It’s been almost five years since I lost my sister to breast cancer. She was diagnosed in March of 2012 at the age of 47.
It was a complete shock. We had no family history. She found out from an abnormal mammogram.
I didn’t realize how much I didn’t remember about those eight short months from her diagnosis until she passed away. It went by so fast. So much of it is just a blur. I had to go back to her Facebook page and made a timeline from her posts for accuracy.
When she broke the news to me one afternoon in late March, I thought, wow, this sucks. But I never ever had a doubt she would beat it. She had a huge personality. She was the life of the party, the loud and crazy one, with a smile that could light up a room, and a laugh so loud you could hear it a mile away. She was a survivor.
She started chemo treatments on April 8, had a total of eight over the next four months. I remember her being so sick a few days after each one and talking about her “chemo fog.” She just never really complained, and was so optimistic, clinging to her strong faith.
Once her beautiful, thick hair began to fall out, she shaved her head and posted on her Facebook in May, “It is SO GREAT not having to pick up all those stray hairs!! Another upside? Saving money on hair products! HA! Take THAT, cancer!!”
That was her. Always making a joke. She loved to laugh and to make others laugh.
After completing her final treatment in August, we had a girls’ dinner the next night to celebrate. But just four days later, she was back in the hospital, her body weak from all it had been through.
After she returned home, I took her dinner. My son, who was three at the time (and crazy about his LaLa), took his doctor kit over to help her feel better.
“He checked my blood pressure, temperature, ears, and throat and then gave me a shot and declared me ‘good!'” she wrote.
On September 11, we found out the chemo had not shrunk the tumor enough for just a lumpectomy, so two weeks later, she had a single mastectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy. Maybe this would be enough.
The next month, she received clear margins from her pathology report. This seemed like the best news possible, or so I thought.
I took her as my guest to a Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama luncheon on October 19, and the next day we were walking through downtown Birmingham in the Race for the Cure.
In her last month on this earth, she got her first tattoo. It was an anchor with a breast cancer ribbon on it. Her go-to verse during her battle was Hebrews 6:12 “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast.” She never let go of that anchor.
While waiting to schedule her reconstructive surgery, she found out on October 29 that her breast cancer had metastasized to her liver. “I start Tamoxifen (an oral chemo drug) tonight,” she wrote. “It is not a good scenario. Please keep me in your prayers.”
The next night, we went to dinner and (tried as best we could) to celebrate her youngest’s 15th birthday.
We went to an Auburn game in early November. Had I only known that would be our last outing together.
On November 10, she wrote “Not necessarily thankful for cancer, but I AM thankful that I have a clearer perspective of what is important and what is trivial than I did a year ago.”
She was back in the hospital just before Thanksgiving. The cancer had spread to her liver, and that’s when we knew she wouldn’t be with us much longer. The following Sunday, we got the call she had been moved to palliative care (I didn’t know what that was at the time). When I got there, she was so weak and could barely talk, but kept telling me, “To be absent from the body is to be present with God.” She held on to her faith until the very end.
She died early on a Tuesday. The following Sunday we had a celebration of her life. The church was bursting with an estimated 700-800 people. There was laughter and tears and singing and dancing, just the way she would have wanted.
I began getting mammograms a few months after that and have every year since. I encourage everyone to do the same. A month dedicated to this disease is great for awareness, but we need to be reminded every day and remember those we have lost.
To donate locally, please visit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama. BCRFA raises funding for cutting-edge breast cancer research at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and their collaborative partners.
Paula Ingram Duncan
August 3, 1964– November 27, 2012