Lean on Me


Rachel Corscadden finds the beauty of friendship in the midst of her battle with breast cancer.

Written by Lindsey Lowe

Photography by Kathryn Peters

 

“I remember that it was a spring day, and everything seemed so much more beautiful and bright outside.” After the phone call that told her that her biopsy had come back—that the lump in her breast was cancer—Rachel Corscadden went outside to watch her 3-year-old son play in their backyard. “I let him spray me with the water hose just to hear him shriek with joy,” she says. Two days before, Corscadden, 29, had walked into a routine doctor’s appointment, a little bit distracted, thinking about packing for an upcoming beach trip and making it back in time to pick up her son, Graham, from preschool. The appointment, at St. Vincent’s, was her 24-week checkup; she was pregnant. During that appointment, she mentioned to her OB-GYN, Dr. Kathleen Ingram, that she’d found a lump under her armpit. Ingram didn’t seem worried, but she decided to have it checked via ultrasound just in case. Corscadden was still thinking about her beach trip. “I was not concerned at all,” she says. “I felt sure that they would dismiss it as one of those wacky things pregnancy does to your body.”

But the doctors didn’t dismiss the lump. After the ultrasound, they did a mammogram. After the mammogram, they ordered a biopsy. And they told Corscadden to call her husband, Eric, to come be with her. The concern on their faces told her that this might be something serious, and her thoughts began to turn. She wouldn’t get the biopsy results for 48 hours, and that time, Corscadden says, was the most difficult. “Those hours were the worst of my life,” she says. “I could not eat. I shook uncontrollably, and everything sent me into hysterical crying. I could not work; all I could do was lie in bed reading about cancer online.” And then she got the phone call: She had breast cancer. Though this was what she had feared, she felt calm. She walked outside and watched her son play, felt her baby move inside of her. “As soon as I heard the diagnosis, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief,” she says. “I felt that unforgettable, strange feeling of utter clarity. I have gone back to that day over and over in my head on my bad days to remember that I am strong if I can react to a cancer diagnosis in the way that I did.” She attributes that sense of peace to her faith in God. “My help and strength comes from my God,” she says. “I felt God’s presence in a way I have never before and turned this disease completely over to him. No more Googling, no more ‘Why me?’”

Corscadden’s team at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, led by oncologist Dr. John Carpenter, explained that the hormones in her body due to pregnancy would accelerate the cancer and that the best way to save her life was to start chemotherapy right away. The idea of such powerful drugs in her body alongside her baby could have worried Corscadden, but she chose not to let it, though she says that many people who didn’t understand were concerned. At the beginning, she researched the potential side effects for the baby, and her doctors shared statistics with her that convinced her that it was the right decision. “I was never worried he wasn’t going to be OK,” she says. “He couldn’t have made it without me making it, and they were telling me I couldn’t make it without the chemo.” Two weeks after her diagnosis, and 26 weeks pregnant, she received her first of 16 treatments.

Corscadden had heard of the rigors of chemotherapy, but because the drugs are now given in smaller, more frequent doses, she says she didn’t experience the typical side effects. “I was like, ‘Do I even have cancer?’” she says, laughing. But she did, and she went weekly for her treatments, all the while continuing to grow her baby inside of her. Her doctors assured her that she would lose her hair, and she steeled herself for that, expecting to wake up one morning and find it on her pillow. But once her hair began to thin—six weeks into treatment—she decided she never wanted to experience that morning and that she was going to shave it instead. And when she shared this with her friends, three of them—Lesley Hendon, Abby Mann, and Julie Douglass—decided to do it with her. While Corscadden remained adamant that they didn’t have to shave their heads, they did it anyway. “I said, ‘If it were me, and Rachel did this for me, it would mean everything,’” Hendon says. “I felt like it would make her feel more normal, which is important when you feel so alienated with a disease. I am more proud of this decision than any other in my life.”

The women went to Tonya Jones Salon, where the hairdressers pushed four chairs together so they could hold hands. They donated the lengths of their ponytails and had fun having the remaining part shaped into Mohawks and mullets, which kept them laughing. But when the razors took the last of it off, the reality of what they had done together settled on them. “There was something about when Tonya took the razor with no guard to my head,” Corscadden says. “I just lost it, and it became an incredibly emotional experience.” That night, she went home and was reminded that being able to put her hair in a ponytail was not what made her beautiful: “My little boy met me at the door and said, ‘Mama, you so beautiful.’” Corscadden says that in the weeks that followed—and still now—catching sight of one of her friends’ bald heads reminded her that she was not facing cancer alone. The women became a reminder of the strength of friendship to others, too. “Their husbands were fine with it,” Corscadden says. “They thought it was a beautiful thing.”

Corscadden welcomed a healthy baby boy, Liam, three months after her diagnosis (her friends have also stepped in to donate breast milk since she can’t breastfeed him now.) She says she struggles every day with the possibility that she may not see her boys grow into men, a fear she’s not sure will ever go away. “I don’t want to leave them, don’t want to cause them heartache or for them to have to see pictures of me to know who I was,” she says. “I know that if something happens to me, they’ll be OK, but I want to see them grow up. I think it will be the worst part forever and ever.” While she still has a long way to go—there is still surgery and radiation ahead—she’s thankful that since that first spring day, cancer has allowed her to see things as more beautiful. “That’s the weird, messed up thing: It’s been one of the best years of my life,” she says. “When I got cancer, I put aside the petty. There’s a much broader picture of living and being alive.” She’s holding 4-week-old Liam, whose eyes open and close as life bustles around him. She says that if she did have to leave him and Graham, she’d want them to remember this: “Be kind and compassionate. Bless people. I can’t explain how much what people have done for me means to me. You have to find a purpose.”

Liam yawns, oblivious to his miracle status, but his mom is so aware that her eyes fill up. “If I die younger because of this disease, I will have lived out the last years of my life with perspective and purpose, soaking in all of life’s glorious moments,” she says.

 

3 Responses to “Lean on Me”

  1. Hal says:

    At first Rachel I think how fortunate you are to have Friends like you have. The more I thought about it, it seams that it’s the other way around, you have to earn that type of Friendship. Stay Strong, God will provide for you in all kind of ways! We love you!

  2. Melissa says:

    Rachel, you are an inspiration and have so much wisdom for such a young person. I am praying for you and your family. Thank you for being such an encouragement to people. Graham and Liam are blessed to have such a fantastic mother. Also, your friends are amazing! God has given you a great support system. I pray for complete healing for you.

    Kind regards,
    Melissa

  3. YVONNE says:

    YOU HAVE GIVEN A LOT OF PEOPLE COURAGE AND ITS A BLESSING TO HAVE FRIENDS WHO ARE ALWAYS BY YOUR SIDE.GOD IS ALWAYS BY YOUR SIDE HE WILL FIGHT YOUR BATTLES.

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