“Cancer does affect your daily routine,” shares Misti Wilson, MD, a breast surgical oncologist with Bon Secours Virginia Breast Center in Mechanicsville. “How can it not at some point? People fixate on it, but I always them it’s just a part of your life, it’s not your whole life.”
Jennifer Webb, 35, of Mechanicsville found out she had stage 3 breast cancer in January. She felt a lump in her left breast just before the holidays, and, believing it was only a cyst, waited to have it checked out. Learning it was a cancerous tumor instead came as a surprise to Webb.
“I was in a state of shock and disbelief,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it. Breast cancer was not in my family, and I was a healthy individual otherwise.”
K.C. Meadows, 43, of Farmville felt the same way when she found out she had breast cancer following a mammogram last year.
“I went into a state of panic,” Meadows recalls. “My emotions were all over the map.”
I WAS IN A STATE OF PANIC. MY EMOTIONS WERE ALL OVER THE MAP. – MEADOWS
Just over two years ago, Ian Wei-Hong Dempster sought medical attention following a bout of nosebleeds that wouldn’t stop.
“On May 23, 2015, I got the news that it was a cancerous tumor in the back of my head,” shares Dempster, who learned it was stage 3 Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma. “They said that it was the size of my fist by the time they found it. Being told at 22 years old that you’ve got a lump on your own flesh that is trying to kill you is a lot to take in, and I’ll admit I didn’t say much for the first day or two after the call came in.”
BEING TOLD AT 22 YEARS OLD THAT YOU’VE GOT A LUMP ON YOUR OWN FLESH THAT IS TRYING TO KILL YOU IS A LOT TO TAKE IN. – DEMPSTER
It is never easy hearing the news that you have cancer. Minds start racing with questions and possible outcomes, even worst-case scenarios.
“Getting over the shock is a process,” says Tamara Orr, PhD, LCP, a clinical psychologist and psychiatric nurse practitioner with VCU Health and Massey Cancer Center in Richmond. “It’s not something that happens overnight. When most people think of cancer, they think of death. It is very normal to have periods of sadness, anger, or fear. Cancer patients also need time to adjust as they find a new normal.”
Dr. Wilson adds: “It’s important to explain what it means to have cancer, and for patients to really understand their treatment plan and what to expect, so they aren’t surprised. I also try to incorporate family every step of the way. When it comes to cancer, you are not just treating the patient; you are treating the whole family. They are also affected, and you have to remember that.”
Dempster underwent radiation therapy at Massey Cancer Center five days a week for seven weeks as well as chemotherapy once every three weeks during the radiation, followed by adjuvant chemotherapy once a month for three months.
“Cancer hit me at sort of a high point in my life,” Dempster says. “I was going to the gym three times a week, I was an instructor in my Tae Kwon Do class and took part in demonstrations, and I had a full-time job. I was feeling confident about myself in a way I can’t really explain. For a while, I felt like I was right where I was supposed to be. Of course, that’s when life decides to hit you hardest.”
FOR A WHILE, I FELT LIKE I WAS RIGHT WHERE I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE. OF COURSE, THAT’S WHEN LIFE DECIDED TO HIT YOU THE HARDEST. – DEMPSTER
Chemotherapy was also a part of Webb’s treatment plan, which occurred once every 21 days for six months at Bon Secours Virginia Breast Center in Richmond. In July, she had a double mastectomy, which was difficult to accept at first.
“That was tough,” she says. “It’s not easy loosing a part of your body, regardless of the circumstance, but knowing it didn’t end there, that I still I had to contend with cancer, made it even more difficult.”
Some days, the chemo left Webb feeling nauseas and in a lot of pain, but it was the days that she felt lonely and depressed that hurt the most.
“I think it is more of a mental thing than a physical one,” she explains. “Some days, I felt so alone. There are definitely days where you spend every minute crying because you feel like you are the only one going through this. But I learned that you don’t have to be ashamed to cry. You are not the only one. This is your story and there is a reason why you are going through it. You may not be the same person ever again, and that is okay.”
THIS IS YOUR STORY AND THERE IS A REASON YOU ARE GOING THROUGH IT. YOU MAY NOT BE THE SAME PERSON EVER AGAIN, AND THAT IS OK. – WEBB
Cancer can be consuming, and it’s typical to have those ups and downs while undergoing treatment. Some people seek out their faith to cope, while others turn to nature, their friends and family. Many even use humor as a mechanism to get by.
“Each person has to figure out for themselves how best to get through it,” says Will Voelzke, MD, an oncologist with Virginia Cancer Institute in Richmond. “Journaling is a great idea. So is going to support groups. They offer an ideal place where you can talk about your experiences with someone who is going through a similar situation. It’s a great way to connect. Exercise is also a tremendous stress reliever.”
Meadows sought support from her team of doctors at Virginia Cancer Institute.
“To be able to ask them questions – no matter how smaller – and their willingness to slow down and answer them made everything so much easier for me,” says Meadows, who recently wrapped up her chemotherapy treatments. “You have to be able to talk to your doctor. Everyone was super amazing. I really had a lot of confidence in them. I had confidence that I was going to be okay. I was also open and honest with my daughter and my husband, and being able to talk to them about it also gave me a sense of freedom.”
DOCTORS AREN’T JUST THERE TO TREAT THE CANCER. THEY’RE TREATING YOU. REMEMBER, THEY ARE PEOPLE TOO. THEY KNOW WHAT YOU ARE GOING THROUGH. AND THEY WANT TO HELP PUT YOUR MIND AT EASE WHENEVER THEY CAN. - MEADOWS
Not long after her double mastectomy, Meadows and her friends started raising funds for breast cancer research.
“I wanted to do something for the next person who has cancer so that they know they will be okay,” she says.
Webb relied on her faith and her family to help her through the tough moments.
I SPENT A LOT OF TIME ON MY KNEES PRAYING. I AM A VERY SPIRITUAL PERSON. WITHOUT GOD, I WOULD NOT HAVE GOTTEN THROUGH ANY OF THIS. - WEBB
Webb also spent as much time as possible enjoying the outdoors, going for walks each day, and attending her two sons’ baseball and basketball games.
“I promised myself that I would not let cancer win,” she says. “It is very helpful to keep that positive outlook. It gets your mind thinking that you can do this, and that means the world. I am so happy when I wake up each day. I appreciate my kids so much more. It’s also brought my husband and me closer. I’ve taken a moment to step back and visualize what is truly important.”
I PROMISED MYSELF THAT I WOULD NOT LET CANCER WIN. – WEBB
Dempster gave himself permission to have bad days.
“I let myself cry or rant or shout at the toaster oven,” he says. “As long as you are not taking it out on another person, I think acknowledging your feelings is important.”
Like Webb, Dempster refused to give into the cancer “partly just because I can’t stand losing,” he says.
“Cancer to me was an opponent. This malicious force that was trying to take me down, take my life, take my body, take my smile. I couldn’t control some of it, but I would not under any circumstances lose my ability to smile.”
I WOULD NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE LOSE MY ABILITY TO SMILE. – DEMPSTER
These days, Dempster has a thousand reasons to show off his pearly whites.
“My prognosis is very good,” he says. “I’ve been officially cancer free since March of 2016. I am grateful for the work of those at Massey Cancer Center.”
Cancer not only impacts patients, but the physicians as well. Both of Dr. Wilson’s parents suffered from lung cancer. She decided to become a physician in part because of watching what her father went through as he battled cancer when she was a young child. She particularly remembers the caring, kindness, and support of her dad’s physicians as they treated him.
“It’s a calling for me,” Dr. Wilson says. “I now use my own personal experience to make a difference for someone else.”