21 Years of Breast Cancer Survivorship
BY Terlisa Sheppard
PUBLISHED January 15, 2020
21 years of breast cancer survivorship— it's like watching one miracle after the other, unfolding right before my eyes! I never would have imagined being diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at the early age of 31 years old, because that's well under the recommended age of 40 to even be concerned with getting an initial mammogram in the first place.
As it turned out, the young age wasn't as completely a shocker as finding out that I had stage 3 breast cancer while I was also 8 1/2 months pregnant with my second child. Now, that was the shocker. I just couldn't wrap my head around this diagnosis at all. Not that I thought I was any better than the next person to receive a cancer diagnosis, but because I just didn't see this coming. I was completely healthy, according to my regular checkups from my OB/GYN during my pregnancy. Before that, I had never been sick and only been hospitalized just once to have my first daughter, which was two years prior to this diagnosis. So how was this happening to me, and why was it happening at this very critical time in my life?
There was no time for pondering over the why's and the how's. I had to be concerned about delivering a healthy baby girl, at 6 weeks earlier than her planned due date. This was pretty much my only option, as it turned out. The aggressive tumor was already 5X5 centimeters in size and was appearing to be fueled by the access estrogen in my body as a result of the pregnancy. After receiving my initial diagnosis, I was already set to deliver my baby less than a week later so that I could start chemotherapy treatments right away. This protocol was an effort to start shrinking the tumor before any surgery or radiation would be done. My daughter was already 6.6 pounds at birth and all test results showed her as a healthy baby girl. This was my initial miracle in itself!
It was a weight off of my shoulders to know that my baby was born healthy after her premature birth and after realizing, from known signs, that cancer had been present in my body for a while.
At this point, it was my health that was more of a concern, because I had to start the grueling process of starting chemotherapy immediately after delivering a baby. I didn't have the normal time to process being a new mom before I was pulled away for appointments with my oncologist. The next course of my life was happening so fast. There were chemotherapy treatments planned out for months in advanced, along with follow up visits with my oncologist.
I went from basically not being in a hospital environment, to being at a hospital all the time. The mental aspect of my new life as a cancer patient, as a new mom of a newborn and a two-year-old, and a wife of only three years, was a lot to bear. I didn't belong to any support groups, nor did I even know of any at that time. I was just thankful to have amazing support from my family, friends, church family, neighbors and coworkers.
Just as I had gotten my life back on track and into a normal routine after the treatments and a mastectomy surgery, not even three years later; I was re-diagnosed with stage four metastatic breast cancer. The cancer had returned at a more alarming rate. It had metastasized to my bones, lungs, and liver. Shortly after my oncologist gave me the results, she told me that my diagnosis was terminal and I needed to, "Go home quit work and get my life in order!" This was not what I was expecting to hear, especially at the age of 34 and with a young family.
At this point; I didn't know anything about metastatic breast cancer, but when your oncologist says the word "terminal" along with it, you know it isn't good at all. My world came crashing down. I was in shock, but I had to hold it all together for my family.
I did take part of my oncologist's advice and went home and requested an early retirement from my job as an accountant with the Department of Defense, but in no way was I going to give up; my daughters needed me. They were only three and five years old at the time and therefore I knew I had to fight this dreadful disease with every ounce of my being. Unfortunately, I was hit with two additional metastatic diagnoses after this. The third time the cancer metastasized to my spine and abdomen in 2002 and the fourth time to my brain in 2003. It left me feeling how much more of this could I really take. Was I supposed to be the poster child for metastatic breast cancer? Whatever the case was, I knew I had been given another chance at life that I wasn't going to take for granted.
I knew that I was going to submerge myself into patient advocacy and work very hard to advocate for more research funding for metastatic breast cancer. I didn't want anyone else to feel that a stage four diagnosis was an automatic death sentence. I wanted to give people hope. I wanted to see my daughters grow up. I wanted my friends to live longer and see their children grow up. I wanted so much more!
So here I am, 21 years later from my original breast cancer diagnosis and 18 years later from my first metastatic diagnosis. My daughters have grown up. They are both graduating college this year, the youngest with a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting, and the oldest with a Master's in Business Administration. I've witnessed one miracle after the other!
I've been on the same targeted drug, Herceptin, for over 16 years now and receive treatments every three weeks. I remain in some type of pain, but I am here now, in this moment! I have life now, and I am going to make the best of every single moment.