More about Sandy Labaree
The following was written by Sandy shortly before her death, to be used as a foreword to a possible book that would compile her newspaper columns in order to reach a wider audience. The column, "LifeLines", appeared in Maine's Lincoln County News from January of 1998 through the end of February, 2000, one week before she died. It quickly became the weekly paper's most popular feature. From the beginning, Sandy filed the column via e-mail attachment, and did so from around the country via laptop while traveling on the Tour.
"Keep The Shiny Side Up"
One of my best friends, Gary, has a unique expression: "Keep the shiny side up", which has meaning on two levels. First, as car terminology, it makes sense to keep the shiny painted side up and wheels down on the road. Obviously, the best and most appropriate position for your car is to be upright and running!
But "shiny side up" also has another more positive and important meaning to me: attitude. A positive light and spin on things, looking at things from the shiny side up. Like the glass half full or half empty, if we all saw the shiny side up, life would be so much better. I have chosen to live my life from the shiny side up and this includes how I live with my cancer and life experiences. So, I dedicate this book to keeping the shiny side up as I drive down the road of life’s experiences.
I was born in Princeton, NJ, a very different climate from Maine. Princeton at that time was a small town of maybe 30k, and in many respects resembled Brunswick, Maine in that both are college towns. Life revolved around both college and town activities. For instance, our high school football games were scheduled for Saturday mornings, giving us just enough time to run over the Princeton University Palmer Stadium for the college game.
I grew up in a comfortable family with my mother, my father who led a busy life as a local doctor, my sister Mary Ann who is 22 mos. younger, my sister Peggy, who is 7 yrs younger, and my brother Ray who is 10 years younger. We were a close-knit extended family because my maternal grandmother and grandfather lived right in the neighborhood, only a few blocks away, as did my paternal grandfather.
My particular recollections of growing up were car-related. Even though I didn't consider myself a tomboy, from the time I was 2 or 3 years old, I was fascinated with cars. My mother tells me that when we were living on an army post when my dad was in the service, I was particularly taken in by a robin's egg blue convertible owned by the commander's wife. I informed Mom that I was going to own a car like that when I grew up. As the years progressed my interest in cars increased.
Growing up in the late 50's and 60's, I was drawn to life on the road. My heart and soul connected to the lure of the Mother Road, the black and white images of Buz and Tod cruising top down in their Corvette on Route 66, in search of fun and adventure. By the time I entered high school, the era of muscle cars was dawning, and I was immediately drawn to fast, flashy cars. My friends and I could not afford new Corvettes, Chevelles or GTO's, so we settled for 1955-57 Chevies with hopped up motors, pinstriping and loud radios. A few of us less fortunate types, drove our parents' cars which in my case was an enormous white '62 Oldsmobile. The only saving grace to driving this white whale was its large engine, and the roomy passenger compartment which could easily accommodate six of my friends. I spent countless hours perusing car magazines, going to weekend drag races at Atco Dragway in South Jersey, and bugging one of my friends, Jeff, who patiently explained car terminology and how pistons, rods and cams worked.
My criteria in selecting boyfriends was based primarily on which cars they drove. My girlfriends did not share my fascination with cars and shook their heads in disbelief as I progressed from the owner of a turquoise green 1958 Chevy Impala convertible, to a white 1962 Impala convertible, to a fully loaded 1962 baby blue Bonneville, to finally in an ultimate coup during my college years, to the owner of two Corvettes, a dark green '57 racer and a gorgeous Honduras Maroon '62, set up for both race and street. The owner of those Corvettes is now ancient history, but I thank him for inspiring me to purchase my first Corvette.
Eventually my interest in a car-mate and a soul-mate for life came together when I married my husband, Ben, in December 1967.
Ben and I decided in 1973 that a life change was in order for us and our 3 year old daughter, Christine. We were tired of 45 minute commutes to work. We had vacationed in Maine for several years, and in a spur of the moment decision, purchased a house on what was our last vacation trip to Maine. After selling one car, and banking on starting a new business, we packed everything we owned into the remaining car and a U-Haul truck and moved to Bath, Maine.
So despite my many references to Maine, I will never be a Maine native. To be a Maine native you must be born here, within the borders of Maine. It doesn't count if you moved here the day after you were born. The natives will remind you of that! Some of us who adopt different regional accents seem to fit in better until we are "discovered." Fortunately, I found that we made many good friends through business connections because most Maine natives sooner or later have to deal with your business if you have a good product or service. For instance, over the years, our office equipment business, my marketing and advertising agency and my directorship of the Wiscasset Business Assn led to associations that became permanent friendships.
My first Corvette was a 1963 convertible which I purchased on June 7, 1977, the day I quit smoking. It was my gift to myself to do something meaningful and healthy. I had searched long and hard for a Honduras Maroon 1962, but was unable to find the correct car in good condition. This 1963 had a beautiful body, but needed mechanical and interior work. I owned the car twice over a period of time of 21 years. It was definitely my baby.
In a weak moment in 1981 and for a lot of cash, I sold the 1963 and purchased a gold 1973 coupe. It was a big mistake and I hated the car enough to drive it through the winter with recapped snow tires! I spent the next 5 years shopping to replace the 1963. We found a 1967 Marina Blue convertible for a good price. The car was originally a 435 and we knew it would be collectible in the future, yet it did not have the heart and soul of my 1963 which was named Velvet. It incorporated that material in the custom interior that I had installed in her when we fully renovated and put the car in show condition during the first few years I owned her.
The 1967 convertible basically became a summer driver to us for five years. I halfheartedly searched out my 1963, my dear Velvet. Then, as if by an act of fate, Ben picked up a new car magazine that had just been released. We took the magazine home and flipped through the pages and out jumped a photo of Velvet! She was for sale in Florida and had been gone from us nine years and had three different owners, but had been well-cared for. Velvet had less than 10,000 miles on her since we had sold her in 1981. I knew we had to buy Velvet back and bring her home. In no time, Velvet was on a car carrier and on her way back to my home.
Polly and Fate
One of my best Corvette friends was Polly Weidner. Polly and I met in 1995. We
were both diagnosed with cancer. I was selling raffle tickets for a new Corvette to
benefit the American Cancer Society. Poly was standing around the raffle table and
looking very ill at ease. I introduced myself and there was something that clicked
between us. We became fast friends... in every sense. The day Polly was diagnosed
with advanced lung cancer (she was a heavy smoker), she went right out and bought
a new Corvette, a white '95 coupe. Talk about priorities - she got it right! Her vanity
plate read "DONTW8". We had a lot of fun together until her husband retired from
the Navy and they moved back to their native Florida. She died in the Fall of '97, but
sure made the most of her last two years.
I had always shied away from "newer" Corvettes, having the attitude that "sure, they made Corvettes after '67, but who cares?" That held up until making the mistake of driving a C-5, the Raffle car, last year. I was hooked. The C-5 rides and handles like no other Corvette and the sheer power just blew me away. Now I can actually see over the hood and I have trunk space, and not just for two sets of golf clubs. Once in a lifetime, most of us get the chance to do something really awesome. Some of us wait for that opportunity to come to us, while others just make it happen. As the license plate on my Torch Red 1997 so aptly reads, DIDNTW8, I fulfilled the dream of my lifetime. This past summer, I drove nearly 25,000 miles, through 33 states, conducting a cross-country tour in my Corvette.
Friends and family warned me that I would soon tire of living out of a suitcase, different hotels every night, fast food, truck stops and greasy spoon diners. Some said that sharing the cockpit of a C-5 with a co-driver for 4 months would test my patience and mental stability. Yet, the true test was whether I could physically withstand the rigors of the road, for I am a Stage 4 breast cancer patient.
For those unfamiliar with cancer jargon, stages of cancer are similar to categories of car condition. For instance, a Category 1 car is primo, a Category 2 is good, and a 3 and 4 are less desirable cars. So it is with stages in cancer. One being the best, four being the worst. Being a Stage 4 is like a totally unrestored vehicle, with serious mechanical problems and significant frame rot.
Fortunately, I have excellent mechanics (oncologists or cancer specialists) who perform frequent repairs and tune-ups to keep me going. My chemotherapy and radiation treatments that began last December and lasted through May of this year, were just long pit stops on my journey with cancer. Throughout the long dreary winter days of chemotherapy, thoughts of warm summer days and driving my Corvette kept me going. I dreamed of driving miles and miles of open highway. I vowed that when I finished treatment, I would embark on a cross-country tour. I would hit every major Corvette event, visit Wall Drug and see the Hollywood sign. I would cruise Route 66.
I like to say that the idea for my cross-country tour was drug induced, since it came to me during my chemotherapy last winter. I had always wanted to do a Corvette road trip, and since my cancer was advanced, time was of the essence. As I made mental plans for the journey, I felt compelled to have a more meaningful purpose for this trip. Since dealing with cancer full-time had ended my career in marketing and advertising, why not use my time to help others in their battle against cancer, I reasoned. I would use the trip to promote awareness of cancer and to raise funds for cancer research and control. I could bring this important message to major Corvette events and ask for support in finding a cure for the 1.2 million Americans who will be diagnosed with cancer in 1998.
So, the Corvettes Conquer Cancer Tour took shape and I received the endorsement of the American Cancer Society, the intended recipient of all proceeds from the Tour. Throughout the Spring, I searched for a sponsor to underwrite trip and travel expenses. I submitted sponsorship proposals to several major Corvette businesses. One seemed particularly interested, but backed out three weeks before I was scheduled to depart. My good business sense told me that it would be certain disaster to embark on a trip of this magnitude without financial backing, but my gut instinct, or perhaps divine intervention, encouraged me to go for it. I cashed in my two IRA accounts, sold my beloved 1963 convertible that I had owned for 21 years, bought a used 1997 coupe and filled the trunk with 3 months worth of luggage and cancer information pamphlets. I hit the road June 12th with a rotation of co-drivers including my husband Ben, daughter Christy, sisters Mary Ann and Peg, and friend Dot. Our stops included Bloomington Gold, the NCRS National Convention, the Black Hills Classic, the Boise Vette Fest, Vettes on the Rockies, Corvettes at Carlisle, the National Corvette Museum, and Mid-America's Fun Fest, among others.
Along the way, I met thousands of fellow Corvette owners and enthusiasts. I set up a booth and display at every event and spoke to hundreds of people about cancer and how we must raise funds to find a cure. Many folks shared their grief with me about losing a loved one to cancer, yet overwhelmingly I heard from hundreds of fellow cancer survivors who had successfully overcome their illness. I asked these folks to sign their names and the names of those lost to cancer in a Memory Book that I took with me to each event. The signatures and poignant messages written in this book will forever personalize cancer, and put a face and name to this insidious disease.
I have accomplished what I set out to see: Wall Drug, the Grand Canyon, and the Hollywood sign, and I have driven on Route 66. But more importantly, I have been thanked many times over for speaking out about cancer and bringing the Corvettes Conquer Cancer Tour to the Corvette community. Corvette clubs, Corvette owners and event coordinators have responded generously to the Tour. My lack of sponsorship was partially answered at Bloomington Gold when Corvette Mike stepped forward with several generous contributions and his personal gas card, allowing me to charge gas for the Tour to his personal account. It just goes to show you that Corvette people are the most kind and generous folks in the world. To date, the Tour has raised close to $10,000 for the American Cancer Society and donations are still being accepted and welcomed. The Tour is on the road to find a cure and the more dollars raised will help us reach that destination.
My Tour ended for the season about two weeks earlier than planned, when I limped home to Maine in late September, tired and in pain. Tests revealed that my cancer had spread into 15 areas in my bones. I am back into chemotherapy and other treatments, and my beloved Corvette is in winter storage. But this has been the summer of my life. If my mechanics can get me up and running, I plan to cruise Route 66 again, taking the Corvettes Conquer Cancer Tour back out on the road in 1999.
Though my life seemed perfectly normal in many ways, it has been impacted by 3 different cancers since 1974. In fact, it began in 1964 at age 18. My father, a physician, referred me to a friend of his who was a local gynecologist because I was having problems with excessive bleeding, nausea and fainting spells and missing 2 days of schools every time I had my menstrual period. The gynecologist did a through exam and determined that I had a pre-cancerous condition known as an erosion on the cervix and displaysia. I was given a series of exercises to do which were of no help. After several months of no improvement, he suggested that I try taking a birth control pill which had provided tremendous relief to some of his patients. This seemed to work well for me and for the first time in years, I was pain free during my periods.
My gynecologist was concerned that not much was known about taking bc pills at an early age and was worried as to why the displaysia and erosion was occurring in a woman my age so young and not sexually active. Years later it was discovered that one of the many reasons for abnormal changes of the cervix was caused by the drug DES. This drug was given singularly and in combo with other drugs to women in the 40's & 50's as a "miracle vitamin" as well as a drug to help prevent miscarriage. Other drugs with similar compounds were also given to millions of women not knowing that years later abnormal changes to vaginal tissue would develop in their daughters.
My condition of displaysia and erosion continued to increase over the next several years. My first pregnancy was terminated in a early miscarriage in Dec. '68. The doctor informed me that my cervix might not be capable of carrying a full term pregnancy because of the abnormal tissue. The problem area was cauterized, which was common treatment at the time. The doctor told me to wait at least 3 months before trying to get pregnant again. I was elated when I learned that I was pregnant in July of 1969. The first 5 months of my second pregnancy were relatively normal except for periods of bleeding. Once I got through that, it was all smooth sailing. My beautiful daughter Christine was born March 9, 1970. After that, the cervix became terribly inflamed and was frequently cauterized. The doctor informed me that there was little chance that I could get pregnant again, and to be prepared for that possibility. I was just so happy to have a healthy baby that I couldn't think of what the future might hold. I continued to see my doctor every 3 months for cauterizations.
In 1973 we moved to Maine and I obviously had to find a new doctor. The doctors in ME did not feel the situation was serious. In fact, one doctor told me he would not consider doing a hysterectomy on a woman under age 30. I saw probably 5 doctors in one year, and alarmingly lost 15 pounds of weight and was feeling miserable. Everyone in my family noticed my weight loss. Even my father commented to me that it looked like I had a serious illness. He said, "Sandy, you should check into it because you could even have some type of blood cancer or leukemia."
Much to my good fortune, a new gynecologist moved to town and I was the first patient beating down his door. He immediately assessed the situation, did a Pap smear and called me within 2 days to tell me that the smear had come back positive and he wanted to redo it. In an attempt to reassure me, he told me that it could be a false positive. He called again the next day and asked that Ben and I come into his office. He told me that I had cervical cancer and explained that the extent of the involvement was surprising. He was immediately scheduling me for a D&C and a cone biopsy. During these procedures, a scraping of the uterus is done and a cone shaped section of the cervix is removed. The result of the biopsy was that the cancer had already spread up into the uterine tissue. A hysterectomy would be necessary. My doctor gave me the choice of surgery, radiation, or a combination of the two. I chose the surgery, thinking at the time that the surgery would take care of everything. The doctor explained to me that there were blood tests that could be done to test for the presence of cancer cells after the surgery, and that I would have to be under watch for the next few years.
The surgery itself was successful. Over the next few years I was under watch and my tests were good. However, it was a long road to recovery. I had lost a total of 35 pounds during my illness and it took nearly 2 years to gain back 17 pounds. I remember celebrating my 5th anniversary cancer-free, a big milestone for me. That to me was the highlight of surviving my first cancer. As each year went by it was another milestone and by the 10th year I had almost put cancer out of my mind.
But there were some things that cancer changed completely in my life. Cancer back in the 70's was the "C" word, a word that nobody would discuss. When I had my hysterectomy in 1974, none of my friends had ever had cancer. As a result many of my friends drifted away because they had nothing to say to me, or they feared they would get cancer, too. Just the year before, I lost one of my best high school friends to stomach cancer. Who would believe that a young mother of a 3 month old and a 2 year old could lose her life to stomach cancer? My friends had never quite recovered from that shock when I was diagnosed a year later. How many of our close group would be taken by this disease? How many of us could think of death when we were still bringing babies into our lives?
Interestingly, I noticed that the people who rallied around me during my illness were older people. Some I didn't even know very well. Perhaps they were people who were more familiar with death and dying who could say an appropriate word with a cheerful phone call or visit to my house. However, the most devastating part of my illness was not being able to take care of my daughter, since I was unable to go upstairs and function during the worst part of my illness. It was obvious that I needed help. In addition, my husband and I were attempting to start a new business. Without my help my husband had to take on a new job in the attempt to make ends meet. My husband and I sat down and made the toughest decision of our lives, and that was to send my daughter over 500 miles away to live with her grandparents in NJ. Packing her up, I really didn’t know how she felt about leaving, what the time frame would be and why she was being sent away from home. I felt like I was no longer being a good mother. I think one of the most heart-wrenching parts of her trip was when my mother called to tell me that my daughter had lost her first tooth in the Boston airport and I wasn't there to see it!
I knew Christy was going to a good home with much love and attention although it did little to assuage my sadness. My dad kept her busy by making a beautiful doll house to fill with her collection of dolls and furniture. Holidays were filled with fun and festivities and my parents sent pictures of Christy dressed up in costumes. I was equally fortunate that my sister Mary Ann, who taught school enrolled Christy at a private Catholic school in Princeton, where she so she kept close watch over my daughter.
Finally, when Christy came home, it was a new beginning, but it still felt like a large chunk of my life had been cut out. As time went by, I had many opportunities to reflect on how cancer affected my life. Being so young, my first reaction was not, "Thank God my life has been spared. What can I do now to live my life differently?" Instead, I all I could think about was getting back on track and living my life. I had missed so much time with my family and now I had a lot more living to do. Cancer at that time was not my "wake up" call. All I wanted to do was get back on track with my life.
In 1990, sixteen years after my first cancer diagnosis, I began to notice a swelling in my left knee that I attributed to an injury from aerobics class. The swelling would come and go and repeated trips to the doctor revealed nothing unusual. I decided to wait and see a surgeon friend of mine who was on a two month vacation at the time. I had known Dr. Wes English for 15 years through our work together with the American Cancer Society and I felt comfortable waiting for his input..
X-rays that Wes conducted upon his return revealed an unusual soft-tissue tumor in my left quadriceps muscle. The tumor itself was actually quite small, but was encapsulated with fluid, making the size fluctuate as the fluid level rose and fell. The tumor was biopsied and the findings we erratic, because it showed a combination of fluid combined with malignant striations in tissue. In the center was a very small cigar-shaped sarcoid, less than a centimeter in size. Being so bizarre and rare, the decision was made to close the incision. I agreed to go into the Maine Tumor Registry Program to have the tumor studies since it was so unusual. I became the subject of a grand rounds at Maine Medical Center, where 35 physicians attended to learn more about this unusual finding. It was determined that my course of treatment would be to take a wide-margin incision of the tumor, which would remove approximately ¼ of my quadriceps muscle. Radiation was not used on these types of tumors and chemotherapy would only be a possibility if the tumor spread to the lungs. My doctor felt this course of treatment would produce a 75% cure rate.
After hobbling around on crutches for a month and a half, I healed perfectly and had no signs of any recurrence. However, this became the turning point for me in terms of acceptance of my cancer. Being in my mid-forties, Suddenly, this second brush with cancer made me re-evaluate my priorities. For the first time in my life I sat down and thought about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I found myself making a list of 10 things I thought I wanted to accomplish in my life. Many of the items on my list were career oriented. Some were family oriented. And some were just long term goals.
Among them were to see my daughter graduate from college (which was imminent at the time). I wanted to see her married and to appreciate the joys of grandparenthood. I also wanted to travel around the country. On the career side, I wanted to see my business grow into a successful advertising and marketing enterprise. I wanted to see my efforts with the Wiscasset Regional Business Association (chamber of commerce) reach its full potential. I also wanted to continue my 25-year relationship with the American Cancer Society in working on some national projects.
The diagnosis of my breast cancer in 1994 was not entirely a surprise. Since the summer of 1986, I had been having regular mammograms to follow six tiny random calcifications in my right breast. All appeared benign in shape and configuration. I was put on a three month schedule of magnification mammograms, and later a six month schedule and finally a yearly schedule when no changes appeared.
In 1994, massive changes appeared showing a blossoming of the cancer. These rather sudden changes had appeared in less than one year’s time. It was never determined this was the same area in question or a spread of the previous disease. The fact was, I was now facing having breast cancer, even though it was probably caught in a very early stage. Immediately I phoned my ACS friend and surgeon, Wes English. He had done the surgery on my leg and was well know for breast cancer surgery. Wes had been following my progress on the mammography since 1986 and referred me to the Mercy Hospital Breast Clinic. During that time the 18 diffused spots may have appeared benign due to the fact that stereotactic or other forms of biopsy were not commonly used in the early to mid-1980s.
Whether my breast cancer was one that fell through the cracks or just developed a different form of breast cancer was something I wrestled with during my first month of my cancer diagnosis. I was so diligent about my mammograms, Wes was as heartbroken as I was about my diagnosis. He sympathized with me strongly. At one point, he took my hand in his and broke down in tears.
My father the doctor knew of my anguish and put the whole thing in perspective, reminding me that medicine is never 100 percent. Too often we assume that doctors are healers who can provide miracles. I had often wondered if I had already had two with my previous bouts with cancer.
Next came the staging of my disease and all the implications that went with it. (List types of cancer, progressive estrogen levels and markers used to determine my course of treatment.) Initial assessments projected that my disease was in Stage 2.
Time sped by and my treatment plans came together quickly. Despite the minute size of my cancerous tissue, being less than five millimeters in size, I chose a modified radical mastectomy over a lumpectomy, the less radical procedure. I felt more comfortable having what I thought was all the malignant tissue removed. Wes felt no enlarged lymph nodes under my armpits and felt this boded well. However, when the surgery was complete, Wes was stunned to find that two of the 20 lymph nodes were cancerous. This now moved the stage of my cancer diagnosis to Stage 4.
The first steps of my surgery was a mastectomy, which was simple, painless and I was released a day later. I had wondered what it would be like after I lost my breast and had made the decision to have a saline implant. I felt that an implant would give me a better sense of balance rather than wearing a prosthesis.
I met with Dr. John McGill, a plastic surgeon Wes recommended to me in Bangor. Dr. McGill is pretty much like most plastic surgeons. Many of them consider themselves miracle workers who can transform many complicated, poor prognosis back to a picture of beauty. However, sometimes what is a picture of beauty for some is not for others. Dr. McGill showed me a photo album of his work showing how removed breasts can be transformed to new ones. He explained the procedure to me where he would use an expandable implant that would be placed in my breast tissue. Over a period of months the saline solution was increased until the tissues expanded to the right size. The tissue expands gradually as the saline is injected over a period of time.
I would be receiving chemotherapy - a combination of cytoxin, methotrexate and 5-FU. Because I am receiving chemo at the same time, the plans for the full expansion of the breast implant will be put on hold. Instead, a final infusion of 150 cc’s of saline will be put in place once my chemo is finished. The expander will then be removed and a permanent saline implant put in place. Also at that time, I will have the left evened in size to match the reconstructed right breast to achieve an even balance between the two breasts.
I have been hoping to have a quick return to my breast reconstruction but soon realized that I was due for at least six months of treatment. At this time, I was busy deciding where I would get my treatment. Wes was in Bangor, a good two hour’s drive from home. I was also seen by Tom Keating, a top oncologist whom I had known from ACS for 15 years. Tom had his office in Brunswick which was conveniently only half an hour away. I decided to choose Tom as my primary oncologist.
Also of interest was Dr. Harvey Rothberg, a close friend of my father’s who practiced in Princeton, NJ. I thought it might be a very relaxing way to start my chemotherapy by staying with my parents for four months where I could also enjoy their company and summer beach house at Barnegat Light on the Jersey shore. It was a great choice to have the surrounding company and the atmosphere of the shore. Harvey proved to be a kind and caring doctor and one whom I had know for years as a family friend. My care was excellent and despite the predictions that I’d lose my hair, it only thinned and looked like a summer haircut. Though my chemo lasted nearly seven months, due to some low blood counts, I didn’t mind the extra stay.
I returned to Maine tanned and feeling quite fit. I immediately turned to Tom Keating whom I had know very well as an oncologist and a good friend as an ACS volunteer. There wasn’t a question I couldn’t ask Tom. We had a wonderful, honest working relationship.
By June of 1995, it was time to resume the tissue expansion and insert the official implant. I really was quite upset to see the changes in my body. Dr. McGill emphasized that with the final procedure, he could transform my breast size to whatever I wanted. If I wanted to be a 40 DDD, I could do it. I politely refused. I told him I was looking for "balance." He seemed slightly defeated by my simple wish, but I only wanted to have some sense of evenness. He said this was fine and to achieve this he would do a reduction in the other breast to even the balance, which was fine with me.
During the five hour procedure, the expander was removed and a tear drop-shaped saline implant was placed in the breast lining. The left breast was reduced in size and shaped to match the reconstructed right side. The results were pleasing and though I chose not to have nipple reconstruction on the right breast, I was very happy with the results. Unlike some women, I didn’t experience any lymphedema or swelling of the arm, or any hardness in the scar tissue which can occur in some cases.
Though I didn’t come out to look like Dolly Parton, I was very pleased. Both breasts had balance and that was our goal. In fact, my breasts looked what I’d call "perky." It was kind of funny to be 48 years old with perky breasts and for at least two months I went around braless because of being so perky.
As a joke, I knew my friends had not seen my "new look" since reconstruction. My debut was a Corvette show and I thought I’d have a little fun in teasing my friends. I blew up two balloons probably to a size 44 DD and stuffed them in my shirt. I waited until my friends arrived and went out of the house looking very much like Dolly Parton. It was amazing how many of them believed it was my new look and I’ll still never get over their red faces. I wish I had the nerve to visit Dr. McGill with my 44 DD balloons but he probably would not have been amused.
Over the next two years following the reconstructive surgery, I had three stereotactic biopsies done to check the left breast. Reassuringly, these turned out to be benign scar tissue from the surgery.
In 1997, however, I had my wake up call that my cancer was no longer in remission. I was taking a shower and found what felt like a very strange BB pellet under my right collar bone. I knew this wasn’t normal so I placed a call to Dr. Tom. At the office visit, neither Tom nor his physician’s assistant could find the lump. I was adamant so Tom said this required the hands of my surgeon, Wes. Within two days, I was in Wes’ office. He felt the lump and was particularly concerned. "Sandy," he said, "this is less than two millimeters. It is unusual to be able to find a lump of this size." He agreed to do a needle biopsy right there on the spot. Somehow I knew from the beginning this was not normal. I knew my cancer had returned. Sure enough, two days later the word was cancer. The cancer had spread into my lymph system.
After communicating with Wes and Tom, I was given referrals to Dr. Jeff Young, a radiation oncologist associated with Tom’s office. The Maine Center for Cancer Medicine would be running my treatment right in my hometown in the Bath/Brunswick area.
Jeff was very up-front and straightforward from the beginning. They would radiate the entire lymph node chain from the head down under the armpit for six weeks. The main risks would be those common in radiation - fatigue, skin burns, some glancing blows to the esophagus that could cause difficulty in swallowing. Aside from those, Jeff felt he had a good shot at getting a full recovery.
The downside of all of this was the treatment plan that would have to accompany the radiation. It was decided that a trip to Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston was in order to consider a bone marrow transplant. I must add that hormonal drugs such as Tamoxifen and other drugs were tried on me with no success, so this course of action was recommended. I was assigned to Dr. Richardson, head of the breast cancer bone marrow transplant team. He was very skilled an knowledgeable but I knew right away that bone marrow transplant was not for me. I had done much medical research on bone marrow transplant for breast cancer. Because my white cell count had never rebounded well from my previous chemo, I knew I as going to be left with a compromised immune system. Plus, Dr. Richardson could not assure me with figures that sounded promising - probably a 20 percent chance that the bone marrow transplant would approach a cure. To make a long story short, I went through all the testing necessary for the bone marrow transplant. It certainly wasn’t a pleasant procedure but one I wasn’t going to forget readily.
My daughter Christy accompanied me for the bone marrow sampling, which really is quite uncomfortable. It was Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in Boston - "Black Friday," when all the crazy Christmas shoppers hit the streets. I had always wanted to shop in this store campus, so after the sampling, Christy and I hit the streets. I spent nearly six hours shopping with Christy! I guess there could be some truth to the myth that when the going gets tough the tough go shopping!
Since I refused the transplant, a new treatment plan was laid out for me. I could do a three month high-dose regimen of Adriamycin chemotherapy. This could be done with Dr. Tom at home and monitored through Dana Farber. Basically my regimens of Adria and the radiation went relatively well with minimal problems. With the help of nupagen, a drug that boosts the white cell count, I came through my treatments well. The nupagen had interesting side effects for me as it served as a tremendous hype and energy boost. It could keep me up all night cleaning my house.
By May of 1998, I was finished with my treatments and feeling tired but relieved. I had also just finished the planning around a mission that would forever change my life - the Corvettes Conquer Cancer Tour. I had a brief month reprieve of good health as I planned for the tour. Though my cancer would again spread, this time it was to 15 areas of my bones, I was determined to continue my mission. I was put on Megase and a hormonal drug that helped me make my three and a half month tour possible. Who would have guessed I could pack my car for three and a half months and live out of a suitcase from June 12 to early October.
American Cancer Society Corvette Raffle... not any more!
Sandy started this major fundraiser for the American Cancer Society in 1989, but there will be no more Corvette Raffle!
In 2006, the State of Maine ruled that since the American Cancer Society is not incorporated in Maine, the license for the Raffle can no longer be granted. This decision was appealed, and I talked with the decision makers in a visit to the licensing agency, but the State is very clear on their decision. It actually looks like they had issued the licenses in error for several years, since all the New England divisions were merged into 1 New England Division, incorporated in Rhode Island! Hopefully it can resume some time in the future, possible from another location.
This is a very unfortunate development: Sandy's Corvette Raffle netted the American Cancer Society in excess of $1.5 Million since its 1989 inauguration!