Breast cancer survivor candidly recounts her story
October 29, 2012
FORT POLK, La. -- The staying power of superheroes on the big screen reflects the all-encompassing awe of supernatural strength, above-average intelligence and clairvoyant nature. Yet everyday heroes mingle amongst other human beings on this earth. These humble warriors fight a microscopic organism that invades and permeates the body without showing much damage, if any, to the outside world.
Breast cancer survivor, Christa Ward, who works for the Joint Readiness Training Center as a graphic illustrator, is one of these modest champions. Her story is one of fortitude and resilience, anger and acceptance, humor and gratitude. The word "inspirational" seems to fall short when describing anyone who's had to look a hardship straight in the eye, accept the path they needed to travel and come out the other end stronger, better, wiser -- in spite of the pain and turmoil.
In November 2011, Ward's battle with breast cancer began when she found a lump in her breast while taking a shower. Immediately she called her gynecologist and made an appointment. Luckily, she was able to get in that same afternoon. The doctor told her it was a lump but not to worry; she insisted Ward would be OK. The biopsy was scheduled four weeks after the initial visit and the mass had grown substantially during that time.
When asked what her thinking was during the time lapse between discovery and diagnosis, Ward replied, "The doctor told me not to worry, but I worried. I tried not to think about it." She first called her mother, a retired OB/GYN nurse practitioner, who insisted breast cancer didn't run in the family. Her mom reassured her, saying the mass could be benign or possibly a cyst. "I don't care how old you are. If your mom says it's going to be OK, it's going to be OK." Everyone around Ward repeatedly reiterated, "It's nothing." Somewhat at ease from these guarantees, Ward immersed herself in her work. "Cancer thoughts were in the back of my mind, but I just kept them there."
To Ward, the wait for the biopsy felt like forever, but the not knowing was better than knowing. "I was forcing myself to believe everything my mother, the doctor, my husband and everyone else around me was saying -- that it was nothing." While the reassurances comforted Ward, the extra attention and concern for her welfare pushed her over the edge. When the "how are you feeling?" questions became insurmountable, she snapped; she couldn't handle the pity anymore. To her co-workers she said, "If anybody looks at me or says the word 'cancer,' I'm going to explode." She wanted only one thing -- to be left alone to work. As long as she was working, which was the only thing that kept her mind from focusing on the cancer, she was fine.
A few days later, a woman who worked in an adjacent building walked into the office carrying a bouquet of lilies, Ward's favorite. The woman took Ward to the bathroom with her and bared the scars from her own mastectomy and chemo port. The woman told her she was 32 years old and had been cancer-free for seven years. She told Ward, "Cancer doesn't end your life; you just think it's going to." Ward hugged her; then both women broke down in tears. "I felt so much better. It was different coming from her because she had been there," Ward explained.
The result day finally came. She said, "This is the craziest thing. They called me and said they had the results and I needed to come down to the office. I got in my car, turned on the radio and the song that was playing on the radio was definitive. It told me right then -- this is positive. I know it's positive."
"Cancer don't discriminate or care if you're just 38
With three kids who need you in their lives"
After she heard the lyrics from Martina McBride's "I'm Gonna Love You Through It," she felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her. She broke down and cried.
In the five weeks from discovery to the doctor's visit, the mass grew from 2.8 cm to 3.2 cm. The surgeon scheduled Ward's surgery for the following day. Because the cancer couldn't be fully removed, she underwent two surgeries in less than a month's time. The quick response from the surgeon gave Ward a huge sense of relief. He laid out her options and explained procedures and outcomes for each scenario. Because this was happening during the span of Thanksgiving, Christmas and her children's birthdays, Ward voiced her desire to postpone treatment. Waiting four months would leave her with no options, her surgeon communicated. She was terrified, yet determined at the same time.
Ward's 17-year-old daughter, Danielle, without being asked, stepped in and picked up the pieces as her mother focused on her own well-being. She did the laundry, cooked, cared for her mother and brother and eased the load for Ward's husband. With unwavering strength and dedication, Danielle became her mother's rock. Danielle told her, "I'm proud of you, Mom, for going ahead with the treatment. Don't worry about us. I've got this." For eight months Danielle kept the house running and took care of everything while Ward recovered from single mastectomy surgery and underwent chemotherapy.
Thinking the battle was over with the surgery, Ward took another blow when the surgeon called with concerns of relapse and insisted on a full course of chemotherapy. After she started chemo she went into a funk. "My hair started falling out immediately. I sat on my bed with my hair in my hands and I cried and I cried. My husband tried to comfort me, but I sent him away." Once again, she wanted to be alone. Then her 6-year-old, Wiley, came into the room. She explained to him that the medicine she was taking was very strong and it was making her hair fall out, but it would grow back. Wiley left the room and returned quickly. He said, "Just put it in the baggie and then we'll glue it back. It's OK -- you don't have to cry about it." Wiley's attitude helped pull his mother through one of her darkest moments.
Ward's mother bought her a wig, but when she put it on she thought to herself, "The wig is great, but nothing about me is pretty anymore. I was deformed and my hair was gone." Ward's co-worker convinced her to wear the wig to work and when she walked into the office every one of her co-workers was wearing a wig, even the men. They had a wig party and from that point on, humor kept Ward going.
The culminating encounter early in the chemotherapy treatment phase facilitated her final transformation. While waiting for her second round of chemo, she began talking with another cancer patient. The woman was 22 years old and had discovered a lump while she was breastfeeding her newborn child. This woman was the happiest person Ward had ever met. Instead, of being down and depressed because of her disease, this woman was glad they had caught her cancer early. Ward was amazed. "Nothing seemed to faze her and here I was griping and moaning about everything and then I looked at her. I'm 40; she's 22. What do I have to gripe about? I can't have any more kids. I don't want any more kids. I've been dragging everybody down. If she can look at this with that positive of an attitude, so can I."
These days Ward looks forward to every single day of her life. She can no longer find a reason to complain when she wakes in the morning. "I have a totally new perspective on life. I not only see things differently for myself, but I also see things differently through the eyes of my children. I didn't do that before I had cancer."
Ward accepts this stage of her life with candor and humor. "I call this a blessing in disguise. I really do. Nobody wants cancer. Nobody wants to lose their breasts, but if I had not gone through this I would not be where I am now and that's just the way it is."
She is thankful for the support of her husband, children and coworkers. "My family was my backbone, but humor got me through it." In less than a year Ward traveled a great distance, even though she never went further than Lake Charles on her road to recovery. She's been told the results of her final test should prove she is cancer-free.