Survivor Stories 2013:
1. How did you first find out you had cancer?
My story is quite unique because I was 34, healthy, almost 6 months pregnant carrying a healthy baby boy, and have no family history. It was I who found the lump because it created an annoying itch at my bra’s edge on the upper outer area of my right breast. I was also feverish. Because I was pregnant, I worried about fever and infection and immediately saw my Dr.
Naïve as I was; I believed his theory that this was a clogged milk duct due to pregnancy breasts. Because I was scheduled to have an ultrasound of the baby, he ordered an ultrasound of my breast as well for that appt.
2. How did you react when you heard the news?
Immediately after the test, the tech came out with a strange look on her face. She sternly said to me “Don’t ignore this lump”. I asked her what she meant or thought, but she could not disclose her fears. She simply repeated to me “Don’t ignore this lump”.
My OB/GYN then suggested that I see a surgeon to aspirate the lump. When this Dr. could pull no fluid out, he recommended that I have the lump removed in a short procedure, while awake, but the area numbed. It was a simple procedure but the Dr. did not speak with me afterwards despite my request. Instead, he insisted that I see him on Monday after some test results on the lump. Again, naively, I thought nothing more of it.
I was horrified when he blurted out the news to me at that appt. “Mrs. Barker, that 1 cm. lump that I removed is cancer”. “You need to have an abortion and then immediately have a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy”. “You need to save yourself to be a wife for your husband and a mother to your young toddler”.
His news was particularly devastating to me because we had just buried our precious little daughter Lauren, who had Downs Syndrome, and who had died exactly 1 year earlier from a hospital acquired staph infection after her heart surgery. I was crushed and went into shock. “Why was I being tortured so much”? “My heart was already broken from Lauren’s death, and now I am being asked to kill the healthy baby that I am carrying”? “My God, what did I do to deserve this punishment” I screamed?
3. What course of treatment were you prescribed?
After the shock wore off, we had a family meeting where we discussed that it would be a prudent idea to seek a 2nd opinion. With the help of a family friend who is an MD, I made an appointment with doctors who were specialists in the cancer field (rather than take the rash advice of that local surgeon).
These specialists did some research about pregnancy and BC and opted for a more conservative approach for me. I would have the mastectomy immediately which would then determine if/ how far the cancer had spread and if lymph nodes were affected. If necessary, chemotherapy would follow. Because I did have 2 lymph nodes with cancer, chemo was prescribed. Chemo would start one month after my surgery and that would also mark the beginning of my 3rd trimester of pregnancy. I was told that my son “might be slow or might be small” due to the effects of the chemo. I didn’t care. After losing Lauren, I wanted this baby. My chemo cocktail was CAF. I couldn’t imagine how I’d handle the fatigue of chemo first while very pregnant and then after delivery with a newborn and a toddler to care for. But, I got help and was determined to do what I had to do to save my life and my son’s.
4. What most surprised you about your treatment?
Although I was mostly worried about the health of my baby with surgery and chemo, the most devastating part of the treatment was my hair loss. No one would see me naked everyday, my clothes would hide the missing breast and prosthesis would fill my bra. But everyone could see how dry and ugly my hair became and how it was thinning. I bought a good human hair wig and that made me feel better, but I hated wearing it.
The other bad thing was that I had a terrible reaction to the anti-nausea drug compazine and the Dr. wouldn’t listen to me about it. Thankfully a compassionate RN got him to drop the compazine from my regiment.
I also created a “routine” for my 6 treatments that helped me to cope with the trauma of it.
5. What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
Although it is devastating news, you must face it and deal with it. You must educate yourself about your diagnosis, find a competent and compassionate Dr. to treat you, and take the time to examine your lifestyle and be truthful with yourself about what you might do to change to a healthier and happier life. I believe that there is a strong mind, body, soul connection and when one or all are out of whack, that the stress can weaken your immune system. In my case, I believe that that is why BC struck me. I had been under severe stress with Lauren’s birth and death and had experienced other health issues.
6. How long have you been cancer free?
22 years and counting now!
And, Bryan is fine too. He defied the odds. He has been an honors student and a varsity athlete for years now. He just graduated from an Ivy League college and won a full scholarship to grad school to obtain his PhD in Neuroscience!
7. What lessons did you learn from the experience?
That despite the best of planning, life will throw you curve balls and you have to learn to face them and work with them. Life ebbs and flows and you have to stay steady and roll with it. One of my favorite quotes: “Life is 10% what you make it, 90% how you take it”. Sage advice.
8. If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
Time is our most precious gift on earth, use it wisely. Live every day as if it were your last. Stay positive and appreciate what you have, rather than worried about what you don’t’ have. Make your family and good friends your priorities. Take care of your body.
Liz Barker is a wife, mother, business professional, entrepreneur, author, life champion, speaker, and community leader and volunteer. She has been a committed financial service professional for over 25 years. She holds a number of certified licenses and has won a myriad of awards throughout her career. Most notable is her recognition in Philadelphia Magazine as a Five Star Wealth Manager for 4 consecutive years.
Liz attained her successes despite several significant adversities – life altering events that left their indelible marks. Because of these personal challenges, Liz is an advocate for special needs children and breast cancer patients. Her game changing experiences have inspired her to speak up and out about coping and mastering life’s challenges.
Her manuscript “Changed by Chance…Champion by Choice” is a gripping drama of her story.
Her motto is “Life is 10% what we make it, 90% how we take it.”