In October of 2011, Maria Vasey found out that she had stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma. She was only 48 years old, physically fit, and had received mammograms – all healthy – since she was 35. Her shocking diagnosis left her wondering "Why me?"
"At first, I was in a state of denial, not wanting to believe I had breast cancer. I was also very scared, being the mother of young children. I was fearful that I would not be around to take care of them and watch them grow up," said Vasey.
While stage 2 breast cancer is treatable, the road to recovery is not an easy one. With 59 weeks of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, and almost 6 weeks of radiation therapy to undergo, Vasey had to rely on the help and support of her family and friends to get through.
"I have a Type A personality and am very independent – probably the most difficult thing was for me to ask for and accept help when I needed it. It was hard for me to sit back and let people take care of me rather than me taking care of other people," said Vasey.
Once she learned to accept help from others, her experience with cancer became a rewarding one, enabling her to become closer not only with her supportive and loving friends, but also with her husband and children.
"My son would rub my head and call me a porcupine. My daughter would always draw notes and pictures for me. Those kinds of things were what helped get me out of bed in the morning and what made the experience a positive one," she said.
With the "up" days also came an equal share of "down" days. The chemotherapy left Vasey weak, both physically and mentally, and unable to lead the active lifestyle she was accustomed to. The loss of her long blonde hair was also very difficult.
"I think that having hair is a big part of a women's appearance – so losing mine was a very hard thing. I had to make the best of it – I wore a lot of fun wigs and hats and things like that to help," said Vasey.
Vasey's greatest inspiration comes from her mother who, at 88 years of age, has survived two bouts with breast cancer. "Hopefully I have some good genes and will live as long as she has," said Vasey.
While she has been declared cancer-free, Vasey still has many weeks of treatment left in her battle. This experience has been extremely difficult, but Vasey finds herself focusing on the silver lining:
"This experience has made me appreciate the things that I have and not worry about the things that I don't have. I feel so fortunate to have my kids and be able to watch them grow up over the years," said Vasey.
Her thoughts are echoed by another Local mother and breast cancer survivor, Holly Cole, who at age 52 was diagnosed with bilateral invasive ductal carcinoma. Cole and her children, Eddy, age 25, Tommy, age 15, and Kathy, age 12, grew closer through her battle against breast cancer.
"We've had more family laughs and family together-times than we ever did before. We never did that kind of thing before. There is always a silver lining," said Cole.
When Cole was first diagnosed, she registered the same shock and fear that Vasey felt. Telling her family was the hardest part.
"I think [my kids] had to grow up very fast. Eddy, my oldest, I think it scared him the most. In the back of his mind, he knew that if something would happen to me, he was going to take over and raise Tommy and Kathy," said Cole.
To Cole's amazement, her children stepped up and took her diagnosis in stride. When Cole decided to shave her head before her hair could fall out, her son Tommy decided to shave his, too. He organized a charity event for their friends and family to mark the event. Over 50 people came out to support Cole, leaving with shaved heads or pink streaks in their hair. To Cole, this show of support was "truly amazing."
Cole underwent a bilateral mastectomy and months of chemotherapy before hearing those wonderful words from her doctor: "You are now cancer-free."
"The cancer-free part is absolutely wonderful; I'm just ready to have my life back right now. I'm still feeling the effects of chemo and I want it to end," said Cole.
Both women fought their cancer at St.Vincent Breast Center, one of several hospitals in the area that provides exceptional care for individuals battling breast cancer.
"The treatment has been wonderful," said Cole about her time at St.Vincent Breast Center. "It was as positive an experience as you can get."
Vasey also received treatment at both Community Health Network Breast Care and Indiana University Health Cancer Center and was amazed by the love and support she received from all of the doctors and nurses she encountered.
The future is looking brighter for both mothers. Cole plans to continue her real estate career. Vasey has a few months of treatment left to go, but is already becoming involved in raising breast cancer awareness in Indiana. Both women have a new zest for life and a greater appreciation for their family and friends.
Words of Wisdom
Tags: In This Issue, Local, Women's Health
"A lot of people told me that it wasn't just about accepting help, it's also that people need to help you. People that love you or are part of your life – they need to help you just as much as you need to accept their help. I feel bad for people who don't accept help and fight cancer on their own. You don't need to. The whole entire world will help you if you let them," advises Cole.
"I encourage women who are diagnosed to attend the support groups that are offered. St.Vincent has a great one. I wish I would have done that earlier in my journey, it really has been very helpful to talk to someone who has a better understanding of their emotions and feelings that had gone through the same thing I had," adds Vasey.