Recovery, Recurrence, Resiliency
Written By: Erin Westover, Ms. February 2023
To understand where I am in my journey, it is important to understand where I started. It seems that I was always dealing with some kind of illness, ranging from childhood asthma, to endometriosis, and recently, breast cancer. I had to learn the hard way for almost every single “coming-of-age” experience. But the one consistent thing I’ve always had was the love and support from my family. They helped me to get through every little detour to ensure that I always had the best of the best. They encouraged me to keep pushing along, to keep learning, and to keep trying to be the best person I could be.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, my mom and dad had driven down from New Jersey to stand by my side through diagnosis, 16 rounds of chemo, simple double mastectomy, reconstruction, multiple hospitalizations for infection, and more chemo and immunotherapy due to the tumor not shrinking from chemo. My brothers and their wives would drop everything to surprise me or send me random gifts to show that they were thinking of me. I was receiving prayers from family, friends of family, friends of friends, gosh, it seemed like the prayers were coming from every corner of the world. But even though I was enveloped in so much love and support, something was missing. I was missing the factor that made me WANT to fight and to survive. I WANTED to be a mom. I WANTED someone to fall in love with and share my life with. It’s funny because I almost gave up and moved back home to New Jersey, and even considered becoming a foster parent. I was so ready to discover my purpose from God, that I was so close to forcing it.
Literally a few months later, I met the man of my dreams. We could talk for hours, about everything and anything. We understood each other. He had two boys that I already knew from working with the school district. It just worked, AND IT WAS EASY. It worked SO well that we decided to get married 6 months later. It was the most perfect day — a small, intimate ceremony with delicious food and drinks, spent with our immediate family and closest friends. We got to celebrate our love, and all that was yet to come.
The month leading up to the wedding, I had been sick - sinus infection, enlarged lymph nodes, COVID, back pain. I knew something wasn’t right. I pushed my primary care doctor and oncology nurse practitioner to look further into these symptoms, because, honestly, I’ve never had enlarged lymph nodes in my neck… and, I just got that feeling.
Finally, two days after our wedding, my primary care doctor sent an order for an ultrasound of my neck. Not even an hour later, the radiologist had submitted his report of highly suspicious for metastases of the breast cancer cells. Despite this report, my nurse practitioner was not convinced that it was anything serious, and most definitely could not be my breast cancer returning. It wasn’t until she spoke to the radiologist, who had to convince her that the growths were abnormal and should be referred to oncology - stat.
It seemed that my concerns were not being taken seriously, even with imaging to back it up. I decided to advocate for myself, look into a new oncologist, and get as much help and support as possible. After all, I now had a family that I HAD to be healthy for. Despite my stubborn persistence of always appearing positive, this weighed heavily on me, and continues to do so. My brain went through every worst case scenario. Ultimately leaving me to cry to the heavens how unfair this was — not for me, but for all three of my boys.
Over the next few weeks, it seemed that with every test I received, more bad news followed. First I found out that the cancer hadn’t just spread to my lymph nodes, but also to my chest, around my heart, and to the top of my abdomen. And maybe some arthritis in my hip, at the ripe age of 35. My oncologist recommended systematic treatment to try to quickly kill as much of the cancer as possible — enter Abraxane (chemo) and Keytruda (immunotherapy). The next round of imaging showed that there was also evidence of metastasis in my brain. Multiple lesions that required whole brain radiation to happen immediately, pausing the chemo. This was my first experience with radiation, as triple negative breast cancer patients do not typically get radiation. Ten super quick procedures that lasted about five minutes long, but the headaches and lack of appetite hit hard. With the next round of imaging, we learned that everything was consistent with previous findings, except that the cancer had also metastasized into my bones. My hips, my rib, my skull, and MULTIPLE vertebrae. Cool cool cool cool cool cool. I’m currently waiting to see if my treatment plan will change, because this is all very new information, but after speaking with my radiation oncologist today (incredible doctor, by the way), he appeared to have a good outlook about my case, and even suggested that radiation could possibly help the pain radiating from the lesions in my hips. At last! We finally starting to get some good news.
And while this blog finds me in present day, I try to find things to increase positivity and resiliency while waiting to see where God is leading me in this journey. With support from my husband, I was able to quit my job to focus on resting and healing. I’m able to continue pursuing my advanced degree as an educational specialist for exceptional students. And I’m able to dedicate my fleeting energy to my family. Throughout all of this mess, I must remind myself how lucky I truly am; for each opportunity I’ve ever had, for my medical team, for my family, and for something to fight for.