“As a teenager I use to drive by a Hematology Oncology treatment center in Medford, Oregon, dreaming of becoming a nurse there so I could help the people that were being treated with cancer. At the age of 23 I applied to Grand Canyon University (Arizona) for nursing and I was accepted. Before going though, I prayed that if it was not God’s will for me, He would make it clear to me by somehow letting me miss my plane. I got to the airport over an hour early. When I went to board, they told me I had missed boarding and the doors were closed. It was so bizarre, but needless to say I missed my plane. That was the second time that God had closed the door for me to go to college.
The end of June 2011 (still 23) I got out of the shower and looked in the mirror. In my reflection I saw a bruise. The bruise was above my right breast and looked like it had been there for a while because it was already a yellow-green color as if healing. I thought it was odd since I’d never seen it before and so I touched it. Underneath the bruise was a lump that felt about the size of a bouncy ball. The first thing that came to mind was my grandma. She’d had breast cancer and I remembered her leaning over me to kiss my forehead and seeing that she only had one breast. That terrified me but at the same time I thought I was too young. I’d never heard of someone my age having breast cancer, so naturally I had no idea what to do. I was too afraid to tell my family, especially my mom because my grandma had passed away from cancer. I ended up telling my sisters who went with me to the first doctor’s appointment.
The doctor looked at my chest and said she didn’t see any bruising. I got chills. I knew then God placed that bruise on my body for me to find. I never did self-exams and would have never known there was a lump. She told me it was likely just a cyst because of my age. Sounded good to me! But she suggested an ultrasound to be sure. At that point it seemed rather harmless, so I went to the ultrasound by myself. Within minutes of starting the ultrasound the tech left to find a doctor. That was when I knew. The doctor came in. He sat down and began drawing the differences between a benign tumor and malignant tumor. I looked at the ultrasound and back at his drawing. From what it looked like, he was telling me I had a malignant tumor. I started crying and just kept thinking why didn’t I bring someone with me?!
After that I had my first and last mammogram. They couldn’t “officially” say it was cancer until I had a biopsy, which they scheduled two days later. I still hadn’t told my mom. Looking back, I was trying to protect her. I needed to know for sure it was the “big C” before telling her. So I took my two sisters with me instead. They held my hands while I had the biopsy and I remember my older sister asking the doctor if she had ever done a biopsy on a tumor that looked like mine and have it come back benign. Her answer was simple, all she said was “no”. That was on a Friday.
The weekend to follow was the longest weekend of my life. I knew it was cancer but felt that maybe if I heard a doctor say it, that would actually make it real. When Tuesday came along I got a phone call telling me to come in as soon as possible and they suggested that I bring someone with me. I thought to myself: “this is just like the movies.” That’s when I fell apart and all I wanted was my mom, so I told her and asked her to come with me. I had one request. I asked her not to cry for me. Not yet, and she didn’t. The doctor came in, looked at me, and said, “my dear this is not the cyst that we thought it was. You have breast cancer.”
Immediately an appointment was set up with a surgeon. I was told that in my case, because of my age and my particular diagnosis, a double mastectomy would be best. They also said this was the best course because they “didn’t want to see me back in five years with stage four cancer.” I got three opinions and my case was brought before a board of many oncologists and surgeons who all agreed. It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. I was finally just beginning to be comfortable with my chest and they were going to take it from me. I Googled pictures of mastectomies and thought, how would a man ever find me attractive? Then realized if they took my chest, when I had kids I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed. I’ve had women, even friends tell me, “Well you don’t know if you would even want to breast feed so don’t worry about it.” Maybe true but it really hurt. I wasn’t going to be able to decide that, it was being decided for me.
Eventually I consented to the double mastectomy. The hardest part was waking up and looking in the mirror with the hospital gown off. I looked like a little boy before hitting puberty. I closed the door to the bathroom and cried and cried.
A week later my mom and I drove to Portland and started a process to have my eggs frozen in hopes to be able to carry my own kids one day. It was a three-week process and every three days or so we would drive back to Ashland (Oregon) for a night only to turn around and go back to Portland. Knowing that my hair was going to fall out, I cut my hair short and donated it.
A few days after finishing in Portland I started chemotherapy. The plan was to have six rounds of “THC” and five years of the hormone maintenance drug, Tamoxifen. Before beginning I had an echocardiogram (a 3D image of my heart) to have a baseline of my heart function. One of the therapies I was doing called Herceptin, could cause my heart function to weaken and I needed to do that one for a year. I got through chemo relatively well and had another echocardiogram to see how my heart was doing with Herceptin. It appeared that the therapy was having an effect on my heart so I stopped it but continued having regular echocardiograms. During one of the “echos” the tech decided to check the unaffected side of my heart, which was not typical. Afterwards said she was going to talk to my cardiologist.
Later that week I got a phone call from my doctor who said I needed to have a transesophageal echocardiogram because it appeared that I had two holes in my atrium. After waking up from the echo my doctor said, “Well, it looks like you need open heart surgery.” I think I actually laughed. I had something called atrial septal defect, a congenital heart defect that had gone completely undetected my entire life. It had gotten to the point that I was having symptoms of heart failure but had no idea because I attributed them to having just gone through chemotherapy.
When I saw the heart surgeon, he said that if I had not found this and treated it, I would have most likely had a stroke or died in my sleep. Had I never had cancer, I would most likely never have found this defect. It is strange to think, but cancer actually saved my life!
I had open heart surgery through one of my breast implants. It was the most painful thing I have ever experienced. Afterward, I remember now holding my breath for as long as possible so I wouldn’t feel the pain of breathing in. I recovered from that, finished Herceptin and started college at Southern Oregon University. I knew something was wrong when I found myself crying about any remembrance of what I’d just gone through. I later learned that I suffered with PTSD. When I was going through all the treatments and surgery, it all seemed to happen so fast that I did not have time to process it all and adequately grieve it all. I just kept pushing forward and fighting, but also pushing it all down inside me. When I finally seemed to reach a place of relative safety and slow down, all those feelings and all the grieving would come up and overwhelm me. Still now even writing this my eyes are watering. I sought out counseling to help learn that I was grieving and it was going to be a process I had to go through. The counseling was more helpful than I could have imagined and I am grateful for that.
During that time my dearest friend passed away from breast cancer. We met thru a mutual friend after my first surgery. One of the last things she told me was: “Never forget to live.” Before being sick I was quite adventurous moving from Baja, Mexico to Mazatlán, MX and then on to Germany and finally, Ireland. I felt encouraged by my friend’s words to go on another adventure but I didn’t want to be too far from my family so I opted for Southern CA, Orange County. I thought San Clemente looked relaxed and close enough to my little sister, so I packed my tiny car and drove myself down to OC in faith that God was going to provide. I prayed again that if it wasn’t meant to be He would close the door, and this time He did not.
I found a little studio for rent near the beach and had a new job lined up as a nanny. But after a week of being all alone in a foreign place, I decided it was too hard and considered moving back to Oregon. The night I was contemplating driving back home I received an email from a guy who had seen my profile on a local Christian meetup site (sounds sketchy but it wasn’t). That guy is now my husband. I fell quite head over heels for Joel and we married two years ago. Needless to say I did not drive back to Oregon that night!
I still did not have an oncologist in California, and I would fly back to Oregon every three months to see my oncologist. I was still taking Tamoxifen which was basically supposed to keep me in menopause because the cancer I had seemed to love my hormones…A LOT. About 7 months into our marriage I started having intense lower back pain. I was at that time working as a barista, on my feet for eight or more hours every day. On my breaks I wouldGoogle “lower back pain after cancer.” Much of what I read said that it could be from chemotherapy, so thanks to “Dr. Google” I self-diagnosed the pain as either chemo induced neuropathy or sciatica pain.
Memorial Day weekend 2015, the pain was so bad I was in tears. I couldn’t move and asked Joel to take me to the ER. I had mentioned the pain to my Oregon doctor a month or so earlier and he asked me to get a CT scan to which I decided wasn’t that important. Upon being admitted to the ER Joel requested I get a CT scan. He and I were laughing in my ER room waiting for the doctor to come in and tell me it was my sciatica. Instead she walked in and told us that the CT had revealed masses in my kidneys, liver, bones, maybe lungs. She suggested I see my oncologist as soon as possible. I glanced at Joel and begged God for it to not be true. I kept thinking there was still hope. The masses could all be benign right? I asked Joel not to be mad at God. Only two months earlier Joel’s dad had been diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer and hadn’t been given a good prognosis.
The next day I spent calling my doctor in Oregon, putting slides together, and faxing reports. The morning after that Joel and I got in the car and drove straight to Oregon. I didn’t tell anyone except my sister, Liz what was going on. We made it to my mom’s late at night surprising her with our arrival and still not revealing the true intentions of our visit. The next morning we went to see my oncologist. More tests were scheduled and many vials of blood were taken. He asked if I’d had any other pain. I quietly, not thinking much of it said,”I’ve been getting headaches lately.” He added another scan for my brain.
A few days later after all the tests and scans were complete his office called and said my appointment had been moved up. I remember thinking it was odd because I already had an appointment scheduled for the next day and thought maybe they just forgot. Joel and I walked into the exam room silent. I was super fidgety and impatient. My doctor came in and said he had bad news. The cancer we thought we caught before was back and this time with a vengeance. The tests revealed tumors in my kidneys, liver, bones, lungs, chest wall, and at the very least, he said I had nine tumors in my brain. I broke down and cried in anguish. I kept thinking: “how the hell did this happen?” and “Will Joel still love me after ‘doing this to him’”? I knew it had nothing to do with me and I knew he had promised in sickness and in health but I kept looking at him saying, “I am so sorry.” We hadn’t even been married a year.
We spent the night at a hotel near my mom’s, crying with each other, alone, and with my family. The next day we met a radiation oncologist with the worst bedside manner EVER. With my mom and husband next to me, and without being asked, he blurted out “without treatment you have one, maybe two months. With treatment you have maybe six.” I will never forget that. I felt so heavy.
But the next day (still at mom’s in Oregon) I woke up ready to fight. An incredible strength came over me to survive that I can only attribute to my heavenly Father’s doing. We went to church and my pastor anointed me with oil and prayed over me for healing. I remember telling him that I knew in my heart that it wasn’t my time to go home. But I was still scared. Earlier that day I created a Facebook page for my journey because I desperately wanted to be prayed for. I called it “Rebekah’s Unexpected Adventure”.
One of the doctors had told us that Southern California had three of the top cancer treatment centers in the country. We contacted the City of Hope in Duarte, Los Angeles. After some back-and-forth, my insurance was accepted and I had an appointment. Joel and I drove back home to Orange County.
My case was reviewed by their team of doctors and I was chosen by Dr. Lucille Leong. She was amazing. She consulted with some of the top cancer specialists from around the country concerning my case. My case was unique because of the type of cancer I had, my age, and my heart condition. My brain trumped my body in order of importance, and I started three straight weeks of intense full brain radiation. My hair fell out, again. I was told I shouldn’t drive because of the possibility of seizures. My family took turns coming down for the first six weeks taking turns bringing me to appointments, which are 1-1 ½ hours away. Surprisingly, the radiation did not have too many ill side effects on me. We would have to wait several months to check my brain and see if it did anything. My family went back home and Joel was at work every day.
I would spend my days crying on the couch. I had been left to my own thoughts and they were not always happy, positive, strong, ”I can do this” thoughts. They were thoughts like am I going to get to watch my littlest niece and nephew grow up? Who’s going to be Liz’s best friend? Who is my mom going to laugh hysterically with? Who is Joel going to come home to? Who is he going to grow old with? I felt like I needed to be a strong Christian who thought, “well if God takes me home, he takes me home and that’s his will.” But I just couldn’t and I felt like a bad Christian for feeling that way.
Day after day I would scour the internet for stories of survival in women with stage 4 breast cancer. I found encouragement in stories of women living five years after a stage 4 BC diagnosis. I later found other stories of women living even 10 and 15 years. Eventually days would go by and I wouldn’t think about death. Then weeks passed by and I didn’t think about it. I had started oral chemotherapy and it was making me terribly sick. It was a good day if I only threw up two or three times. I figured this stuff must be working. Then I had my first checkup to review new scans. The results weren’t good. My tumor markers had shot up and tumors were growing and spreading all over the place. I was devastated but determined to keep fighting.
I started Intravenous (I.V.) chemo and after only two rounds my tumor markers dropped dramatically. This was exciting and gave us a renewed hope. During this time Joel’s dad turned his life over to the Lord and went home to meet his Father in heaven. I am excited that we will see him again one day.
A couple months passed and my tumor markers went back to normal levels, pre-cancer. The chemo was working! I still had pain in my hip and I had to have more radiation on that. But overall I had a near complete response and recently was told I was basically in remission! I was in shock and complete awe of the healing hands of my Father. He had heard my prayers, and the prayers of hundreds of other people, most whom I have never met before.
I now do what is called maintenance therapy to keep it all at bay. I have to go to the City of Hope several times a month for I.V. treatments and shots. My hip still constantly hurts without pain medication. The doctors say they want to do surgery on it to stabilize it from the damage caused by the cancer.
It will never be completely gone, but with regular treatment it will stay away for a good long time. Initially, I was given 4-6 months to live (from that one rude doctor), but I just passed one year and the cancer is almost entirely gone. I’m living my life and enjoying every day of it. My thoughts are not dominated by thoughts of cancer and fears of death as in the beginning. My thoughts are of life—family, friends, love, and hope. I still don’t have hair yet, but it’s coming back slowly…in patches. I’m enjoying the journey day by day.
I have learned so much about God’s grace and mercy through the healing He has allowed, and I know that it was all Him. I’m not a nurse at the treatment center in Oregon like I dreamed years ago but Joel and I are now helping our church start a cancer care ministry to help others in our community going through similar journeys. The City of Hope, the place I get treatment at has a saying that is spread all over their campus: “There is always hope.” So true.”
My dear friend Rebekah is so beyond beautiful, I’m so thankful I know her. Please please be lifting her up in prayer. To continue following along her journey go HERE ♥
Love to you all!