A Quilted Story – Alicia Boyce
In October, 1991, I had my 36th birthday. Less than 2 months later, on New Years Day, 1992, I felt a lump in my left breast. Immediately, I thought it was cancer. Deep inside, I knew it was.
I quietly cried for 3 days thinking that I was destined to die.
At the end of the 3rd day, I took a very deep breath, collected myself as best I could and decided that I was not going to die. That I was going to fight!
Having no health insurance at the time, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do or where I was going to go. But, through much research and many phone calls, I found a way to get the care I needed.
After a few weeks, on February 4th, 1992, the biopsy report was in. I went to the doctor to hear the results. My mom was with me. That’s when I heard the words……”infiltrating intraductal cell carcinoma”. I didn’t know what that was. I asked the doctor and, with very serious, sad eyes, he looked at me and said the words…..”It’s cancer.” I looked over at my mom’s face. There were tears coming down her cheeks. The doctor kept talking about things like treatment options, but, quite honestly, I saw his lips move, but I really didn’t hear any words. I had to call a few days later to hear what he actually said.
Too many of you know this place. In a matter of seconds, the life you knew when you walked in is forever changed and is then replaced by another life of fighting and surviving breast cancer.
A lumpectomy was attempted on February 7, 1992, but the surgeon was unable to find clean borders. So, a week later, on February 14, 1992, Valentine’s Day, I had a modified radical mastectomy of my left breast with immediate latissimus dorsi reconstruction.
I thought, “Good. That’s over. After I recover from this, I can get back to the life I had before all this horrible stuff happened.” Boy, was I wrong.
Oh, I tried. I was so young. Ready to take on the world again. I understood that I would have to have routine follow-up appointments, but didn’t give it much thought. Mostly because, before this happened, I had been so healthy and just viewed the entire ordeal as something I just had to get through and over with.
But then, as many of you know, I was quite naïve. Having never had major surgery, recovery took a lot longer and was much more debilitating than I anticipated. And after a while, I finally accepted the life-altering change I spoke about earlier. As much as I wanted my “old” life back, I slowly began to realize that it was never coming back.
16 months later, during one of my routine exams, the doctor found a lump in my left armpit area. During the same exam, I received a bone scan which showed a spot on my sternum.
Subsequently, in June, 1993, an axillary dissection was performed in which 12-15 lymph nodes were found to contain cancer out of a total of 15-17 lymph nodes removed.
Immediately, I questioned my oncologist about receiving a stem cell transplant which, at that time, was considered one of the best treatments to fight breast cancer. Of course, that is no longer the case, but back then, I was determined to live and I felt that the transplant was my best chance for that outcome. Unfortunately, stem cell transplants were not available in Austin at that time. And my wonderful oncologist told me to cool my jets. He said, “Let’s wait to see if you will even respond to chemotherapy”!
So, in July, 1993, I started receiving chemotherapy (Adriamiacin, Cytoxin and 5-FU). When we checked 6-7 months later, it showed that I did have a positive response. Again, my wonderful oncologist went to bat for me by contacting MDAnderson Cancer Center (MDACC) in Houston to ask if they would take me on for a stem cell transplant. (That’s how it was done in those days.) MDACC said they would take my case on the condition that I could walk through their doors with “no evidence of gross disease”.
Unfortunately, the spot on my sternum was still present. Ugh! Determine to get the treatment I thought would save me, in March, 1994, I underwent a sternectomy here in Austin. After my sternum was removed, no disease was showing and I was off to Houston.
In between May and June, 1994, prior to the actual transplant, I received 2 rounds of high dose chemotherapy which included Cytoxin, Cisplatin, VP-16, BCNU and Thiatepa. At the end of the 2nd round of high dose chemotherapy, I received the stem cell transplant of my own harvested and treated stem cells.
In June and July, 1994, I received radiation twice a day for 6 weeks with 1 week of booster radiation.
I couldn’t wait to get home. So, as soon as I could, I was on my way back to Austin. YAY!
Because the breast cancer I was fighting was ER-positive, in July, 1995, I opted for a prophylactic vaginal hysterectomy.
Again, I thought, “That’s got to be it! I am truly done with this monster.”
Almost unbelievably, (but not quite), through routine testing in February, 1997, a tumor was discovered between and on 2 lobes of my liver. Exploring different options with my doctors at MDACC, it was decided by all to attempt a liver resection of the affected lobes. Very tricky. Sadly, when the surgeon went in to remove the diseased lobes, there was too much cancer present, not only in the lobes of the liver, but in the lymph nodes underneath the liver in the abdomen. So, they closed me back up and started me on Tamoxifen.
I was having some success with Tamoxifen, but was simultaneously having extreme pain in my abdomen. In October, 1999, I was rushed to the ER with a major bleed that the doctors attributed to diverticulitis. During testing at the hospital, a mass of malignant fluid was found by fluoroscope which was showing in my abdomen, under my lungs and near my spine.
By this time, I was no longer going to MDACC. The wonderful oncologist who initially approached MDACC to take me on as a patient had always been in the loop on what was happening with me. He would see me after every time I would go to MDACC and was still there for me as I was facing this 3rd recurrence.
After he and I weighed the options available to me, I asked him if we could try Taxol. As this 3rd recurrence was happening to me, Taxol, was being used as a front line chemotherapy for some newly diagnosed breast cancer which required chemotherapy intervention. When I was newly diagnosed in 1992, Taxol was in trials and therefore not even available. So he said, “Let’s try it”.
So, in November or December, 1999, I started on Taxol and was treated here in Austin.
I stayed with it until January, 2001. During this same year, I started back with the breast cancer oncology department at MDACC. Then, during follow-up testing at MDACC, scans showed an amazing disappearance of almost all cancer. All that was showing was a small, seemingly inactive, lesion seen on my liver. My doctor at MDACC and my oncologist in Austin decided I should start on Aromasin (Exemestane).
I am on it until this day.
My wonderful oncologist here in Austin has since retired. He recommended another oncologist in his office, who I started with and who is also incredibly wonderful. It is so great to have had so many doctors who have been genuinely caring and warm. I am so lucky to have had such a remarkable team!
So, now you say, “Okay. But where did this beautiful quilt come from”? Well, in a twisted, somewhat predictable way, breast cancer returned once again. This time, it didn’t attack my body. It decided to visit my sister. My only sibling.
This was devastating to the entire family, but, of course, mostly to my sister. She was diagnosed in February, 2017. She underwent a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation.
While my sister was going through chemotherapy, her terrific next door neighbor, Jacque, who is not only a breast cancer survivor herself, but is also a quilter, made a beautiful quilt for my sis to help her stay warm during treatment.
Once things kind of settled down, my sister asked Jacque if she would be willing to make another quilt for me. She told Jacque that I had many t-shirts which I collected throughout my breast cancer experience, especially Komen Race for the Cure t-shirts. Jacque has been a participant in the Komen Boise Race for the Cure for many years. She explained to my sister that she had not worked with t-shirt material in the past, but was willing to try.
In the summer of 2017, while my sister was undergoing radiation therapy, our mom took a suitcase almost full of Komen Austin Race for the Cure t-shirts up to Boise. Of course, Mom was there to visit and help my sister, but she also handed over all those t-shirts to Jacque. Jacque proceeded to take the t-shirts and make this beautiful quilt you see today.
I hope that by donating this wonderful quilt to Komen Austin, it can inspire others to know that they are not in this fight by themselves and there are many of us still walking, still running and still hoping for a cure.