Friday, October 26, 2018

Adversity to Advocacy: A Granddaughter’s Story of Stage 4 Breast Cancer, Part 2

By Olivia Suárez
Media Relations Coordinator
Texas Medical Association

Editor’s Note: This story is the second of five in a series about the author’s personal experience with metastatic (stage 4) breast cancer. This story in particular talks about her grandmother’s cancer showing up a second time, and the subsequent events that prompted the author to take on an advocate role in Washington, D.C., in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. 

In December 2016, my grandmother had been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. She underwent aggressive treatment and looked forward to living a “normal” life again.

Red Flags

However, my family and I knew something was very wrong when my grandma gradually lost her ability to walk.

After completing surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, she returned to her home in Harlingen for the holidays. She periodically traveled to San Antonio and Houston for follow-up appointments. But each time I saw her, her health had deteriorated. First she needed a cane, then a walker, and eventually a wheelchair to get around.

Her lack of mobility was just the beginning.

By late December, my grandma fell ill. She could no longer keep any food in her stomach, and in addition to frequent vomiting, she had a fever.

Grandma moved to a rehabilitation facility for weeks at a time. Updates from my mom about grandma’s progress came to a standstill. My two younger sisters and I visited our grandma on Super Bowl Sunday, saddened to see her in such bad shape. She could not keep much food down. Her legs were immobile.

The visit nearly broke me. If given the choice, I would have traded places with her, just so she wouldn’t have to suffer anymore.

I just couldn’t wrap my head around what she was going through.

“Are You Home? Are You in Your Room?”

On the night of Feb. 25, a Sunday, my mom called.

“Hey, Mom, how’s Grandma?”

“Are you home?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Are you in your room?”

My heart dropped. “What’s wrong?” I asked, doubting I was strong enough to know.

My mom said not long after I last visited, my grandma fell out of her hospital bed in the middle of the night. Doctors ordered a brain CT scan right away.

A lump formed in my throat.

“The scan results came back,” she said, “and the doctors found three tumors in her brain.”

“It’s Called Metastatic Breast Cancer.”

Within 24 hours, I joined my family at the hospital in San Antonio.

My grandma was to have surgery the next morning to remove the largest and most life-threatening of the brain tumors.

The surgery had its fair share of risks — there was a chance she wouldn’t survive the procedure.

The author's mother, Irene (left), grandmother Estela (center),
and her (right) take a selfie at an Austin eatery in June 2016,
  months before Estela's initial cancer diagnosis.
“Mom, how could this have happened?” I asked “I thought the cancer was gone.”

“The doctors say it’s common for the kind of breast cancer your grandma has to spread to other parts of the body,” she said. “It’s called metastatic breast cancer.”

At 5 the next morning, my family and I huddled around Grandma before her surgery. “I love you, Grandma,” I said as I hugged and kissed her.

Several hours later, the brain surgeon informed us the procedure was successful. We broke out in hugs and tears. However, a lot of uncertainty still loomed.

My grandma spent the next few days recovering in the hospital — one of those days, her 70th birthday.

Earth Angel, Earth Angel

My grandma spent the spring rotating between multiple rehabilitation facilities in San Antonio and our family home. She mainly stayed in bed in the front room of our house.

I hadn’t been able to visit her in San Antonio much because of my job, but I did on Mother’s Day. That is a day I’ll always cherish because it marks my last good memory of her. My grandma and I spent that evening watching Jersey Boys, the film about the musical group The Four Seasons. I knew she enjoyed the movie because I caught her smiling during the songs, especially at the end, when Frankie Valli performed “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”

“How did you like the movie, Grandma?” I asked her.

“Ay, mija, that was so good,” she said. “I remember those songs coming out when I was a little girl.”

I went to hug her.

“I’m so glad. I love you.”

A Season of Change

Over time, her health gradually declined. We knew her prospects were not good.

The author holds Estela's hand during her time
in hospice care.
In June, my grandma fell into a coma-like state. Doctors had trouble diagnosing the specific cause. Eventually we learned she had leptomeningeal disease, sometimes called LMD. This is a rare complication in which the cancer shows up in the fluid that surrounds both the brain and spinal cord and spreads to the lining of the brain and spinal cord. It occurs in about 5 percent of cancer patients and has an average prognosis of four weeks to several months.

A week later, when my grandma finally woke up,  she looked extremely frail. She could not speak. We had to accept that the end of her life loomed.

In mid-July, we brought hospice care to our family home for her. During those weeks, our extended family spent hours at a time at her bedside. We shared our favorite stories and prayed over her.

Every morning and every night, I would hug and kiss her on her forehead as she slept.

“Hey, Grandma,” I whispered. “I love you so much. I’m so lucky to be your granddaughter.”

On the morning of Saturday, Aug. 4, I repeated my ritual, thinking I’d return to do it again that night.

But I never had that opportunity.

Watch for the third part in Olivia’s post on, “Turning Grief Into Action”.

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