Chemo Buddies: Casper women forge friendship through breast cancer treatments
By The Pulse Oct 28, 2013
They met in chemo therapy, each fighting her own type of breast cancer: Judy Murray, 53, mother of four, had stage II estrogen receptor positive which had spread to her lymph nodes; Lillian Dinges, 54, also a mother of four, had stage IV HER2-positive which had spread to her liver.
They always seemed to come to Rocky Mountain Oncology on the same day and sit at nearby stations through the long hours of treatment. The first time they met, Lillian’s husband taught Judy’s husband how to cook eggs in the microwave.
“And I remember thinking, ‘OK. This is a fun couple. There is a little bit of comedy relief here. This is going to be alright,’” Judy said.
Judy and Lillian decided to tell their stories this month – Breast Cancer Awareness Month – to remind women about the importance of the annual mammogram, whether or not the disease runs in their families. Neither Judy nor Lillian has a history of breast cancer in theirs.
They also hope to provide some comfort and support to women who may now be facing their own diagnoses. Though the months ahead will likely be long and stressful, scary and exhausting, you will get through it, the friends say.
They know because they got through it and they helped each other through it, even as they lost their hair and their skin broke out in terrible rashes. Even as they learned that one of them wasn’t yet done with the fight.
Said Lillian, looking over at her friend next to her on the couch at Metro Coffee Co.: “We are chemo buddies.”
‘You’re going to get through it’
Judy’s not sure it’s the phrase cancer patients want to hear, but she heard it a million times throughout treatment: “It’s going to be alright.”
The fight is hard, no way around it. It doesn’t feel alright when it’s you calling a family meeting to tell your children you have cancer.
Judy found her lump the week of her yearly exam in November 2011. She called to get her mammogram a couple days early, though with no family history, she figured it was just a lump of fat. Then it all happened so fast she barely had time to think about it. From her mammogram, she went for an ultrasound. Soon after the ultrasound, she and her husband met the surgeon and she went for surgery the next week.
Doctors biopsied the tumor during surgery and removed her lymph nodes. Judy decided she would know it was cancer if she had to stay in the hospital. She awoke from surgery and asked, “So? Do I have to spend the night?”
“Yes,” the OR nurse said. “But it’s going to be OK.”
But it was something a stranger said that really helped her to face what lied ahead.
She was trying on hats in the store, preparing for when she’d lose her hair through treatment. A woman approached.
I overheard you talking that you are starting chemo therapy. I just want you to know that you’re going to get through it, the woman said.
“I think that was a huge thing to be said to me,” Judy said. “With Lillian, I knew we were going to get through it.”
Family history not required
Lillian admits she had been blasé about her mammograms. She had no history of breast cancer in her family and she never felt a lump. Instead, she felt severe pain in her right breast. She went to a doctor who sent her for a mammogram right after Thanksgiving 2011.
Doctors found calcification in Lillian’s breast, a good indication that the cancer was spreading.
“So like a fool, I was looking on the internet, scaring the heck out of myself,” Lillian said.
HER2-positive is an aggressive cancer afflicting just 25 percent of woman diagnosed with breast cancer. Lesions covered 50 percent of Lillian’s liver. She started an aggressive treatment regimen at Rocky Mountain Oncology in January 2012.
“I think it was just surreal. I don’t think I asked ‘Why me?’ then,” Lillian said. “I have since though. I think it was like ‘What do we do now? How do we get through this?’ You go into a sort of survival mode. It just goes to show you there doesn’t have to be a history, there doesn’t have to be a lump. That’s why mammograms are important.”
Lillian recently learned that her cancer had come back, this time spreading to her brain. The prognosis is good, she says, and she is staying positive. Support from family, friends like Judy and the doctors at Rocky Mountain Oncology who make it possible for her to get her treatment in Casper where she lives, will help her get through it again.
Good to be alive
Besides going through treatment at the same time, Lillian and Judy are connected through several other details: Both are mothers of four children and roughly the same age. Both had lumpectomies. Both had a horrible reaction to the chemo drug taxotere. Judy’s skin flaked off from her hands, arms and feet. Lillian developed open sores on her face.
Neither woman had a history of breast cancer in their families, highlighting the importance using their stories as a reminder to getting a yearly mammogram.
“If I can just talk to one person and tell them, ‘go for that mammogram. You don’t have to have lumps. If just one person listens, I think it’s worthwhile,” Lillian said. “You have to look for a reason sometime as to why. I’ve come to the conclusion that, for me, my reason is to bring people comfort and to help them through it.”
Just after her first round of radiation treatments ended, Lillian went to Deadwood, S.D., with her daughter and best friend. She won for once, scoring nearly $2,000. The three went to an open-air restaurant.
“And there’s this guy playing guitar and telling all the cheesy jokes and the sun was shining. I just sat there and suddenly started bawling. I thought, ‘Oh my god, it’s so good to be alive,’” Lillian said.
“It is so good to be alive, Lillian,” Judy answered.
“Sometimes, it still just overwhelms me,” Lillian said.
Judy looked at her friend, sitting next to her on the couch at Metro Coffee Co. just like she used to sit next to her at the chemo station at Rocky Mountain Oncology. She said: “Like right now, Lillian.”