Category Archives: Diagnosis

At Newport Beach

Last week our family decided to blow off school and work, and head to California for some sun and sand. I reminisced aloud to my four children about the Spring break trips our track team took to Newport Beach when I was in college. Our coaches saved money from some of our other trips during the year, so that our week-long trip during Spring break, with a few low-key track meets to make it legit, was special.

On the second day with my family in the hotel I searched for the nearest grocery store, and discovered a “Ralph’s” right around the corner. Something seemed familiar. It wasn’t until later that afternoon, as we navigated our way back to the hotel, that I noticed the name of the road we were on.

“Jamboree Road!” I blurted out. Then I saw a sign for UC Irvine, the site of our track meets when we were on our Spring break trips all those years ago.

“This is right near the place we used to stay when I was in college!” As we rounded the bend I looked up at our hotel, seeing it with new eyes.

“This is it!” I exclaimed. “We are staying at the exact same hotel our team stayed at on all our Spring break trips in college!”

There had to be hundreds of hotels we could have picked in the area, but somehow my husband unknowingly booked the one that held a treasure trove of memories for me.

“And Ralph’s! We always went to Ralph’s when we came!” I pointed out the trail that we ran on down by the river, and the hill we climbed to gain access to the track off in the distance.

Back in the hotel I recognized the pool, restaurant, and lounging areas on the room floors where my teammates and I talked, flirted with the guys, stretched, and thought about upcoming races, or planned what we were going to do for fun that night.

Once I dyed my hair dark brown in that hotel because it was a rainy night and the girls in my room were bored. On one of the spring break trips I intentionally ignored a boy on our team I was pretending to not like. I recall card games in our rooms long after we should have been asleep, and going to the mall, beaches, and restaurants nearby.

I almost drowned at Newport Beach on one of our trips. Inexperienced with the ocean, a few of us naively went out too far and got caught in a riptide. “Friendly surfer Tracy” with the gold tooth dragged me back to the shore and said earnestly, “My name is Tracy. I want you to always remember that.” I always have.

Somehow, despite the fact that we played so hard, ate all the wrong foods, and slept so little, we always seemed to get our best times at those track meets. The coaches didn’t put much pressure on us. We didn’t plan our strategy, scope out the competition, or visualize, like we did at other, more important, track meets. We liked to bragged about things like eating a hotdog an hour before running the best race of our lives, or showing up to our race just in time to get to the starting line, and then beating our personal record. I remember running in a race that was not my normal event, and outkicking a girl, whom I later found out was an All-American. My freshman year I watched in awe as a guy on our team qualified for the Olympic Trials. There was something magical in the air at those spring break track meets.

Being at that hotel now, years later, with my husband and four children in tow, seemed so strange. I wanted them to know all I experienced there, yet there was no way for them to understand what those memories held for me. Life was so simple then compared to now. That was before I knew who I would marry, before kids, before much responsibility, before cancer.

I’m happy, but not carefree. I worry about my kids, my husband, and my health. We went on this trip to get away from real life for a week, and somehow we ended up in a place that caused me to reflect more on my life. It didn’t seem like a coincidence to me.

I thought back to the worries I had when I was in college. I worried about grades, boys, and my next race. I didn’t have much money at all, but I didn’t really worry about that.

I marveled at those races we ran over spring break. Why did we run so well when we seemed to not prepare for those races? Isn’t preparation usually a good thing?

Then I realized, we were prepared for those races. We had been training all season, and were experienced in racing. We knew the best strategies for our races from hundreds of previous track meets. It wasn’t necessary to know the competition before we raced them. In fact, sometimes we were more confident in our abilities to beat the competition when we didn’t know how good they were supposed to be.

Back in college, I had no idea what the future would hold, but I didn’t worry too much about it.

Now, I am still uncertain about the future, but too often I let myself worry about the unknown. When I am living in the moment and take a look at my beautiful children and amazing husband, I am truly happy.

I’m in a battle with cancer, but I feel more capable when I don’t worry about the competition. For now I am winning the race.

I’m more prepared for challenges than I used to be. I have had hundreds of them in the past. Worrying more is not the answer. When I place less pressure on myself, but rely on wisdom gained from life’s experiences, I free myself up to succeed. Confidence, not fear, is the answer.

Looking at my family, I am more confident than ever before that I know how to make good decisions. Having an element of the unknown in the future makes life interesting and full of possibility.

My children may not have known that college girl, who was the younger version of their mom, but I know her. She was fearless, and she’s still inside of me.

Trip to Houston for Some Answers

After much planning, and arrangements that included my mother-in-law and several other great friends, Branden and I spent the week in Houston, at MD Anderson, trying to figure out the best plan for me in fighting my cancer recurrence.  We met with a doctor who was recommended to us by multiple people, and I feel like he lived up to his reputation.

When I first found that the cancer had returned I went to my old oncologist, Dr. Buys, at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake. She really is wonderful, and has been an incredible partner in battling my cancer thus far. I don’t think I would have had two fabulous years in remission without her wise advice and genuine concern for me. But when we spoke with Dr. Buys, she didn’t suggest what we were expecting.

Let me briefly explain metastatic breast cancer. It started in my breast originally, but because it travelled to my bones, that means it has gotten into my bone marrow and found a good landing place in my bones where it grew. At first the cancer was in my spine and pelvis. After all the treatment I received three years ago, we no longer saw evidence of cancer in my body, but doctors mostly agreed that it would pop up somewhere again. We were hopeful that they were wrong, but knew it was unlikely.

Now, eradicating my one visible tumor with radiation should not be a problem. The problem is that now we know the cancer is still circulating in my bone marrow, blood stream, etc., and will land and make more tumors if we don’t treat it systemically (which means my whole body, not just the one spot). That was why we assumed that Dr. Buys would recommend chemotherapy again, but this time she did not think that was the best idea.

According to her, the chances are “miniscule” that I will completely eradicate the cancer, and my best bet right now is to try an approach with less side-effects than chemo so that I can continue to feel well. My type of cancer is stimulated by estrogen, and so trying a new estrogen blocker is one method of holding back the cancer for a while. Many women with metastatic breast cancer switch from one estrogen blocker to the next over time. One drug will work for some time, and when that stops working, sometimes another one will work. This method can go on for many years if you are fortunate, treating the cancer as sort of “chronic” rather than “terminal”.

I have read a lot over the past three years, and I know that this is the recommended treatment plan for someone in my position, but it has been hard to wrap my head around that. I asked Dr. Buys for her suggestion on a more aggressive treatment plan, such as chemo, and she said she would really try to talk me out of it. “Why would you want to do that to yourself?” were her exact words. I respect her opinion very much, but left her office feeling a bit disappointed. We decided to go to MD Anderson in Houston to get a second opinion.

It was a few weeks before I was able to get the appointment with Dr. Valero, but I felt the wait was worth it. I had some time to think about what Dr. Buys said in the weeks leading up to my appointment with Dr. Valero, and felt that if he suggested the same type of treatment as Dr. Buys suggested, I should listen. When he read my medical history and came to speak with me he started off by basically giving me a much needed pep talk.

Dr. Valero stated confidently, “You can live with breast cancer.” He let that sink in for a minute and then said, “You have lived with breast cancer for a long time now.” Just as I was thinking that three years wasn’t really that long, he said, “You had it many years before you were diagnosed, or it wouldn’t have been at the stage it was when it was discovered.” Then he asked me if I had any pain. When I said no, he said, “See?! You wouldn’t even know you had cancer now if we did not see it on your scan. You can run, you can take care of your children, and you can have an active lifestyle with cancer. So, . . . what we need to do, is keep you feeling well for a long time, and give you a drug that will stop or slow the growth of the cancer.”

He then told me that we are at a good place. My cancer is not causing me any problems, and we have several “tools in the toolbox” right now because I have not had many different drugs yet. After discussing some of the hormone blockers on the market right now, he recommended that I try to get into a trial of a new type of drug called a CDK inhibitor. It does not just block estrogen, but actually destroys estrogen receptors. It has had some amazingly effective results in early phases of experimentation. It is usually used in combination with an estrogen blocker, and so it can be a strong line of defense. Some early results are showing a much longer duration of time before it stops being effective than just the estrogen blockers alone. He said, more than once, that if he were in my situation, he would try to get that drug. The CDK inhibitor was something that Dr. Buys had suggested, but when she couldn’t find an open trial right away, she just moved along to the idea of an estrogen blocker alone. But basically they both were suggesting the same thing.

I trusted Dr. Valero’s advice, but could not leave without asking, “So, do we not ever try for a cure then at this point?”

Dr. Valero quickly raised his finger and said, “I did not say that!” Then he said, “If we have good success for a long time with this approach, and we see that tumor shrink, and no new tumors appear, then maybe we will zap it with radiation and hope to get rid of it completely at that point.” I liked his answer, even if he was possibly patronizing me a bit. It has taken me a long time to come to an acceptance of a treatment plan that is not with the intent to cure me, but I can accept this approach much easier if I am still allowed to hope for a cure at some point, . . . and I do.

After several phone calls, I am now likely able to get into a trial at Huntsman Cancer Institute of the CDK inhibitor, plus two other estrogen blockers with it, starting in September. I feel so good about this plan, and that was what I was praying for; something that felt right.

“Living with cancer” is something I have done for a long time, and I can continue to do it for a long time if necessary. And if “living with cancer” is necessary, you can bet that I will live the heck out of my life! I will be the healthiest person you know with cancer, and I will plan on setting some sort of record for the person who has lived the longest with metastatic breast cancer! ;) And really, I will just do my best to live with whatever comes my way, which is all that any of us can do anyway.

Thank you for those of you who helped with our kids while we were gone this week, and for all of you who have sent encouraging messages or who have prayed for us. I am grateful for so many truly wonderful people in my life, for feeling well, for a husband who loves me enough to take me all over for the best treatment, for my sweet kiddos, and for a relationship with my Heavenly Father. I am blessed.

Round 2

Friends,

We found out about two weeks ago that my cancer has returned. This time it is only in one small place in my lower back, in the iliac bone. Of course we are disappointed that I am no longer in remission, but this is not a huge surprise like the first time either. We have known that it was likely I would deal with this cancer again at some point. We just wished it would have been a longer remission.

Branden and I are still figuring out what my treatment plan will be. I feel great right now, and we are hopeful that I will continue to feel well during treatment. I may, or may not, do chemo. I’m almost certain that I will do radiation to that spot, but there are oral drugs that I may take rather than chemo. We just are not sure right now.

We have one opinion from my oncologist at Huntsman, but have decided that we will take a week-long trip out to MD Anderson in Houston, TX, which is arguably the best cancer hospital there is. We will be going the week of August 18th, (the first week of school for my kids) and I will have all sorts of tests while I’m there. I should come back with the best treatment plan for me, and some peace of mind that we have done our research and received multiple opinions from some well-respected oncologists.

We are really doing just fine. I am optimistic that I will be back in remission again soon. I thank you all for your love, support, and prayers in the past, and ask for your continued prayers. I am so fortunate to have, really and truly, the best family (on both sides) and friends. I am grateful for my faith, my husband, my children, and I feel strong and happy. My life is wonderful. My only complaint is that darn cancer! Hopefully we can get rid of it once and for all this time! I have learned that all I can to do is ‘do my best’. The rest is in the hands of my Heavenly Father.

I won’t begin any sort of treatment until after my trip next month to Houston. We will keep you posted on what we learn when we get back. And don’t worry, we really are doing fine, I just wanted to let you all know since I have shared this with you in the past. Love to each of you!!

Denise

My interview on Clearchannel Radio

Click on the link below to listen to a radio interview I did about my battle with Stage 4 breast cancer. My goal was to offer hope to those fighting late stage cancer. If you, or someone you know, is in that situation, please share or listen, and know that there are survivors out there.

http://www.knrs.com/media/podcast-feedback-with-abby-bonell-Feedback/feedback-with-abby-bonnelldenise-neish-24986769/

Video for the AF Half Marathon

Video for the AF Half Marathon

Written Jan 15, 2013 10:01pm

Denise’s Story

This is a little video clip that was made for the AF Half Marathon.  This is the half marathon I did last summer.  I like having a little video for me and my family as a memory of this event and what it meant to me at the time.
It is obviously a very brief little summary of my cancer story, and mostly focused on the race they are advertising, but that race really did mean a lot to me, so I was happy to be a part of their advertising for it.
I’m still feeling great and am training for this race again for 2013.  Just thought I’d post this to my caringbridge link for anyone who wants to view it.

A year ago . . .

Written Apr 4, 2012 5:06pm

One year ago today my life changed.  I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  3 weeks later I was told that I had very little chance of surviving five years, and that my cancer was “incurable”.
Since that time I have had 4 surgeries, 16 rounds of chemo, and 38 radiation treatments.  I have been hospitalized for a total of about a month during this past year.  I became bald, had horrible mouth sores and infections in my mouth and throat, was unable to eat for about 8 weeks straight, dropped 20 pounds and gained it back, vomited a few times, was unable to get out of bed several times, was not allowed to touch my children for a few weeks, experienced fatigue and nausea, lost feeling in my fingers and toes, and have taken an obscene amount of drugs.  I can’t even count how many times I have had blood drawn, and I have had several tests on my heart and PET scans to check for cancer.
After all of this, I feel healthy and have had one doctor tell me that I may even be “cured”.  If nothing else, it appears I am in some type of a remission.  I am so grateful to my Heavenly Father for allowing me to live and raise my children and be with Branden.
During this past year I have often been sad, scared, or just worried about my life and about my family.  I have tested my beliefs in my desire to feel peace.  I know that my prayers have been heard.  I have felt comforted many times and I feel peace.  I can tell you that I was not alone.  I just want my friends and family to all know that you are never alone in this life.  I hope to live a long mortal life, but I am comforted to know that death is like a door to another room of existence.
I attached a powerful talk by a prophet of God, (President Thomas S. Monson) that means a lot to me.  No matter what you believe, I am praying that many of you will watch it.  It talks about our purpose in life, and what happens after our mortal death.  It is about 19 minutes long.  Please watch it with an open mind.  I absolutely believe it.
Anything that is good, true, and brings joy and peace has to be from God.  He is the source of all good, and I know He loves you and me.  I love you all and thank you for your love and prayers for me and my family this past year.

Letter to Family and Friends

Letter to Family and Friends

Written Jun 14, 2011 11:55pm

This is a letter I sent to my family and friends a couple of days before I started chemo about 5 weeks ago.  We had made it through our move to Utah, and were getting settled in.  I had been too emotional to talk about this to most people, but finally wanted to unburden myself before beginning treatment by telling everyone I should.  I felt like it would help me mentally “get my game face on” for chemo.  I thought that writing this, and getting it out there, would help me toughen up a little for the battle ahead.

Dear Friends,

I have recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer.  I have had surgery, and will begin chemotherapy on Friday.  Some of you know about this, and some of you don’t.  I am sorry to tell you in this blog if you are hearing about it for the first time.  It has been hard to tell everyone personally all about this, and I took some time this evening to write to my family and I decided to forward that email on to all of you so that you can know what is going on with us.  I love each of you and wanted to share this with you.  Here is the email I sent to my family:

Okay, so I know I have needed to write an email and update you guys on what is going on, etc.., but it has been extremely hard with moving and doing doctor’s appointments, and taking care of our family all at the same time. Plus, it has been good to have a little time to get some perspective on things.

So we went to Huntsman last week, and decided to stick with them (as I thought I would). My doctor is “Dr. B”. She is the medical director for the breast cancer clinic of Huntsman, so she should know her stuff. She also was very kind and a good listener, and had good thoughtful information to give.

I wish she would have had some different diagnosis for me, or a much better prognosis, but my prognosis is still the same. I am not saying this to be negative, but just because I have been told this several times now, and I think it is because they try to be realistic or something with patients. The best description she gave about stage 4 breast cancer was that at some point cancer spreads too much for them to permanently get rid of it. It is possible that the first round of chemo could reduce or even get rid of the cancer that we know about so that it does not even show up on a PET scan, but they feel that on a cellular level it will not all be gone, and that at some point it will come back somewhere. It is very positive if we can “get rid” of it this first time though, because it could be a few years before we deal with anything again.

My course of treatment will be very aggressive. We will do 8 rounds of chemo, two weeks apart. This makes it more powerful when you reduce the time in between rounds. Most places only do it 3 weeks apart, but they have some good drugs to help my white blood cell count go up between treatments so that I can handle the higher intensity of this kind of chemo. I will also have plenty of anti-nausea drugs at my disposal, and they feel certain that I should not be vomiting or anything like that throughout treatment. Fatigue will probably be the biggest issue.

After chemo, we will radiate the areas where I had the lump, and lymph node area, as well as the three areas that have advanced to my bone. This can really help, and can even alleviate pain in those areas. (Although I don’t really have any pain there, just some sensitivity.)

After that I will probably have my ovaries removed, and begin an anti-hormone regimen. This can be a very effective treatment for cancer that has spread to the bone. In fact, one of my options was to begin with this treatment and do chemo later.

I may take Herceptin to counteract the HER-2 positive result I got for my type of cancer. But there is some dispute about that, because I got another test back that says that I am HER-2 negative. That would be good if I was negative, but even if you are negative (it is a sliding scale) you can benefit from this treatment, so we will request to get it anyway. I think Dr. Buys is open to that even though it is a 100,000$ treatment!

I will be on the hormone suppression therapy for the rest of my life, and we will do frequent PET scans to check for cancer and treat it as needed.

So on to how we are feeling about all of this. I say “we” because Branden and I are definitely in this together, and have talked at length about all of this. We have both been very emotional at times through this, but we are also beginning to get more hopeful and trying to be strong for the battle ahead, come what may.

There are some people (1-3%) who actually beat Stage 4 breast cancer long term. But the doctors don’t say it’s curable. There are also those who fight a good fight for many years (20-25)but only about 10% live past 10 years, and about 20% live past 5 years. These are not good odds, but I am similar in many ways to those who have either been cured, or who have lived many years.

I am young, healthy, I eat right and exercise regularly, and I am not having any symptoms to begin with. I am optimistic, and will be tough throughout treatment. (Some people simply wimp out of treatment at some point and give up, and that is not an option for me.) My cancer is stage 4 because it has spread beyond the lymph nodes, but I would say “barely”. It is only in three spots, and it is better that it has spread to the bone than to any of my organs. The types that occasionally beat this or live for a longer time are usually ones that have spread to bone only. Also, Branden and I are being very proactive in seeking out the latest and best treatments for this. I am preparing for the side effects in all the ways I can, and I am actually wanting to get going on this treatment. BRING IT ON!!! I have a wonderful husband who is the love of my life, and 4 beautiful children who are young and need me for a long time still. Branden and I started this family together, and I am determined to raise these children with him! I believe that it is possible to beat this cancer, and if anyone can, I believe I can, if it is in Heavenly Father’s plan. I am tough physically, spiritually, emotionally, and I am surrounded by love and have the best support around me possible.

This whole thing has turned my world upside down. I have always been pretty introspective, but it is another thing to have my mortality hanging by a thread. I know that we are all mortal, but I don’t normally think about it too often. It is a good thing to think about, because it makes us want to live our lives in the way that we really want to. I don’t want to go on a big European vacation or anything like that, I just want to raise my kids in the best way I can, have a happy relationship with Branden, and do some good in this world. I want to enjoy Alec, Lily, Max, and Macy more, and I want to actually follow through more with some of my good intentions. I want to do whatever Heavenly Father has planned for me. I don’t feel like my mission in life is complete yet, and I feel like I have much good I can do with the rest of my life. I think this will just be a really good refining process, and I know we all have to go through difficult things in life to help us come closer to what God wants us to be. I love my Heavenly Father with all my heart, and I trust in Him completely. I love each of you reading this email, and I will do my best to be brave through all of this. I feel that I have many more years to come in my life, but I just wanted to share some of these thoughts with you.

Thank you for all your love and prayers. A lot of good can come from difficult things, and I see a lot of that already in the outpouring of love and kindness from each of you and from many more people around me. It is a good example to me.

Love,

Denise

My Diagnosis

My life has taken a really strange and unexpected turn. I am still in shock about this, and feel like I need to write. So much has happened in the last several weeks that I don’t know where to begin.

I found out that I have breast cancer. If that was not shocking enough, it’s really bad. Even though I have felt totally fine, apparently I am “incurable” according to doctors. My cancer is in Stage 4, which is the worst stage. It has spread from a lump in my right breast, to 24 lymph nodes under my arm (out of 25), to two places on my spine, and one place on my pelvis. When it spreads beyond the lymph nodes, and is out in your body in various places, it is considered Stage 4, and they don’t consider it curable. If I was told that my diagnosis was all a mistake, I could believe it, because I feel totally fine!

So let me back up a little bit and try to explain how I got to this point. Two months ago I didn’t have any suspicion that anything was wrong. We were in San Diego. Branden had just secured a new job in Utah, and our minds were full of everything about our move. With four kids, we cared a lot about where we would end up. We both have family in Utah, and my husband grew up here, so we knew it would be a great place to raise our kids. We were excited to finally be living in an affordable housing market so that we could be home owners again. We spent our evenings enthusiastically researching the best school districts in the area for great neighborhoods and houses. As we were figuring out where we would move, and how we would move, I was making a list of things to do before we left San Diego. On my list was a doctor’s appointment at the Breast Clinic. I have had a lump that I noticed for about 2 ½ – 3 years now, that I knew I should get checked out at some point. Before you roll your eyes and say that I was crazy to not have checked it out before, I must defend myself. For the past 3 years I have been either pregnant or breast-feeding, and it is pretty normal to have lumps in either situation.

The day before we left to go to Utah for Branden to start his new job, I had my appointment. We had found a house, but could not move into it for another month, but Branden needed to get started on his job. Alec (my oldest son) had the week off for Spring break, so we decided to go with Branden to Utah for his first week of work. We would stay at his parent’s house for the week, and then I would head back to San Diego with the kids. Branden would work for the next three weeks and we would prepare for our move.

When I went in for my appointment, I expected that I would have a mammogram and probably even a biopsy while I was there. Instead, I only was scheduled for an initial exam. The doctor felt the lump and, of course, felt all over the place to determine if there were any more lumps.  I explained to her that even though the lump was pretty big, I wasn’t too worried about it because I had been pregnant or nursing for so long and that I was sure it was just a clogged mild duct or something like that, but that I knew it would probably need to be surgically removed by now because it was so big and hard, and obviously wasn’t going to just go away on its own.

She seemed a little more concerned than I had expected. She asked me a few questions about when I had first felt it, etc., and then told me that I had another lump up in my armpit. I froze, “I do?!” I asked, alarmed. “Where?” I had never felt another lump before, or I would have definitely been more concerned about this. She helped me find the lump way high up in my armpit. She said that there were possibly a couple other little bumps up there, and that that was where my lymph nodes were.

My mind raced. I thought of an explanation. I had felt extremely tired the week before for a few days, and I said, “If I have recently had some sort of infection, could that show up in my lymph nodes anywhere?” She said that it could. I grasped on to that and tried to convince myself and the doctor that that must be what it was. The doctor told me that she was going to make some calls and try to schedule me for a mammogram and ultrasound the next morning. She said that it was very hard to get a mammogram appointment, and that is why they had not scheduled me for one initially.

I talked to Branden about it that night, and looked up a bunch of stuff on the internet. He was slightly concerned, but said that it was probably nothing, but good that they were going to check it out more thoroughly.  That night I woke up feeling very scared, and I talked to Branden. I said, “If it is breast cancer, it would have to be at least at Stage 2B because it has spread to a lymph node or two. But, . . . I’m sure it’s not. I’m sure that it is just a weird coincidence that that lymph node under my arm is swollen.” I spent the rest of the night trying to convince myself of that so that I could sleep.

In the morning I went in for my ultrasound and mammogram. After both, the doctor told me that while it was probably benign, as most of these things are, he still didn’t see what he needed to see to know that it was okay. He needed a biopsy to rule out cancer. I agreed that we should do one, and we did. Branden was finishing his last day at work, and I called him to tell him what was going on. He asked me if I needed him there for the biopsy, and I told him no. I knew he had a lot to do for his last day, and I told him that it was no big deal. After the biopsy we met at home and finished packing up for our trip. When Alec came home from school we began our long trip to Utah, and drove until about 2AM.

We spent the weekend helping Branden get ready for his first day of work at his new job. I had a hard time not thinking about the biopsy but I tried to keep it to myself. I wanted to be supportive of Branden, and I knew he needed to focus on his new job. I did share my concern with him one night, but we both quickly agreed that everything was okay. Branden even went so far as to say that I should have put off my doctor’s appointment ‘til later so that we wouldn’t be worrying about it right then when we were so busy with the new job and moving. I had a sense that something was not right ever since the doctor found a lump under my arm, but I was trying hard to convince myself that everything had to be okay.

The next day while Branden was at his first day of his new job, I was playing with my kids along with my mother-in-law (who knew nothing of my lump or biopsy) and my phone rang. It was a San Diego number and I went in the other room to take it discreetly. A kind sounding lady was on the other end and she told me that she wanted to talk to me about the results of my biopsy. She asked me if I had a minute and was in a place where I could talk. This couldn’t be good. I replied, “yes” and she delivered the news that I knew was coming, despite my greatest efforts to deny the obvious.

“The biopsy showed that the lump is cancerous.” Adrenaline immediately coursed through my body. I was completely shocked on one level, but not really that surprised on another level. I tried to sound calm and ask the pertinent questions. I spoke with her for a few minutes, and she told me that it would be considered Stage 2 because of the size of the tumor. I told her that we had also found a lump in my armpit and asked if that would put me at Stage 2B if it was malignant too, and she replied “yes”.

She told me that I would need surgery, of course, and that I would also need to go through chemotherapy. “Will I lose my hair?” I asked. “Yes” she gently answered. She said that chemotherapy would probably be for about 4-5 months, and I don’t really remember anything else she told me in that conversation. I know that she told me she was so sorry to tell me the news.

When I got off the phone I went upstairs to the room we were staying in and closed the door. I got down on my knees right away and offered up a plea to God. “Oh Heavenly Father, I’m so scared!! I can’t believe it’s cancer. Please let me be okay. Please help me to be okay, and help me know how to tell Branden.” Tears streamed down my face, and then I quickly tried to compose myself so that I could go down and play with my kids without seeming upset. I wasn’t ready to tell my mother-in-law what was going on yet. I needed a little time for it to sink in for me first. I wanted to tell Branden first.

But before Branden got home I called my sister a few hours after I first received the news. She was shocked, and questioned how I knew it was really cancer, and I told her the whole story of the biopsy. She was surprised that I had not told her what was going on, and I told her that I didn’t want to scare anyone unnecessarily. I cried a little bit to her on the phone and told her that I was really worried about how Branden would take it, and that it was horrible timing because I wanted him to be able to just focus on his new job.

Branden got home a little later that night, which was to be expected on his first day. When he came home we ate and I looked for the opportunity to talk to him. I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. I asked him to come upstairs and talk with me for a minute. When we shut the door, I got right to the point and told him that I had received the results of the biopsy, and stated firmly to him that it was cancer. He dropped to his knees and put his head in his hands and said, “How could this happen.” I said, “Branden, it’s going to be okay. It’s very curable at this stage, and it’s going to be okay. I do have to do chemotherapy, and she said I’m going to lose my hair and everything, but it’s just what we have to do.” Another shocked reaction from Branden when I mentioned chemo and losing my hair. We held each other and talked for a few minutes more, said a prayer together, and went out to be with everyone before our absence would be noticed too much.

Branden had slumped shoulders the rest of the evening. At one point his mom asked him if everything was okay. He replied, “yes”, and she said, “Okay, well you just look like the weight of the world is on your shoulders or something.”

We waited a couple of days before sharing our news with Branden’s family. I called my mom who is on a church welfare mission in Fresno and told her what was going on. I assured her that I was a strong person, and that everything would be okay. I also called my brother, who is not the best about calling. The first thing he said was, “I was just thinking of calling you this morning.” I was surprised,

“Why?” I said.

“I don’t know” was his reply, “I just was out on a run and I started thinking about you and thought that I should give you a call.”

“Well”, I said, “maybe there was a reason you were thinking of me.”

After sharing the news with both of our families, we felt a huge burden to figure out what we were supposed to do. Branden made calls at work to make sure our insurance was in place, and I made calls to different cancer clinics around Utah. I was on Branden’s health plan, and since he had already started his new job, we had Utah insurance, so I would need to be treated here.

We made the decision to extend our stay in Utah so that I could get into surgery as quickly as possible. Alec was missing school, and had already missed a lot this year, but that was the least of our concerns at that point! It was so hectic having my kids at my in-laws house for too long, because they were into everything. My three littlest are ages 3, 3, and 1. Their house was definitely fun for my kids, but not child-proof at all!

After many phone calls with doctors, we finally decided on a Dr. “R” in Utah County. He was able to get us in much quicker than the Huntsman doctors, and sounded like he could get us into surgery sooner as well. I had an initial appointment with him and found him to be very kind. He was able to get me in for surgery with a very reputable surgeon on the next Friday.

I was anxious for the surgery. I wanted to get the cancer out of my body as soon as possible.

After surgery I stayed overnight at the hospital rather than going home because I was vomiting from the anesthesia. I went to stay with my sister the following week so that she could watch my kids while I recuperated. I went home from the hospital with a drain coming out of my side to drain the lymph fluid out of me since all of my lymph nodes had been removed from my right side under my arm. It was a disgusting little contraption that filled with yellow fluid throughout the day and needed to be drained occasionally. I had to protect it so that my kids would not accidentally yank it out from the stitched place where the tube came out of my side.

During surgery the surgeon removed the “sentinel node” and it was immediately tested for cancer. When the test showed that it was indeed malignant, then, by protocol, all the rest of the lymph nodes were removed. There were 25 in all. I had to wait a few days to receive the pathology on those lymph nodes.

Recovery was okay, but I felt more frustrated with the drain than I should have. I had to wait until there was less than a certain amount of fluid draining before it could get removed. I was planning on going back to San Diego that weekend, and didn’t want to go back with the drain still in place. I could not move my arm freely, and definitely couldn’t lift my kids, but they were in good hands with my sister and her older kids who were happy to play with them a lot while I rested.

When the surgeon called me that Thursday the news was not good. First, the pathology showed that she had not gotten completely clean margins around the lump in my breast. She would need to go in again (another surgery) and scrape a little more tissue out under the area where the lump had been. She said that this would be a quick and minor surgery that was not nearly as hard to recover from.

But the worse news was that out of the 25 lymph nodes that had been removed, 24 of them were malignant. I said, “Really?!” I said, “That’s not good.” She confirmed that that was definitely not good news. She said that would put me at Stage 3B rather than at stage 2 as we had initially thought.

My heart sunk. The lump was also slightly bigger than we had thought before surgery too. It was 3.5 cm. rather than 2.7. The surgeon said that while my blood work seemed to indicate that my cancer had not metastasized, she felt that we should do a PET scan of my whole body to make sure. I was scheduled to come in the next day for the follow up surgery and PET scan.

When I told Branden about the pathology results over the phone that night, he came through for me and said just what I needed to hear. I was scared myself, but I was also worried about how he would handle it. I felt like I had been trying to be strong for both of us, and now he was being brave just when I needed it the most.

First he told me that he wished he could be there to give me a big hug. Then he told me that he knew everything would be okay. He said, “Denise, so what if it’s Stage 3 instead of Stage 2?! I know that you are going to make it through this, so they could tell us that you are Stage 19 and it wouldn’t make any difference!”

I love Branden’s way of overstating things!! I laughed out loud and said, “Branden, that’s just what I needed to hear. You are right, I am going to make it through this! Thank you for being so confident sounding. That is just what I needed to hear. But, I’ll be honest, Branden, if they tell me I’m in Stage 19 I’m going to be a little bit worried!!!”

The surgery was uneventful, and easier to recover from than the first surgery. I still was not able to remove the drain though. It was still collecting too much fluid. The PET scan was a bigger deal than I realized. It took about an hour, and I was not able to move the whole time. I had to breath in and hold my breath several times during the test, and hold perfectly still.

When I was done I wanted to look at the PET scan. I knew that it was supposed to light up anywhere there was cancer. When I had looked at my chest X-ray before, I had been scared because I saw something on it that I suspected was a tumor in my lungs. I had waited, terrified, all weekend, only to find out that my chest X-ray was clear. I had been looking at my aortic valve instead of a tumor. I was mad at myself for being scared out of my mind all weekend unnecessarily. The doctor had told me ominously that if something did show up on my chest X-ray that it was considered “incurable”, but that he didn’t think that would be the case, and that we would discuss that when the time came if necessary. This whole thing had me so frozen with fear that I was having a hard time eating or sleeping. I was trying to get a grasp on things, but it was hard.

I had to look at the PET scan when I was done. I couldn’t stop myself from asking. The technician told me I could look, but that he couldn’t read it for me. I knew he probably could, but I didn’t argue. I told myself that if I saw anything suspicious looking I was not going to freak out because I was not trained to know what I was seeing.

Right away I could see a few spots that were bright. He told me that the brain and bladder were always lit up, but there were more bright spots than just those. I saw a couple places on my spine and one on my hip that were lit up. I asked him about those, and he said that he didn’t know why they were lit up. He said that sometimes it could be arthritis, but it could also be cancer. He was very kind and told me to be positive. He told me that his Dad had beat stage 4 prostate cancer, and that attitude was very important. I thanked him for letting me look, but was quickly wishing that I hadn’t. I kept all my fear inside me because it wouldn’t do any good to imagine that I had really seen something on my PET scan that showed my cancer had spread. It wouldn’t do me any good, and it wouldn’t do Branden any good.

We drove back to San Diego together with no answers. I felt a foreboding feeling about the PET scan, and I was still recovering from surgery and frustrated with the drain that was still attached to my side. The kids cried about half the way back to San Diego. Even though they are small, they could sense our stress, and it was wearing on all of us. I was unsure how I would be able to take care of the kids for the next few days by myself while Branden went back to Utah to work before coming home for our move. I didn’t want to scare Branden, but I calmly told him that I saw some stuff on the PET scan that looked like it was lit up. He reminded me what the doctor had said about my blood work, and told me that there was no way it had spread. I had him repeat what the doctor had said exactly about the blood work, and then I tried to believe it.

The next few days in San Diego I spent sorting through things and making final arrangements for our move. We had packers coming to pack everything, but there were still so many details I had to take care of, and stuff I needed to sort through. Mostly though, there were four kids who needed me, and I was hardly able to lift anyone because of my surgery, and I still had my darn drain!!

I called on Tuesday to find out if my results were in from the PET scan. I was told that they would be read the next day. Branden was scheduled to travel back home on Wednesday, the packers would come on Thursday, and we would get the moving truck loaded up and drive to Utah on Friday.

On Wednesday I called the doctor’s office again to enquire about the results. I had a worried feeling, and I wanted to hear the results sooner rather than later. The receptionist said she would call me back. A little while later she called back to tell me that the doctor had not had a chance to look at the PET scan yet, but that he would call me that night after he had looked them over. I repeated to her, “So, . . . He hasn’t looked at them yet?” Pause. “Correct” she said.

That was weird, and I tried to not think of what that meant. Branden called before his plane took off and asked if I had received the results yet. I told him that the doctor would be calling me later.

A friend from church called a short time later and asked if she could come by to help with the kids so that I could get some packing done that evening. I agreed, and she stopped by. Shortly after she arrived, about 7:30PM, I received the call from the doctor. I told her that I needed to take it and went out in our driveway to be alone while she watched the kids.

The doctor said he needed to talk to me about my PET scan results. Then he started stalling. He asked if my husband was home, and I said that he was traveling home as we spoke. I knew that bad news was coming, and I was so scared I was shaking a little bit.

Finally he told me that the PET scan showed that the cancer had spread to the bones. He told me that there were two spots on my spine and one on my pelvis. I asked him if that meant that I was in Stage 4, and he said, “Yes”. He told me that Stage 4 is considered “Incurable”.

When he said the word “incurable” I have never felt so hopeless before. I looked out at some kids riding their bikes past me and wondered if this was really happening. I calmly asked him if he was sure. He said that he was sure. He told me several times that he was so sorry to have to tell me this over the phone, and that he wished that my husband was there with me. I asked him if it was normal that I felt totally fine? He said that was sometimes the case. He told me that my survival rates were about 18-20% for five years, and down to about 5% for ten years. I told him that I had heard of a girl who beat Stage 4 cancer, and he quickly corrected that notion by saying, “Well, it depends on your definition of ’beat’”. He said that no one can say that they beat it only a year or two after, because it would come back. He said that at some point the cancer spreads too much and that it cannot be permanently cured. That is what Stage 4 is.

He apologized several times for telling me this news, but he would not let me get any hopes up. He told me that he needed to tell me the facts so that I could make the “hard decisions”. He even told me that one option was to not even treat it. I was baffled. I said, “Well of course I am going to try to treat it! I have four kids!!”

He said, “And that is what I would definitely recommend in your situation.” I had not cried yet, and my mind was racing trying to think of all the questions I should ask. I asked about chemo, and he said that we would reevaluate our plan, but that we could still probably start chemo in about three weeks as we had planned. Finally my voice cracked and tears started to pour as I asked him again, “Is it NORMAL that I feel JUST FINE??!!!”

Branden called when his plane landed, and I tried to avoid talking for long on the phone to him. I wanted to tell him in person. But before I could get off the phone with him he asked, “Have you heard from the doctor yet?” I said, “Yes”, and I told him that I would tell him about it when he got home. I knew when I said that that it wouldn’t fly. I couldn’t make him wait. I said, “Branden, it’s not good.” I told him that the cancer had spread and that I was in Stage 4. I told him in a rush that the doctor told me it was “incurable”. He was too shocked to say much, and a friend was waiting right there for him to take him home. He told me he would be home in half an hour.

When Branden got home Alec wanted to say hi to him, and Branden quickly tucked him in with a smile on his face. Then he told Alec that he needed to go to sleep, and he took me into our room. We laid down on our bed together and held each other and both of us began sobbing.