In honor of breast cancer awareness month, I had the privilege of sitting down with my mother in law, Dana, who is a cancer survivor. Dana is one of the most faithful and kind people I have ever met, along with having such a strong and admirable relationship with Christ. I have grown so close with Dana over the years that Jordon and I have been together. She is someone I look up to and admire, and she agreed to sit down with me for an interview to share her amazing story of her journey battling cancer. I have attached our actual interview along with notes below, I can’t wait to hear how she reaches you all.
What is the story of how you were diagnosed with cancer?
One day I found a lump under my arm, and something told me that I needed to show my husband, Darrel, as it seemed out of the norm. Darrel told me I should go see a doctor. Being me, I decided to wait and see if it would just go down or go away. Two weeks later, it was more uncomfortable and grew to around 3 inches in length. I showed Darrel again, which he reacted by saying, “you need to see a doctor NOW!” I immediately started looking on the internet to self-diagnose (bad idea), and I went to my Doctor the next day. Everything moved very quickly, as my Gynecologist examined me, and he said I needed to be sent to get a mammogram that day! I went to get the mammogram to which I was told that I needed to see a radiologist for a potential biopsy. I asked them when this needed to be done, and they also said that very same day! At this point, I was starting to be more concerned, as everyone had been very serious as to what they were seeing, and everyone I saw had me immediately seeing someone else. I just knew something wasn’t right. I went to see the Radiologist that day, and was advised that we definitely needed to do the biopsy right now. I remember calling Darrel and acting like it was no big deal, mostly because I knew he would not be able to get there to be with me when I was having the Biopsy done. I remember being turned away facing the opposite wall while they did the biopsy, and started thinking, “is this about to be a whole new journey for me?”.
After the biopsy, the hardest part was waiting so long for the results. Britton, our oldest son, had his last football game that following Friday. I was terrified the whole time and was concerned that everyone would know that I wasn’t acting like myself. I wasn’t screaming and cheering and ringing my bell per usual, as I was honestly scared to do that, and I didn’t know how all of that would affect me, since I really didn’t know for sure what was going on in my body. Watching Britt walk off the field felt like the end of an era, and I thought, “is this about to be the beginning of another era?”
My doctor called me on December 3rd and said, “Dana, I am sorry to tell you this, but you have cancer.” My heart sunk. I asked, “where?” I could tell that he was very confused as he replied, “the problem is that we don’t know where. We cannot find the primary. We don’t know where it started.” At this point I’m thinking it’s all over my body and wondering, “am I gonna die?” Then I just thought, “okay, people carry crosses everyday, I’ve carried other crosses, and I’m going to carry this cross now!” The weekend prior, Darrel ended up breaking out all over his body in hives, which I truly believe was because of his worry and stress over the whole thing, so when I went to tell him he was totally out of it because of the medication they had him on. I went in the bedroom and said “Darrel, I have cancer…” He was all drowsy and not really comprehending what I was saying, so I asked, “are you hearing me? I have cancer, and they don’t know where it started.” He tried to get up and hug me, and it was at this point I remembered all of the hives and didn’t want him touching me! I said, “It’s fine, I’m fine, we can do this!”
What year were you diagnosed?
How old were the boys?
Britton was 18, a senior in high school, and Jordon was 13 about to turn 14.
How did you tell your kids?
First, I called all of our family from both sides, and then some very close friends. I remember everyone pretty much having the same responses of, “I love you, and we are going to get through this!” Then I thought, that’s exactly what we are going to do! I was dreading the whole day though, because I knew that night that I had to tell the boys. I knew that I would probably not have all of the answers to their questions, not knowing enough about my cancer quite yet. We started that evening by sitting them down saying we had something to tell them. I started to tell them, and then I just couldn’t make the word “cancer” come out. I remember Jordon staring deeply through me as he awaited what I had to say. I didn’t want them to think that I was going to die. Darrel ended up having to takeover and he told them that I had cancer and we didn’t know enough about it at this time, but that we were going to get through this. Britt looked down, as I truly think he was scared, and Jordon really started to stare through me and he just asked, “could you die from this?” I think I said that you could, but I’m not going to, and that I was going to do whatever I could to beat this! I know from that moment on, it changed their lives and mine, maybe forever.
What stage of cancer did you have?
During my first surgery to remove the lump, that is when it was determined that I had stage III, meaning that it had spread into my lymph nodes. Out of 17 lymph nodes in that area, 9 of them were infected, so all of them had to be removed during the surgery.
What treatments did you choose?
Chemo, Radiation, and Surgery
All about chemo and radiation…
The first round of chemo, which I thought at the time was going to be the only one, was every 21 days, and they also had me on Steroids and Benadryl. The kind of chemo treatment I had was awful, and one of the chemo’s that was being administered to me they referred to it as the “Red Devil”, and I remember saying “no, I am going to believe that this is the blood of Jesus Christ coming into my body to heal me!” The nurses would say, “I like that, me too.” This particular type of chemo is so toxic that the nurses come in completely covered with scrubs and with gloves, because it can’t even touch their skin. At this point losing hair, toenails, nails, neuropathy, etc. is now a reality. Regardless of how I felt, I never let it stop me from working, as I knew I had to focus my mind elsewhere and keep on going! I would bring my laptop and work, until my chemo made me so sleepy that I would finally fall asleep. I was told that if I ate something that I would feel better after my treatment, but that was a big mistake. When I tried to eat I was extremely nauseous! Everyone is different and there are different types of chemo, but normally mine didn’t make me nauseous immediately, and I took medication afterwards that helped me with the nausea. With chemo your mouth is very sensitive, everything tasted like metal, so plastic ware was a must for me! It took a long time to get my taste buds back. After chemo I had to go back the following day to get my “day after” shot, which I knew was extremely important for me. I believe it truly had a huge impact on my healing process. Due to the chemo treatments, I lost my hair, and finally resorted to having my head completely shaved. My head hurt so bad, because it was very tender! Surprisingly enough though, I didn’t cry when Darrel shaved my head, and I actually laughed, because seriously what could I do about it?
After this first round of chemo was over, I met with my Doctor, and he was asking me for direction on next steps, instead of telling me what I needed to do next. He also indicated that there was a spot showing, but that he thought it was just scar tissue from my previous surgery. Needless to say, it was that appointment that made me realize it was time that I took control of the situation, and take the time to go somewhere that I believed would know more about this cancer. I totally believe that God directed those next steps, and I ended up at MD Anderson. The spot that the previous Doctor had seen was not scar tissue, but instead a lymph node that was missed in the surgery, and it was live with cancer! I ended up having another surgery and 8 more rounds of chemo which was administered weekly. On top of the diagnosis of Cancer of an Unknown Primary, I was also diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer, so after the chemo, the next step was to do radiation.
I really liked the Radiation Oncologist that I was assigned to, and when I asked if I could do the radiation locally, he was very sincere and he told me it is extremely important that I do this treatment at MD Anderson. He had to make sure I was hit exactly in the right locations on my body, or there would be a big chance that they could damage my heart, not to mention that the cancer could return. I would have to give up some family time and stay in Houston for this treatment. He said, “If you were my daughter, my mother, or my sister I would tell you that you need to do this here!” I still to this day completely believe him and I said, “okay, let’s do this!” I know God led me to him as well. The radiation treatment lasted 6 and a half weeks, every morning Monday-Friday. When you get closer to end of the treatments it’s not only burning the inside, but it also starts to burn through your skin on the outside. Aloe Vera lotion gave that cooling sensation and also these big plastic bandages that had a cooling gel also helped me so much. To this day, parts of my shoulder and breast will never feel the same, but to me that means nothing because I am alive!
How many chemo treatments, surgeries, radiation have you had?
I have had 16 chemo treatments, 6 and a half weeks of daily radiation Monday-Friday, and at least 4 surgeries that pertain to this.
How long did all of this last?
I thought it was going to be a 7-month period because that’s what I was originally told, but it ended up being a yearlong process of intense treatment, and then several more years of follow-up appointments.
How did you act around your kids?
I never wanted them to see me cry, and in all honesty, I didn’t cry much. I always looked at it as another step in carrying my cross. It definitely helped me get closer to the boys in the long run, but at first Jordon did kind of pull away because he was scared he was going to lose me. Somehow, I had to let him know that I was not going to quit. They all knew how strong I was in my faith, and I think that helped ease their minds as well. It’s so important to continue to be who you are, and continue to show them that you still have faith in the Lord. Britton has always been so strong, so he really supported me and pushed me a long, and I had a big support system of family, friends and our community that helped in so many ways from rides, to meals, to just being with me, and also being great listeners! More than anything the prayers being offered for me I know lifted me in more ways than we will ever know! The support was amazing, and I will forever be grateful!
How did it affect your marriage?
There were times that I felt Darrel distanced himself, and I would think, “do you even care?” But it wasn’t that, it was that he was scared. He had to continue to show me the tough man he is in order to push me. If he had broken down and changed who he was, it would have scared me even more, and he knew that. Darrel had to have me strong and him being so strong for me helped me to be that person for him as well.
Tell me about when you found out you were cancer free.
I remember my last chemo treatment, and my last radiation treatment and getting to ring that bell! It was just the best feeling ever, everyone was so excited and happy! I headed back home and I just felt so good like I think this is it. We were all so happy and ready for me to come home.
How did you keep your faith and positivity?
I knew there was one person that had me this whole time, and that was Jesus Christ! I also felt the loving support of our heavenly Mother, Mary! My family and friends were amazing, and I knew all of these people needed and wanted me to beat this. I kept thinking this was a test and Jesus was using me so that one day He could have me stand and give my testimony, and to help support others on their journeys.
Why is prayer important to you?
The first time that I felt okay about everything was when I got home after my first surgery. I was sitting in my living room, and I felt more peace than I ever had. We had a fire going and I remember thinking it was just so beautiful. I asked myself, “Do you know how many people are praying for you in this particular moment in time?” I felt their prayers, I felt them lifting me up, and I thought, “this is why prayer is so important!” One thing I have learned in prayer is there are so many others to pray for and then the last should always be yourself. Always focus on others, and know that God is taking care of you. By focusing on helping others, you somehow stop thinking so much about your own issues.
How long have you been cancer free?
Technically, after my last radiation treatment, but the way they look at it is how long you have been a survivor, and that was from the date that I was diagnosed on December 3rd, 2012, until now. As of this December, I will be a 6 year survivor!
How does it affect you today?
One of the hardest things I deal with is a lot of people think you’ll get skinny and shrivel away. It depends on what type of cancer and what type of chemo. There is a big possibility you will gain weight, and that is what happened to me. To this day, I have trouble getting the weight off, but I think of it also as that is not what my beauty is about. Jesus left me here for a reason and to help people, and my beauty needs to be inside as well and helping others. That is what I focus on.
Looking back on it, how do you feel?
Still to this day it runs through my mind, it’s something that never goes away. If something comes up with my body, I don’t feel good, I always go a lot quicker to, “what if the cancer is back?” I have a lot of issues with Lymphedema due to the lymph nodes being removed, and some issues with memory. However, I have so many blessings in my life and so much to look forward to. The moment our first grandson, Keaton, was born, I was like I am supposed to be here for this and I am so blessed with all of our family! That is what I focus on, and I just continue to look forward to the future, along with enjoying the present time.
What would you say to someone who is going through this or has a family member going through it?
Stay off the internet!! Do not try to self-diagnose. Focus on everything you can except for that cancer. I focused on my work, my family, and most importantly continuing to grow in my faith! No matter how bad I felt, you could be sure that I would be at work every single day, at Mass every single week, and sometimes more than once a week. It is so important not to let cancer define who you are. You can do this, but you have to keep your mind focused on something else. Have the right attitude, and focus on Jesus! Focus on the now, as in what you can do right now, just one step at a time. One of my favorite mottos was “keep calm and carry on.” We don’t know when our time is, we never do. Make sure you are following the path that God wants you to follow. Do everything you can to be kind to others, spend time with family. Don’t ever stop helping others! You’ve GOT to keep the faith, because there is always HOPE! No matter what happens, if you know you are living right by God and following His plan, you will believe and know that life is eternal, and you will live forever even if your earthly life ends.
Luke 9:23 “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
In loving memory of Linda Grimes, Marisa Vargas and all those whom have went to heaven before us!