Three-Time Cancer Survivor Shares How She Dealt With Her Diagnoses
As our clocks sprang forward and the snow has nearly all melted in mid-Michigan—having survived one of the coldest winters on record including a week-long polar vortex—I sit here on a sunny April morning reflecting on my second year anniversary of finishing chemotherapy.
I have so much to be thankful for, after all. Not only have I endured another cold winter, but by the end of April, I will celebrate being cancer free for two years. I have celebrated this before; as it was my third cancer diagnosis and I’m only 49. With each diagnosis came physical and emotional scars. What cancer has left behind is not to be forgotten, and I’m reminded daily of this.
But it’s not all bad. While I may move along each day going about a seemingly normal life, I often stop, pause, remember, and truly thank God for what my family and I have been given. Our experiences, the hard ones especially, shape us into who we are and who we become. We need to look within and make peace with those tough moments in order to truly move forward.
So in sharing my story with the bold. community, my wish is to impart hope in those of you who may be struggling with a new diagnosis of any kind of illness or who may know or be the loved one of someone in pain. For me, knowing that I had a support system of people who truly loved me unconditionally was what I found kept me afloat. Maintaining a sense of humor, self-deprecating at times, but finding humor in the midst of something tough can be nothing short of a miracle; and last but not least, focusing on the light. I call it faith; represented in the sunlight, the moonlight, candlelight on a dark night, and the joy and light in my children’s eyes and smiles.
My journey with cancer began in 1993. At just 23 years old, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. My first words after I was diagnosed were: “Am I going to die?” Again, I was only 23. I wound up at the doctor’s office after many months of head and chest colds, night sweats, and difficulty breathing. I had also found a small lump the size of a jellybean on my neck. When I went for X-rays and CT scans, the doctors discovered more lumps in my lungs. And they decided that—considering my condition—the course of treatment should be a surgery to remove my spleen and other lymph nodes, as well as 44 radiation treatments.
Most days I drove myself to my treatments at Providence Hospital’s Cancer Center in Southfield, Michigan and then to my journalism classes at the University of Detroit-Mercy. My parents, who had divorced many years prior, worried profusely. My skin turned bright red and burned from the treatments, and I lost some hair, but I was fortunate enough to have a good prognosis and my youth on my side. However, despite the good prognosis, I struggled with the meaning of this diagnosis at such a young age. Of course I asked the question, “Why me?” Who wouldn’t ask this? I was in shock. I pitied myself and hated everything about my situation. I wanted the world to stop spinning and wait for me to get better. I was certain I wasn’t going to make it to age 30. As a people pleaser, I tried my best to stay optimistic in front of people, especially my boyfriend, Mike, who I had been dating for less than a year. I buried my fear and shame of having cancer and tried to put people at ease by smiling and using a self-deprecating sense of humor. In other words, I became a pro at brushing my pain aside.
Meanwhile, I sought refuge through my faith, friends and family, journalism courses, and especially Mike, to get through my treatments and this tough time. As I would drive myself daily to radiation treatments that lasted several weeks, I carried a couple religious relics pinned to my bra or my hospital gown. I prayed a lot in the car and as I walked into the cancer center, oftentimes alone. I needed to remember, though, that I was not alone. Raised a Catholic, I felt a loving presence. Faith is in the small things, and in the big things—the good and bad. I just had to look.
But if you don’t identify with a specific religion or faith, still remember that you’re not alone. People are rooting for you. Learn to appreciate what you have in the moment, the progress you’re making, and to practice gratitude—a tall task when you’re being faced with this type of a crisis.
I recall other patients in the waiting room and nurses looking at me with sadness, most likely wondering what kind of cancer I had or why, at my age, I had cancer at all. I would walk out of the changing room anxiously to lie on a table on top of a mold made specifically for me to line up with my specially made tattoos (tiny blue dots that resemble freckles) so that I could properly receive my radiation treatment. The fear was overwhelming. It was hard to breathe. I needed to trust and accept. I was where I needed to be. Where I had to be. It wasn’t until years later—and a second cancer diagnosis—that that realization became clear.
My daughters told me, “Mom, you’re strong. You can do this!” Their faith in me made me feel loved, encouraged and powerful.
I was in good health for 14 years and had many anniversaries of being cancer free; however, in October 2007 a shocking discovery was made. By this time, Mike and I had been married for 12 years and had two daughters: one was 7, and the other age 2. At age 37, I was considered cured from Hodgkin’s Disease and was no longer being closely monitored (Although, I started to have a mammogram once a year and regular annual check-ups.)
Our daughters were considered miracles given my health history. At this time, I was a reporter with the Midland Daily News. I had just returned from interviewing an inspiring woman, a breast cancer survivor for a special Cancer Awareness Section for the paper. Little did this woman know that our meeting would soon be another miracle. I tend to think that there are no coincidences in life, no matter your outlook on religion or higher powers. When driving home from this interview, I felt compelled, moved to examine my own breasts once I got home. So I did while in the shower, and I found a lump in my left breast. “Are you kidding me?,” I said loud and clear with water dripping all around me. If I had not met that survivor that day, I guarantee I would not have examined myself.
Everything from that moment snowballed quickly. Panic and fear took over, and I could not wrap my head around any of it. “Had I not paid my dues?” After my self-exam, I went to see my doctor the following day. I had a mammogram and ultrasound done, as well as a biopsy a month later. And when that biopsy revealed it was another cancer diagnosis, it was devastating to me, Mike, and my family. This time, it was triple negative breast cancer, which is considered an aggressive form. The team at the University of Michigan Hospital called it “radiation-induced” breast cancer, a side effect from receiving the many doses of radiation all those years prior. What cured my first cancer years ago had its own consequences that, again, put my health at risk. I was mortified. Angry.
After 3D-mammograms, scans and tests, lab work, and biopsies, I had one of the biggest obstacles of all: a double mastectomy and 30 lymph nodes removed from my left armpit. During this time, all I could think about was my husband, our two daughters, and how much they needed me. And I was a wreck. I questioned and argued with God, but I really tried to relinquish control and let him do his work. I would need to give of myself as best I could.
After my surgery, I would have a month to recoup before my eight rounds of chemotherapy—the other C word. The treatment I so dreaded, and avoided years prior, was now a reality. But had I had chemotherapy in 1993, would we have our two daughters now? It made sense now. I was so very grateful for my kids because they gave me the strength to fight for my health. Again, this is the gratitude I’m speaking of. To say I was reluctant and scared is an understatement. But I had no choice. I had to move forward for them.
Chemotherapy made me lose my hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes. It was devastating to shave it completely. I cried, and I felt sorry for myself. I had bone pain from treatment, pain from the fillers in my chest, discomfort in my left armpit, along with a cumbersome pic line in my right arm. I hated everything about my situation. I’m sorry to say—I did not want to see another pink ribbon, and I wanted to burn every hat and bandana I owned. I spent a lot of time in bed and wasn't able to properly take care of my kids some days, something I would beat myself up about.
Despite these challenges surrounding my breast cancer diagnosis and the treatments I had to undergo, I had good days where I laughed a lot. I felt blessed in many other ways. I could see that I was more than just hair and breasts. My plastic surgeon was also a mother close in age to me. As such, she became a pillar in my support system. And despite the obvious challenges presented to him during this time, Mike fully supported me. I remember praying to God—begging, crying, and feeling very lost just days after my double mastectomy. My daughter had just turned 3, and I was struggling to change her diaper. How was I going to take care of her while my husband was at work, and my eldest daughter at school? I couldn’t pick her up, and I had trouble moving.
But within a couple of days, my daughter was able to go to the bathroom by herself. Again, I don’t view this as a coincidence. Since my diagnoses, I have realized the importance of recognizing life’s miracles and blessings and expressing gratitude for them, even when presented with difficult challenges. Once I shifted my perspective from why me to being able to acknowledge the positives no matter how I felt, I was able to find things to smile and laugh about with my husband and girls. We loved each other unconditionally, and I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. All and all, it was about one year and a half from my second cancer diagnosis to the end of treatment and surgeries. We were healing and back on track as a family.
Cancer has not taken everything from me. Instead, I’m reminded of my many blessings each day and the storms we weather together.
It had been nearly 10 years since that second diagnosis and our family was succeeding in school and work, and using our past challenges to strengthen our relationships all while paying it forward. So two weeks prior to Christmas, I was getting out of the shower and drying off. (Yes, again in the shower!) In the mirror I noticed a small red area near an old incision by my armpit. I touched it, and found a small flat lump. The room started to spin. My hands shook. I immediately started to cry and panic. “Please, NO, not again!” My husband heard my cries and rushed into the room. I fell into his arms, and though it could have been anything, I knew it was cancer. Once I calmed, I called my doctor and was seen that very same day. They ran a couple of tests, and we tried to remain optimistic. (The doctors did too by telling me it could be a fat necrosis.) I felt as though I was, again, having a nightmare. It was cruel deja vu and all too familiar. No one should have to deal with this. No one. My oncologist called Monday, and said: “I don't have the news you want to hear. It’s breast cancer.” Further testing, and a lumpectomy confirmed an estrogen positive breast cancer.
“How could this be? I had a double mastectomy! And chemo!” My doctor reminded me of the small percentage of tissue that still remains even after such an invasive, extensive surgery. We started to plan. I had to prepare myself. My daughters, now 17 and 12, were able to help out more and understand what was happening. They were scared for me, but very brave. They told me, “Mom, you’re strong. You can do this!” Their faith in me made me feel loved, encouraged and powerful. Seeing them so positive and reacting with such grace and courage made me realize that, if nothing else, our family was strong. Mike comforted me and reassured me that we could do it—again.
So this time, I was to have four rounds of chemotherapy. Looking back at my previous experience with that form of treatment, I was grateful it was only 4 rounds, instead of 8. And this time I did not have to have a pic line or additional surgeries. And in hearing of my third diagnosis, I felt supported by God. A life-long Catholic, I was able to feel his grace in all of it and was in a much better mental space. Because of our paying it forward mentality and focusing on what we had instead of what we did not (again with gratitude), we were able to combat the third diagnosis with a better perspective.
I finished my four rounds of chemo. I, again, lost my hair, causing my pride to go out the window. I bought at least a dozen hats (none of them pink, mind you), a wig, and prepared myself as best as I could. I chose not to be angry at anyone or anything. I chose to accept the chemo as a heat-seeking missile to kill any possible lurking cancer cells. I did not choose to think of it as the enemy. I bombarded my doctors with questions, and I made sure they knew where I stood.
I successfully finished my last treatment on April 2017. This month, I will happily acknowledge that anniversary, and in a few more months I will turn 50. It’s been three decades of having cancer in my life. This year, I look forward to blowing out those candles, namely because I always wish for good health. It will be my forever wish. Cancer has not taken everything from me. Instead, I’m reminded of my many blessings each day and the storms my family is able to weather together.
Erika M. Hirschman was born and raised in Detroit, and moved to mid-Michigan with her husband Mike after they married. Together they’ve raised two daughters, have two crazy dogs, purchased a family business, and have endured three cancer diagnoses. Erika worked in newspaper journalism for 20 years, is a freelance writer, an advocate with the American Cancer Society, a school volunteer, and is currently working on a memoir. You can read more about her journey on findinghopeonvegas.com and by following her on Instagram @hirschmom2.