I was going about my business towards the end of summer in 2014, making all of my appointments before school started—annual physical, dentist, eye doctor, and yes, a mammogram. Early in August, I had the mammogram done and a few days later got a call saying they needed me to come back in to be rescreened as they noticed something that looked different from the last scan. About a week later on a Friday, I went in to have another mammogram, which showed the same thing, and then a follow up ultrasound, which was inconclusive. So, the following Monday, they did a biopsy of two spots, and two days later called to tell me I had breast cancer in both spots. It was August 13, 2014, a date I won’t soon forget.
Bam! What a blow.
It’s hard to describe the feeling. I called my husband to tell him the news, and as I waited for him to come home, I sat in my living room crying, with my dog looking at my sympathetically wishing he could do something.
The doctor I was referred to could meet with my husband and me the next day so we made our way to the clinic to meet with him. In the next hour and half, ready or not, we received a crash course in breast cancer. Who knew there was so much to know? My doctor was very informative, yet so calm and caring, just what we needed at such an unsettling, terrifying time. In my case, a mastectomy was the only option. The next several weeks were filled with more tests and procedures to help make decisions about the next steps and upcoming surgery.
I decided to begin the 2014-15 school year since a surgery date was not yet confirmed. Some people were very surprised by this decision. Maybe it was selfish on my part, but teaching is my life, so onward I went. The first week was tough as I wanted to be honest with the students so told them what was happening in my life, and that the course calendar in their syllabus may change next week. They were all super supportive and so flexible! Surgery was set for September 26, so I prepped my classes to shift to an online format for two weeks after surgery. Again, they rallied behind me and sent me on my way with prayers, hugs, and well wishes.
My surgery went well and at my one week checkup I was given the all clear to go back to normal activities. For me, this included walking my dog – something I had truly missed! I began to slowly check email and Blackboard the second week after surgery, and slowly tried to get back into somewhat of a normal routine, whatever normal means anymore.
I returned to work fulltime on October 13 to welcome back posters on my office door from students, tons of hugs and smiles, and countless well wishes! What an overwhelming feeling of the Concordia community in action! Throughout this journey, I have thought countless times and said to a number of people, I don’t know how someone without faith or people to rally with them face cancer.
The day I was diagnosed, my mind skipped over surgery and went straight to chemotherapy. I remember the doctor saying that some people didn’t need chemo and I asked if he could put me in that camp. He smiled and said we would see. The week after surgery, my doctor ordered a test (oncotype DX) which analyzes the reoccurrence risk of an individual’s particular cancer as well as how it may respond to chemotherapy. We waited about two weeks for my numerical score to come back, which landed in the low range, and for me, with a couple of other factors falling into place, meant no chemo. I am not sure how many people diagnosed with cancer are dealt a no chemo card, but I will take it. What a blessing! Yet it also left things a bit unsettled as how would any leftover cancer cells be dealt with? My doctor assured me that they will keep an eye on me. I need hormone therapy (tamoxifen) as part of my treatment and will have lots of checkups in the years to come.
And so, we have moved forward trusting in faith, that God has had an ongoing hand in the decisions that are being made by my care team in regard to my care and treatment. Again, what do people do without faith in circumstances such as these? My recovery continues to go really well. I am feeling good and have started my treatment plan.
The support of my family, friends, coworkers, students, and the overall Concordia community has been a true blessing! I’m especially thankful for my husband, Eddie, who has been a Godsend to me through it all and continues to be as we move forward. Some of these people may not ever realize how much of a difference they have made in my life as I walk this journey.
I feel back to whatever normal is and although cancer means uncertainty and some dark moments, I feel VERY blessed and try hard to hold onto the positives. I am alive! It may sound cliché, but I will say that I see the world very differently. I notice so many little blessings each and every day that I make every effort to count and thank God for. There is a song played on KTIS called “You’re an Overcomer” and this is very true! I will overcome cancer as “God is holding me right now” and I trust He will continue to do so.
Dr. Sue Starks
*This article by Dr. Sue Starks is additional content from the 2015 Spring edition of the Concordia St. Paul magazine