“Where do you turn when there’s nowhere to go
Can’t escape the fear deep down in your soul
It paralyzes your heart, stops you in your tracks
No one can save you, your future looks black”
*Lyrics from ‘No Surrender’ by Dichroic Glass, © 2007
I was 37 years old, happily living life with my wonderful husband of 12 years and my two sons, ages 6 and 8. I was eating right, exercising regularly, and felt great overall. Then, on June 21, 2006, I found out that I had breast cancer. And not just any breast cancer, but HER2/Neu-positive cancer, an aggressive type that is found in only 25% of breast cancer cases. My first feeling was that my world was crashing down, coming to an end. Nothing would ever be the same again. I thought I had just been handed a death sentence. I thought my two little boys were going to have to grow up without their mother. I felt that any control I had over my life had just been instantly snatched away forever.
At first, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. How could I have cancer? It didn’t make any sense. But, after the initial few weeks, when I finally had time to begin to accept my diagnosis, I realized that I was going to have to take back control of my life. While I knew there would be many things that I would have no choice but to face, at least I would face them on my own terms. I decided to arm myself with as much information as possible.
I spent hours on the internet, poring over articles and discussion boards. I got copies of all my test results and figured out what they meant. I started attending a local support group. I learned all about the different types of breast cancer and the different treatments for each, from surgery, to various chemo cocktails, to radiation, to targeted and hormonal therapies. I hooked up with survivors, and picked their brains for information on what to expect next. By the time I went to each doctor appointment, I already had a good idea of what was going to happen and what they were going to say. For me, being armed with the information ahead of time was comforting, and, even more importantly, put me in control. Sure, the beast had taken me by surprise with its initial ambush, but I was going to make damn sure that I was not caught off-guard again!
At first, the battle plan was clear: surgery, 6 months of chemo, 6 additional months of herceptin, 2 months of daily radiation. It wasn’t easy, but it felt good to have a plan and to implement that plan. Physically, the chemo made me feel queasy and fatigued and disconnected. But I was lucky to have many good friends and family to support me emotionally. My co-workers banded together, contributed money and delivered food to my house every week so that my husband and I didn’t have to worry about meals the entire time I was in chemo. My mother stayed with us for a few days after every treatment to help with the housework and the kids. With the help of everyone’s prayers and support, and the grace of God, after a year and a half my active treatment was over and the cancer was declared officially in remission. That battle was won, but I wasn’t ready to stand down. The war was far from over, evidenced by the steady stream of newly diagnosed women appearing on the discussion boards I frequented. So, how could I continue to fight, when the enemy had retreated from my body for the moment?
At that point, I was ready to take it to the next level, beyond my own individual challenge. I had to reach out, and help others fight their battles. With the knowledge I had accumulated, and the experiences I had endured, I realized I could help other women by sharing what I learned and showing them that, if I could do it, they could do it, too. As a result, I have coached several women through their surgeries and treatments, and I continue to try to provide support to others via internet discussion boards. My goal is to help anyone I can by providing them with information to empower them in their own fight.
Supporting other women was only part of the answer for me, though. What I really wanted to do was strike the beast at its core and stop it, once and for all, with a cure. Since I am not a scientist myself, the best way for me to do that was to financially support cancer research. But, as any cancer survivor will tell you, there isn’t much money left over after paying all the medical bills. Luckily, I am blessed and honored to have a wonderful friend with whom I have been able to launch an initiative that not only helps to fund breast cancer research, but also has fulfilled a life-long dream for both of us.
My friend Maureen and I knew each other prior to my diagnosis from our church folk group. While I was going through treatment, we got together regularly for ‘music therapy’, as we called it. We really enjoyed playing and singing popular tunes with lots of harmony, such as songs by Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary, and many others. As our sound began to gel and we branched into working on some original songs, we chose the name ‘Dichroic Glass’ (pronounced die-krow-ick) and began to record our compositions. My ordeal with cancer inspired us to write the song ‘No Surrender’, which has become known as a cancer warrior song. As the recording project grew and evolved, we realized that we could turn our love of music into funds for breast cancer research. Eventually, we were able to release an independent CD of 12 original songs, all proceeds from which go to a research fund established by the No Surrender Breast Cancer Foundation (www.nosurrenderbreastcancerhelp.org). As Dichroic Glass, we continue to play at parties and small venues in our area and to sell CDs to raise money on an ongoing basis.
In addition to raising money, I recently stumbled upon another opportunity to contribute to the breast cancer research arena. While poking around the internet for the latest breast cancer research news, I discovered a clinical trial that had just opened up, for which I thought I might qualify. I have the utmost respect and admiration for clinical trial participants, since I benefited from a drug (herceptin) that was newly approved in 2005 as a result of women that were willing to participate in similar clinical trials. I thought, ‘how cool would it be to be able to pay that forward’? I contacted the study oncologist and got myself enrolled. I will be taking the study drug for a year (or a placebo, since it is a double blind study!) and then will be followed for 4 subsequent years, in an effort to evaluate if this new drug helps prevent recurrence. It will hopefully turn out to be another powerful weapon in the arsenal!
What does being a survivor mean to me? I recently saw a quote by Maya Angelou that perfectly states how I feel about being a survivor: ‘I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it!’ Yes, having cancer changed me, and I didn’t have a choice about that. But, I didn’t let cancer dictate how I would change. Instead, I used the situation to uncover opportunities to educate myself, to reach out to others, and eventually to contribute in various ways to the search for a cure. There is no doubt that I am a different person than I was before June 21, 2006. But, I was not, and will not, be reduced in any way. I am a survivor!
“You have to keep living, can’t curl up and die
You must face the fear, look it straight in the eye
Keep trudging forward, hour by hour
Each day you hold on reinforces your power
Never give up, never surrender
Keep on keepin’ on, you have to remember
That you can’t let it get to you, your time is not done,
Fight tooth and nail to keep your place in the sun
The dragon shall be slayed, the beast defeated
A warrior you are until the battle is completed”
*Lyrics from ‘No Surrender’ by Dichroic Glass, © 2007
To hear the song, visit www.dichroicglassmusic.com, click on the ‘Music’ tab, and scroll to the bottom!