It began when I went for my month-overdue mammogram and the results came back suspicious and dense. I wasn’t worried; this happened a few years ago and nothing was wrong. After a diagnostic mammogram, the radiologist recommended a biopsy.
I got the call from my obstetrician-gynecologist on June 17. “Diane, it’s not good. It’s cancer.”
The next few days were a whirlwind of phone calls, finding out next steps, meeting the oncologists on my cancer team, and trying to understand the specifics of my breast cancer: stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma, triple positive (HER2, ER, and PR). I learned that HER2-positive meant that it was an aggressive tumor, which terrified me.
Between Bob and I, we learned so much about breast cancer in a week that we could have given a seminar on it!
The hardest part was telling my sons. My oldest, Brian, and youngest, Luke, were at home, while the middle one, David, was studying in Rome. Brian was getting married in 3 weeks, and it broke my heart to tell both him and Luke. I told David when he returned home.
All three of them were strong and supportive, hugging me and telling me how much they loved me. That’s exactly what I needed. I promised Brian that nothing, and I did mean NOTHING, would stop me from celebrating his exciting and wonderful day that we had been looking forward to for so long!
And it was an amazing day! The wedding was in Nashville, at a historic antebellum mansion. It was absolutely beautiful. I danced my shoes off, literally, and had the time of my life. Cancer, you did not take this day away from me!
Two days after I returned to St. Louis, I went to the hospital to have my port installed. The very next day, I started the first of 12 weekly chemotherapy infusions.
I was so blessed that I had only mild side effects from the chemo, and I credit that to the many people who had been praying for me. But I was exhausted like I had never experienced. It was as if someone had thrown an extra-heavy weighted blanket on me. I wanted to get up, but I just couldn’t.
It was really hard losing my hair. A good friend helped me choose a wig and pick out some fun hats, but I will never get over the feeling of looking at myself bald in the mirror.
My mom had passed away years ago from ovarian cancer. I remember the rough chemo sessions, her wearing a hot wig in August when we took Brian to Disney World, and especially her strong faith through it all, even up to her death.
She became my motivator to fight this, with the help of my own faith and family. If she could have such a positive outlook with her stage 3 cancer, I can have it, too!
Since I am a counselor specializing in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety, I debated whether or not to tell my clients about my cancer. I decided not to, as that was one more thing that they didn’t need to worry about.
I cut down to 3 days per week during the chemo and somehow kept working, with an occasional run out of the session to the bathroom (I always had a good story!).
After my chemo sessions were done, I decided to take a trip to Mexico with my cousin’s wife. My medical oncologist gave me the OK, and we were off.
One week to relax and forget that I had breast cancer — except it was October, and Cabo San Lucas did an excellent job of celebrating Breast Cancer Awareness Month!
Oh well, I took lots of pictures by pink ribbons and had an amazing trip. I even did some zip-lining and hiking. And yes, I had some margaritas, too. Two weeks post-chemo? You bet!
The lumpectomy went well, and I took a week and a half off of work. Nothing like counseling with ice packs on your breasts, but I wore big shirts!
I somehow managed to pass off the wig without anyone but my close friends and family knowing. Occasionally though, I would have shooting pains in the breast, and my instinct was to grab my chest. That one was a little harder to cover up, so sometimes I had to come clean and ‘fess up.
November and December were full of daily radiation visits, which I luckily tolerated well. I was able to celebrate a wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family.
I started 2020 with hopes of a much easier year, only needing to go to the hospital once every 3 weeks for targeted therapy infusions. Now we could get back to life as normal, right?
And then along came COVID-19!
David was doing some modeling in Milan and flew back to New York City the day before Italy closed down. He, thankfully, was OK and self-quarantined in his apartment, where he was taking all of his college classes online.
When he was cleared after 14 days, he packed a small bag and went to Nashville to visit Luke, where he was attending college. While there, the virus started spreading like wildfire.
I did not want him flying back to New York, which had become the epicenter for COVID-19. So, David and Luke packed up a few things and drove back to St. Louis, where they figured they would hang out for a week or so until things “calmed down.”
Well, that week turned into 2 months, and I have to say that in those months we made the best lemonade that we could make from the lemons of coronavirus! We did tune in daily to get updates on how quickly the virus was spreading and took the necessary precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
And so began the “new normal” for us. At first, it was like a three-ring circus in our house, with all four of us trying to do our daily activities.
Bob is a high school geometry teacher, and he had to quickly switch all of his lesson plans into online learning. I started doing telehealth sessions from my home office and found that working at home wasn’t as great as I thought.
Even with a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act-compliant video platform, there were still connectivity issues due to so many people using similar online platforms.
Bob quickly got relocated down to our basement, as I found that his booming teacher voice in the next room was not going to fly with my private, confidential counseling sessions. Working so much with OCD, many of my clients were really struggling with many aspects of COVID-19.
Then there were David and Luke, who had to do all their college classes online. David was a senior, and after 4 years of applying himself and maintaining a 3.9 GPA, this was how his college career was going to end. He staked out his “classroom” in the kitchen.
Luke found his online classes to be harder than in person, so he seemed to always be doing schoolwork, either outside or in his bedroom. To say that David and Luke were loving this situation would be an exaggeration!
When the circus in our house seemed to calm down, it was incredible to see how our attitudes had changed. David and Luke love to cook, and we ate more home-cooked meals in those 2 months than we had in 29 years of marriage!
We played board games in the evenings and sang karaoke and talked about their futures more than I could have ever dreamed. While still being mindful of and praying for the tens of thousands of people suffering and dying from COVID-19, we also appreciated this time together — even putting together a fun, in-home graduation ceremony for David.
Now, David and Luke have returned to Brooklyn and Nashville. I miss them tremendously but have these memories that will last forever.
Next month, I have my final target therapy infusion and will get a diagnostic mammogram. I’m praying to hear the words “no residual carcinoma.”
I continue to work as a counselor, feeling blessed to have work in these uncertain times and to be able to help people struggling with so many issues. While I would have never asked for the challenges that this last year gave me, I feel I have emerged stronger.
Here’s to learning to tolerate the uncertainty of the future and making lots of lemonade!