Survivor Stories 2014:
1. How did you first find out you had cancer?
The official date of the diagnosis was November 15, 2007; however, the mass was actually found in September 2006 and diagnosed as being benign at that time. With a routine mammogram in September 2007, the mass was determined to be suspicious. After an ultrasound, I was referred to a surgeon for a biopsy. Even though the biopsy was ruled to be negative, the surgeon stated he would put his professional reputation on the line the mass was malignant.
2. How did you react when you heard the news?
My reaction was not what most people would expect. I felt as if I had been strapped onto a rollercoaster on that day in September when I opened the letter from the imaging center stating the mammogram was suspicious and to follow up with my doctor. There were many highs, lows, twists, and turns along the way until the surgeon patted me on the shoulder in the recovery room and said, “We’ve got a little breast cancer; but it will be ok, we will take care of it. Rest now. I’ll come see you later” I prayed to God this prayer, “Lord, I lift this cancer up to you, I pray to you for healing, I pray you let me survive this battle until I get Leeanna grown. Afterwards, I am yours anytime you want to bring me to You.”
3. What course of treatment were you prescribed?
My cancer was more progressed than the surgeon thought. He thought we were dealing with Stage I no more than II. However, the pathology report indicated I had eight out of 13 lymph nodes involved. I was referred to an oncologist whom I liked immediately. The first thing he said to me was, “Oh, your 52, that’s young. Yes, you are going to die, but not from this and not for a long time.” I told him I’d keep him.
In December 2007, I had an intravenous drug implantation, commonly known as a port, inserted into my upper left arm. In January 2008, I began the first of four chemotherapy treatments with Adriamycin, also known as the Red Devil. The next four treatments were with Taxol. I say I’ve danced with the Red Devil and tangoed with Taxol. After a month of rest, I began a daily treatment of radiation for 38 days. I completed treatment on my 53rd birthday. It was one of the best birthdays ever!
4. What most surprised you about your treatment?
The greatest surprise was the tiredness. The doctor told me I would be tired, but it was a level of fatigue like none other. As strange as it sounds, the remedy for the exhaustion was exercise. The YMCA of Middle Tennessee has a fabulous program called After Breast Cancer. The 16-week program provides support from other survivors and current patients as well as personal training from a certified pink ribbon trainer and nutritional advice from a registered dietician. On the first visit with the trainer, I was not as strong as I thought I was and stumbled going from one machine to another. Chemo makes bones brittle so I ended up in the ER with a broken wrist.
When summer arrived, I began walking in the outdoor pool at the local watermark. The pool is circular with 2.5 feet at the edge. I started with one lap and rest. Walk another lap, rest, until I was able to walk five laps. By the end of the season, I was walking 20 laps each afternoon. Today, the waterpark has added a lazy river. I walk the “river” 10 times daily which equates to two miles. Most weeks I walk at least 10 miles.
With the depressed immune systems, I experienced neutropenic fevers. After the first one, even though I was on a neutropenic diet, I experience two more. By the third one, I knew the symptoms and told my family we needed to go to ER.
5. What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
As hard as it is to comprehend the diagnosis of cancer, you know what you have, you have a team of doctors who will care for you, and follow the plan exactly as the doctors tell you to do so.
6. How long have you been cancer free?
On November 15th I will be cancer free for seven years. That is not to say I am not anxious each fall when I get the annual mammogram. I am but would not miss it for anything.
7. What lessons did you learn from the experience?
I learned the lessons listed below . . .
- Listen. I listened to people around me, my medical team, and God. I listened and heeded the advice of all of them.
- Educating oneself is good, but one’s medical team must be the main source of information. My efforts to educate myself about my cancer resulted in my knowing more than I understood, a state of mind that can be just as harmful as not knowing. I decided to let my medical team be my first and main source of information.
- Focus. I focused on two goals–healing and my reason for wanting to be healed. First, I kept my end goal in mind—healing and getting well. Second, I focused on the individual for whom I wanted to be healed, my daughter.
- Set new priorities—as cliché as that sounds. I adopted new priorities. No more seven-day work weeks. No more computer work on Sundays. I reserved those days to spend time for my daughter and my mother.
- Focus on the solution — not the problem. When things go wrong—and they will—focus on the solution not the problem. My doctor told me, ‘If there was a side effect of chemo to be had, you had it, but you never stopped.’ I did not stop because I kept my goals in sight.
- Draw from inner strength. People think I am a strong person, but cancer tested my limits. While I battled the side effects of chemo, I still taught, still did my job. I am not used to slowing down, but when debilitating fatigue hit me, I had to give in and rest. Wearing a swimsuit in front of strangers is not my idea of fun, but when my doctors told me that exercise would aid in my recovery, I followed my radiation treatments by walking in a swimming pool, eventually walking ten miles a week, and I am keeping up that pace. I discovered inner strength that I did not know I had.
- Accept blessings from others. As someone who likes to be a giver, I learned to be a gracious taker. People brought food, sent cards and notes, helped with so many tasks — and best of all, they prayed for me. Sometime after my surgery, I met an education student on campus, who said, “Oh, you’re Dr. Patterson. We’ve been praying for you. I’m here today because of those prayers.”
8. If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
The one message I would like to share is for other women to know that just getting a mammogram annually is not enough. I thought that was all I needed to do. Like, I will be cancer free for seven years. That is not to say I am not most women, I thought my breasts were always lumpy and bumpy, and that I would never be able to detect anything different if I did a self-exam. So, I didn’t, and I was wrong. I now know in addition to an annual mammogram, I, like every women, need to also perform regular self-exams and also have a physical examination by a medical practitioner. Early detection can make all the difference. And, this lesson for other women is probably the most important I’ve every taught.
Alice E. Patterson, a native Nashvillian, is the director of the Doctor of Education in Leadership and Professional Practice program at Trevecca Nazarene University. Additionally, Dr. Patterson holds the rank of Associate Professor of Graduate Education. She teaches courses at the undergraduate, master’s and doctoral level. She taught grades five through eight in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools for 21 years prior to coming to Trevecca. She has also served as an adjunct professor for both Vanderbilt University as well as Cumberland University. Her writing and research interests are content reading, strategic learning, and new teachers. During her tenure at Trevecca, Dr. Patterson has had the opportunity to teach off-campus throughout the state. She has worked with the Tennessee Department of Education in the new teacher induction program and Reading First. While a Metro teacher, she was named the Nashville Middle School Teacher of the Year. For several years, she has chaired or served on Advanc-Ed External Review Teams across the state for K-12 school accreditation. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Peabody College in Elementary and Special Education, a Master of Education degree in Reading Education from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, and a Doctor of Education degree in Reading Education from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. One of her passions is to share her story of being a breast cancer survivor. She lives in Nashville with her daughter and mother.