Winning the Relay for Life
Laurie Lee, age 45
Lapeer, Michigan

On May 30 of last year, my youngest son’s 22nd birthday, I went to an appointment for a routine “follow up” mammogram and ultrasound. Within a few hours, I was in a doctor’s office being told in no uncertain terms that I had breast cancer and that I would need surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. As the doctor nervously patted my hand, I told him I needed to go pick up my sons. He asked how old they were and when I told him 25 and 22, he was so visibly relieved, that it was clear to me that instant, that he thought I was going to die and he was relieved I wouldn’t be leaving behind young children.

The realization that I was in deep trouble was actually a blessing in disguise. It propelled me through shock, denial, and disbelief very quickly and on to finding the treatment that would save my life. I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive type of cancer, inflammatory breast cancer. It makes up 1-5% of all breast cancers and because it grows in webs or sheets it isn’t easily detected until it is already in the lymph nodes. It requires aggressive, immediate treatment, starting with chemotherapy. In March, at my annual exam, my doctor found nothing unusual, then between my mammograms of May 3 and May 30, a lump grew from nothing to 9x8x3 cm, my lymph nodes were the size of walnuts, and I was told I had a Stage IIIB inflammatory breast cancer, that it was a “bad” cancer and my prognosis was uncertain. I had no risk factors or family history, but here I was – in serious trouble.

I began treatment very quickly at William Beaumont Hospital Rose Cancer Center in Royal Oak, MI. I went through six months of chemotherapy, with Adriamycin/Cytoxan then Taxol. My surgery was in December, then more chemo, then finally 6 1/2 weeks of radiation, which was completed April 10. I was released from treatment April 16 and am cancer-free.

My experience with inflammatory breast cancer has taught me that life can turn completely around in an instant. My life was working pretty well and having cancer was not on my agenda. Well, I have heard that “life is what happens when you are making other plans” and I found out that is true – and you can adjust. The path I am on now is not the one I chose – it was chosen for me and I intend to make the best of it.

I learned that I didn’t have a choice about getting cancer, but I had a choice in how I responded to it. If I was going to have a chance to beat this disease, I was going to have to take charge of my treatment. When I realized I needed treatment quickly, I took all my x-rays and the biopsy report to the cancer center and told them I wasn’t leaving until someone saw me. And they did. I researched and asked questions and became a partner in my own treatment decisions. I had to be my own advocate for the treatment I needed. And who better than me? I was the one who would pay the ultimate price if I didn’t receive the best treatment.

I learned that there are incredibly loving and generous people in my life who stepped up and became my own personal “Relay for Life” team. One of my biggest fears was that I would need to depend on others. My carefully constructed “independence” was not going to work during this battle with cancer. I needed other people to help me, to support me, to drive me to appointments, to listen to my fears. I am still astonished at how many people in my life have given so much to me. From my youngest son, who gave up his apartment and new life in the city to move home to help me, to my best friend who brought me chicken noodle soup on her lunch hour because I was too sick to move off the couch, to friends and family who kept me company during chemo, drove me an hour each way to radiation every day, listened to my deepest fears, sent cards and prayed for me. What a wonderful gift the love and generosity of others has been. I really believe my recovery is in large part due to my support team. They took on the fear, the worry, the scary reality of my situation, so I could concentrate on getting better.

I learned that keeping perspective on my problems was important. Just about the time I was in full “pity party” mode, something would bring me to my senses and I would realize many other people were suffering far worse circumstances than mine. Certainly the tragic national events in the last year gave many of us a perspective on life and what is important. I learned to have my moments of grief, sadness, anger, depression and then get up and “get over it.”

I learned that having hair is really important to me! I found myself with hair envy during my treatment. All I would notice was other people’s hair and I wanted some! I remember just before my hair fell out – I knew it was going to happen soon and I dreaded it. When I would drive, I kept the window up because I was afraid all the hair on the left side of my head would fly off all at once and I would be bald on one side. I could just picture the half head of hair landing on someone’s windshield and them wondering what happened! Now, I am taking a vow – any day with hair is a good hair day!

I learned that my own inner strength, courage and faith have passed a very challenging test. I am here, I am healthy and that is an incredible gift. I hope to be much more mindful of the blessings I have and extend the love, support and generosity I have been given to others.

And finally, I learned that cancer is a challenge and an opportunity. I have been through a battle for my life this past year. But I have also been given a better, more aware and more meaningful life and I am thankful for that. I still have panicky moments, anxiety about a recurrence, sadness over the losses I have experienced this year. But I will not let them rule my life.

Twenty years ago, inflammatory breast cancer was a death sentence. Now, women are surviving at rates that increase with each year as new treatments are discovered. It is only through the dedication and hard work of many people that many of us are here today. I am looking forward to continue my Relay for Life – and winning it for many years to come.