Staying positive despite being triple negative
At some level, it's nice to find sympathy when you fall seriously ill.
But it's a whole other thing, something soul-saving and secure, to find someone who understands.
Brought together by circumstance, by coincidence, by timing, a small group of local women found that understanding with one other. Diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer -- only about 10 to 15 percent of breast cancers can be qualified as such, according to the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation -- they've forged a friendship that crosses differences in age and family situation.
"We are," Jody Gibble says, "the lepers of breast cancer."
Triple negative, Diane Grabowski says, is defined more by what it is not, than what it is. Breast cancer is generally "typed" based on the presence or absence of three "receptors" that fuel cancer: progesterone, estrogen or human epidermal growth factor. Most successful treatments target these receptors -- yet triple negative has none of them.
But that's knowledge learned the hard way after they first heard the "C" word from their doctors.
At that point, Amy Warner says, "the world goes black. And then it goes back out -- and then everything starts immediately."
Second and third opinions. Flights to distant cancer centers.
And out there on the periphery, regular life churns on. Warner's mother died. Grabowski's mother had surgery; a daughter graduated from high school; a son, from college. "I have to get through all this," Grabowski remembers encouraging herself.
During Gibble's treatment, there were two family weddings, a graduation and, in the middle of it all, her mother-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died.
How did they all meet?
"By the grace of God," Aimee McCartney says.
Two were introduced by the nurse manager who guided their treatment. Gibble found McCartney and Lori Wolgemuth about a year after her own diagnosis, spotting them in a restaurant. One of them was wearing a hat, Gibble says, and she could tell it was due to cancer treatment.
"The fact that they all had it, too ... I felt really bad for them," Gibble says, "but grateful for myself. When I went home and told my husband, he said, 'You will never say anything negative to these ladies, ever.' "
That's because the fearful internal voice is insistent enough.
"It was a nightmare at the beginning, worrying about death," says McCartney, who has two young children.
Going online "really robbed me of my hope," Gibble remembers. "I wouldn't tell anyone, and I was having panic attacks."
But these women? They'll understand.
They understand Grabowski's decision to cut off her own hair, to choose when and how to lose it.
They get what it's like to look in the mirror and see a woman whose hair has regrown mostly gray, or curly like a poodle's.
They know the "Should I? Shouldn't I?" struggle with breast reconstruction.
They know it feels like you've been spit out of a medical machine at the end, a mixture of relief and depression, bewilderment and determination.
They understand when Grabowski talks about her gratitude for a fundraising concert held in her honor, the "element of surrender" in accepting the help of other people.
"There is a new normal," Warner says, "but, more than that, you need to make that 'new normal' fit what's been going on around you."
And that "new normal," they say, always will include this group of survivors on parallel journeys.