- Diseases, Disorders & Conditions
Breast Cancer: She Did Not Let It Define Her
September 4th is her anniversary. It is not the anniversary of her marriage or the day she became a State Trooper. It is the anniversary of her death. This is her story of living with breast cancer.
She was 43 years old when the breast cancer showed up just a few weeks after having a normal mammogram. She found it in the shower, a tiny lump in the upper outer quadrant of her breast. It didn’t worry her much. She had just had a mammogram so it couldn't be anything. But it was something; something bad.
The day of the core biopsy would be no ordinary day. No one knows how scared she was because she kept her little secret until – she got the news. That tiny little lump was bad. Technically, they called it “infiltrating ductal carcinoma, poorly differentiated”. We called it – "the cancer". Her doctor said - “you have an aggressive tumor and might want to consider double mastectomy”. And that’s exactly what she did.
Who She Was
She never did anything the easy way, not her. They laughed when as a young woman she said she wanted to become a State Trooper. But she did it. When she asked to be assigned to the county where she lived, they laughed and said it would never happen. No woman had ever worked that county. But she did. When they told her she would never rise in the ranks, as a woman State Trooper, she proved them wrong and through hard work and careful study, she worked her way up to the rank of 1st Sergeant.
She served as a mentor to many other young women with aspirations of becoming a Trooper. She trained young officers, both men and women. They adored her because she was tough, but fair. She served on the Honor Guard and on the Crash Reconstruction Team. She got her Bachelor’s degree in business administration and graduated from the Criminal Justice Command College. It was never enough just to be a Trooper. She wanted to be the best. And just maybe, she was.
And so it was with the cancer. It wasn’t enough to just survive. She wanted her experience to help someone else. Nothing was going to stop her from making this challenge an opportunity to help others. Nothing!
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The Cancer, The Treatment, The Journey
Both breasts were removed and a lot of lymph nodes too. The pathology report was shocking. The tumor was large and had spread to many of the lymph nodes. The final diagnosis – stage IIIc breast cancer. An MRI, bone scan, CAT scan, Liver Profile followed. And then, she waited. It was like waiting for an axe to fall, and it did. Those additional tests showed something in the liver. The cancer had spread to the liver. The diagnosis changed again - Stage IV breast cancer, with metastasis to the liver.
She was so brave. Round after round of chemo beat her down but she wouldn’t stay down. When the first few strands of her hair fell out, she shaved her head and never wore a wig. She was in charge, not the cancer. She scheduled the chemo on Friday and the radiation in the early morning so that she wouldn’t miss work. The pain in her legs and feet was worse than the nausea and hair loss. Some days it seemed almost unbearable but she pushed through it somehow. I’m sure none of us knew how bad it really was.
Not having breasts was never a consideration for her. She wanted reconstruction and she got it. Some of her medical team advised against it, but, they weren’t living with a flat chest. It was personal for her and she wanted breasts. She got them. She also got MRSA, the antibiotic resistant Staph infection that is easy to get and hard to get rid of. If there was a complication to be had, she had it. And then, the headaches started.
More scans revealed that the cancer had invaded the left frontal lobe of her brain. Stereotactic radio surgery was recommended. It wasn’t an option. It was do it or - die, she had to have it. There were risks but she stared them down and dared them to get in her way. They didn’t. Well maybe they did, but it took a while, about a year, I think. The headaches returned and the final option for the tumor growing in her brain was whole brain radiation. The risks were memory loss, blindness, loss of speech and balance. She had them all, except the blindness. Her vision was affected but she never lost it completely.
How She Lived
I won’t give the cancer any more attention here. I want you to know about the person who fought and lived with the cancer for the next five years. I promised her I would tell her story and somehow, I will. It was important to her that others facing the same challenge have something positive to hold on to. For those of us she left behind, that’s easier said than done sometimes; to find the positive in it all.
She was as brave as anyone I’ve ever known. She was honest about her situation and knew the cancer would win. We talked about dying and how it felt to know how you would die but not when. We talked about the importance of her maintaining control, deciding for herself what she would endure. That was important to her as such an independent woman who had charted her own course through life. It was important to her to make it to her 25th anniversary with the State Troopers. She wanted to retire properly, not be put out to pasture on disability. She made it.
On January 1, 2011, she retired. On her 25th anniversary, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Mid-Atlantic Association of Women in Law Enforcement. The award is given to women who have served a minimum of fifteen years in law enforcement and distinguished themselves through outstanding accomplishments and contributions spanning their career. What a fitting description of this woman who in all areas of her life demonstrated integrity, compassion, veracity, character, and professionalism. She wore the uniform proudly and we were so proud and happy for her. She deserved this award and it came at just the right time.
In the Spring of 2011, it was clear the cancer was raging out of control. After starting another round of chemo that left her exhausted and unable to eat, she made the decision. Enough was enough. The benefit no longer outweighed the side effects. In those quiet hours of early dawn, unable to sleep – again, she faced the inevitable. She was dying and wasn’t going to fight it anymore. She would make the best of the time she had left. She called me that night, to see how I felt about her choice. She wasn’t asking me to decide for her. She simply wanted some assurance that her decision did not mean she was weak. I repeated the words I had said to her all along – “This is your journey, your decision, and unless someone has stood in your shoes, they cannot know how you feel or judge you for the decisions you make.”
There would be no more chemo, no more radiation, no more scans. It was time to look at life from a different view. Realizing that they had lived for their careers, she and her husband knew they had precious little time to make memories. They made a bucket list and in just a few weeks, were off on a cruise to Alaska with friends. It was not an easy trip in a wheelchair but they made memories in spite of it. They also traveled with a group of friends to the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Unable to ride on the bike for any length of time, she rode in the support truck for most of the trip but they still made memories.
Towards the end of July in 2011, she was referred to hospice. She wanted to be at home; to die at home and friends and family stepped up to make sure she did. By the middle of August, the tumor in her brain had robbed her of her balance. Walking became difficult and she had a series of falls. On the 29th of August, she went to bed and never got up again.
In the days between August 29th and September 4th, she showed us who she was. Friends and family sat with her and one by one, she made her peace with them. Each visitor had stories of how she encouraged them, challenged them, or, was just there when they needed someone. There was a lot of laughter and plenty of tears but those days were precious, to her and to those who came. In her own way, she was writing the script of her final days and making sure that nothing was left undone or unsaid. Even as she was dying, her priority was to make sure that each one of us, those who loved her, would be okay. It was important to her that we knew she was ready to go. We knew.
She wrote her own obituary and planned her funeral. She wrote a contract for her husband, making him promise to work less and play more after she was gone. And she made him sign it and show it to me. Someone would need to remind him and she knew that I would. She was in charge, to the very end. It was her way and the cancer would not change that.
At 1:45 p.m. on September 4th, she took one last breath and was gone. All had been said. All had been done. She died as she lived, showing the rest of us how it should be done.
Her name was Lisa. She was married to my favorite cousin but she was more than my relative through marriage. She was my spirit sister and she was a gift. She allowed me to take this journey with her; shared her thoughts and feelings about this disease with me with absolute honesty. She always knew it would take her from us but she would not let it define her. Lisa was never a victim of breast cancer. She was a woman living WITH breast cancer.
I miss her. I miss our conversations and laughing with her. She made me a better person. Through her, I met and made friends I would never have known without her. We share something special; a bond that can never be broken. Lisa loved us and we loved her. She taught each of us that life is what you make of it. She taught us that challenges are only opportunities. She taught us that your character is your greatest asset and that strength comes from believing not only in yourself but in a higher power. She taught us about courage in the face of adversity and that nothing is healthier than a good laugh.
Lisa, you did it your way and you did it with class. I wonder if you knew just how loved you were. In the days after you left us, in every circle of friends you left behind, it was said repeatedly that you were a Trooper, in every sense of the word. And you were.
Were you aware of the bridges you built across such a diverse group of people? Do you know that because you loved us, friendships were made that will last a lifetime? We are bound together through the love. the laughter, and the special moments you shared with each of us.
In your wildest dreams you could never have imagined the many ways you would touch us or the lessons you would teach. You made us better for having known you though. You left this world a better place.
You didn't sit back and let breast cancer define you. You became the face of breast cancer in our area. Even on a bad day, you were there cheering on the teams at the annual Relay for Life. You gave all your friends a pink ribbon awareness bracelet and dared them not to wear them. You encouraged and supported others who were living with breast cancer and promised them they would never be alone.
Lisa, my precious spirit sister, you taught us to live and you taught us how to die.
You are, and will always remain, my hero!
© 2012 Linda Crist