying as I looked into the faces of my parents, my sisters, and their husbands. They all looked at me like I was on my death bed. I could not believe that this was my life.
I reluctantly began my new journey living my life as a cancer patient.
I always had faith and tried to be a good Christian, but felt in control of my life. I had to completely surrender my life and place it in God’s hands. Cancer was bigger than me; I could not fight it alone. I could not control my life anymore. My treatment began in July with two weeks of radiation on my neck and back. The radiation relieved the pain in my neck. I began taking daily medication and receiving monthly injections. I felt like a trial and error science experiment. I had one surgery to remove my ovaries because they were feeding my estrogen positive cancer. I had another surgery to remove my tumor. The main focus of my health is protection of my bones. The injections have worked for 3 years now. I have been in and out of remission. My medications will continue to change each time they stop working. I will never be completely rid of my cancer. It will appear off and on the radar for the rest of my life.
My current life:
I look healthy, so I am able to live “under cover.” I have not had traditional chemo, so I still have my hair. I donated 12 inches of my hair to Children With Hair Loss this summer. I chose this organization because they did not have a ton of stipulations.
I had a stubborn spot on my lungs show up this summer. My medications changed. I am now taking an oral chemo agent. It took a while for me to get used to the side effects. I get excited when I feel like I have enough energy to make it without a nap. The worst part of my meds is that I cannot drink alcohol. I am adjusting to dealing with my 4 and 6 year old daughters without wine!!!!
Over the past 3 years, I have had many ups and downs. Good news and bad news. I have changed. I am a different person. I trust with all my heart that God will take care of me and my family. I do not sweat the small stuff. I have learned that God will not give me more than I can handle. I know that I am a strong woman. I cannot control my future, so I refuse to have anxiety about. Instead, I choose to embrace the present. I focus on the gift of each day. It is up to me to choose to be a survivor each day. I know that God’s timing is perfect, and He will help me to be strong. Being diagnosed with cancer was the worst and best thing that has ever happened to me. It is a terrible disease, but it brings out so much love, giving, generosity and caring in people. I have never felt more supported and loved than I do now. I have tons of people praying for me and doing random acts of kindness in my name. One of the greatest blessings in my life has been my rosary group. The saying “it takes a village” is so true. They are a big part of my village. I cannot stress how important having a great village is for cancer patients and all moms. The support and encouragement from this group, my family and my friends get me through the day sometimes. It took a stage 4 cancer diagnosis to bring peace to my life. It took time and therapy, but I am proud to say that I am my best self. I am able to love and be loved unconditionally.
I used to think my purpose in this life was to be a good mother, wife and person. I know now that I was wrong. My purpose is to be a survivor. Being a survivor has made me a much better wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend. It has opened my eyes to life and love in so many ways. In closing I leave you with two of my favorite quotes:
“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.” ~1 Thessalonians 5:16
“Be thankful for the bad things in life. For they opened your eyes to the good things you weren’t paying attention to before!” ~Anonymous
Oh Melissa! You are truly AMAZING! What an extraordinary story. You have changed how I look at breast cancer and all cancers with your beautiful attitude. How many times have we talked and I would have never known any of this? Thank you for sharing your story. We will all be praying for you over here!
What an inspiring post. Thanks for sharing your story!
Amazing and inspiring! Your post opened my eyes….I stress way too much over the small stuff. Thank you for sharing your story and best wishes for you and your family.
Melissa fought the good fight, and she is now free of pain. God called her to himself this morning. May the angels lead you into paradise, sweet Melissa!
My daughter was in Melissa’s class at Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Chalmette,as well as her Brownie troop. This was such shocking & tragic news. I’m very sorry not to have known about her services so that I could have extended my condolences to her Mom Nancy, whom I also knew.
The unspeakable & unfathomable tradgedy of burying one’s child — no matter the age — is too difficult to begin to imagine. My deepest sympathies to the entire family & large circle of friends.