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A Secret to Tell: The Journey of My Wife's Breast Cancer (Part 2)

BY Tom Varcie
PUBLISHED December 16, 2016
Read the first part of Tom and Sue's story here

THE BATTLE BEGINS
 
Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip.
 
Sue started her first chemo treatment 16 days after we found out that she had cancer. She laid in her hospital bed for the start of her first weekly, three-hour chemo treatment that included one bag of chemo, one of Herceptin and one of Perjeta. Each bag would drip for one hour each into her port that was surgically implanted below her neck and above her heart a week before. She laid there, her eyes closed, dozing off in one of the outpatient infusion rooms at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. The office where she has worked for the past nine years was two hallways away. I silently prayed to God with tears in my eyes watching as my wife went through this for the first time.
 
“Lord God, please be with my wife and please remove every ounce of cancer from my wife’s body. Please be with her and protect her every day. Amen.’’
 
I said this prayer every day, mostly during my morning shower so the tears could wash down the drain along with the water. I walked out of the bathroom a strong warrior, not a chink in my armor, for my wife to depend on for support. She was amazingly strong and I had to be stronger. This was difficult. Very difficult. My wife would go through 16 treatments – one per week, every Friday, for four months. Since the diagnosis, we prayed – and still do -- every day to God for strength, to increase our faith and give us renewed faith. We asked for forgiveness of our sins and I’ve asked God to give Sue and me strength to not only help the less fortunate, but to help and give support to those who are going through the painful, emotional, mental turmoil that comes along with finding out that you or your loved one has cancer. Get through this, heal my wife, help give the medicine the strength and power of God to take away her cancer, and then allow us to help those people in similar situations. Maybe that’s our purpose for being on this planet. When you have a diagnosis as bad as my wife’s, you can’t go much lower.
 
Her oncologists were hoping to knock the cancer down enough – maybe by 50 percent – see what happens and try to manage it. Fifty percent. There are a few different types of breast cancer. Sue’s type was called HER2 positive, an extremely aggressive form of cancer that can explode in a matter of weeks or months. Dr. Bongers explained to us that if you are unfortunate enough to get breast cancer, HER2 positive is the “best’’ kind because it is the most treatable and responds best to cancer treatments. One of the standard chemos in HER2 positive patients is Herceptin, which Dr. Bongers called a “miracle drug.’’ The first clinical trials occurred with 15 women in 1992 at UCLA and trials expanded by 1996 to include over 900 women. It was fast-tracked by the U.S. FDA and gained approval for use in all HER2 positive patients in 1998. When it works, Herceptin stops the breast cancer cells from growing any further.
 
“Before Herceptin,’’ Dr. Bongers explained to us, “Women would come in here with metastatic breast cancer and just die. They all just died. It was horrible! With Herceptin, we’re able to stop that growth and women can live more normal lives. With the Herceptin, HER2 positive breast cancer can be treated more like a chronic disease.’’
 
Enter in Perjeta, which was in the other bag that was dripping through my wife’s IV. It was first administered in trials in 2005 and approved by the FDA in 2012. Perjeta inhibits cancer growth in HER2 positive cases. Used in conjunction with Herceptin, it’s a powerful one-two punch against breast cancer cells and inhibits growth. The final bag that my wife was receiving was the chemo, or Taxol. This is the stuff that causes you to lose your hair, eyebrows, eyelashes. It kills cancer cells AND the good cells. It makes you weak, can cause nausea and vomiting, and neuropathy – a painful, tingling feeling in extremities, such as your feet and hands.
 
A NEW LOOK, A NEW DAY, A RENEWED HOPE
 
On Aug. 15, Sue got a new look. We went to a Woman’s Image in Clinton Township where she got her hair shaved off, sporting a very beautiful bald head. It wasn’t the look she wanted, but after clumps of hair started coming out after three chemo treatments, she figured it was time. She actually had some fun with it, ordering eight different wigs over the next six months. I had some fun with it as well, trying on each wig and seeing how I would look in long blonde locks instead of short black hair. I looked like a 1980s metal band rocker.
 
Sue was faring well as the chemo treatments mounted. She never was nauseous, her hair started growing back as stubble after she had it shaved. This fact amazed her doctors because that rarely happens. She had tons of energy despite the treatments, and she had a fighting, winning, never-give-up attitude every single day. And, Sue never, repeat, never missed a day of work due to the side effects of treatment to this day. Daily, Sue was performing self-breast exams to see if the mass was shrinking. If you’re wondering, the mass felt like a hard plastic shell under her skin. Sue – who has been in radiology for 20 years (much of the time as an X-ray tech) and I thought it was a knotted muscle perhaps from exercising, or perhaps from lifting boxes as we moved into our newly-constructed house three months earlier in Chesterfield Township, MI.
 
A couple weeks after the chemo treatments began, we started noticing a sizable reduction of the mass in her breast. The hardness in her breast was actually shrinking – and rapidly. During this time, Sue wasn’t thinking of dying. While she started suffering from neuropathy (nerve pain) in her feet, she wasn’t defeated. She wasn’t going to lay down and let the cancer consume her life and take her down the path of depression, misery, fear and helplessness. She was the most courageous woman whom I had ever known because she was facing stage 4 cancer and never for a minute thought that she would lose the battle.
 
Oct. 13, 2015 – Three months after being diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, our lives changed again. Sue had a PET scan a few days earlier, which would show if the cancer had spread further, or if three months of chemo treatments had knocked down the cancer a little. As we sat in Dr. Aslam’s office, he excitedly explained results of the PET scan, which showed the cancer throughout her breast, liver and bones had shrunk……by 95 percent!! The scan showed barely any evidence of ANY cancer in her body.
 
A SPIRITUAL FEELING AND THE HAND OF GOD
 
“I went to bed one night (shortly after the Oct. 13 meeting with Dr. Aslam),’’ Sue recalled. “I said my prayers, closed my eyes, had just fallen asleep and a voice called out `Sue!’ No one was in the room, Tom was downstairs, but said he never called my name. I’m not sure who it was, but the voice came right in front of my face. Every night I would pray to God. I would mentally zap my breast with my mind, zap my liver, zap the spots on my bones. I would feel a tingling in the areas as I did it,’’ Sue said. “I felt like it was zapping away the cancer. I felt like it was working.’’
 
Sue continued, “I had moments of fear when I would read things about cancer online – the horror stories that people told. But I never had a doubt that this wasn’t going to go away. I always felt like the treatment was working. Was that my feeling of God around me? I would say that was God around. I always felt He would get me through this.’’
 
For me, I felt God’s presence and protection of Sue every day, including at doctor’s appointments where I could feel a strong, warm presence directly behind us. It was strange – the comfort that I felt. Sue had not told me the story of someone calling out her name. She left for work, our daughter left for school and I awoke that morning in our empty house to my deceased grandmother’s voice calling out loudly “Tommy!” It was unmistakable. It was her voice! I awoke startled. That night as Sue and I settled down for the night, I told her of my strange experience and she told me that the same thing happened to her the previous night. Someone, something, was there supporting us.
 
Around this time, while sleeping, I started having truly vivid dreams of Sue and I old together, of us with our grandchildren who don’t currently exist, of us visiting places where we have never visited. These were vivid dreams. Was it just my hope, were they just dreams, or was it something else? The strongest vision came Jan. 25, 2016 in the Nuclear Medicine Department at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak where Sue was preparing for another PET scan. Sue’s appointment was at 5:30 a.m. She drank contrast for the test and we both waited in the dimly lit patient room – which would eventually be for 90 minutes. She dozed off in her recliner and moments later I did as well with my head propped against the hard wall. I sprang from my sleep, having just dreamt that Dr. Aslam – smiling ear-to-ear – had just told Sue and I that she was cancer-free and that her PET scan showed no evidence of any cancer anywhere. I excitedly told Sue my dream. Privately, I wrote down on a piece of paper what clothes Sue was wearing and exactly what Dr. Aslam was wearing in my dream. I did not tell Sue this fact.
 
On Feb. 2, we visited Dr. Aslam’s office to hear the results of her PET scan. The folded paper that I wrote on a week before was wet in my hand. My other hand held tightly to Sue. As Dr. Aslam walked into the exam room, he was wearing the exact shirt, pants and tie that I had dreamt. Sue wore the exact shirt and pants that I had dreamt. The paper that I wrote on fluttered to the floor from my hand. My heart raced. And he told Sue and I that the scan showed no evidence of any cancer anywhere in her body – as my dream had shown. She was cancer-free. We cried again, this time for joy. We thanked God.
 
A SECOND CHANCE AT LIFE
 
Now – as of Dec. 4, 2016 – Sue has had two other PET scans which show no evidence of any cancer. Sue’s recovery from stage 4 cancer has stunned her doctors. It has stunned many, many health care professionals. She is a walking, living miracle. But it never stunned my wife and it never stunned me; Sue felt all along that she would be healed. I dreamt it all along. We both now have a new perspective on life, never taking anything for granted.
 
This year we traveled to Europe for the first time visiting Germany, went on several vacations to New Orleans, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Sedona in Arizona, and our favorite place in Michigan -- Traverse City. Sue has continued to receive maintenance treatment of Herceptin and Perjeta every three weeks at Beaumont’s infusion center. This has occurred since Oct. 30, 2015 until forever…Or until a new maintenance treatment is developed. She has no side effects from these maintenance drugs. Justin started his second year at Central Michigan, Liz started college, and we got a puppy. We gave him the biblical name, Noah.
 
We were bringing new life into our home after five months in 2015 of a raging storm. Realizing now the significance of Noah’s name, this is God coming into our lives. Both of our fathers passed away from cancer – Sue’s father, Haig, in 1990 and my father, Chuck, in 1998. I cited the words of religious philosopher Thomas Fuller in a eulogy at my dad’s funeral: “No man who is fit to live need fear to die. To us here, death is the most terrible thing we know. But when we have tasted its reality it will mean to us birth, deliverance, a new creation of ourselves. It will be what health is to the sick man; what home is to the exile; what the loved one given back is to the bereaved. As we draw near to it a solemn gladness should fill our hearts. It is God's great morning lighting up the sky. Our fears are the terror of children in the night. The night with its terrors, its darkness, its feverish dreams, is passing away; and when we awake it will be into the sunlight of God.’’
 
Sue wasn’t ready to meet her maker, and she still isn’t. By God’s will, she will survive this and my dreams of us growing old together will come true. For now, Thomas Fuller, your words will have to wait. My wife is full of life. Breathe. Exhale. Breathe. Exhale. Breathe…
 
 
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