By Janice Lloyd
I am writing this story as I sit waiting in the surgery center at Kennewick General Hospital. My sister, Barbara, is undergoing a unilateral mastectomy for breast cancer.
It is a story of incredible courage and unfailing bravery in the face of great adversity; a story of unbelievable optimism and grace in what doctors like to call “an unfortunate situation.” It is Barbara’s story. This is not the beginning of the story, nor is it the end. But rather it is the middle of the story. It all began about a six weeks ago. Four days after the death of our father, while my four sisters and I were still reeling with grief, Barbara received word that she had cancer.
The news came as the result of a tooth extraction that would not heal. The diagnosis was bleak; advanced and aggressive head and throat cancer. She had a large tumor in her sinus cavity and the lesions that she thought were boils from infection in her tooth were actually tumors growing in her neck. She took the news like a champion, determined to take each step as it came without complaint and with a smile on her face.
Barbara was not a stranger to serious illness. Ten years earlier, her husband had undergone surgery for a brain tumor which left him functionally incapacitated. Five years after that, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Assuming the role of caregiver for her husband, Barbara found herself unemployed, raising four children, struggling to make ends meet on his disability and Social Security payments and without health insurance.
Although she had always practiced a more holistic approach to health problems, relying on herbs and home remedies, Barbara now found herself partnering with the doctors she had always avoided.
With the doctors’ help, she embarked on a journey to a place where she had never imagined going; a place filled with endless appointments, laboratory tests, medications and relentless pain.
It was after one of these diagnostic tests, the PET scan, that Barbara and I met with her doctors and were given the news. Not only was the head and neck cancer extensive, involving the tumors in her sinus cavity, jaw and lymph nodes on both sides of her neck, but she also had a second primary cancer in her right breast.
I shall never forget the feelings washing over me as I struggled to comprehend how something so devastating could be happening to my big sister who had already had such a tough life. Nor shall I ever forget the courage and humor she showed as she accepted the news, joking about her BOGO (buy one, get one free) cancer.
Over the next month, Barbara’s life became a nightmarish existence dominated by the “cancer monster.” The surgical procedure needed for her head and neck was not available in Idaho, where she was living. This, accompanied by her need of a caregiver, prompted her to move to Benton City to live with me.
Together we navigated the maze of appointments and meetings as she scheduled surgeries, talked to doctors about treatments and tried to find a way to pay for all of it. Throughout it all, Barbara’s spirit has never faltered. Although I know she has hard moments, I have never seen her cry or be depressed. Often her doctors and nurses, friends and family are somewhat taken aback as she jokes and laughs about her circumstances but always they are put at ease and their compassion flows freely.
And so we wait, far longer than we thought, until the surgeon comes looking haggard and worn with caring and concern in his eyes. The cancer had spread from the breast to the lymph nodes and he has removed all of them from under her arm. The surgery is a success and Barbara is resting comfortably. This chapter of the story has come to an end. Barbara must now summon all of her strength, emotional and physical, to recover from this surgery before her next chapter begins. In two weeks she will have head and throat surgery at the University of Washington’s Medical Center, a 12-hour procedure, including facial reconstruction and eight to ten days in the hospital. This, followed by the ensuing radiation and chemo therapies, is considered by some to be the most grueling of all cancer treatments. How will this story end? We do not know. There are still so many unanswered questions.
But this much I do know. It will be a story of great faith and inspiration. Barbara will be the hero and she will have us all laughing. Janice Lloyd is a retired school teacher. Her sister, Barbara Grant, worked at an insurance agency in Pocatello, Idaho before her illness. They live in Benton City.