Debbie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 at 49 years of age. Debbie has a husband, two adult daughters and owns and operates a deli & catering business. Debbie was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996. An American who has lived in New Zealand for the last 32 years Deb was keen to ensure that she received the best possible treatment no matter where her geographic location.
“Following an ultrasound and mammogram I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The treatment recommended to me by my local doctor was a radical mastectomy. Because my brother is a breast cancer oncologist in Los Angeles I got a second opinion from him.
If I hadn’t of gotten that second opinion, I would probably be dead. The second opinion said that the breast cancer I had was so invasive that it required radical doses of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor prior to surgery to remove it. The chemotherapy I had was so intensive that I am lucky that my liver and kidney survived.”
But it was what was required to kill the tumor because of its large size and aggressiveness pathologically. Having chemo prior to surgery was the treatment option that would provide the most information about whether or not chemotherapy was effective for her tumor and particular type of breast cancer.
Additionally, because of Deb’s specific presentation – extensive lymph node involvement at the time of diagnosis, the need for systemic treatment (chemo) was absolute, and even the delay of four to six weeks, which a surgery would necessitate was, in her case, unacceptable in terms of the resultant systemic risk. At the time, this kind of chemo was not available in New Zealand.
“I left my business my family and everything for seven months,” she says of her breast cancer treatment time in California. Debbie had chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy and reconstruction. “The double mastectomy was my choice because I thought, what if I’m back in New Zealand and I have a recurrence?”
Her cancer required neo-adjuvant chemotherapy.
Debbie’s family credits her ongoing presence in their lives to her ability to ask questions and be well informed. “The biggest message I can give to women is do not be complacent. I really irritate people because I ask so many questions. But we’ve got to be our own advocates. We’ve got to stand up and speak. You have to be your own kind of active practitioner.
I appreciate that because my brother is a breast cancer oncologist this made my ability to access foreign services easier, however, I encourage women to actively find solutions where they are receiving the best treatment possible for their situation, and not necessarily the best treatment available in their area.”
Living with breast cancer has been relatively easy compared to living with MS. Debbie was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996. Thus far the MS has affected Debbie’s ability to walk and she uses a cane and occasionally a wheelchair.
“Learning to live with MS is much more of a challenge for me, than learning to live with breast cancer. Breast cancer is socially acceptable, MS isn’t. MS doesn’t have the glamour or media attention that breast cancer commands.
With breast cancer you have high-society balls hosted by local celebrities. With MS there is very little research, no society events, and to date I’m yet to see a fashionably designed MS t-shirt. The MS slows me down, it doesn’t allow me to reach the goals I want, and I find that incredibly infuriating”.
Debbie was given a second “death sentence” in 1997. Once again a second opinion saved her situation.
“Following an MRI scan I was diagnosed with cancer of the spine – my breast cancer had metastasized in the spine. Prognosis: imminent death. The second opinion I got said that the white spots on my spine visible in the MRI were not cancerous, but calcifications from the MS.
In one day I went from preparing to die to being given another lease of life. I can’t say enough how important a second opinion is, no matter how small the town you live in, how much you like your doctor. It’s your health and you need the reassurance of a second opinion.”
Debbie lives her life with high energy and passion. Her positivity and energy are one of the first things you notice about her.
“Living with both breast cancer and MS has meant that I have had to ask myself, ‘Why not me?’ It can’t always be someone else. Maybe you are given these things to make you do something amazing with them. I’m not sure what the amazing thing is yet.
I’ve always lived my life with a positive attitude and tried to have a generosity of spirit and awareness of others, and I’ve been diagnosed with two fairly serious illnesses. I’m not going to go round telling people to be positive, to improve their attitude and they’ll get better. If it is going to get you it’s going to get you, and that’s not being negative, it’s just life.”
Posted: June 2004
Update – July 2005
It’s July 2005 nearly five years after her cancer diagnosis and treatment, and when asking Debbie how she’s doing, she responds “fantastic”. Debbie continues,
“For a while I was dormant. Wondering what was going to happen next. Should I take a gamble when it might only be for a week, a month, a year? Then I thought about it, and I realised that I was always waiting for the next bad thing to happen. So I thought “I better make some good stuff happen.”
And there is no shortage of good stuff. For the last 10 years Debbie (a renowned cook, and food writer) has owned a café. Debbie and her daughter Hayley (who works alongside her) are now in the process of expanding their business. As well as the original café they will be opening in the coming weeks: a new delicatessen, a wine bar and Culinario – a cooking school Added to the business expansion, Debbie is having her home kitchen modernized and renovated.
“I’m taking the plunge and making it suitable for a disabled person”, Debbie reveals with a frank candor. This is a significant issue for Debs, who has always been the first to admit that she gets incredibly frustrated by her MS and how it slows her down. Her ‘management style’ has been to ignore it as much as possible.
“I’ve finally accepted what I have. My energy levels are good because I’m going forward. Before I was afraid that I was going backwards. So essentially I was treading water, waiting, going nowhere. Now I’m not afraid. And stopping being afraid has allowed my energy to return and for me to move on.
So I’m taking a gamble. I don’t know how long I’ll be here for. But while I’m around I’ve got a few things to do. My greatest fear is that I’ll die before I’ve written my play.”
Its working title is The Chemo Café and it’s about Debbie’s experience in the chemo room at Breastlink. She went from being a reluctant participant initially not wanting to join the Chemo Room, to feeling like universal truths and generosity and vulnerability were on magnificent display in one of the ultimate cafés of life.
“When the women asked me where I was from, and I said, New Zealand, they all wondered what on earth I was doing in California. I responded that I’d heard about this famous breast cancer doctor, so I thought I’d get breast cancer and check him out, and our humorous and candid conversations kind of went from there”
Debbie continues to find the comparison between being a breast cancer patient and a woman with Multiple Sclerosis fairly soul destroying. The awareness and information and general proactivity around MS is absolutely minimal. It is not a condition that society is particularly interested in.
“I’ve tried lots of stuff: supplements, herbal and pharmaceutical in my quest for a cure. None of them work. For whatever reason I’ve got a genetic predisposition to MS and breast cancer. Finally now, I’m no longer afraid. I’ve learnt that you can be terminally ill, and still have energy and be moving your life forward. I believe a lot of people find ‘God’ when things go bad, but with me I found ‘Debbie’ buried beneath it all and at last I feel comfortable in my own ‘house.’ That is what we all are looking for and not many of us ever get there until things go to custard. I am really lucky.”