One of my best friends, Gary, has a
unique expression: "Keep the shiny side up", which has meaning on
two levels. First, as car terminology, it makes sense to keep the shiny painted
side up and wheels down on the road. Obviously, the best and most appropriate
position for your car is to be upright and running!
But "shiny side up" also has
another more positive and important meaning to me: attitude. A positive light and spin
on things, looking at things from the shiny side up. Like the glass half full or
half empty, if we all saw the shiny side up, life would be so much better. I
have chosen to live my life from the shiny side up and this includes how I live
with my cancer and life experiences. So, I dedicate this book to keeping the
shiny side up as I drive down the road of lifeís experiences.
I was born in Princeton, NJ, a very
different climate from Maine. Princeton at that time was a small town of maybe
30k, and in many respects resembled Brunswick, Maine in that both are college
towns. Life revolved around both college and town activities. For instance, our
high school football games were scheduled for Saturday mornings, giving us just
enough time to run over the Princeton University Palmer Stadium for the college
I grew up in a comfortable family with
my mother, my father who led a busy life as a local doctor, my sister Mary Ann
who is 22 mos. younger, my sister Peggy, who is 7 yrs younger, and my brother
Ray who is 10 years younger. We were a close-knit extended family because my
maternal grandmother and grandfather lived right in the neighborhood, only a few
blocks away, as did my paternal grandfather.
My particular recollections of growing
up were car-related. Even though I didn't consider myself a tomboy, from the
time I was 2 or 3 years old, I was fascinated with cars. My mother tells me that
when we were living on an army post when my dad was in the service, I was
particularly taken in by a robin's egg blue convertible owned by the commander's
wife. I informed Mom that I was going to own a car like that when I grew up. As
the years progressed my interest in cars increased.
Growing up in the late 50's and 60's, I
was drawn to life on the road. My heart and soul connected to the lure of the
Mother Road, the black and white images of Buz and Tod cruising top down in
their Corvette on Route 66, in search of fun and adventure. By the time I
entered high school, the era of muscle cars was dawning, and I was immediately
drawn to fast, flashy cars. My friends and I could not afford new Corvettes,
Chevelles or GTO's, so we settled for 1955-57 Chevies with hopped up motors,
pinstriping and loud radios. A few of us less fortunate types, drove our
parents' cars which in my case was an enormous white '62 Oldsmobile. The only
saving grace to driving this white whale was its large engine, and the roomy
passenger compartment which could easily accommodate six of my friends. I spent
countless hours perusing car magazines, going to weekend drag races at Atco
Dragway in South Jersey, and bugging one of my friends, Jeff, who patiently
explained car terminology and how pistons, rods and cams worked.
My criteria in selecting boyfriends was
based primarily on which cars they drove. My girlfriends did not share my
fascination with cars and shook their heads in disbelief as I progressed from
the owner of a turquoise green 1958 Chevy Impala convertible, to a white 1962
Impala convertible, to a fully loaded 1962 baby blue Bonneville, to finally in
an ultimate coup during my college years, to the owner of two Corvettes, a dark
green '57 racer and a gorgeous Honduras Maroon '62, set up for both race and
street. The owner of those Corvettes is now ancient history, but I thank him for
inspiring me to purchase my first Corvette.
Eventually my interest in a car-mate
and a soul-mate for life came together when I married my
husband, Ben, in December 1967.
Ben and I decided in 1973 that a life
change was in order for us and our 3 year old daughter, Christine. We were tired
of 45 minute commute to work. We had vacationed in Maine for several years, and
in a spur of the moment decision, purchased a house on what was our last
vacation trip to Maine. After selling one car, and banking on starting a new
business, we packed everything we owned into the remaining car and a U-Haul
truck and moved to Bath, Maine.
So despite my many references to Maine,
I will never be a Maine native. To be a Maine native you must be born here,
within the borders of Maine. It doesn't count if you moved here the day after
you were born. The natives will remind you of that! Some of us who adopt
different regional accents seem to fit in better until we are
"discovered." Fortunately, I found that we made many good friends
through business connections because most Maine natives sooner or later have to
deal with your business if you have a good product or service. For instance,
over the years, our office equipment business, my marketing and advertising
agency and my directorship of the Wiscasset Business Assn. in led to
associations that became permanent friendships.
In a weak moment in 1981 and for a lot
of cash, I sold the 1963 and purchased a gold 1973 coupe. It was a big mistake
and I hated the car enough to drive it through the winter with recapped snow tires! I
spent the next 5 years shopping to replace the 1963. We found a 1967 Marina Blue
convertible for a good price. The car was originally a 435 and we knew it would
be collectible in the future, yet it did not have the heart and soul of my 1963
which was named Velvet. It incorporated that material in the custom interior that I had installed in her when
we fully renovated and put the car in show condition during the first few years
I owned her.
The 1967 convertible basically became a
summer driver to us for five years. I half-heartedly searched out my 1963, my
dear Velvet. Then, as if by an act of fate, Ben picked up a new car magazine
that had just been released. We took the magazine home and flipped through the
pages and out jumped a photo of Velvet! She was in Florida and had been gone
from us nine years and had three different owners, but had been well-cared
for. Velvet had less than 10,000 miles on her since we had sold her in 1981. I
knew we had to buy Velvet back and bring her home. In no time, Velvet was
on a car carrier and on her way back to my home.
Polly and Fate
One of my best Corvette friends was
Polly Weidner. Polly and I met in 1995. We were both diagnosed with cancer. I
was selling raffle tickets for a new Corvette to benefit the American Cancer
Society. Poly was standing around the raffle table and looking very ill at ease.
I introduced myself and there was something that clicked between us. We became
fast friends... in every sense. The day Polly was diagnosed with advanced lung
cancer (she was a heavy smoker), she went right out and bought a new Corvette, a
white '95 coupe. Talk about priorities - she got it right! Her vanity plate read
"DONTW8". We had a lot of fun together until her husband retired from
the Navy and they moved back to their native Florida. She died in the Fall of
'97, but sure made the most of her last two years.
I had always shied away from
"newer" Corvettes, having the attitude that "sure, they made
Corvettes after '67, but who cares?" That held up until making the mistake of driving a C-5,
the Raffle car, last year.
I was hooked. The C-5 rides and handles like no other Corvette and the sheer
power just blew me away. Now I can actually see over the hood and I have trunk
space, and not just for two sets of golf clubs. Once in a lifetime, most of us
get the chance to do something really awesome. Some of us wait for that
opportunity to come to us, while others just make it happen. As the license
plate on my Torch Red 1997 so aptly reads, , I fulfilled the dream of my
lifetime. This past summer, I drove nearly 25,000 miles, through 33 states,
conducting a cross-country tour in my Corvette.
Friends and family warned me that I
would soon tire of living out of a suitcase, different hotels every night, fast
food, truck stops and greasy spoon diners. Some said that sharing the cockpit of
a C-5 with a co-driver for 4 months would test my patience and mental stability.
Yet, the true test was whether I could physically withstand the rigors of the
road, for I am a Stage 4 breast cancer patient.
For those unfamiliar with cancer
jargon, stages of cancer are similar to categories of car condition. For
instance, a Category 1 car is primo, a Category 2 is good, and a 3 and 4 are
less desirable cars. So it is with stages in cancer. One being the best, four
being the worst. Being a Stage 4 is like a totally unrestored vehicle, with
serious mechanical problems and significant frame rot.
Fortunately, I have excellent mechanics
(oncologists or cancer specialists) who perform frequent repairs and tune-ups to
keep me going. My chemotherapy and radiation treatments that began last December
and lasted through May of this year, were just long pit stops on my journey with
cancer. Throughout the long dreary winter days of chemotherapy, thoughts of warm
summer days and driving my Corvette kept me going. I dreamed of driving miles
and miles of open highway. I vowed that when I finished treatment, I would
embark on a cross-country tour. I would hit every major Corvette event, visit
Wall Drug and see the Hollywood Hills sign. I would cruise Route 66.
I like to say that the idea for my
cross-country tour was drug induced, since it came to me during my chemotherapy
last winter. I had always wanted to do a Corvette road trip, and since my cancer
was advanced, time was of the essence. As I made mental plans for the journey, I
felt compelled to have a more meaningful purpose for this trip. Since dealing
with cancer full-time had ended my career in marketing and advertising, why not
use my time to help others in their battle against cancer, I reasoned. I would
use the trip to promote awareness of cancer and to raise funds for cancer
research and control. I could bring this important message to major Corvette
events and ask for support in finding a cure for the 1.2 million Americans who
will be diagnosed with cancer in 1998.
So, the Corvettes Conquer Cancer Tour
took shape and I received the endorsement of the American Cancer Society, the
intended recipient of all proceeds from the Tour. Throughout the Spring, I
searched for a sponsor to underwrite trip and travel expenses. I submitted
sponsorship proposals to several major Corvette businesses. One seemed
particularly interested, but backed out three weeks before I was scheduled to
depart. My good business sense told me that it would be certain disaster to
embark on a trip of this magnitude without financial backing, but my gut
instinct, or perhaps divine intervention, encouraged me to go for it. I cashed
in my two IRA accounts, sold my beloved 1963 convertible that I had owned for 21
years, bought a used 1997 coupe and filled the trunk with 3 months worth of
luggage and cancer information pamphlets. I hit the road June 12th with a
rotation of co-drivers including my husband Ben, daughter Christy, sisters Mary
Ann and Peg, and friend Dot. Our stops included Bloomington Gold, the NCRS
National Convention, the Black Hills Classic, the Boise Vette Fest, Vettes on
the Rockies, Corvettes at Carlisle, the National Corvette Museum, and
Mid-America's Fun Fest, among others.
Along the way, I met thousands of
fellow Corvette owners and enthusiasts. I set up a booth and display at every
event and spoke to hundreds of people about cancer and how we must raise funds
to find a cure. Many folks shared their grief with me about losing a loved one
to cancer, yet overwhelmingly I heard from hundreds of fellow cancer survivors
who had successfully overcome their illness. I asked these folks to sign their
names and the names of those lost to cancer in a Memory Book that I took with me
to each event. The signatures and poignant messages written in this book will
forever personalize cancer, and put a face and name to this insidious disease.
I have accomplished what I set out to
see: Wall Drug, the Grand Canyon, and the Hollywood Hills sign, and I have
driven on Route 66. But more importantly, I have been thanked many times over
for speaking out about cancer and bringing the Corvettes Conquer Cancer Tour to
the Corvette community. Corvette clubs, Corvette owners and event coordinators
have responded generously to the Tour. My lack of sponsorship was partially
answered at Bloomington Gold when Corvette Mike stepped forward with several
generous contributions and his personal gas card, allowing me to charge gas for
the Tour to his personal account. It just goes to show you that Corvette people
are the most kind and generous folks in the world. To date, the Tour has raised
close to $10,000 for the American Cancer Society and donations are still being
accepted and welcomed. The Tour is on the road to find a cure and the more
dollars raised will help us reach that destination.
My Tour ended for the season about two
weeks earlier than planned, when I limped home to Maine in late September, tired
and in pain. Tests revealed that my cancer had spread into 15 areas in my bones.
I am back into chemotherapy and other treatments, and my beloved Corvette is in
winter storage. But this has been the summer of my life. If my mechanics can get
me up and running, I plan to cruise Route 66 again, taking the Corvettes
Conquer Cancer Tour back out on the road in 1999.
Though my life seemed perfectly normal
in many ways, it has been impacted by 3 different cancers since 1974. In fact,
it began in 1964 at age 18. My father, a physician, referred me to a friend of
his who was a local gynecologist because I was having problems with excessive
bleeding, nausea and fainting spells and missing 2 days of schools every time I
had my menstrual period. The gynecologist did a through exam and determined that
I had a pre-cancerous condition known as an erosion on the cervix and displaysia. I was given a series of exercises to do which were of no help. After
several months of no improvement, he suggested that I try taking a birth control
pill which had provided tremendous relief to some of his patients. This seemed
to work well for me and for the first time in years, I was pain free during my
My gynecologist was concerned that not much was known about taking bc pills at
an early age and was worried as to why the displaysia and erosion was occurring
in a woman my age so young and not sexually active. Years later it was
discovered that one of the many reasons for abnormal changes of the cervix was
caused by the drug DES. This drug was given singularly and in combo with other
drugs to women in the 40's & 50's as a "miracle vitamin" as well
as a drug to help prevent miscarriage. Other drugs with similar compounds were
also given to millions of women not knowing that years later abnormal changes to
vaginal tissue would develop in their daughters.
My condition of displaysia and erosion
continued to increase over the next several years. My first pregnancy was
terminated in a early miscarriage in Dec. '68. The doctor informed me that my
cervix might not be capable of carrying a full term pregnancy because of the
abnormal tissue. The problem area was cauterized, which was common treatment at
the time. The doctor told me to wait at least 3 months before trying to get
pregnant again. I was elated when I learned that I was pregnant in July of 1969.
The first 5 months of my second pregnancy were relatively normal except for
periods of bleeding. Once I got through that, it was all smooth sailing. My
beautiful daughter Christine was born March 9, 1970. After that, the cervix
became terribly inflamed and was frequently cauterized. The doctor informed me
that there was little chance that I could get pregnant again, and to be prepared
for that possibility. I was just so happy to have a healthy baby that I couldn't
think of what the future might hold. I continued to see my doctor every 3 months
In 1973 we moved to Maine and I
obviously had to find a new doctor. The doctors in ME did not feel the situation
was serious. In fact, one doctor told me he would not consider doing a
hysterectomy on a woman under age 30. I saw probably 5 doctors in one year, and
alarmingly lost 15 pounds of weight and was feeling miserable. Everyone in my
family noticed my weight loss. Even my father commented to me that it looked
like I had a serious illness. He said, "Sandy, you should check into it
because you could even have some type of blood cancer or leukemia."
Much to my good fortune, a new
gynecologist moved to town and I was the first patient beating down his door. He
immediately assessed the situation, did a Pap smear and called me within 2 days
to tell me that the smear had come back positive and he wanted to redo it. In an
attempt to reassure me, he told me that it could be a false positive. He called
again the next day and asked that Ben and I come into his office. He told me
that I had cervical cancer and explained that the extent of the involvement was
surprising. He was immediately scheduling me for a D&C and a cone biopsy.
During these procedures, a scraping of the uterus is done and a cone shaped
section of the cervix is removed. The result of the biopsy was that the cancer
had already spread up into the uterine tissue. A hysterectomy would be
necessary. My doctor gave me the choice of surgery, radiation, or a combination
of the two. I chose the surgery, thinking at the time that the surgery would
take care of everything. The doctor explained to me that there were blood tests
that could be done to test for the presence of cancer cells after the surgery,
and that I would have to be under watch for the next few years.
The surgery itself was successful. Over
the next few years I was under watch and my tests were good. However, it was a
long road to recovery. I had lost a total of 35 pounds during my illness and it
took nearly 2 years to gain back 17 pounds. I remember celebrating my 5th
anniversary cancer-free, a big milestone for me. That to me was the highlight of
surviving my first cancer. As each year went by it was another milestone and by
the 10th year I had almost put cancer out of my mind.
But there were some things that cancer
changed completely in my life. Cancer back in the 70's was the "C"
word, a word that nobody would discuss. When I had my hysterectomy in 1974, none
of my friends had ever had cancer. As a result many of my friends drifted away
because they had nothing to say to me, or they feared they would get cancer,
too. Just the year before, I lost one of my best high school friends to stomach
cancer. Who would believe that a young mother of a 3 month old and a 2 year old
could lose her life to stomach cancer? My friends had never quite recovered from
that shock when I was diagnosed a year later. How many of our close group would
be taken by this disease? How many of us could think of death when we were still
bringing babies into our lives?
Interestingly, I noticed that the
people who rallied around me during my illness were older people. Some I didn't
even know very well. Perhaps they were people who were more familiar with death
and dying who could say an appropriate word with a cheerful phone call or visit
to my house. However, the most devastating part of my illness was not being able
to take care of my daughter, since I was unable to go upstairs and function
during the worst part of my illness. It was obvious that I needed help. In
addition, my husband and I were attempting to start a new business. Without my
help my husband had to take on a new job in the attempt to make ends meet. My
husband and I sat down and made the toughest decision of our lives, and that was
to send my daughter over 500 miles away to live with her grandparents in NJ.
Packing her up, I really didnít know how she felt about leaving, what the time
frame would be and why she was being sent away from home. I felt like I was no
longer being a good mother. I think one of the most heart-wrenching parts of her
trip was when my mother called to tell me that my daughter had lost her first
tooth in the Boston airport and I wasn't there to see it!
I knew Christy was going to a good home
with much love and attention although it did little to assuage my sadness. My
dad kept her busy by making a beautiful doll house to fill with her collection
of dolls and furniture. Holidays were filled with fun and festivities and my
parents sent pictures of Christy dressed up in costumes. I was equally fortunate
that my sister Mary Ann, who taught school enrolled Christy at a private
Catholic school in Princeton, where she so she kept close watch over my
Finally, when Christy came home, it was
a new beginning, but it still felt like a large chunk of my life had been cut
out. As time went by, I had many opportunities to reflect on how cancer affected
my life. Being so young, my first reaction was not, "Thank God my life has
been spared. What can I do now to live my life differently?" Instead, I all
I could think about was getting back on track and living my life. I had had
missed so much time with my family and now I had a lot more living to do. Cancer
at that time was not my "wake up" call. All I wanted to do was get back on
track with my life.
In 1990, sixteen years after my first
cancer diagnosis, I began to notice a swelling in my left knee that I attributed
to an injury from aerobics class. The swelling would come and go and repeated
trips to the doctor revealed nothing unusual. I decided to wait and see a
surgeon friend of mine who was on a two month vacation at the time. I had known
Dr. Wes English for 15 years through our work together with the American Cancer
Society and I felt comfortable waiting for his input..
X-rays that Wes conducted upon his
return revealed an unusual soft-tissue tumor in my left quadriceps muscle. The
tumor itself was actually quite small, but was encapsulated with fluid, making
the size fluctuate as the fluid level rose and fell. The tumor was biopsied and
the findings we erratic, because it showed a combination of fluid combined with
malignant striations in tissue. In the center was a very small cigar-shaped
sarcoid, less than a centimeter in size. Being so bizarre and rare, the decision
was made to close the incision. I agreed to go into the Maine Tumor Registry
Program to have the tumor studies since it was so unusual. I became the subject
of a grand rounds at Maine Medical Center, where 35 physicians attended to learn
more about this unusual finding. It was determined that my course of treatment
would be to take a wide-margin incision of the tumor, which would remove
approximately ľ of my quadriceps muscle. Radiation was not used on these types
of tumors and chemotherapy would only be a possibility if the tumor spread to
the lungs. My doctor felt this course of treatment would produce a 75% cure
After hobbling around on crutches for a
month and a half, I healed perfectly and had no signs of any recurrence.
However, this became the turning point for me in terms of acceptance of my
cancer. Being in my mid-forties, Suddenly, this second brush with cancer made me
re-evaluate my priorities. For the first time in my life I sat down and thought
about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I found myself making a list
of 10 things I thought I wanted to accomplish in my life. Many of the items on
my list were career oriented. Some were family oriented. And some were just long
Among them were to see my daughter
graduate from college (which was imminent at the time). I wanted to see her
married and to appreciate the joys of grandparenthood. I also wanted to travel
around the country. On the career side, I wanted to see my business grow into a
successful advertising and marketing enterprise. I wanted to see my efforts with
the Wiscasset Regional Business Association (chamber of commerce) reach its full
potential. I also wanted to continue my 25-year relationship with the American
Cancer Society in working on some national projects.
The diagnosis of my breast cancer in
1994 was not entirely a surprise. Since the summer of 1986, I had been having
regular mammograms to follow six tiny random calcifications in my right breast.
All appeared benign in shape and configuration. I was put on a three month
schedule of magnification mammograms, and later a six month schedule and finally
a yearly schedule when no changes appeared.
In 1994, massive changes appeared
showing a blossoming of the cancer. These rather sudden changes had appeared in
less than one yearís time. It was never determined this was the same area in
question or a spread of the previous disease. The fact was, I was now facing
having breast cancer, even though it was probably caught in a very early stage.
Immediately I phoned my ACS friend and surgeon, Wes English. He had done the
surgery on my leg and was well know for breast cancer surgery. Wes had been
following my progress on the mammography since 1986 and referred me to the Mercy
Hospital Breast Clinic. During that time the 18 diffused spots may have appeared
benign due to the fact that stereotactic or other forms of biopsy were not
commonly used in the early to mid-1980s.
Whether my breast cancer was one that
fell through the cracks or just developed a different form of breast cancer was
something I wrestled with during my first month of my cancer diagnosis. I was so
diligent about my mammograms, Wes was as heartbroken as I was about my
diagnosis. He sympathized with me strongly. At one point, he took my hand in his
and broke down in tears.
My father the doctor knew of my anguish
and put the whole thing in perspective, reminding me that medicine is never 100
percent. Too often we assume that doctors are healers who can provide miracles.
I had often wondered if I had already had two with my previous bouts with
Next came the staging of my disease and
all the implications that went with it. (List types of cancer, progressive
estrogen levels and markers used to determine my course of treatment.) Initial
assessments projected that my disease was in Stage 2.
Time sped by and my treatment plans
came together quickly. Despite the minute size of my cancerous tissue, being
less than five millimeters in size, I chose a modified radical mastectomy over a
lumpectomy, the less radical procedure. I felt more comfortable having what I
thought was all the malignant tissue removed. Wes felt no enlarged lymph nodes
under my armpits and felt this boded well. However, when the surgery was
complete, Wes was stunned to find that two of the 20 lymph nodes were cancerous.
This now moved the stage of my cancer diagnosis to Stage 4.
The first steps of my surgery was a
mastectomy, which was simple, painless and I was released a day later. I had
wondered what it would be like after I lost my breast and had made the decision
to have a saline implant. I felt that an implant would give me a better sense of
balance rather than wearing a prosthesis.
I met with Dr. John McGill, a plastic
surgeon Wes recommended to me in Bangor. Dr. McGill is pretty much like most
plastic surgeons. Many of them consider themselves miracle workers who can
transform many complicated, poor prognosis back to a picture of beauty. However,
sometimes what is a picture of beauty for some is not for others. Dr. McGill
showed me a photo album of his work showing how removed breasts can be
transformed to new ones. He explained the procedure to me where he would use an
expandable implant that would be placed in my breast tissue. Over a period of
months the saline solution was increased until the tissues expanded to the right
size. The tissue expands gradually as the saline is injected over a period of
I would be receiving chemotherapy - a
combination of cytoxin, methotrexate and 5-FU. Because I am receiving chemo at
the same time, the plans for the full expansion of the breast implant will be
put on hold. Instead, a final infusion of 150 ccís of saline will be put in
place once my chemo is finished. The expander will then be removed and a
permanent saline implant put in place. Also at that time, I will have the left
evened in size to match the reconstructed right breast to achieve an even
balance between the two breasts.
I have been hoping to have a quick
return to my breast reconstruction but soon realized that I was due for at least
six months of treatment. At this time, I was busy deciding where I would get my treatment.
Wes was in Bangor, a good two hourís drive from home. I was also seen by Tom
Keating, a top oncologist whom I had known from ACS for 15 years. Tom had his
office in Brunswick which was conveniently only half an hour away. I decided to
choose Tom as my primary oncologist.
Also of interest was Dr. Harvey Rothberg, a close friend of my fatherís who practiced in Princeton, NJ. I
thought it might be a very relaxing way to start my chemotherapy by staying with
my parents for four months where I could also enjoy their company and summer
beach house at Barnegat Light on the Jersey shore. It was a great choice to have
the surrounding company and the atmosphere of the shore. Harvey proved to be a
kind and caring doctor and one whom I had know for years as a family friend. My
care was excellent and despite the predictions that Iíd lose my hair, it only
thinned and looked like a summer haircut. Though my chemo lasted nearly seven
months, due to some low blood counts, I didnít mind the extra stay.
I returned to Maine tanned and feeling
quite fit. I immediately turned to Tom Keating whom I had know very well as an
oncologist and a good friend as an ACS volunteer. There wasnít a question I
couldnít ask Tom. We had a wonderful, honest working relationship.
By June of 1995, it was time to resume
the tissue expansion and insert the official implant. I really was quite upset
to see the changes in my body. Dr. McGill emphasized that with the final
procedure, he could transform my breast size to whatever I wanted. If I wanted
to be a 40 DDD, I could do it. I politely refused. I told him I was looking for
"balance." He seemed slightly defeated by my simple wish, but I only
wanted to have some sense of evenness. He said this was fine and to achieve this
he would do a reduction in the other breast to even the balance, which was fine
During the five hour procedure, the
expander was removed and a tear drop-shaped saline implant was placed in the
breast lining. The left breast was reduced in size and shaped to match the
reconstructed right side. The results were pleasing and though I chose not to
have nipple reconstruction on the right breast, I was very happy with the
results. Unlike some women, I didnít experience any lymphedema or swelling of
the arm, or any hardness in the scar tissue which can occur in some cases.
Though I didnít come out to look like
Dolly Parton, I was very pleased. Both breasts had balance and that was our
goal. In fact, my breasts looked what Iíd call "perky." It was kind
of funny to be 48 years old with perky breasts and for at least two months I
went around braless because of being so perky.
As a joke, I knew my friends had not
seen my "new look" since reconstruction. My debut was a Corvette show
and I thought Iíd have a little fun in teasing my friends. I blew up two
balloons probably to a size 44 DD and stuffed them in my shirt. I waited until
my friends arrived and went out of the house looking very much like Dolly Parton. It was amazing how many of them believed it was my new look and Iíll
still never get over their red faces. I wish I had the nerve to visit Dr. McGill
with my 44 DD balloons but he probably would not have been amused.
Over the next two years following the
reconstructive surgery, I had three stereotactic biopsies done to check the left
breast. Reassuringly, these turned out to be benign scar tissue from the
In 1997, however, I had my wake up call
that my cancer was no longer in remission. I was taking a shower and found what
felt like a very strange BB pellet under my right collar bone. I knew this wasnít
normal so I placed a call to Dr. Tom. At the office visit, neither Tom nor his
physicianís assistant could find the lump. I was adamant so Tom said this
required the hands of my surgeon, Wes. Within two days, I was in Wesí office.
He felt the lump and was particularly concerned. "Sandy," he said,
"this is less than two millimeters. It is unusual to be able to find a lump
of this size." He agreed to do a needle biopsy right there on the spot.
Somehow I knew from the beginning this was not normal. I knew my cancer had
returned. Sure enough, two days later the word was cancer. The cancer had spread
into my lymph system.
After communicating with Wes and Tom, I
was given referrals to Dr. Jeff Young, a radiation oncologist associated with
Tomís office. The Maine Center for Cancer Medicine would be running my
treatment right in my hometown in the Bath/Brunswick area.
Jeff was very up-front and straightforward
from the beginning. They would radiate the entire lymph node chain from the head
down under the armpit for six weeks. The main risks would be those common in
radiation - fatigue, skin burns, some glancing blows to the esophagus that could
cause difficulty in swallowing. Aside from those, Jeff felt he had a good shot
at getting a full recovery.
The downside of all of this was the
treatment plan that would have to accompany the radiation. It was decided that a
trip to Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston was in order to consider a bone
marrow transplant. I must add that hormonal drugs such as Tamoxifen and other
drugs were tried on me with no success, so this course of action was
recommended. I was assigned to Dr. Richardson, head of the breast cancer bone
marrow transplant team. He was very skilled an knowledgeable but I knew right
away that bone marrow transplant was not for me. I had done much medical
research on bone marrow transplant for breast cancer. Because my white cell
count had never rebounded well from my previous chemo, I knew I as going to be
left with a compromised immune system. Plus, Dr. Richardson could not assure me
with figures that sounded promising - probably a 20 percent chance that the bone
marrow transplant would approach a cure. To make a long story short, I went
through all the testing necessary for the bone marrow transplant. It certainly
wasnít a pleasant procedure but one I wasnít going to forget readily.
My daughter Christy accompanied me for
the bone marrow sampling, which really is quite uncomfortable. It was Friday,
the day after Thanksgiving in Boston - "Black Friday," when all the
crazy Christmas shoppers hit the streets. I had always wanted to shop in this
store campus, so after the sampling, Christy and I hit the streets. I spent
nearly six hours shopping with Christy! I guess there could be some truth to the
myth that when the going gets tough the tough go shopping!
Since I refused the transplant, a new
treatment plan was laid out for me. I could do a three month high-dose regimen
of Adriamycin chemotherapy. This could be done with Dr. Tom at home and
monitored through Dana Farber. Basically my regimens of Adria and the radiation
went relatively well with minimal problems. With the help of nupagen, a drug
that boosts the white cell count, I came through my treatments well. The nupagen
had interesting side effects for me as it served as a tremendous hype and energy
boost. It could keep me up all night cleaning my house.
By May of 1998, I was finished with my
treatments and feeling tired but relieved. I had also just finished the planning
around a mission that would forever change my life - the Corvettes Conquer
Cancer Tour. I had a brief month reprieve of good health as I planned for
the tour. Though my cancer would again spread, this time it was to 15 areas of
my bones, I was determined to continue my mission. I was put on Megase and a
hormonal drug that helped me make my three and a half month tour possible. Who
would have guessed I could pack my car for three and a half months and live out
of a suitcase from June 12 to early October.