Eugene (KMTR) - We've all heard that early detection saves lives.
A mother of four young children is sharing her story; from when she was diagnosed with breast cancer to what it's been like living with the disease.
Stephanie Sanders of Brownsville discovered a lump in her breast just five months after she and her husband, Joshua had their fourth baby. They headed to the oncologist for the first time.
“She didn't seem to be getting better, didn't seem to get any worse,” says Joshua. “We were like, ‘Should we go to urgent care? Should we not? Well, let’s find out.’”
It was a time of concern for the Sanders family.
Joshua said, “He started showing us what was in the mammogram and how there’s a lot of ‘precancerous calcifications’ is what they called them. And he said, ‘You know, we don't get people wound up here for no reason. I am 95% sure this is cancer.’ And I was just like, ‘What!?’”
It was in March when 33-year-old Stephanie was diagnosed with stage-2, triple-negative breast cancer. Because of her age, she had never had a mammogram and she didn’t self-check regularly.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you're so young and they caught it early… You’re only stage-2. It means it early.’ Well, with my type of breast cancer and the fact it spread to my lymph nodes… at my age, one in three women will still die,” Stephanie explains.
“It starts a whirlwind,” said Joshua. “OK, what comes first? Do we do radiation first or chemo first, do we do surgery first? They're like, ‘Surgery first.’ ‘How much you want to take?’ ‘We want to take it all.’”
With faith in a team of doctors at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute, Stephanie underwent a single mastectomy. Surgeons took her breast and a 9-centimeter tumor. Later, they removed two lymph nodes which had tested positive for cancer.
“’Wow! I have cancer!’ I tell myself. I have cancer. I can’t believe, like, even after I lost my breast. This is so unreal!”
But reality did set in; especially for Joshua, who was asking himself, “’What is my wife going to look like? My wife suddenly has one and not two. Am I going to be OK with that?’ And you know what? I am OK with that!”
Stephanie says she has not felt any less a woman. Although the surgery proved difficult for other reasons: “I had to figure out how to wean my baby. And that wasn't just a logistical nightmare, because I didn't know what to do, but it was more emotionally devastating than the breast cancer diagnosis at that point. It was a relationship with my daughter, not just a way of feeding her. I grieved intensely for that.”
She had to figure out how to be a mom and a breast cancer patient.
“For six weeks, I wasn't supposed to pick up my baby. So it felt like a sentence, not just of cancer, but you can no longer be a mother to your infant.”
Stephanie started attending chemotherapy treatments. For months. Sitting in a chair, hours at a time, thinking about what could be, and what is.
“It still felt like if I just close my eyes, I’d wake up and it wouldn't have happened to me. You pray a lot. I worked really hard to find things to laugh about.” She says her children gave her something to live for.
Living through chemotherapy became her new goal. She felt the nausea take over and experienced cancer sores in her mouth, down her throat, in her stomach and intestines.
Mixing the chemicals on site, WVCI says they've made an effort to provide the utmost comfort.
But comfort doesn't always prevent change: Suddenly, the mother of Kate, Faith, Caleb and Joy didn’t look like “Mom” anymore. Stephanie lost her hair.
“When I started to lose my eyebrows and eyelashes—that was hard. I get tired of hearing, ‘You have such a nice-shaped head.’ Like its supposed to make having no hair any easier.”
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder—and Stephanie's husband.
“She’s found ways she can feel beautiful in her appearance, in the ways she presents herself, in the way she speaks to other survivors,” says Joshua.
Her appearance is a little bare, but Joshua sees Stephanie better than ever. “I can definitely see the courage in my wife. I knew it was in there already. I married a sassy girl! So I’m glad it’s still there.”
Staying courageous, staying sassy, Stephanie has tried to remain true to herself and her family.
“People say, ‘You’re so strong, you’re so courageous!’ It’s like, because you have to be. Your option is to give in to breast cancer and die, or suck it up and do it.”
Radiation became the next phase of Stephanie’s treatment.
In radiation therapy, doctors and technicians at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute carefully planned and mapped out every bit of treatment, personalizing it to Stephanie's anatomy. The radiation path must match the tattoos and marks they placed on her.
Each treatment is a 15-minute process; fairly easy for everyone, except Stephanie. She’s extremely fatigued by driving from Brownsville to Eugene and back every day. She's spending hundreds in gas, and hours, coordinating babysitters.
Stephanie and Joshua are doing the best they can with what they've been given.
Joshua says his daily routine is to “get to the end of the day. Make sure the kids are in bed by or , so we’ve got two hours every night. Every night.”
Even in those hours, Stephanie says the fear remains “because breast cancer can go systemic. I will have to deal with, ‘Oh my gosh! I banged my elbow.’ I don't remember and have an unexplained bruise. ‘Has it gone to my bones?’ I’ll think about that every time I get an unexplained bruise; I have lost the innocence of just being sick with the flu or getting a cold,” Stephanie says. “The scariest part for me is coming from two different angles. One, leaving my husband with four small children to single-parent. The other is, if I died my children would grow up without a mom.”
Whether she’s sick or not, her children continue to grow every day. But Stephanie and her husband grow, too.
“I at least want to find as much joy in my life as possible regardless of how long I get to live,” she says. “You wake up in the morning and are especially aware, ‘I have cancer. I am fighting for my life. This sucks!’”
Joshua says, “We're doing this together. It’s not a fight; we’re together. The issue is over here, but we’re standing here… and we’re together. We don’t just want to survive this. We want to live through this.”Stephanie has about four weeks and 23 treatments to go before there’s any possibility the cancer will go into remission. She’s hoping to be done with treatment by early December… before Christmas.