The end of January 2008 came and we drove to Little Rock to see Dr. Hagans. He did another ultrasound of the lump on my breast and he could see there was definitely something there but he didn't think it was anything serious. He told us he thought it was fibrocystic breast tissue also, but the way to tell was to take Vitamin E and Borage oil for 6 weeks and it would melt that tissue away. He did say that sometimes fibrocystic tissue can encapsulate tumors, hiding them. He said he didn't think this was cancer, but could possibly be another benign (noncancerous) tumor. He did tell Dwayne and I that if it was fibrocystic breast tissue that it would be a recurring problem for me.
Dwayne and I left and just knew in our hearts that we needed to move back home. I don't think it was really based on what he said, but more that we felt like something wasn't right in our hearts. We weren't fearful, but we wanted to make a wise choice. So we returned home to Kansas City and started packing. We said sad goodbyes to our precious friends. But we also had a sense of resolve. We felt like beyond whatever was going on with my health, that God in His sovereignty was drawing us back to Little Rock for His purposes. We felt so strengthened and renewed in our faith and as a family. We had now been married over 4 years and Cayle had just turned 3 and Alaya was 18 months old. Dwayne knew he could transfer his job as a server at Mimi's Cafe to the restaurant in Little Rock which gave us hope that our income would continue. We found a great townhouse to live in, in Maumelle. Our resolve was that God wanted to use us for greater things in Little Rock. We had left Arkansas out of a place of longing for more of Him and He had given us so much more than we could have asked or imagined. So with a moving truck and all of our worldly goods, we returned to Arkansas at the end of February. I had just celebrated my 25th birthday.
One week after we moved back, I went back to Dr. Hagans for my six week follow up. As soon as he got the ultrasound into place, he saw a dark spot. He said it was just as he had suggested, the fibrocycstic tissue had melted away and left behind some kind of tumor. He said we needed to do either a needle biopsy or a lumpectomy. At this point, I wanted the lump OUT. It hurt and I didn't like it. It needed to go away. So we scheduled a lumpectomy for the following week. I should add here that I had no insurance at this point. I called the BreastCare people to see if they would be able to help, but they said they only covered procedures if you had a cancer diagnosis. I didn't know what would happen, but I trusted God would provide, even if that meant we had to pay $20 a month for the rest of our lives to pay for the surgery. I went in for the lumpectomy as an outpatient procedure and came home. The next day I was sleeping while Dwayne had the kids at the park and my phone rang. It was Dr. Hagans which made me wake up really quickly because the doctor never calls after a procedure. "Shana the tumor was malignant. We need to run some scans and other tests on Friday to figure out what's going on and then you'll come to my office so we can formulate a treatment plan."
Room spinning. Light headed. Trying to process all the words.
I had cancer.
I called Dwayne to come home because I couldn't bear to tell him over the phone. I called mom and she wouldn't let me not tell her over the phone. She called Spencer who was in school in Fayetteville and he started driving home. Suddenly they were all at my house. What do you need? What can we do? I have no idea. I just found out myself.
Dwayne held me while I spun around and twisted inside. I don't think I cried for a week. I couldn't process it. I just needed to get to the next step. Friday they had to place an IV and make me drink contrast dye and I blacked out from the needle and it was all yucky. I had my first mammogram. I didn't think it was as big of a deal as most people make it out to be. We got to Hagans' office and he showed us everything. No cancer anywhere but my right breast. Thank You Jesus. In the initial tumor I had two small foci of Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Most of what was in the tumor and remaining in my right breast was Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS), which is a noninvasive cancer. Invasive cancer is bad because it spreads all over the body. Fortunately it looked like they got all of that. He told me he recommended I have a right breast mastectomy because he didn't think they could get all the DCIS out and save the breast. I was good by that. My left breast had some small calcifications, which are precancerous. I knew then I wanted a double mastectomy because I didn't want to be sitting in that office facing this diagnosis ever again. So we scheduled my mastectomy surgery for April 2 which seemed like ages away from then (March 11 was the day I was diagnosed).
So I lost my breasts. I couldn't even look at myself for days following the surgery. I was scared of what I would see. And I had horrible drains which I've written about here (and was blessed to have published in a more updated form in Quills & Pixels). They figured out that the cancer had not spread outside my breasts (thank You Jesus) but they couldn't get a thick clean margin of noncancerous tissue when they took off my right breast so they decided I needed radiation. I had to start seeing an oncologist who immediately shut down my ovaries with the hell shot called Zoladex because my cancer was estrogen and progesterone positive. And I started taking Tamoxifen. So no breasts, put into medically induced menopause, 25 years old. We're on the same page? Hard stuff.
And this was the time that I really realized that my mom had a prescription drug problem. After my mastectomy we pretty much lived with my parents for about 6 weeks so they could help take care of me and the kids and so Dwayne could continue to work. Mom was supposed to be taking care of me and one night I woke up out of that weird pain medicine induced sleep, to hear my dad fighting with mom. She sounded crazy. He made her come get in the bed with me and she started acting crazy. She was really, really out of it. I figured out the next day that she had taken some of my medicine.
I. Was. So. Angry.
Here I am going through cancer and my mom, who should be taking care of me, is stealing my meds. From then on after every surgery I had, I tried to stay on pain meds for the shortest amount of time I could so that I could get back on my feet and take care of myself and my family. I also guarded my meds myself. I came to loathe pain medicine. I hated how it made me feel and I hated what it did to my mom. I know my mom did not start abusing medicine when I had surgery, she had been doing it a long time, but I didn't realize it. Or didn't want to.
I had six weeks of radiation to my chest. Radiation did not get painful till the very end. It doesn't feel like you think it would. Not like a sunburn, but like a deep tissue bruise. And I started having panic attacks. And other symptoms: constipation, migraines, fluid retention. And with every new symptom came a new doctor and more medicine. It was ridiculous.
My "brave" picture. This is my chest towards the end of radiation.Yes it looks like they drew a penis on my chest.
My tired self spent a lot of time here.
I opted not to do immediate breast reconstruction because I couldn't process all of those decisions at once. I needed to deal with one task at a time and reconstruction was cosmetic to me, it wasn't going to keep me alive. I actually had people who judged me for not doing immediate reconstruction though. I wish I was kidding. People who gave me their opinion and had no clue what they were talking about. Dear reader, please don't offer your arrogant opinions to someone going through something traumatic, particularly when you have no clue what you're talking about. K, thanks. Your friend needs to be loved right where they are, not where you want them to be.
But I savored the simple. My babies, my husband, my friends. People brought meals for a long time. I laid on the couch with my babies and watched cartoons and built puzzles. My husband loved me like I have never felt loved before. He served unceasingly. He was gentle and held me and let me cry and whispered, "It's going to be okay." He was my hero.
Two big blessings happened that summer. One was that during radiation, CARTI paid for Dwayne and I to get weekly massages. During my first massage, a lady named Mitzi was my massage therapist. I knew immediately that God was doing something big because she was a mighty prayer warrior. I had never experienced someone ministering to my spirit while they were also ministering to my body before, but that describes her to a "T." She would worship and pray over me the entire time she was massaging me and it was incredible. God began a wonderful relationship with her those weeks that I am still unbelievably thankful for.
The second thing that happened was Dwayne and I found a neat bed and breakfast in Hot Springs where we went to celebrate the end of radiation and our 5th anniversary. This place was amazing. We had five course breakfasts every morning and our room was luxurious with a hot tub and satin sheets. It was a healing, restful time.
Alaya celebrated her 2nd birthday!
In September, I joined a women's Bible study called "Woman on a Mission." Basically the premise of the study was to figure out who you were and what you were made for and how God wants to use that for His glory. I knew I needed vision again in my life because I was in a place of despair and wondering if God could ever make something out of the brokenness of my body and my life.
Dwayne got a motorcycle because we had been sharing one car for a long time and we really needed two vehicles.
Cayle and Alaya started going to Mother's Day Out in September
We took a big family picture in September of that year
In October I decided I wanted to go for a consult with the plastic surgeon to see if, after having radiation, there was even anything he could do for me, breast reconstruction wise. I had tried wearing prosthesis and they were painful and awkward. I had spent all those months being not just flat chested, but inverted. It was so hard. Clothes didn't fit right and I felt so self conscious. I felt like a man, truthfully. More of my identity than I realized was tied to the lumps on my chest. Fortunately the "Love doctor" (his last name is Love) was very optimistic that he could do a minimally invasive procedure to help me grow new breasts with success. So we decided to try. In November I had my tissue expanders placed and then had saline injected in them every week or so to slowly stretch out my pectoral muscles and "grow" new "breasts." It was incredibly painful. My tissue expander placement surgery was by FAR my most painful surgery. Much worse pain-wise than my mastectomy. I felt like I was drowning in pain. But it was worth it and I would do it again in a heartbeat to have breasts again.
I did the Race for the Cure as a team with my family and my precious friend Jenny who was also fighting cancer that year.
Dwayne and I went on a field trip to the pumpkin patch with Cayle and Alaya that year
Over the course of the "Woman on a Mission" study, I really came to terms again with the fact I was a writer. Since I had graduated with my undergrad, I thought at some point I might go back to grad school because I knew in the field of writing that would benefit me more than just an undergraduate degree. The Lord showed me so many things that semester and I left that class feeling so full and with fresh vision. I also prayed and talked with Dwayne and decided to apply to grad school. It seemed crazy considering all I was going through, but I felt like I needed something to do with my mind again besides wallowing in all the fear, grief, worry, and heartache I had spent the last months dealing with. I got accepted into the Master of Arts program in Rhetoric and Writing at UALR, and planned to start school again in January.
Cayle celebrated his 4th birthday!
2008 topped the list as the hardest year we had been through to that point, but God was continually faithful in every way. We were learning so much about walking with Him moment-by-moment and not worrying or fearing the unknown or undone. I feel like I should also add here that these sketches of my years are really just that. There is no way to have enough words for some experiences, and cancer is one of those. I spent many days writing/blogging the depths of my struggles and my wrestling with cancer and all it was and came to be. I wrote so much that it filled 160 pages and made my thesis project (more on that later). So don't take this post as anywhere near what that was like for me. It is a very concise synopsis of a very complex, deep, important part of my life. A part that continued in to 2009.