Patience, Fortitude, Perseverance and Humor: A Journey Through Breast Cancer

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Mary Schatz and her daughter; Mary shares her story about living with cancer; Advances e-Newsletter, UW Carbone Cancer Center

Mary and her daughter Hali

Mary Schatz shares her thoughts on being diagnosed with cancer.

Children are a happy life-changing event; cancer is a frightening life-changing trauma.
I am the mother of a son, Michael, 22 and a daughter, Hali, 18 (a cat and two dogs also). Just after Christmas 2007, I was diagnosed with stage III, invasive breast cancer.
"Denial" Isn't Just a River in Egypt
A history of scar tissue, from a prior surgery (complications of mastitis), helped me postpone checking up on some further changes I'd noticed. In fact, I chugged a good ways down the river "Denial" on my trusty boat "Busy Working Mom."
Months of delay and denial later, I finally went to see my doctor again, she took a look and said, "I've got to tell you, this does not look good …" An opinion expressed, in some way, by every doctor I saw subsequently.
It was just before Christmas and I was frustrated and felt "Grinchy." After a diagnostic mammogram at UW Hospital and Clinic's Breast Center, an ultrasound, a false start at a biopsy, followed by an MRI to better define the target for biopsy, we tried to put it all out of our minds and managed to enjoy Christmas.
I called my doctor as soon as I thought she would surely have the results, but she was out of town. I could not wait, so I made another poor doctor give me the bad news. My husband, Jeff, and Hali sat on the floor beside me holding me, when she called back.
I anticipated a diagnosis of cancer but when I heard the news, it still left me dazed. I had to ask her to repeat everything. I paced around and didn't cry. I didn't feel bad; I felt fine. So how could I really, really have cancer?
I called my sister and it was difficult to say cancer, and then I cried. Called my mom and I cried for her. They were astounded and ready with offers of whatever help was needed. Jeff and Hali trailed around behind comforting me. I went out and shoveled snow off the deck. Jeff called his family. Hali began researching breast cancer on the Internet. Cancer had already touched us that year. My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few months earlier. And he was tremendously upset by my diagnosis. 

I worried how my cancer diagnosis would impact Hali. I wanted her to continue to be "all" the teenager she could be. She was worried about what was going to happen to me and how to help.
My son, Michael, was deployed with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq and Jeff and I were uncertain if or how much to tell him. We were busy sending care packages, cards and upbeat emails. He knew about his grandpa but now his Mom too! Since we didn't know when Michael would call next, we told him via email about my cancer and surgery, so he would not feel isolated and left out of his family.
Doing it All with Grace and Ease

My choices were a mastectomy or a lumpectomy with sentinel lymph node biopsy followed by radiation. Hali, seeing the humor, teases me that with a mastectomy and reconstruction, I could have the "what knockers" none of the ladies in our family have. So much information (and many opinions) and I stalled. I decided I needed to meet my future oncologist. He listened to my concerns about the pros and cons of each surgery and helped me see that I have come to a choice.
On February 14, 2008, with the breast cancer awareness pink teddy bear Hali had made for me in tow, I underwent the lumpectomy but the news wasn't what we hoped for. I needed chemotherapy in addition to radiation, and at my oncologist's recommendation I chose to participate in a phase III clinical trial.
Maintaining Our Everyday Pre-Cancer Lives

Cancer does not change the realities of day-to-day living for families and treatment for cancer is not easy (though I was accused of almost making it look so but I worked very hard to do so). Maintaining as much of our everyday pre-cancer lives was important for us, especially since we had a teenager trying to be independent.
Mary Schatz with her husband and daughter; Mary shares her cancer experiences; Advances e-Newsletter, UW Carbone Cancer Center

Mary with her husband and daughter

Hali helped change my dressings following surgery, she chatted me though my first chemo day, she watched my hair fall out and went with me to get what remained buzzed off. I encouraged and insisted she keep seeing friends, working at the Verona Public Library, if she wanted to, and doing activities she enjoyed with and without me. And sometimes she had to let being a teenager out; and sometimes she let her apprehensions show, then she would remind me that I might not be here for her.
We were frayed, worn out and I didn't feel well from chemo and radiation. I felt like I missed out on most of a year in my children's lives.
A Different Perspective on Cancer
Having a child in a war zone puts a different perspective on cancer.
Sometimes, I would cry in grocery store aisles while picking out ramen noodles. While Michael was in Iraq, we did 'cancer lite' - his mind needed to stay focused there. Even though I told him I had no hair before he returned, he didn't recognize me the first moment he saw me. I chose not to wear hats and scarves because they made me feel claustrophobic. Then he gave me a great big hug, told me "you look cool, good choice".
Sometimes he and I talked about my cancer and treatment but mostly we treaded lightly around morbidity and mortality. Now cooking advice, car talk and a good gripe, are what he calls for regularly. He is stationed at Fort Benning, in Georgia, and he is preparing to deploy again in the fall.
Mary Schatz and son; Mary shares her cancer experience; Advances e-Newsletter, UW Carbone Cancer Center

Mary with her son and dogs

The Help of "Assistant Moms"
A mother and family coping with cancer and treatment, need the helping hands of assistant moms along the way.
There were the "neighborhood moms" who brought us meals, who sat down for tea and a chat and who offered their families help whenever needed.
Three special moms came to help Hali and me: my sister from Texas, Colleen, my sister-in-law also from Texas, Debi, and my mom from Wyoming, Barbara.
Hali chose a beautiful prom dress with the aid of her Aunt Colleen's advice and considerable experience with selecting formal dresses while I enjoyed just being there. Hali's Grandma Barbara expertly wielded the curling iron and hairspray so Hali had great hair for the prom while I enjoyed watching. Fortunately, Aunt Debi was here to help prepare Hali for a trip to Washington DC. Her been-there-done-this mom experience bridged the gap between my idea and Hali's idea of what business casual is for a young woman and we had a good time shopping.
Cancer can feel very isolating for families so we appreciated the visits, the outings and the help to keep us looking ahead and moving forward.
Motherly Advice: Wear Your Favorite Socks

Cancer is now a state of being in our lives and my family and I are learning our way around the brave new world of cancer survivor. I have revisited all the stages of grief and revalued my life.
The same qualities that help you try to be a good mom will help you cope with cancer and its treatment: Patience, Fortitude, Perseverance and Humor.
And when you go to your doctor, the clinic and the hospital, my motherly advice is wear your favorite socks, the ones without the holes, because if nothing else, they usually let you keep your socks on!

I am thankful to the many medical professionals and support staff at the UW for taking very good care of me. I am especially thankful to Drs. David Mahvi, James Stewart, Amye Tevaarwerk, Kristin Bradley, nurse clinician Ellen Donehower and for the Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Care Center. I work at UW Hospital and Clinics' Clinical Labs Transfusion Service and I thank my colleagues for enabling me to keep working half time (kept me from wallowing in feeling sorry for myself).

Cancer has shown me the importance of living in the here and now moments. Jeff, my family, my friends and most of all Michael and Hali continue to help me look to the future with hope.