One year ago this month, my mom, Nancy Rowe, learned she had breast cancer. After a year going through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, the cancer is in remission, but it was a life-changing event. I tried to go to as many treatments as possible and visit her on weekends, but we never talked — I mean, really talked — about what this year has been like for her.
According to data from breastcancer.org, 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer, and 316,120 new cases of breast cancer in women are expected to be diagnosed this year. The statistics are high, yet few people think it will be them, their mother, grandmother, or sister who will be included in that data.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I’m writing a four-part, weekly column about my mom’s experience with the disease. For this installment, my mom offered an in-depth and emotional insight into how it feels to go through breast cancer.
This is week two. If you missed week one, catch up here.
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Shelby Rowe Moyer: I think everyone knows cancer is a possibility. Your sister, my Auntie Connie, had cancer. Did you ever seriously think you would get cancer?
Nancy Rowe: No. Period. Yeah, I mean it’s always a possibility, and it’s always in the back of your mind. My mother, your grandmother, didn’t have it. My dad lived ‘till 90. He never had cancer. So, no, while I knew it was a possibility, I was humming along in life and felt everything was going to be just fine.
SRM: You waited a couple weeks to tell my sister, Ciara, and I about your diagnosis. Where were you at mentally and emotionally during those weeks? What were you trying to work out with yourself before you told us?
ROWE: Mentally and emotionally, I was probably in a sense of disbelief and probably sheer terror. So much was being thrown at me, like, immediately. When I went in and had the mammogram done, they immediately wanted to do an ultrasound. Then the doctor came in and said, “I want to do a needle biopsy because we’re seeing a mass,” which I knew because I felt it. It was about 4:45 p.m., the end of a work day. I thought if he wants to do it that quickly, then it’s probably serious.
(The test) was (done at) an imaging center specifically for breast cancer. There were a lot of women coming in and out, and every once and awhile I’d see one leave in tears while holding a rose. When they brought the pink rose to me, I knew that was it. It was a pretty long, sad, scary drive home. After that, I was thrown into a whirlwind of appointments and doctors. I hadn’t seen an oncologist yet. I’d only seen the biopsy (results), and I really wanted to know what the approach and treatment plan were going to be before I came to you girls. I didn’t want to come at you with a lot of unknowns. I wanted to come with a game plan.
SRM: Was there any pressure to announce it to everyone? I feel like you either chose to let people know or you chose to keep it private. Did you feel you had to announce it on Facebook, so to speak?
ROWE: I’m older. I’m not tied into social media as tightly as the younger generation, so it was more about how do I tell the people in my life. I (was trying to figure out) when do I tell my girls? When do I tell the people at work? When and how do I tell my loved ones, and co-workers, and the people (who are) in my life on a daily basis? When do I tell them, and how do I tell them? I don’t think I made an announcement until I had my first chemo treatment. I waited awhile. That’s just me.
SRM: From my perspective, you hardly skipped a beat this year going through treatment, surgery,
and radiation. You missed some events and some work, but to the outside world you were so positive. Is that how you felt on the inside?
ROWE: It was a really conscious effort. Obviously, attitude is a choice, and I just kept telling myself, “The more upbeat you are, the more positive you are…” I had friends and family behind me, cheering me on and supporting me, which was huge. I missed more work than I probably wanted to.
I think I had a pretty unrealistic outlook as to how I would feel. I went in and scheduled (all my chemotherapy treatments) for a Friday, thinking, “Oh, well, I’ll just have it on Friday and miss the weekend and I’ll be to work on Monday. Tuesday at the latest.” Well, that’s not how it went at all. I missed a week of work after every appointment, and those were rough weeks. That’s when I felt my worst. That’s when the isolation set in. The first couple days, I was too sick to care about going anywhere. By the middle and end of the week, I’d feel isolated if I wasn’t seeing anybody. I just wanted to be back at work. I wanted to keep my routine going. It was a conscious choice, and it wasn’t always easy. There were a lot of tears when I was at home. But then I’d get up and go back to work. I didn’t want it to define me. I guess that’s the best way to say it. I knew (cancer) was changing me. I knew my life would never be the same. But I didn’t want it to define me.
SRM: What was the most difficult part about this year?
ROWE: I knew cancer was going to take a toll on my body. I knew things were going to change, but I had no comprehension to what level. I don’t think there’s a cell in my body that hasn’t been affected. Things I never really knew about or anticipated. I lost a lot of my sight, which I probably won’t get back. My hearing has been affected, which I probably won’t get back. Obviously, my hair is gone, which I’m slowly getting back. I now understand the term “chemo-brain” (short-term memory loss). It’s real and it’s frustrating. I’m aware of the changes and it frustrates me because there’s nothing I can do about it. The cancer is gone, but now I’m kind of left with the aftermath of effects and the surgery and the radiation. Now all I can do is hope for the best. Some of this may come back or improve. Now I need to deal with the reality that this is how it’s going to be for the rest of my life.
SRM: How much do you think breast cancer affected your life?
ROWE: It’s affected every aspect of my life. It’s really shaken my self-confidence. I don’t think you ever totally understand how much your body can fail you until you go through something like this. To not have the stamina like I did before, to not have the strength that I did before. It’s all the have-nots. Some of which will come back, some of which won’t. That’s been really tough. I used to be really care-free and happy-go-lucky. This has been really humbling. I hear that over and over again. It’s very humbling, and it is.
SRM: You lost your hair, which I know you were really worried about. Did it change how you felt about yourself? Did it feel like you lost part of your identity?
ROWE: Absolutely. For any woman your hair is kind of your crowning your glory. It always has been for me. I’ve always been blessed with thick, full, beautiful hair. I took care of it. I cared about my looks. That sounds really vain, I know, but it was huge. And Connie (my sister who went through breast cancer six years ago) kept telling me, “Just shave it. Do it before it starts falling out and you have no control.” Of course, I didn’t listen. You hope that it’ll stay. It’s weird because it took a few weeks. I don’t think it was until my second chemo treatment that it started falling out. It wasn’t that noticeable at first. And then it was like in the movies with gobs of it falling out onto the shower floor. I thought, “OK, it’s happening. I don’t want to see it drop bit by bit.”
I was thrilled that Ciara and you came over — and (Ciara’s husband), Andrew, was there — and I was able to do it at home. I’m sure it was hard for both of you to be strong. If I were there watching you get your hair shaved off I would probably lose it. Once it was done, I thought, “I can deal with this. If this is the worst of it, that’s not that bad.”
I had a wig, but I hated it. It was uncomfortable, scratchy, and constricting when it was hot. I just gutted it out and went with a bald head; I wore a hat if I needed it.
SRM: What advice do you have for women who are going through treatment or have just been given a breast cancer diagnosis?
ROWE: Do your research, get recommendations, and be careful about choosing your care team. Your oncologist and your care team are the most important things in this process. They are going to get you through it.
SRM: What else would you like to let people know about your experience?
ROWE: It’s survivable. I think it’s important to know (cancer treatment has) come such a long way. Twenty years ago, the cancer that I had have (had) would have been untreatable. I would have died from it. Even though it’s still scary, it’s treatable. You have to go in with a mindset that you’re going to beat it. Also, let people be there for you, and take advantage of the resources you have available. The cancer institute in Puyallup was amazing, and helped me pick out my wig. It was free of charge. I went to a make-up class. My doctor offered a nutritionist and a naturopath to work with me. I wish I had taken advantage of all of that sooner. You don’t have to do this alone and you can survive it.
- Having family with me during chemotherapy treatments
- The amazing care team and nurses that took care of me
- Simple things like a warm blanket and pillow
- My knitted blanket from the (Richard C) Ostenson Cancer Center
- My iPod with my favorite music
- Serial, the podcast
- Being able to fall asleep during chemo
- Facebook! All the support and comments I received through it
- My fiance, Gil.
- Conversations with other patients
Next week, I will share what I learned from doctors at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance about how oncologists are battling cancer differently than they did in previous decades, as well as new options for reconstructive surgery. The final segment will explore what life is like after treatment is completed and the disease is in remission.