Late February or early March, two years ago before Loraine’s breast cancer diagnosis we took in her brother Howard to care for him as he was morbidly obese and terminally ill with liver cancer. With a diseased liver comes variable levels of dementia as a result of hepatic encephalopathy which is caused by toxins building up in the blood. Needless to say, we already had a tough situation in our home before Loraine received her own cancer diagnosis that fall. If you think it is stressful having one loved one in your home with cancer, imagine having two loved ones with cancer. People will say they do not know how we have gotten through all of this, I do not remember us ever getting a choice. I will say that the reason we still have any semblance if sanity is our faith in God above to see us through the storm until we once again see calm waters.
Fall of 2019, about six months after taking Howard in, Loraine received her breast cancer diagnosis, which lead to numerous consultations with different doctors, surgeons and oncologists. All on top of getting Howard to his numerous doctor visits for his cancer. As much as I loath not being able to find my way around a hospital, I loath it even more that I now know my way around multiple hospitals and clinics. We have jumped through some hoops over the last couple of years to say the least, but after all of those consultations, we finally got Loraine in for her double mastectomy on January 6, 2020. The surgery went well, except for the part where Loraine’s right breast was falling apart as Dr. Butler was removing the tissue. From what I understood, even with cancer this is not the norm. It was after Dr. Butler has filled me in on the details of the surgery that I fell apart. Can you ever be ready to hear a doctor tell you that your wife’s breast fell apart as she was removing it? The removal of cancer was enough already, this just compounded my fears in the moment and made the wait for lab reports even more nerve racking. Now, the anxiety of oncology visits have just become a part of our lives. We have learned to adapt and accept all of this cancer business as well as we can now…
The final part of a mastectomy is the placement of drain tubes which have to be drained and stripped of clots a few times per day. The first time I stripped blood clots from Loraine’s drains, I almost pulled one out of her. I thought I was doing it right, but either I got lost in all the instructions we had received about post surgery care, or I was just a dunce. I am so glad I did not pull it out, but I did learn a lesson and did not make that mistake ever again. Thankfully, she did not have the drains for too long and the removal process was easy and painless for Loraine. The doctor simply pulled them out in her examination room. All was good until the staph infection set in and Howard took a turn for the worse in February. Friday, February 23rd, I took Howard to his final oncology visit and then checked him into KU Medical Centers hospice care that afternoon. Sunday, the 23rd, he passed away peacefully in his sleep with Loraine and I at his bedside.
When a woman undergoes a mastectomy for breast cancer, she must be fully healed before she can begin radiation treatments. Loraine had developed a staph infection where her left breast had been, and this turned into a nightmare scenario where her radiation treatments had to be put off longer than her radiation oncologist was comfortable with. The infection was wide and deep, at it’s worst you could see the fatty tissue and muscle underneath the skin surface. The hole was large enough that you could have easily placed a small stack of quarters into the wound. She was having such a difficult time healing that she was finally sent to a wound care doctor who got the infection turned around, but it was still a long process. In fact, at some time, the radiation oncologist decided that the treatments could no longer be put off until Loraine had fully healed. It was after the first week or so of treatments that we learned the importance of full healing before radiation.
When Loraine began her radiation treatments, all seemed to be well at first, except when the Covid-19 lock downs began about a week afterwards. This made it where I could not go with her since I could not go into the treatment center. But, she was getting through it like a trooper. However, as treatments progressed, we noticed her skin was getting more and more red with each treatment. We expected this since we had been told that radiation treatments could be like getting sunburned. What we did not count on was the third degree burns that came with these treatments. These burns were largely attributed to the fact she had not fully healed after her mastectomy and the staph infection.
I despise it when people say “that’s easy for you to say” when I talk of trying to remain positive even when there seems to be no reason to do so.
Does any of what Loraine and I have been through appear to have been easy?
I didn’t think so…
After six weeks of radiation treatments, Loraine was left with third degree burns, and a chest that still was not fully healed from the previous infection and the mastectomy. And to rub salt into the wound, another infection set back in which meant multiple trips back to her wound care doctor. Even having gone through advanced combat life saving in the Army, I still have learned more about wound care than I ever wanted to know. Loraine has suffered enough indignities with all of this and by caring for her through out all of this, my tears ducts now seem to have gone dry. I believe they could be depleted of tears entirely as I have privately shed more than a few after taking care of her wounds. It is painful to see the most important person in your life suffer the indignities that come with breast cancer.
We have gotten through the radiation treatments, the infections and healing processes, all while never really being able to catch a breath long enough to truly mourn the loss of Howard. The most current condition Loraine has been facing besides both of us getting Covid-19 around Thanksgiving is she has had lumps appear on her chest and back. The painful lump on the front is also always warm to the touch as well. Needless to say, the thought of the cancer coming back and growing rapidly as these lumps had was terrifying to say the least. Fortunately, after having an MRI, we have learned that the painful lump on her chest is internal scar tissue and the lumps on her back are a couple of cysts that happened to form where one of the radiation focal points were. The scar tissue is largely a result of Loraine not being able to complete her physical therapy because of the Covid virus. The clinic where she was going pretty much shut down. Now, we have to find another one for a physical therapist to work at breaking down the scar tissue so it is less dense and painful. There will continue to be regular oncology visits for at least the next four years. Loraine will be on estrogen suppressing drugs the rest of her life, and for the next five years, she will continue being a participant in a study where a daily dose of 300mg aspirin is taken to see if it has any impact on the recurrence of breast cancer. We will continue to take life one day at a time, and try to not get hung up, nor stressed over outside influences that we have no control over.
We want to thank all of our family, friends, and readers who have been so supportive of our journey with her breast cancer. One year out, Loraine is still cancer free, lets pray she remains so. I will write again if anything ever changes, but until then, I hope for this to be my final No Hill For a Climber piece. Embrace your loved ones tight, and let them know how much you love them. You never know what tomorrow has in store for you.