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‘My Change of Plans 2019’
I want to believe what happens to us, our circumstances, actions, chances are all a part of our journey from above. My belief was always to take this 2011 “situation” and find out what I was supposed to be learning or growing from. As I write my story today, I find myself looking backwards again, not knowing what to put to paper that may make someone else stronger or not as scared of what could come.
As my daughter told me this evening; “Mom, you have had to change so many things since the first time you had cancer. You helped us to believe there is good in every situation even if the change was going to be difficult.” I wanted my girls to know that even when life goes nothing like what you had planned, I really thought there are gifts you can find along the way.
I have always had a strong career, fought, and competed for success. As a trainer, I worked hard to inspire others, provide motivation to embrace change:
- Change is hard but will give you courage.
- Courage gives your strength and confidence.
- These beliefs were in my nature from as young as I could remember…
- “Be yourself, no one else is Qualified”
My first encounter with death and illness was when my father passed at 48 years of age. I was 22, and never got to say goodbye. He had a stroke and never regained consciousness. That was a turning point for me, to not only try to be strong for my mother, but how to I go on without my dad who is NEVER going to see my children.
Facing reality that we will all go someday and not being able to say goodbye to someone you loved – changed me. As my heart for giving and need to help others grew, so did my kindness, and the compassion for wanting to make a difference in a life through the people I meet and help them realize they are worth something.
I met the love of my life in 1990 and we had 2 beautiful girls over the next 10 years. After growing careers and settling into our family life, those life changes once again came at a force we did not see.
The First Diagnosis – August 2011
I was always told I had lumpy and dense breasts. I had to be diligent in doing my self-checks and my GM Doctor had me on a yearly screening at age 43. Even with the yearly checks, in the summer of 2011, I looked up at the mirror and my left breast was shrunk with a large vain exposed. My husband and I headed to the doctor and did not say a word. The mammogram showed nothing again, but the ultrasound said it all. After a very painful biopsy, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Breast Cancer. Stage 4, stage 4. So many bad places your mind goes. Not knowing what else to do, I called the American Cancer Society and just lost it. I was ‘dying’, I repeated over and over to Jill. She was my angel on the other line who somehow brought me back to some sort of acceptance. But now how to take back control? My mind kept going to work, feeling I will be disappointing them. You see, I was selected to be a special trainer for my company and my managers. I chose to put off immediate surgery to deliver training in 5 states and be that ‘giver’ before surgery put me out. HAHA. Did I think I had it all figured out!
It was flurry of doctor appointments, meeting with the team of surgeons, oncology, radiation doc, and my plastic surgeon. No one in my family has had breast cancer. To be so aggressive and mammograms not catching it during yearly visits kept me sad and angry. 2 cysts, one 10 cm and the other 3.
I was given a choice to have the double mastectomy or just remove the one. This is where I was tested, again. I was 47 young and still ‘cute’. Did my husband want one boob? I prayed and prayed. An instinct told me to get both off now. What an instinct God led me to, the second one did have cancer, fear crept in, but I kept telling myself – I won this one!
Everyone had missed it, which was alarming. 32 Lymphnodes later taken from the left side, 24 carrying cancer, I was downgraded to Stage 3C, as it did not leave the chest wall. I win again!!! At that point I didn’t care what they called it; I was in bad shape. My under arm had a softball in it (scar tissue). I couldn’t lift my left arm all the way above my head and had braiding throughout my arm. My Plastic Surgeon said the General Surgeon took so much skin I was left without being able to have breast implants or any other surgery to get my figure back as a ‘Woman’.
The next few months were some of the most difficult of my life, but my friends rallied and new friends I met on my journey brought me so many gifts–organizing meals, bringing groceries, cleaning my house, and seeing my hairdresser sobbing as she helped me shave my head. There were other gifts, too: An answer to possibly being able to not have to wear this uncomfortable SLEEVE on my left arm. I leaned on so many to help me with exercise, massage, all in the hopes I could not wear this hot thing all the time.
My friend introduced me to Pink Phoenix Dragon Boat Team which led to another gift– a platform connecting to others and sharing experiences, exercising, and feeling valued. Everyone had been touched by Breast Cancer on this team.
Many friends wanted me to connect with others in the same boat, so I went on a lot of “blind dates” with these women, which brought me new friends and new perspectives on life. I couldn’t sit around and mourn with these women, they had to be strong and not want to give up. Keep fighting I was told, so I did.
One of the biggest gifts throughout this whole cancer journey was meeting Sandy, a newbie on the team and we became fast friends. I then met Deb Hart, founder of Pink Sistas, a nonprofit for women with Breast Cancer where you can escape on a water retreat and rejuvenate for no cost. We (Vancouver Pinks) took Sandy to Deb and spent a retreat weekend together. Deb was another gift to me because not only does she run a nonprofit but is a hospice nurse and sat with Sandy at the end. Deb and I became fast friends and I became a big part of Pink Sistas and a purpose for me. In 2013 it was time to find my body again.
Because I don’t quit or accept easily, I found an unbelievable breast center in New Orleans who had stellar recommendations and doctors with experience in lymph node dissections. Another journey to New Orleans, 14 hours of surgery and I had a chest and the softball removed from my arm pit. Time to recover and figure out my next steps. I had a substantial career that just stopped. I went back to work part time and then eventually full time. I couldn’t do it, my body said no.
3 years later, I am successful in a NEW Career – Real Estate where I can help people and give.
Being Diagnosed With MBC
As a Breast Cancer Dragon Boat Team, we had the opportunity to compete at the International Breast Cancer Participatory Event (Racing) in Florence Italy 2018. As I prepared my body to be chosen for the team, I started having pain in my lower back and right leg during practices. I chalked it up to the workout routine, stress, and work hours, but no matter what I tried, the pain remained. My next pain came in my front ribs, a bump appeared. I was slightly worried but not enough to go get checked. Skip ahead to Italy, we raced hard all weekend then early in July. That Monday in the hotel room, I could not get out of bed my back hurt so bad. Once you’ve had cancer, you worry that every little ache and pain is a recurrence. And you worry that your doctor thinks you’re a hypochondriac. I was sure that when I called my oncologist to ask about my rib and back pain, she would tell me I was overreacting. Instead, she scheduled me for imaging.
Within 24 hours I was imaged and within 12 hours I had the news. The news hit me as if the wind was knocked out of me.
The words all seemed grim. And I was right: When I looked them up, words like “incurable”, “metastasis”, and “terminal” were what I saw. I was going to have to call my daughters, but how do I tell them I was going to die–I have not seen them graduate, get married, have a family. One daughter just 18, the other so strong at 23.
That afternoon, I kept saying “I am going to die” and reliving the image of my husband in the chair grey and crying. I sobbed in his arms that night after an argument. How could all this be happening just 7 years from the first diagnosis. All I had wanted was an ordinary life, retire together with my husband of 27 years watching the waves somewhere. I am scared this will not happen for us.
My Final Change of Plans
There is no FINAL with MBC – The last change for now is for me to live a life, find a new normal, embrace the changes. No longer able to do what I love paddling, quading, running, working long hours, etc. I continue on the path of changing my identity to fit my new normal. My husband once said to me, “we can’t do those things anymore, because you are always in pain”. That hurt to hear but made me want to change how I was coming across to him. My family is going through cancer too. A counselor told me it was okay to grieve my previous life before cancer – “Just don’t let it be the reason you do not find anything else to make you happy.”
I want to continue to provide inspiration to family, friends, coworkers, future clients. I want to live up to how people see me as stated below:
“Your open heart, friendly smile, drive, and constant caring about others inspires me. The total support you give your daughters and friends is non-stop and very appreciated”
“While going through great adversity Robin showed incredible courage. She continued to show how much she cares about her clients and her team by passionately going above and beyond what is expected for all of us”
Because I am a fighter and still a ‘Survivor’ with so many of my friends and clients behind me, that next journey is living with MBC while being in treatment. I can and will live a quality life. The reality of being faced with choosing between life or death, I will not take negative opinions under consideration. As I have learned, it’s a lot different being faced with an actual problem than imagining it. There are very few who do not want the precious time they have and will give it up readily. That, of course, is not who I am.
Strong women aren’t simply born. They are made by the storms they walk through. From the pain, mistakes, and heartache we achieve pride and strength. I don’t know who needs to see this today. Or yesterday. Or someone you know might get this phone call tomorrow. Show them what strength looks like. Let them know they are not alone. Stand by them as they kick this like the warrior they are!
Thank you to Annette Johnson for allowing me to capture the pain, beauty, and bravery it took to spread this message. Prayers to you and our loved ones who stand strong behind us as we fight!
“We are living in a day and age where cancer is now considered a chronic disease or illness. We are not dying of cancer every day; we are living with cancer. When I was diagnosed over 8 years ago, I shared in the same panic that anyone has when given the ‘Cancer Card’. However, I have learned, through time, and treatment, and survivorship, that life really is all about what we make it, and not what has been handed to us. For Stage 4 diagnosis, it is not a matter of when the cancer will be cured, it’s about ‘What can I fit in before I die?’”
I am a better version of myself because I have lived with 2 diagnoses, one having no future. I live differently now, and I know what’s important. Living each day as if it’s your last seems cliché to say, however, it is oh so very true for my story. ~ Robin Ray-Rutherford
Read and watch more about Robin’s journey on her GoFundMe Page: https://www.gofundme.com/f/robin-navy-vet-fighting-stage-4-breast-cancer