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Featured Stories

The Drive To Survive: The Stories of Four Women Striving to Cope With Breast Cance

Written by  Susan E. Dubuque

Whether you are a man or woman, an adult or a child, old or young, you have probably been touched by breast cancer. It may be your mother, aunt, sister or friend who has suffered, or perhaps you have been personally affected. Among the more than 3 million women in the U.S. who have breast cancer, many serve as inspirations to us all.

These are women who demonstrate grace and dignity in the face of a life-threatening illness and women who transform a devastating medical condition into a positive, life-altering opportunity. Additionally, there are still more who selflessly extend a hand to others rather than focusing on their personal circumstances.

This article is a tribute to five of these amazing women. It is our hope that their stories will offer insight and inspiration to even more women who must face the challenges of breast cancer now or in the future.

Denise’s story

When a diagnosis of breast cancer at age 32 threatened to hijack Denise Waff’s life plan, she fought back and regained control in some surprising ways.

“I wasn’t very diligent in performing breast self-examinations,” admits Denise, “but one time when I did check my breasts, I discovered a hard lump.” A few years earlier, Denise had had a benign mass removed from her breast, so she wasn’t particularly concerned. After all, she was too young to have breast cancer, right? Nonetheless, her doctor referred her to a surgeon for a biopsy. On July 7, 2010, Denise was stunned to hear the results: “You have breast cancer.”

Denise was a young wife and mother of a nearly two-year old son, Hunter. The couple was planning on having a second baby soon, but all that came to a screeching halt with the diagnosis. The next two years were a continuous whirlwind of treatments and procedures. First, Denise had a lumpectomy. Before beginning chemotherapy, however, she learned something that was life-altering, even more so than being diagnosed with breast cancer. She has the BRAC2 gene mutation that markedly increases her risks of developing both breast and ovarian cancers.

“I refused to let cancer dominate my life,” declares Denise. “I made the decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy after I finished chemo.” Denise was also determined to have the second child that she and her husband, Eric, had always planned. “I knew that chemotherapy could wreak havoc on my reproductive system, and the type of breast cancer I had [estrogen receptor-positive] would make getting pregnant risky. We went to see a fertility specialist, Dr. Michael Edelstein, and my eggs were harvested.” Ten embryos were frozen in the hopes that the Waff family could have another child in the future.

Denise then began eight rounds of chemotherapy. “Treatments lasted an entire afternoon, so I invited a friend or family member to join me for each one,” says Denise. In her typical take-charge style, she never missed a day of her work as a probation officer throughout her treatments. She had radiation therapy from April to June 2011 and surgery to complete her breast reconstruction in January 2012. Denise received her cancer care at Thomas Johns Cancer Hospital at Johnson Willis Hospital and the Virginia Cancer Institute.

During this same period, Denise began seeing a gynecological oncologist to monitor her for ovarian cancer. Once again, Denise took a proactive step — she opted to have an oophorectomy, the removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes.

In 2013, Denise was healthy and ready to put the disease behind her. She and her husband finally felt comfortable adding to their family. “My best friend from college, Amanda Hoban, had offered to be our gestational carrier [surrogate],” says Denise. In December, the embryos were transferred, and although Amanda became pregnant, she miscarried a few weeks later. Fortunately, Amanda proved to be as tenacious as Denise, and the second embryo transfer was a success. Amanda carried the Waff baby to term, and, she delivered a healthy baby boy in November 2014.

Denise’s cancer may have had a genetic cause. By taking assertive action, however, she remained in control of her disease, her treatment and, occasionally, her very active 21-month-old son, Easton.

DeeDee’s story

When her doctor said the words, “You should get your affairs in order,” DeeDee Schurman and her husband, Geep, visited Hollywood Cemetery and selected a beautiful plot along the James River, “Magnolia 47.” Once that task was completed, DeeDee set about the process of healing.

It was November 2012, one week before Thanksgiving Day, recalls DeeDee, and her mind “was moving a million miles an hour on holiday plans.” The findings of a routine mammogram, however, stopped her in her tracks. It revealed a tumor the size of a chickpea that turned out to be breast cancer.

“I had a lumpectomy between Thanksgiving and Christmas, followed by six chemo sessions and five weeks of radiation therapy,” says DeeDee. “From the day I was diagnosed, I never once thought I would die from breast cancer. It seemed like more of an inconvenience. Throughout my treatment, I continued to work, maintained all my activities, and I even exercised on a regular basis.” In 2013, while DeeDee was in recovery mode, she completed a 10K race and a half marathon, and she ramped up her training in 2014 to complete her sixth marathon.

“At this point, my life was great,” says DeeDee. “Both my husband and I were healthy and fit after two years of living in cancer hell.” The day after DeeDee completed her last radiation treatment, however, Geep was diagnosed with tongue cancer. He went through months of treatment and is now fully recovered.

Unfortunately, the good times were short-lived for this couple. In February 2016, DeeDee began experiencing annoying symptoms. “I had a constant dull pain in my stomach and a sense of fullness,” says DeeDee. “I went to see my oncologist just in case it was an after-effect of my cancer treatment or, heaven forbid, a recurrence.” For four months, DeeDee was treated for digestive ailments. By late June, though, it was apparent that something else was wrong. On June 29, the pain became so intense that Geep took DeeDee to the Henrico Doctors’ Hospital ER, where she had a CT scan, followed by a biopsy on July 5.

On July 7, after waiting through an excruciating week, DeeDee heard the devastating news: her breast cancer had returned, this time with a vengeance. The cancer had metastasized to both lobes of her liver. There was not a minute to waste. DeeDee’s treatment needed to commence immediately.

“It was at this point that I realized I had a major problem and I needed to call in the big guns. I transferred my care to VCU Massey Cancer Center,” says DeeDee. “The last two months have been a series of hospitalizations, struggles to keep my white blood cell count up and my food down, and massive amounts of chemotherapy.”

Despite all of the challenges, though, DeeDee’s positive attitude has never wavered. “The first time I had cancer, I coined the expression, Just Keep Going — or JKG — and that became my mantra,” says DeeDee. “I still embrace JKG, just at a little slower pace.” If DeeDee is learning anything from this experience, it has been patience. “Healing takes time. I just enjoy every moment of every day as it comes.”

“I can’t change my circumstances,” declares DeeDee, “but I do have choices. I choose not to live in fear. I choose to be grateful for my wonderful husband Geep, my family and a huge circle of friends. I choose to look for the good in my journey. And, most of all, I choose to win this battle.”

The day she visited Hollywood Cemetery, DeeDee announced, “I’m not staying. I’m just passing through.” It is obvious that DeeDee still has a lot of living to do. JKG!

Jennifer’s story

When Jennifer Bocrie found out that she had to have chemotherapy, she was even more distressed than when she was told she had breast cancer. She thought losing her hair would be a big deal. And it was, but not in the way she expected.

When Jennifer turned 40, she began having screening mammograms every year without exception — and every year, she received a clean bill of health. In August 2015, however, something different happened. “I was called back for a second mammogram and ultrasound,” says Jennifer, “and I really got suspicious when the technician concentrated on one area of my breast.” Jennifer had a biopsy after that, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer on September 16.

Jennifer may have been the one with the diagnosis, but she was far from alone in this journey. “My husband, Jim, was with me every step of the way,” she explains. “When I was first diagnosed, we met with the surgeon, Dr. [Diane] Cox. At that time, she thought my cancer was stage I and only 1 cm in size. She gave us the options for treatment, but we did our own research as well. We have a saying that we like to use: ‘Control the controllable’ and then let everything else go.”

And taking control is just what Jennifer and Jim did. First, they told their three daughters, Moira (age 18), Caleigh (age 16) and Ilysa (age 14), about the cancer. “Jim did most of the talking,” recalls Jennifer. “He was calm and strong, and that made the girls feel less frightened.” Next, they told Jennifer’s parents. “They really encouraged me to have genetic testing. We wanted to see if our girls were at risk as well as my mother and sister.”

Although the testing revealed that Jennifer did not have the BRCA gene mutations, she made the decision to have a double mastectomy. Further analysis of her tumor showed that the size was actually closer to 2 cm., and it was a Luminal B subtype, a somewhat more aggressive form of cancer. Based on these findings, Jennifer accepted the doctor’s recommendation to begin chemotherapy.

“Chemo meant I would lose my hair,” says Jennifer, “and that was incredibly upsetting to me. My surgery scars could be covered with clothing, but the loss of my hair was right out there for everyone to see. It made me feel incredibly exposed.” However, Jennifer and Jim once again took control of the situation and invited their friends and family to a head-shaving party. “It was a beautiful day at the end of February,” Jennifer recalls. “We made Bloody Marys and mimosas and enjoyed a wonderful brunch. We all went outside and each of our guests, including all three of our daughters, took a turn sharing words of support and love and shaving off a little of my hair. Then, we went inside and tried on a collection of crazy wigs that I borrowed for the day.”

With strength and resiliency, Jennifer and Jim took what could have been a traumatic and depressing time and turned it into a memorable and enjoyable event. “Most of all, it took the sting out of having to shave my head — especially for our girls,” says Jennifer. “I actually did buy a really nice wig to wear, but never put it on. Instead, I wore cute hats or scarves — or I just rocked my bald head.”

Jennifer celebrates her renewed health and is now training for a half marathon in November. Later that month, she will have her final surgery to reconstruct her breasts.

For Jen, one of the most gratifying aspects her cancer experience has been participating in the Breast Cancer Support Group meetings at the Hawthorne Center in Johnston Willis Hospital. “It’s wonderful to talk with other women and men who have had breast cancer,” says Jennifer. “We can truly understand what we have all been through. We all have our stories to tell.” And I’ll bet that Jennifer’s story of her head-shaving party is one that everyone remembers.

Penny’s story

January 26, 2016 is a date that is imprinted on Penny LaPrade’s memory. It is the day that she heard the devastating news: she had breast cancer.

“I’ve always been strong and healthy, working long hours outdoors taking care of my horse. There is no history of breast cancer in my family, and I don’t have the BRCA gene. I pretty much thought I was immune,” says Penny. “So it was shocking when it happened to me.”

Penny had a routine mammogram and annual physical exam in late Fall 2015. Her daughter was getting married on October 10, and Penny wanted to take care of her personal medical appointments before the big day. The test results were fine, but the technician told Penny that she had dense breasts and advised her to be checked regularly.

In late December, Penny noticed that her right breast had an odd, almost angular shape. When she examined it, she felt a lump. “I made an appointment with my gynecologist, and even though he didn’t think it was anything to worry about, he sent me for a mammogram and ultrasound. The same day, I had a biopsy, and the radiologist said she didn’t even have to see for the result,” says Penny. “She was sure that I had breast cancer.”

Penny’s husband, Steve, her two daughters and her niece went with her to the doctor. “On January 26, my diagnosis was confirmed,” says Penny. “Initially, I was told that I only needed a lumpectomy and a little radiation. But to be safe, and at the urging of my daughter, I saw Dr. [James] Pellicane at Bon Secours Virginia Breast Center for a second opinion. He conducted further tests and determined that my cancer was estrogen positive and I was at a high risk of recurrence. No matter how I tried to wiggle out of it, Dr. Pellicane convinced me we should do it his way and have chemotherapy. My cancer was aggressive, and he wanted to be just as aggressive in treating it.”

Penny underwent chemotherapy from March until July 2016, and she had a lumpectomy in September. “My tumor was the size of a walnut, but by the time I had surgery, it had completely disappeared,” says Penny. “I will begin radiation treatment as soon as I heal from surgery.”

Throughout Penny’s treatment, she continued to work full-time in her position as an accountant for a hotel corporation. “I was given a promotion at work at the same time I was diagnosed with cancer. My employer was great. I was told that my new position would be waiting for me as soon as I recovered,” says Penny. She is now training and ready to assume her new role as a supervisor.

Additionally, Penny feels very grateful for her family’s love and support. “Throughout our 31-year marriage, I loved caring for my husband, and I waited on him hand and foot,” she reminisces. “When I got sick, the tables were turned, and my husband took incredible care of me. He was my rock. My daughters, Taylor (age 27) and Casey (age 23), and my son, Steve “Boomer” (age 25), were just wonderful. My mother told me how strong and brave I was. She was so worried about me, even though she was very sick herself.” Penny lost her mother to pancreatic cancer in 2016. “My friends we also there for me — coming to visit, bring flowers and meals.”

“Cancer takes you away from you,” reflects Penny. Now, however, she feels that she is rediscovering the former Penny a little more each day. “My hair is growing back, my taste has returned, and I can go outside and tend my animals.” Despite everything that she has been through in this past year, Penny’s future is looking bright. In fact, her daughter Taylor is expecting a baby, Penny and Steve’s first grandchild. Best of all, furthermore, the baby is due on January 26, 2017. The circle is complete.

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