A slightly edited version was first published on New York Spirit for World Cancer Day
Cancer – just the mention itself gives an anxious feeling in the stomach. Every year, it takes millions of lives into its claws. Going through the treatment itself is one hell of an experience. The sufferings, the pains, the mental status, the despair is inexpressible. To go through a life-threatening storm exhausts one down, both physically and emotionally.
This is a story of Scherri Bennett Woodard. It might touch you deeply. You might shed tears. You might empathize. Nevertheless, you will surely be compelled to contemplate profoundly about this enigmatic life.
Scherri’s story began in 2009
Friday, April 3, 2009; 12:00 pm. It was a sunny day at Colorado. Scherri was getting ready to take her mother to a doctor when a phone call from her own surgeon turned her world upside down. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. She felt disoriented for a bit and even though her heart wanted to cry out loud, she just couldn’t soak up the information fully in midst of the rush of taking her mother for the diagnosis. Her mother had a surgery on the following Monday. She got more apprehensive for her and never could get her mind to focus on her own distress. In her own words, “It was actually a blessing in disguise as I was able to turn most of my attention to something else than to feel sorry for myself. It repositioned my mind and I was able to better cope.”
‘Courage isn’t having the strength to go on – it is going on when you don’t have strength.’ – Napoleon Bonaparte
She had to undergo three weeks of tests where she drove 30 miles one way, weekly. The first test was a needle biopsy and while it didn’t hurt, the piercing snapping noise of the contraption kept echoing in her head for long. She trudged towards her car with the echoes of what just occurred, sat on the car seat, held the steering and cried her heart out.
Post that, she never went to another appointment alone. Not because she was weak but because she knew she had to toughen herself up for this battle.
The initial sets of tests were to recheck the previous results. There is always this hope that it might be a false positive. But, the fate had to make Scherri travel this long journey with the rough speed bumps ahead. Only once the testing confirmed it, an oncologist was assigned. She was never given any offer for counseling or social worker; it was just “here’s what we are going to do” speech she heard. She was unsure of the path ahead. It was all foggy and frightening.
The chemo rollercoaster
The chemotherapy began at the end of May. Her best friend came all the way from Kansas along with her husband to accompany her. Scherri was all her perky self on the first day of the session and after the procedure, she even insisted on driving them home. After about four hours of returning, she hit the wall and slept for a couple of days. She began feeling terribly exhausted and lost her appetite. All she could bear was macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes during the treatment weeks. The interval between the treatments made her cravings go higher and she ended up binging on food. Eventually, the disturbed eating patterns made her gain weight.
Finding the right doctors
After she went through 8 rounds of chemo, she switched her insurance to another company. Scherri considers this as the best move for her. She had a wonderful team and a nurse who called her once a week to make sure that she was okay. In her words, “It was a HUGE relief to finally feel valued as a human being.” She and her husband were kept in dark for the initial six months about her true diagnosis. When she requested another option for her reconstruction, the doctor, utterly rude, told her that they don’t do it. Once, after her appointment, he said, “Good luck” in a contemptuous manner of “you have our insurance so you will have to do it our way.”
The catastrophe of surgeries
It was the time for the surgery. After surgery, she came to know that she had a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer called Triple Negative. Your chances are significantly higher for survival only if you respond to chemo else it is a challenging situation. Her tumor shrunk by half after the first round and was quite a bit smaller when she went for her double mastectomy. She had 26 lymph nodes removed and still 9 left that were still positive. She was officially considered Stage 3B.
The world shattered for her after comprehending this. She was miserable and couldn’t stop crying for 3 weeks.
“I thought that I was going to die.”
She opted to have implants and was given expanders. After a few weeks of recovery, the process of filling the expanders began. Over the course of a few weeks, the doctor would inject saline into the expanders. Once they got to a reasonable size, it was time to start radiation. There was a huge risk of radiation burns. She went through 33 rounds of radiation and luckily got only mild sunburn.
“My sense of humor made me went through this difficult phase”
“There were days where I was tired and didn’t want to participate in life.” However, for the most part, she was pretty upbeat and relied on her sense of humor to get through.
“I went to one of my radiation treatments and asked the male nurse if he wanted to get up on the table with me and spoon.
I would go to my appointments with my plastic surgeon (who was very stoic) with stickers all over me to make him laugh. I even went into surgery with them and the surgical staff had a good laugh. “
She called it the gadgets in her toolbox. Hats off to your spirits, Scherri!
The Lesson of Gratefulness
Scherri underwent a successful surgery in Feb 2010. She has sent letters to each one of her medical team thanking them for saving her life. I am sure they give examples of her high -spiritedness to the patients there even today.
When I asked if something changed within her after this tough battle, her answer made me misty.
“We can wallow in self-pity or we can fight the good fight with what we have in our arsenal.
It was a difficult battle, but one that I am actually grateful for having gone through. I have met some incredible people and I would not trade that for the world.
I found a way to look at things in nature with a new found appreciation. For example, I watched a bumblebee for over 15 minutes and just appreciated all the effort it takes for them to do their job. It actually amazed me. I felt that I need more meditation and clarity and that there are a lot of things that just aren’t as important as I thought that they were. I think that in sharing with others, it helps my heart and my soul and that is what my purpose on this earth was meant to be.”
Wonderful advice to cancer patients
Her advice to the ones who are presently going through this ailment is not to ever give up! She says, “You can’t sit back and feel sorry for yourself and expect to be healed. The best thing for you is to laugh! Keep laughter at the forefront and you will go a long way making it.”
Life is not easy but is worth everything it takes
In life, every trivial to enormous affliction is to make you realize the significance of being alive and the purpose of being alive. The adventure of life will never cease to amaze you, break you and make you, time and again. Our spirit is much stronger than any ordeal it may face. It is upon us to choose faith over fear, hope over distress and be our own heroes.
There will be days when all you would see is a gray cloud. Sadness, grief, fear, anxiety all are a part of your coping up mechanism. Do not feel guilty the day you cannot keep a good attitude. Keep trying. Everyone has their own path and curve of transformation. Life always rewards the determined heart.
Mar 3- Triple Negative Breast Cancer Awareness Day
March 3 is Triple Negative Breast Cancer Awareness Day and Scherri’s birthday too. Yeah, the concurrence of dates is beyond belief. It aims to raise awareness and education about the disease. Let’s be a part of this day by giving love, hope and support to the ones going through it and to the incredible survivors.
For those, who lost their loved ones to this disease, let’s remember their heroic spirit with which they battled till the end. The way they lived was courageous and inspirational.
If you are the one who is in midst of your war with cancer, you are not alone in this battle. All of us are with you. We will help you see the stars when you feel dark, we will help you see rainbows when you feel rain inside your heart.
I am thankful to Scherri Bennett Woodard for sharing this breathtaking chapter of her life. Your story is an epitome of enduring willpower and exuberance towards life. You are an inspiration for all of us.
May we all stand tall and deep-rooted in the life storms; always!