A Secret to Tell: The Journey of My Wife's Breast Cancer (Part 1)
BY Tom Varcie
PUBLISHED December 13, 2016
Editor’s Note: This piece was submitted by a contributing writer and does not represent the views of CURE Media Group.
July 8, 2015 was not a good day. It was the day my wife and I found out that she had breast cancer. It wasn’t a bad dream. It was reality. It was a reality that we had to overcome and had to beat. There was no question about it from day one.
My wife Sue, 46 then, was going to beat this and – by God’s will and the miracle of medicine —she would. It hasn’t been an easy road. The ride has been an emotional roller coaster with a driver named Cancer. And believe me, you never want your driver named Cancer. I want to preface: This isn’t a story of doom and gloom, pain or suffering, helplessness or hopelessness. It’s an emotional, gripping journey of hope and miracles, a renewed faith in God, mystical intervention which is hard to explain and a story of courage, strength, love and support. This is our story.
The morning drive along Jefferson in Grosse Pointe, MI, was beautiful, warm and sunny. The waves off Lake St. Clair gently lapped at the shoreline. It was peaceful and serene as I drove to a weekly breakfast meeting with my boss. Thoughts of our family vacation to Florida the next day were running through my head. Tomorrow, Lake Saint Clair would be replaced by the Gulf of Mexico. It was going to be our last family trip before our son Justin started as a freshman at Central Michigan University in the fall and our daughter Liz started as a high school senior.
The moment the phone call came at 7:55 a.m., the peacefulness became an epic storm. Sue was on the line, frantic, on the brink of tears, asking me to come to the Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak where she works in radiology. Results of the mammogram that she had the day before had come back – and it didn’t look good. I arrived and met my wife at Beaumont’s Imaging Center and Mammography Department. She was in a small meeting room: two chairs, dim lighting and an end table supporting a beige, ceramic lamp and a bouquet of flowers in a vase. This was the room that you never want to be in.
Beaumont Hospital radiologist, Dr. Ann Swinford entered the room and greeted us warmly, but her eyes told the story. Sue’s mammogram showed she had breast cancer in her right breast. Dr. Swinford said she didn’t know the extent of the cancer, but the images showed it encompassed almost her entire right breast. We wouldn’t know the extent of it until a PET scan was done a week later. Dr. Swinford left the room leaving Sue and me holding hands with tears in our eyes, dripping onto carpeting that joined the thousands of tears left by couples who sat in this exact spot many times before hearing those same words.
“Oh my God, Tom! I have cancer!’’
Pause…. Deep breath. Deep breath again, but there’s no exhale. No exhale! We find ourselves gasping for breath. Sobbing in between breaths. Sobbing. Holding hands. And then silence. Pause…. Then Sue uttered those courageous words, “Tom – I am going to beat this.’’
“Yes we are Sue,’’ I said. “Yes we are.''
MAKING THE ANNOUNCEMENT
Announcing to the world that you have cancer is not like announcing your wedding or that you’re having a baby. Some people keep it very private, others announce it to everyone, including posting on Facebook or other means of social media. We chose to keep it private, telling only the immediate family, our closest friends and some co-workers.
Many people think of cancer as a death sentence. Tell someone that you have cancer and watch their reaction. One of the first thoughts is, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear. How long do you have to live?’’ It may not be said, but you know that thought is there.
I rationalized that while Sue had this diagnosis, just as many people are diagnosed with diabetes and heart disease and just as many people die from the effects of those terrible diseases. So why don’t people announce to family and friends that they have been diagnosed with heart disease and diabetes? It’s because cancer can be a ruthless, indiscriminate killer. No matter the age, sex, color, political or religious persuasion, cancer strikes at any time to anyone – there can be signs or no signs that you have it. Cancer is an alien transformation of a part of your body that goes through a metamorphosis, changing perfectly healthy cells into a hellish mass of black death inside your body. If heart disease and diabetes are the silent killers, then cancer is the guillotine.
Within three hours of the news, Sue and I had called and told our immediate family of the news. But instead of leading those calls down a somber, ugly path, Sue courageously stood strong and said she was going to beat this – no question about it. We told our kids that afternoon and they took the news well. We told them we still planned to go on our vacation down to Florida, but that we would leave two days later instead. Afterwards, we went to dinner, saw “Pitch Perfect 2” at the movies, had a glass of wine and tried to forget about the day. That night, Sue went to bed with breast cancer. The next morning, she woke up with breast cancer.
Still suffering through shock, we met with a team of doctors that Friday: surgeon Dr. Shannon Bongers, oncologist Dr. Naveed Aslam and a nameless, faceless oncologist who would handle radiation if it came to that. The course of Sue’s treatment would be determined when we found out which stage of cancer Sue had. All three doctors advised us to go to Florida with our kids, have some fun, enjoy ourselves and begin the battle against cancer when we returned in five days. Have some fun indeed. After all, we probably caught it early.
A PUNCH IN THE GUT
Nine days after finding out that Sue had breast cancer, we waited in Dr. Aslam’s office in Troy, MI. We were waiting for results from a PET scan that Sue had as soon as we returned from Florida two days before. Stage 4 breast cancer. Nothing can prepare you for hearing those words. There is no higher stage of cancer, except death. The cancer had metastasized from her breast to Sue’s liver, a spot on her hip bone and spot on her right arm bone. It had traveled through a network of channels through her lymph nodes under her right arm. There was a LOT of it. Surgery was out of the question.
Nine days before, we were punched in the face by news that Sue had breast cancer. This was a punch delivered to finish us both off. We left and called our family and friends again, but Sue was determined more than ever to fight and beat the cancer. We grabbed a bottle of wine, two big glasses, submarine sandwiches and two portable camping chairs, drove to Stony Creek Metropark in Shelby Township. We sat for a long time staring at the empty lake in front of us. At that moment, our weekend plans didn’t matter, work didn’t matter; the lawn needed to be mowed at home, but it didn’t matter; the small mundane things of life didn’t matter and the big things in life didn’t matter. We had a major battle on our hands and that’s all that mattered. Sue’s life and health – that was our priority now.
We both read up on cancer, hearing positive stories from people and the stories that didn't turn out well. Prior to the diagnosis we knew very few people who had gone through breast cancer. Suddenly, survivors were coming out of the woodwork. We had no idea there were so many women who we knew who had gone through the battle and survived. I sifted through articles on cancer-fighting superfoods that may help Sue. I didn't want to find out in general terms that these foods beat cancer. I wanted to learn the scientific reasons behind why certain foods attacked cancer cells. I learned that the florets in broccoli, when consumed, break down in the gut and specifically target and eliminate cancer cells. Blueberries, strawberries and kale have a similar effect, specifically targeting and eliminating cancer cells. Maybe it was a stretch. I went to the grocery store, brought home 10 broccoli crowns, three giant bags of kale, five pints of fresh blueberries and five pints of fresh strawberries. Sue laughed hysterically and gave me a big hug and kiss.