My Mother's Story
During the last five years of my mother's life, she fought a mean, possibly mutant, 20-year-old
My petite mother, Evelyn M. Dee, had a will of iron and was eager to get on with her life cancer-free.
I thought my mother's story of how a first cancer can come back with a vengeance after 20 years, even as a second cancer is being successfully treated, was important to tell. I wasn't sure if her story was medically remarkable or remarkable because she was my mother.
After speaking to the doctors who treated her, I better understood a few things. Back in 1977, when my mother's first cancer was diagnosed, it was the Stone Age of breast cancer research and treatment. She had a radical
Her second cancer in 2000 was isolated in her remaining breast. This intraductal carcinoma in situ – doctors refer to it as DCIS – is the earliest form of breast cancer. Her doctor treated this pre-malignant lesion with tamoxifen and radiation.
When my mother was diagnosed in 2006 with metastatic cancer you could say her case was remarkable – and incredibly unfortunate.
"The tamoxifen may have held it back. Or it was resistant to tamoxifen or it had mutated and decided it was going to grow without restraint,”said Dr. John Niedzwicki, who began treating my mother in 2000 at the Hawthorn Medical Center in Dartmouth, Mass. “Sometimes it's just bad luck and the will of God," he said. My mother died at 9:30 a.m. on May 31, 2011.
My mother had told all four of her children in 1977 that she was having surgery because she had found a lump in her right breast. Then, in typical fashion, she added not to worry, everything would be fine.
I was terrified to see her lying in a hospital bed attached to tubes. I had never seen her sick before. But she minimized her pain and fear when she woke up from surgery by asking if she would still be able to golf. She had recently started playing and was getting very good at it.
The image that stayed with me is of her after she came home from the hospital. She was sitting in a patch of sunlight in her backyard. Her head was drooped on her chest. Later on she would ask me to help her shave under her right arm as the area was numb and she had a hard time reaching it. We would stand before her bedroom mirror, she shirtless and me trying not to embarrass her – or upset myself – by looking at her scarred chest.
As the years went by, life returned to normal. My mother’s life revolved around her golf game and the “ladies” she played with at the country club. As a breast cancer survivor, my mother pinned pink ribbons on her golf visors. She participated in races for The Cure.
She approached her second cancer, the DCIS, in a similar fashion as she did her first, by focusing on the positive and remaining hopeful. And she was extremely fortunate to have doctors with access to the latest research and drugs.
“I think her case illustrates the progress we made treating a very bad disease by virtue of the number of things we had for her,” Niedzwicki said. “She had many new treatments.” The new treatments gave my mother time – five more years with family and friends that she wouldn’t have wanted to miss. “Five years is very good with a very advanced disease. I consider it a victory,” Niedzwicki said. “She managed to enjoy life and have a stiff upper lip. A lot of time we’re fighting a losing battle but we were able to help her quite a bit.”
If my mother had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer five years earlier, she might not have lived three years, Niedzwicki said. That is how fast breast cancer research and treatment is changing. “We are learning to do things better,” he said.
In addition to receiving care from Dr. Niedzwicki, my mother leaned heavily on her niece, Dr. Marcia Browne, an
The first challenge they faced in 2006 was determining where the new cancer had originated. My mother had lumps in her
Marcia made an appointment at Mass General with one of the world’s leading lung cancer specialists, Dr. Thomas J. Lynch, Jr. At the time, Lynch was chief of hematology/oncology at the hospital's cancer center. He was named director of Yale Cancer Center and physician-in-chief of the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven in 2009.
“I wanted to do something important in medicine, and I don't think any event is more profound than receiving a diagnosis of a dreaded disease-like cancer," Lynch said.