I have always been a fighter. It probably came from being the youngest child and having an older brother. I grew up loving the wilderness and anything to do with mountains. When you live in Washington State, it is only natural that you head out to climb them. Little did I know that I would eventually embark on a climb not of my choosing.
I had little warning of my breast cancer. I had just returned from a four-week cross-country motorcycle trip and I was camping, not looking for redness and skin changes by flashlight. With no lump and a clear mammogram a year earlier, I was not expecting a stage III diagnosis. I remember the radiologist telling me that the most dangerous thing for me now was the drive home. Did I want someone to come get me? "No", I thought, "I need to process this." The next few days were chaos for my family, and I sent everyone away for a pre-planned reunion while I underwent scans and sat through those initial appointments. Much like climbing, I needed time to study the route.
My studying apparently involved a trip to the grocery store to buy my "last meals." I filled the cart with full-fat Ben and Jerry's ice cream, fudge sauce, and all the other foods I would never eat in quantity. I got to the checkout stand and started laughing as it finally hit me -I might actually survive this and what the heck was I thinking? I took it all back, got low-fat Cherry Garcia and a bunch of veggies and went home. I made the decision right then that I was not going to "make nice" with cancer.
Mastectomies, six rounds of chemotherapy, radiation. Check. I was free to roam the world again. I celebrated with a four-week motorcycle trip through Mexico. My oncologist just stared at me and quietly said, "Most women go to Hawaii." I wanted and needed a challenge.
I got involved in a wonderful support program at Evergreen Health, began doing local walks raising money for Komen and the ACS, and spending time on advocacy. I happily volunteered as a peer counselor for Y-Me, helping the newly diagnosed, and I lobbied for cancer issues at our local state level and in Washington, D.C.
My bliss ended rather abruptly when a routine scan showed the cancer was back - in my spine, in my pelvis, and in my liver. My oncologist let me digest the news; my husband was devastated and speechless. My greatest fears were back in an instant, as I contemplated a new life of constant chemotherapy. Two years and five chemotherapies later, I am still mounting the biggest climb of my life. My hair comes and goes. I still work as an advocate, having testified at insurance hearings to secure chemotherapy drug coverage for our state residents and to gain support for clinical trial drugs. I am a peer counselor for those with new metastatic disease. My favorite work is reviewing research grants. And, yes, I still hike, ski, and ride my motorcycle to excess and occasionally over the speed limit. I am not going quietly into the night.
I could not continue on this path if it were not for some very important people. I have family support, an oncologist who understands my need to be active and my intense desire to control the cancer, but I also have some dedicated scientists to thank for my treatments. When I get discouraged, I remind myself of the work that is being done to understand and ultimately end cancer.
I got interested in the DoD Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP) the year after my diagnosis and was nominated by my support program to be a consumer reviewer because of my involvement in advocacy. My academic and professional background is in chemistry and biology, and I became an avid reader of cancer research articles. As a reviewer, I am thrilled to represent patients in the grants process. Scientists bring knowledge, curiosity, and willingness to follow what they observe in the lab. Consumer reviewers bring intensity and urgency. We continue to push and direct this research to the bedside.
As I continue my own fight, I hold onto hope that the DoD BCRP will eventually find cures and preventions. Intellectually, I understand the reality of my personal journey, but I know that the process of supporting innovative scientific inquiries, with a specific goal, will eventually keep the five beautiful young women in my family from having to follow my climb.