The last day of August 2007 was the first day of college for my daughter, Veronica. She is a very ambitious young woman and was set on becoming a doctor. She was not the first of our children to attend a university, but to have a doctor in the family would be a first for either side of our families, and we were highly hopeful for her future. It was a difficult time as I was not feeling well for months prior to her big first day. After being bounced around from doctor to doctor, I was finally told the news. The call I made to her that evening was a difficult one. I had looked forward to speaking to my daughter after her first day of classes, talking about her studies, professors and some cute boy gossip tossed in for fun, but that was not the conversation we had. I had breast cancer. I not only had breast cancer, I had Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC), the most fatal of all the breast cancers. I was in trouble and as hard as it was to tell her, I wanted her to know. She quickly offered to quit school, come home and be of support to me. I insisted she stay at school and we would see each other often. My heart was heavy as I hung up the phone, wondering how we were going to manage college and cancer, even with the scholarships she had received, there was still a lot of uncovered expense and now our family had newly added cancer expenses looming in the future.
Receiving treatment at MD Anderson’s Morgan Welch Clinic in Houston, Texas offered a multitude of blessings that I didn’t fully realize until later. Breast cancer was really not in my world. I had a few friends who dealt with such a diagnosis. Sadly, one of them did pass away, but most seemed to do well. “A bump in the road” was a phrase I heard often. But IBC seemed different. Most people have never heard of this form of cancer without a lump, one not typically discovered by mammograms. But the ones who had heard would go pale, often saying, “Oh, that’s the bad one” before they realized they actually said it aloud and quickly stopped. Inflammatory Breast Cancer was not the stuff of pink ribbons, post-care boob jobs and that sister club I had in my mind. It was lonely. I had a disease no one I knew had ever heard of, was highly fatal and required really aggressive treatment for any hope of survival.
I live in the Houston area, so I naturally headed straight to MD Anderson for care. This is where the blessings came in. Because of the rareness of the disease, I was able to meet women who travelled far and wide to receive care there. As sad as it made feel to see others fighting this disease, it offered me a strange comfort. I was not alone. Maybe some of them could live. Maybe I could live too. I wanted to do something. I wanted to give them something to connect us in those moments of fear, to give encouragement, but how?
One day at a book fair I happened to walk past a booth featuring handmade custom rosaries, and this was the first step in what I hope to become my legacy to IBC. The rosaries were made of real pearls and were stunning. The weight of them, the pretty pink color; an idea came together in my mind so fast. Pearls are formed from pain. A “bump in the road”, covered by layer after layer to create a beautiful scar, but a scar nonetheless. People can do the same. They can overcome hardship and have beauty even after a difficult illness.
Looking back I wonder what the rosary designer thought about this crazy woman standing in front of her, with words tumbling out so fast. I am sure she had a difficult time following what I was saying. What it all boiled down to was simple, “Will you help me?” I wanted a necklace, something small, but meaningful, a single pearl on a chain, and maybe a second pearl too. Mary Leano, the woman behind that booth, was my angel that day. She listened. She cared about what I was saying and together we came up with an idea: a necklace I could give to women as I met them, to remind them they were not alone, and to offer encouragement. The IBC Sister Necklace was launched. This necklace is made of a single pearl drop to represent the woman alone in her battle, and set in the antiqued finished chain is a stationary pearl, to represent all those, seen and unseen who fight for and with her. Mary made dozens of them for me to give to women. It filled my heart to see the faces of the women as I gave them the necklaces and explained the reason for the design. Hope was born. Hope begets courage. Again I ran to Mary, and again asked for her help. She was emotionally invested in what I was doing, and very willing to become even more involved. I thought back to my daughter’s first day of college, and realized hope was needed too for whole families, not just the women with the disease. Mary agreed, and together we came up with the Pink Pearl Project, a jewelry line from which all profits will go to support college scholarships for families impacted by IBC. We got to work. Due to Mary’s lovely designs and community support, we will award the first scholarship this summer. The more jewelry sold, the more scholarships we can award in the future.
The pain I felt as a mother on my daughter’s first day of college made me worry that my cancer might not only rob me of my future, but hers as well. As for my daughter, she graduates this May, with a double major in Biology and Spanish, from Texas A&M University. (Whoop!) She still loves medicine but is now considering medical ethics and law, and has accepted a summer internship in Washington DC as she continues planning her future dreams. Update on me? I will celebrate 5 years with no evidence of disease, (NED) May 2012.
Survivor and founder, The IBC Network and the Pink Pearl Project