An Unfinished Story


A battle with breast cancer reminds us that a good team is crucial and that love is awesome…

Written by Cherri Ellis

Photography by Liesa Cole

The difference between breast cancer awareness and the feeling of finding out that you yourself have breast cancer is the difference between pointing to Tibet on a map and trying to physically get to Tibet by lunch.   One  experience, no matter how conscious it seems at the time, is suddenly made vague by the other. Before I was diagnosed, breast cancer was a cause I was actively involved with. I produced public service announcements for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama, I did the Susan G. Koman Race for the Cure with girlfriends, I went to fund raisers, and I loosely followed treatment advances. Then one day on an ultrasound table, it got personal. The physical feeling of realizing that there was something inside me trying to kill me can best be described as feeling like I was a Jello mold being shot full of electrical current. Craning my head to see what she saw, I knew before the technician ever said a word. I could feel the molecules shift in the room as she looked at the screen. Game on.

I found the lump myself in the shower.  I would like to say I was giving myself a self-exam like responsible grown-ups do, but that would be full of all sorts of horse patooty. I found it completely by accident as I reached for a shampoo bottle. It was large enough that when my fingers brushed against it I stopped cold. Right that red hot second, I stopped thinking about what to pack for my upcoming mother/daughter trip to New York with my 18-year-old and instead tried to remember how long it had been since my last mammogram.

Because I was nervous, my girlfriend  Lou went with me to the morning appointment, and I knew I was in trouble when the very same technician who had firmly told her she would have to wait in the lobby looked up from her work and sweetly offered to go back out and get her. She smiled and said, “You know…we aren’t as busy as I thought we were after all,  so why don’t I just go get your friend so she can sit with you?”   FLAG.  Anytime a medical professional inquires about whom you have with you, they are about to tell you something that they think might make you hysterical. By the time we stumbled out into the sunlight six hours later, I had seen a radiologist, my Ob/Gyn, and gotten six core biopsies punched out of my right breast. There was nothing to do but wait for the results. As the days passed, it was extremely difficult to ignore the siren call of the internet. While the information super-highway has helped society in countless ways, it has also launched many an unmerited anxiety attack with information that may be inaccurate or unrelated. If you have a loved one waiting on test results, Google Images is not your friend.

The call finally came.

A Phyllodes tumor. Very rare. Less than half of one percent of all breast cancers.  Staged not 1 through 4, but only as benign, borderline, or malignant. Does not behave like a typical ductal breast cancer but more like a sarcoma…resistant to chemotherapy.   I had a lumpectomy, some simple stitches under the skin, and home I went. I quickly healed with nothing visually different except a thin, cool pirate-chick scar about two inches long. It was indeed malignant, but the margins were clean and it was gone now, so life went on. A little more than a year later, it came back. And this time, it was angry. Fortunately, so was I.

This was not my first dance with cancer.   When our only daughter was four months old, my husband was diagnosed with Non- Hodgkins Lymphoma. He had a tumor inside his chest cavity that was growing so quickly it was trying to move his heart to one side. Having a small baby and a very sick husband going through chemo was like being stuck in a tragic movie, and I still think I am missing chunks of time from that era.   Ten years later, he had Stage 4 colon cancer already metastasized to his liver. Over the next two years, he had more difficult  chemo, two colon resections and two-thirds of his liver removed. He recently threw in a little squamous cell skin cancer just to mix it up a little. Our daughter, now 19, has grown up her entire life being aware that her dad could die from cancer, but none of us were prepared for it to come after me. Our cat even had cancer. WTH?  Nobody’s CAT has cancer. Ours did.

I’m not gonna lie to you. It is starting to get old.

The Doctors: R. Jobe Fix, M.D. Professor of Surgery-Plastic; Jennifer De Los Santos, M.D. Medical Director of the Kirklin Clinic at Acton Rd CCC, Associate Professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at UAB and Scientist in the Experimental Therapeutics Program at the CCC; Elizabeth A. Kvale, M.D. Director Outpatient Supportive and Palliative Care at UAB and Associate Scientist in Cancer Control and Population Science Program at the UAB CCC; Helen Krontiras, M.D. Co-director of the UAB Breast Health Center Associate Professor of Surgery (in Surgical Oncology) and Scientist in the Cancer Chemoprevention Program at the CCC; Ronald D. Alvarez, M.D. (not pictured) Division Director of Gynecologic Oncology at UAB and Senior Scientist in Experimental Therapeutics Program at the UAB CCC.

I made an appointment at UAB’s Kirklin Clinic, and that launched a dizzying array of tests that left no stone unturned. When it comes to Kirklin… I have people. They use a team care approach, and mine consists of an oncologist/surgeon, a radiologist,  a supportive care physician, a plastic surgeon and an ovarian specialist who was added   when we had a terrifying side scare. The level of meticulous, intelligent, immediate care I received is awe-inspiring. Thursday I had six core biopsies (LOVE THOSE), Friday I had a CT scan, Monday I had a bone scan,  Tuesday I had a lumpectomy, Wednesday I had a Petscan, and Thursday I had an MRI.  Friday, because I had clearly lost my mind, I went to work. If I wrote your commercial that day, I apologize.

So now I have malignant RECURRENT Phyllodes breast cancer, which is so rare that very little data exists. It doesn’t react to chemo, which is bittersweet: nobody looks forward to chemotherapy, but you will think of it wistfully if it is not an option for you.  Even after a wide excisional lumpectomy, there were still cancer cells in the margins, so I have had a single mastectomy, and as of yesterday I am nine radiation treatments into the 30 that are scheduled. (My last is October 4.  Look for me to be hungover October 5, and contact me if you want to be a part of my getting that way. )  You can’t tell in even revealing clothing that anything has been done, except the whole right side of my torso is marked with giant cross hairs and lines in sharpie for radiation. It makes me look a little bad ass. (Think Darryl Hannah in Blade Runner.) I could quote you a lot of statistics, but the truth is that it’s all either zero percent or 100 percent. I will be OK, or I won’t.

It is that tenuous beauty that makes my life so delectable right now.   Cliché as it sounds, cancer has given me gifts along the way. I have been held aloft by my superhero friends. There is the one into whose neck I sobbed until I fell asleep.  There is the one who insisted that hospital lobbies are the best place to read. There are the ones who brought me groceries and meals and flowers and wine and books and paintings and t-shirts and afghans and, inexplicably, small rubber ninja ducks. After one surgery, one girlfriend brought me an armful of clean, pressed, button-front shirts on hangars. Genius. There is the one who showed me her own post-surgery breasts in the bathroom of Brio. One of my best girlfriends is Jeff, a man living in New York City who is the executive vice president of Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Extravaganza national tours featuring the Rockettes. You cannot get gayer than that. We went to both high school and college together, and he checks on me religiously. Jeff is the kind of friend who can make you laugh inappropriately at funerals. The following is an actual phone conversation:

Ring.

Me: Hello?

Him: Quit what you’re doing and go to Facebook and check out the glasses he is wearing. Does he think he’s Jackie O?  OMG. Are you crying?

Me: (sob) No. Yes. Today has been awful I think I’m having a nervous breakdown and I’m scared of the surgery. (Heaving, wracking sobs)

Jeff let me cry for a while, but then he spoke sternly to me.

Him: Listen, Missy, I am sick of you making this all about you. Did you ever stop to think that I might want to see your newly constructed breast? That might be the first remotely heterosexual thought I’ve had in 50 years, so quit being so selfish! Hold on a second.  (12 seconds of silence) Yes, I think I felt a stirring.  I did.  It was a small one, but I can get hypnotized.

Pulling together with family

Another gift is that I have gotten to see my husband rise to the new role of caregiver.  He is sort of used to being on the other side of that coin. For three days during my surgery, he nearly never left the room. He slept on a fold-out chair that was designed for a pygmy, and he is 6 ft. 4 in. tall. When I came home with drains, he not only monitored their output, he made a spreadsheet and calculated the hourly average per drain.

Once during radiation I fell asleep on the couch while waiting on him to finish some stuff before we went out to dinner.  I slept so hard he had two guys from the cable company in the room working on the TV and I never woke up as they talked. Three hours later he gently shook me, and he was holding a tray with ice water and some of my favorites from Outback Steakhouse.  That is walking the walk.

I have seen my gorgeous child emerge as a young woman with the grace of an adult, sitting beside me in pre-op with her iPad, pulling up pictures of the Bernese Mountain puppy she plans to adopt her first year in law school. She used her iPhone and ran the information hotline as if it was a little military operation, and she let me squeeze on her almost as much as I wanted to, one day finally saying, “Mommy, you have got to quit hugging me every time you cross the room.”

My mom came from Ohio and made me Aunt Jan’s famous cabbage rolls. My sisters call every day.  My co-worker’s five children made decorations for my garage door with hearts that say “We love you, Mrs. Cherri.” My girlfriends have given me talismans to wear for strength, and that’s pretty dang fun, since most of them are really special jewelry. My co-workers gave me the moment of a lifetime by surprising me with a visit from the National Pink Heals Tour, complete with pink fire engines, handsome men in pink fire fighter uniforms, police escorts and roses. I was one of only three stops in Alabama; they gave me a Sharpie and let me sign their trucks. It was humbling and surreal and beautiful.

I write this now, before the jury is in and the votes are tallied. I believe I will be OK, but I know that countless women who have told themselves the same thing before they are able to fall asleep at night are no longer with us. It was not their lack of positive attitude. It was not their strength of religious spirit.  It was not their will to live. It was that their lives were snuffed out by a disease that continues to confound and elude the finest medical minds on the planet. We have made amazing strides, but the raw fact remains that all the pink ribbons in the world cannot unfurl and save you if it is not in the cards. And that is the beauty of where I am right now.

Yes, I could die from breast cancer, but I could also step out my front door and be flattened by a Zamboni. That is not likely to happen, but neither was my getting this news.

I will live every day like I am healed, but I do so with a wary eye on the wolf outside the door. It is alright. Little bitty wolves don’t scare me none.

14 Responses to “An Unfinished Story”

  1. Cerole Read says:

    Cherri,
    Not so sure what to say but your amazing attitude will save you in so many ways. I will be thinking of you every day and your family.
    Much love and respect always,
    Carole

  2. Dana Larason says:

    My lovely cousin, how I admire you! I cannot express how your words have tugged at my heart. You have a wonderful outlook, as you always did, even as kids. I am going to make my appointment today, as you have inspired me to do so…

  3. jane perry says:

    Just love you girl. Great read, thanks. xoxoxoxoxo

  4. Lanier Isom says:

    What a beautiful, honest and breathtaking piece. I appreciate your sharing this with the world. It gives me strength to hear your voice and see these amazing images as I live with family, friends and, yes, even beloved pets battling cancer. Thank you.

  5. Robin Hallum says:

    Your Beautiful and Strong. Fifty years from now we will remember How Your Party Rocked!!!!!

  6. Tom Bryan says:

    What a wonderful story . You are a lovely, intelligent, women with a wonderful family and friends. You show such great courage dealing with the special events in your life. I think you have hit upon what life is all about and are a true “blessing ” to all those around you. Best of luck to you and your family.
    Tom

  7. Juliet says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. You write beautifully and express a hard issue so well. I wish you all the best!

  8. Carla Nichols says:

    My witty, sincere and loving cousin! I am SO proud of the woman you are and I appreciate the honest and personal voice you have used to confront such a selfish, greedy disease. I love you for being beautiful you and I wish you enough…………..

  9. Kristy White says:

    Cherri,
    I am speechless and sobbing. . . what a beautiful telling of your story. And, it reflects the amazing woman that you are. I am honored to know you. I hope you will write a book. . . you should, you know? I’m thankful to be a little part of your life. I will pray for healing and for your sweet family.

    Thank you for sharing and inspiring others during your terrifying trial,
    So proud to know you!!

    Kristy

  10. Franklin Biggs says:

    Cherri,
    I am not sure if the keyboard is waterproof, but it is getting tested right now. Thank you for telling your story, up to now, and I now have expectations of updates of future shenanigans. You obviously have a warm and loving circle of family and friends, that bless you with their care. As one who has been through the mill twice, I say be well, I know you will be!
    Franklin

  11. Mary Helen Crowe says:

    You are truly an amazing person who is loved. I am really thankful to read you story and pray that all the health news is good for you and your family.

  12. Vickie Vest-Caskey says:

    Cherri, I have been humbled. Until now, I thought I was the strong one in the family. You are amazing and your strength is so inspiring. Love to you and yours……. (Keep her laughing Robin)

  13. Alexandra Harrison says:

    Cherri

    This is my 4th time reading your article. Tears come to my eyes each and every time! I am praying for you and your family. Reading your article was moving and uplifting. You are beautiful from the inside out and so are your family and friends. I respect and appreciate your courage and strength to so candidly share your story. Thank you! Continue to live everyday like you are HEALED! You are the biggest and baddest wolf! 🙂

  14. Liz Byrd says:

    Cherri,
    What a wonderful article. I am so happy my girlfriend forwarded this beautiful piece to me. I just spent 5 months nursing my mother through brain and lung cancer. She unfortunately perished at the tender age of 71. What really resonated with me was the description of support from various friends and family. I had the friend who invited me to swim in her pool every Friday – it was like a weekly mini-vacation. My friend the florist who would sneak in and leave my mom beautiful arrangements, refusing any talk of payment. My dad’s wife who encouraged my father to spend as much time as he needed with my mom; who then would invite me for a walk or out to dinner at just the right time. The CNA’s who sang Let it Be and The Long and Winding Road in beautiful acapella harmony, helping my mom through the embarrassment of having to use a bedpan for the first time in her life. The weeks I got to spend with my siblings – we are closer now than we have ever been in our lives. I lost my mom in the end, but cancer created some of the most beautiful moments I ever experienced in my life. Blessing to you and your wonderful friends and family.

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