By: Sharon Gibson
"Every morning is a miracle when I can open my eyes and see the beautiful blue sky!"
I was numb at first, then my stomach took a deep dive as I was given the most disturbing news in May of 2015. My diagnosis....stage II breast cancer. Immediately I asked myself "why me?". Then I said to the doctor “Are you sure those are my results? Can I see your screen?". My next question was, "what are my options?". He listed off - a double mastectomy, chemo and radiation. My head started to spin; I could not believe what I was hearing. He said, "Sharon, go home for now and bring your husband back. We'll talk about it more then".
I got home in a matter of minutes and told Elton (my husband) the news. He hugged me and said, “Don’t worry Sharon, we will beat this together”. I cried! Then after a few minutes, I called my boss to give him the news. He was sympathetic and very supportive. He told me to take the rest of the day off along with any other time needed to get through. He said, “I'm here for you!”.
The next call was to my daughter, her response “Mommy you should have taken daddy with you to get the results. Please don't do this alone", but of course I didn't expect to get the results that I had received. I explained the options that the doctor had given me to my daughter. She told me that she needed to be on a conference call during the next visit. My next call was to my son. His first words were “No Mommy” but I told him that I would be fine and not to worry. The next day we met with the doctor and my daughter joined in by telephone. Based on this conversation and the options discussed, we decided to travel to the United States for a second opinion.
In June, I traveled to Michigan, to complete a PET scan. We also met with a breast specialist, Dr. Melinda Miller who suggested removing a few lymph nodes to see if the cancer had spread. The results from the scan came back with an “all clear” which meant that the cancer did not spread to other parts of my body. My margins were also clear which was a great sign.
My daughter Sharell accompanied me to my next visit to the Oncologist to finalize treatment. We went to Lemmon Holton Centre in Grand Rapids. The recommendation was to go with the maximum treatment. This would be six rounds of chemo every three weeks followed by a Neulasta shot 24 hours after the treatment then a break of six weeks followed by thirty-three sessions of radiation administered to the mapped out area of the breast.
This conversation was then followed by a site inspection of the center along with an overview of how the treatments would be administered. I was shocked at what I saw as we moved through the center. Every chair was filled with a cancer patient and the look on their faces caught me by surprise. Everyone was so pale, frail and seemed depressed. Some were also connected to oxygen tanks and respirators. This stopped me in my tracks and I couldn't walk any further. Then my daughter touched me and said…”Come Mommy let's go, we have to register now". At that moment, something came over me and I silently told myself…"Sharon you are not sick, you will not look like them and you will face this head on and beat it...YOU ARE A FIGHTER!".
The following month I was due to go on our family vacation. Considering this, I asked the Oncologist if I should start chemo immediately or wait until I returned from my trip. He said, ”Take your vacation and enjoy yourself!” And that is exactly what I did. We had a great time and created many memories. We also took family photos. I remember My daughter saying that we would be taking them every year moving forward. We also had a wonderful new addition to our family. My little grandson Noah was born the day I was diagnosed, this is the reason that I call him my little guardian angel.
My Chemo Journey
August 10th, 2015 - I had a minor surgery that morning to put the port in my chest. It would be used to administer all of my treatments and to withdraw blood for testing. Elton and Sharrell came with me for my first chemo treatment which lasted about 5 ½ hours. I felt every drip of drug that was pumped into the port....it's hard to describe the feeling that comes over you as the drugs trace your body. I asked Jesus to give me the strength to get through. My family prayed with me; my husband held my hand tight the entire time.
After the first round of treatment, I switched centers and went to the Susan P. Wheatlake Centre in Reed City, Michigan. This center was closer to my daughter's home. The atmosphere there was totally different…it felt like a home and not an assembly line where people were waiting to be infused. The nurses were outstanding, warm, caring and so attentive. It was like they were hand picked to assist cancer patients. They welcomed me by name and flashed the biggest smiles. I grew to love them dearly and would treat them with Bahamian rum cake each time I would visit.
My Oncologist, Dr. Lawrence Pawl, was amazing! He told me, while touching my knee, "I look at you and see an image of health, I'm sure you are wondering why you are here". My response was. “Yes, please tell me”. He then told me that the same thing happened to his wife; twenty five years ago she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. He explained that she was a fitness fanatic and ate very healthy. "She is now a 25-year survivor" he further shared, "And you are in the best shape to beat this and you will”. These were the stories I leaned on.....the ones that spoke of SURVIVING!
All of my remaining rounds were done at this center. The environment, atmosphere and people truly made all the difference. At the Susan P. Wheatlake Centre lunch orders are taken at the beginning of each treatment and volunteers prepare and deliver them to patients. Private rooms are assigned and you have the option of watching TV, going to the library, watching movies, reading, working on your laptop or to just going to sleep during your treatment. Nurses also constantly check and double check on you during your sessions.
My treatments were going well. I would return to work after the 7th day, as this is when your immune system rebuilds, work for another 2 ½ weeks and then travel back to Michigan for the next round of treatment. During this time, my faith in God grew stronger and stronger. I felt an air of confidence and knew that He was healing me through chemo.
I didn't get sick at all during these sessions and even though I was given medication for nausea, I didn't need them at all. I did however crave foods like grill cheese sandwiches, ice cream, bean soup, split peas soup and popsicles. I even craved Kentucky Fried Chicken, which I never ate. I also drank lots of water before and after chemo.
The only side effect I had would occur the day after I received the Neulasta shot. This was used to help boost my white blood cell count and immune system as a whole. After receiving this, my muscles would completely constrict. The pain felt like I had just gotten through an intense workout after a very long break from exercising. I would feel pain in all of my big muscles (shoulders, thighs etc.). On days like this, I would stay in bed but would bounce right back to normal the following day.
Losing My Hair
The lowest point of my chemo journey was losing my hair. I began to feel the difference in texture during the week of my third round. My hair felt hard and stiff – something like a doll baby’s hair. The Friday before my third round of chemo, I went to brush my hair and felt when it became loose. I said, “Oh Lord, it’s happening”. I gently pulled it back in one loose ponytail and prayed that it did not fall out at work. I had to travel the following morning, so I simply wore a hat while traveling. The moment my daughter saw me at the airport she said, “Oh Mommy, your hair must be falling out because I know you don’t travel in hats.” She went with me for the next treatment and while there, we went to the salon at the cancer center. I told them to shave it all off. It hurt! The Stylist said, "You have such a lovely shaped head, so round and so pretty". I purchased a few hair pieces to wear but I never really got used to them because they never felt like they belonged to me.
I was feeling so good after my third treatment that I went for a workout with my fitness group, Outdoor Fitness Bahamas on Montague Beach in Nassau. During the workout my port got dislodged. The area became swollen the next day and I also got a cough. I assumed that the swelling was from a gland but found out a few days later, when I traveled to Michigan, that this was not the case.
”OMG! That’s not a swollen gland, that’s a blood clot. You need to go to the emergency room now!", my daughter said the minute she saw me. We went directly to the hospital from the airport and her suspicions were confirmed. There was a blood clot, a very dangerous one in fact that lead from my jugular vein to my brain. I was treated with Lubinox immediately and placed on blood thinners. I was told that if I did not come to the ER, I could have died. God was with me and He continued to work because I was still able to take my treatment through the port as scheduled even with the earlier complications.
November 23rd, I completed my last round of chemo and rang the bell as a sign of surviving chemo. I celebrated and took many pictures with my beautiful and caring nurses. My port was removed on December 30th and I gave all thanks to God! Radiation would be my next step.
My Radiation Journey
My radiation journey started on January 5th, 2016 with Dr. Paul Thieme. He was a sweet and caring doctor. The nurses were also friendly and very accommodating. They all made me feel so special and welcomed. I had a cradle made and the areas mapped out where radiation would be applied each morning. A special gown was provided and at each session I would wear the gown, lay in the special cradle made just for me and take my radiation treatment. Each one lasted about five minutes. I was told to be careful not to lose or gain any weight as the markers on my body would be the guideline to apply the radiation. I did this religiously each morning for thirty three sessions - with perseverance, patience and faith - until the final week of the treatment. I was told the side effects would be drowsiness, feeling tired and burning of the skin. The only side effect I received was darkening of the skin in the direct area where the radiation was administered. All of this just encouraged me and I knew that God was truly healing me.
February 3rd, I completed the last round of radiation and rang the bell again. The nurses said that they had never heard the bell rung so loudly before. I was happy! My family was happy, and my friends were happy too. I did follow-up visits every four months for two years, followed by six months for an additional two years. My next six-month visit in December 2019, will be my last for this rotation and hopefully my visits will be on an annual basis only moving forward.
This cancer journey has opened my eyes and taught me to view life in a different way. Cancer may have started the fight, but I WILL FINISH IT!
As I close this chapter of my life, I would like to leave you with the following:
Have Regular Check-Ups
You must have your regular check-ups with your doctor and do a mammogram. Early detection is the key! Once detected early, there is hope for curing cancer. Also, get and keep a copy of your results.
Don't Be Afraid of the "C" Word
There is no need to be afraid of the big bad “C” word. Treatments have been modified to suit you, your body make-up and your tolerance for the drugs. The dosage is not as strong as it used to be in years gone by and back then the same dose was used for everyone. Cancer is just a word it is not a death sentence. It’s about focusing on the fight and not the fright!
Your Attitude & Approach Makes All the Difference
You must have a positive attitude and surround yourself with positive people. Tell yourself, I can beat this and FIGHT! Do not lay down and let cancer take over. Fight the feeling to give up and see death. You are strong and will prove that to yourself. We never know how strong we are until being strong is the only choice we have. Cancer is like a common cold because anyone can get it. I have seen people from all walks of life, color and age with it, so let’s fight it together. You have to fight through some bad days to earn the best days of your life!
Depend on Your Faith
You must have strong faith in God. When you are open to him, he will walk each step of the way with you. He will not leave or forsake you. He stands on His word and it will not be returned void. He has you....depend on Him! I'm living proof of this and I am forever grateful!
Share the News & Embrace Support
This isn't something just for you to bear. It is too much to carry alone, fight the urge to keep it a secret. I shared my cancer journey with people I knew and if I did not see them directly, I told family members and friends to tell them what I was doing when they asked about me. Having support is vital to your healing. It is amazing how one feels when you receive an email or text from a friend who is just checking on you or sending you a big hug close by or from miles away.
My special support system included friends like Cheryl and Dianne who told me that they would not be getting me a gift for my birthday that year (2015) but instead would be paying for my ticket back to Michigan for my next treatment. My sister who would call every morning just to hear my voice and who would also make me every soup that I craved. A sister-in-law who consistently provided me with coconut water and jelly. My son-in-law who drove me to all my treatments on those cold Michigan mornings and a precious little grandson - my guardian angel - who was there after each treatment with the biggest smile. I remember he would pull my tam off so we can both show off our bald heads together. My daughter and son who ensured that I knew they were there for me every step of the way and a husband who stood by me and covered me in prayer daily. A boss who sent emails during the week of my treatment, with a big hugs and words of encouragement. Why should I have given up or gone through 'cancer' alone when I had all of these wonderful people in my life supporting me 100%.
Eat & Stay Active
Even though you may not have an appetite during treatments, you must eat as your body will need the strength to sustain itself due to all the chemo drugs that will be administered. Find something you like and just eat! You must also be active, walk or join a fitness group. I have been working out with Outdoor Fitness from its inception and continually do this on a regular basis 3-4 times per week. It prepared me mentally and physically to endure the harsh chemo and radiation treatments.
November 23rd, 2019 will mark my fourth year anniversary since the last chemo treatment and me as an official SURVIVOR! What amazes me now is that even though I missed my hair in the beginning, I fell in love with my new look and I feel great! My oncologist told me - go and live your life and that's exactly what I'm doing. I make sure that I live each day to the fullest! I focus on all positive things and share my love and light to this world each day because every day is a blessing!
I am on my last six-month follow-up visit that is due in December. I only take an estrogen blocker, calcium and vitamin D every day and I work out and eat healthy. I have one body and I will continue to take care of it.
I am Sharon Gibson and I am a SURVIVOR!
About The Author
Sixty-Two year old Sharon is a hospitality professional who enjoys reading, traveling, fitness training and running marathons. She prides herself in being a wife, mother and grandmother. Her immediate and extended family both bring her great joy and she is grateful to have these earthly blessings in her life.
Sharon is a faith driven woman who believes that God has healed her for a special purpose. She further believes that sharing her story will help others face and fight cancer.
Sharon is open and ready to answer any questions that readers may have. She said that, "God has healed me for this purpose and I will serve His people".
You can reach Sharon by emailing her at GibsonSharong@gmail.com.