Finding Strength, Hope and Courage While Battling Breast Cancer
Editor's Note: It is the policy of The Pilot to use full names in our stories, but in this case we wanted to protect the privacy of the individuals and their families as they pursue their treatment.
"We are not survivors, we are thrivers," says Heather, describing her battle against breast cancer and that of her friend, Stephanie.
Two friends. Two soul mates. They have known each other since it all began.
First, it was Stephanie, at age 31.
She discovered the lump while breast-feeding her newborn daughter.
"I told the doctor, and he said it was a plugged duct, mastitis," she recalls with a sigh. "For four and a half months they kept telling me it would be okay. It wasn't until I stopped breast-feeding that they realized something was wrong. That was five years ago."
Then Heather found her lump at age 34.
"I had it checked and they ordered a mammogram," she says. "It wasn't cancerous, but the mammogram found cancer in another area. If I hadn't had the mammogram it most likely would've been a couple of years before I ever found it. The cancer was in some microcalcifications -- the size of salt crystals."
They learned of each other's breast cancer through their husbands, who are work colleagues. Heather called Stephanie, who had only had a small cap of hair since she was already undergoing chemotherapy and asked her a "ton of questions."
The two of them became close friends, helping and leaning on each other as their treatment plans progressed.
Heather had a single mastectomy followed by radiation and chemotherapy. Stephanie had treatment first and then a single mastectomy.
They have very different types of breast cancer and different treatment plans. Heather has a very rare genetic predisposition to cancer, but not breast cancer, in her family. She has lost her mother, grandmother, and her 8-year-old daughter to cancer. Her brother has cancer now, too.
Stephanie does not have any family history of cancer. That, along with her young age, was the reason doctors were reluctant to pursue the cause for the lump.
"They said I was too young to get breast cancer," she says. "A mammogram costs about $150. If they said, 'Maybe you should get a mammo, but you need to pay for it.' I would've gladly paid."
In time, Stephanie and Heather decided to have the other breast removed, for prophylactic reasons. In Heather's case, the other breast contained cancer.
They laugh now as they recall how they "planned" their second mastectomies on the same day so they could be together. They went to the same hospital and had the same surgeon. They even ended up in the same room.
Both are now on what they call "life treatment plans."
"We are on a life treatment plan because there is no cure," says Heather. "They keep coming up with things. My cancer keeps growing, but they treat it with something new, then it will stop for six-to-nine months and start again and I'm switched to something else."
Today they share not only cancer, but also strength.
"When my cancer came back, Heather was at my house in a flash," says Stephanie.
Heather quickly notes, "I was more devastated by her recurrence than mine two months later. It was the realization that we have to keep doing this stuff. It was the realization that it just was not going to be over."
"I am filled with faith. God does not make mistakes, he brings people into your life for a reason," says Heather. "Steph has been a huge source of support for me. When I am having a hard time I know I can call her, I do not even need to go into an explanation -- she just knows. It's so great to have her here with me, but I hate it that she is in the same boat I'm in."
The disease has now moved to their bones -- striking their hips, but opposite hips.
"We both had cancer begin in opposite breasts, now it's in our opposite hips," says Heather, who also has a spot on her brain. "We've opposite everything."
"If they took our good body parts they could make a new person," adds Stephanie.
"We've learned to deal with how we feel," says Heather. "I've learned to put on my 'happy face' and get on with the day."
They also share family similarities. Each of them has three children, two boys, and a baby girl.
"With three kids, you just don't have the luxury of saying, 'I want to go lie down,'" says Heather. "We're trying to get everyone to and from school, be a sports-mom, and keep the house running. We just don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves."
Greater Awareness Needed
However, they are concerned for the other young women who may not be aware of the prevalence of breast cancer in their age group.
"I do think that somehow, someway, people need to be aware that this is now a young woman's disease. It's not just a middle-aged woman's disease anymore," says Stephanie. "There need to be more research, more awareness. There are children being left without their mothers at a very young age."
Heather says she sees an alarming trend -- young women in their late 20s and 30s that suddenly develop the disease, potentially taking a generation with it.
"They really need to look more closely at this age group," she says. "I do not think they are aware of how many of us [with breast cancer] there are. All the research goes into finding a cure for middle-aged women, but it [the disease] is not the same in young women, where it advances rapidly. We need to put money there. We need to make people aware."
Awareness is one of the reasons Stephanie and Heather agreed to walk in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Charlotte, Oct. 25-56. They will walk the 39.3-mile journey over two days, accompanied by Team Courage, 24 women and one man, all from Moore County, united in their dedication to their "fighting teammates." The team's fundraising efforts help medically under-insured women and men receive the screening, support, and treatment they require.
Each team member must raise $1,800 by the event's eve to walk. As a group, Team Courage must raise $48,600 and as of press time they are $5,914 short of the goal. Team Courage ranks second for its fundraising efforts in the state by Avon.
The team will wear T-shirts designed by Stephanie, and printed by Jeb Designs in Fayetteville. The shirts come in either pink or gray and sport the "Fight for the Girls" motto and a pair of boxing gloves with a pink ribbon.
The shirts are hot-selling items in Moore County. Pinewild Country Club's 9-Hole Ladies Golf League selected the shirt for their Rally for the Cure event in October and sold nearly 180 in three weeks. The shirts, which cost $15, are available at The Clothes Horse or Gold's Gym, in Southern Pines, or by e-mailing team.courage@yahoo. com.
"They've been a huge success," says Stephanie, who explains that they were considering copyrighting the design and motto. "But after I thought about it a lot and prayed about it, I said, 'If someone wants to use this to promote awareness of breast cancer, raise money to help the research effort, then by all means use it.'"
Though they are not sure how much they will be able to walk given their self-described, "bum hips" due to the cancer's spread, they will make use of the courtesy van to meet with team members at various rest stops along the course.
"We talk a lot about our future, but we don't look too far ahead," Heather says. "We stay focused. We are glad that this walk is in October. That's awareness month -- and we're close enough to the date that we are excited about the walk."
Heather says they look forward to each day.
"We look to tomorrow, next week and maybe, next month," she says. "It's a bit of a protective mechanism. We're thankful for each birthday and have hopes of seeing our baby girls walk down the aisle. We have faith and trust that we'll be here."
Faith supplies the validation and answers to them.
"It's reassured me," she says. "The Lord has the plan, and he's going to work that plan out whether I am here or not. That's how I live with this."
The friends share courage, too.
"When I look at my kids, I want them to remember me in a certain way," says Heather. "I want them to remember me as, 'She had to do this, but it really didn't stop her from being our mom, the sports-mom, or being at school and doing everything I needed her to do.' I think we do much of what we do for them. They are my driving force. You don't think of the cancer -- you just drive on."
Stephanie nods and agrees with Heather, adding, "Our kids make us courageous, and having loving and supporting husbands makes us courageous."
"People say all the time, 'I could never do this [fight the disease].' And I say, 'Yes you can!' It is amazing what you can do when you really do not have a choice -- and death is not a choice. You can live a good happy, productive life, even being a thriver," says Stephanie. "A thriver is someone who is continually going through treatment. I have a good life. I am happy. I thrive. I don't walk around in tears because I have breast cancer -- it's not the end of the world."
Contact Pinehurst writer Claudia Watson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story