Fighter in Focus: Cindy Semple

tributesWhat type of illness(es) are you battling right now?

Metastatic breast cancer that has spread to my brain and liver, as well as recovering from a stroke.

What other types of acute illnesses have you battled in your life?

I was born with a blocked bile duct, so I had surgery at 2 months old to correct it, as well as 2 more surgeries at age 20 and 21 due to growth issues. I have had intestinal issues my entire life.

What types treatments you have endured so far?

Chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple surgeries, including a double modified radical mastectomy.

How old are you (if you don’t mind sharing with everyone)?

I am currently only 42.

How did you hear about the GPF and how has the GPF been involved with you?

My friend Marta Greenman introduced me to GPF. I have been very blessed by the Pearson family kindness, prayers, and financial support. Without the money I have received throught GPF, it would have been difficult to pay some bills since I have no income.

What would be the one piece of advise you would give to someone just diagnosed with your type of illness?

Take charge of your own treatment and get more than 1 opinion.

In Her Own Words

Where to begin…what a journey my life has taken in the past 5 years. Definitely not one I would have ever imagined. On December 23, 2005, I received the dreaded news that no one ever wants to hear, “You have cancer.” Talk about a Christmas present I would rather not have received. At the age of 37, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. In a matter of a month of tests, I went from Stage I to Stage IIIb breast cancer. Stage I is usually a small contained, early detection cancer and VERY treatable. Stage IIIb indicates a large tumor, invasive, which means it has left the ducts, and in the lymph nodes. Needless to say I was overwhelmed and shocked when I learned I was Stage IIIb. I have always been a very active person involved in sports and watching what I eat. At the time I was diagnosed, I had spent a year of eating no bread and almost no sugar. I was in the BEST shape of my life. I was playing softball and soccer and running. I was 5’7″ and 124 lbs. Well, all that changed in 2006. My case was so rare and severe that I was put on a case study to try to get good results. If you ever wonder where the money goes that you give to Komen or other cancer research, I am living proof. The study called for 4 rounds of 3 types of chemo (once every 3 weeks) via infusion drip (connected to a pole as I called it J), mastectomy surgery (bi-lateral) and then 4 more rounds of 2 more types of chemo. I started the chemo in February 2006, had the double mastectomy in May 2006, and finished up chemo in August 2006, after going bald of course in July 2006 (Bald in July in Texas is not so bad J). However, that wasn’t the end. I had reconstruction surgery in December, just in time for the end of the year insurance so I would have to pay for ANY of it. It was 100% covered since I had met ALL my out of pocket expenses….whoohoo!! I had worked all year. I only took off a couple days after each time I would have chemo and then I would go back to work. It’s what kept me going and sane. I did take off about 6 weeks for my mastectomy. I have had LOTS of surgeries in my life, but this one was the TOUGHEST I had ever had to recover from. I had to have my mom come live with me because I couldn’t even go to the bathroom by myself…pretty sad for a 37 year old. Did I mention I also did 7 weeks of radiation in September and October?? Well, I did. I drove every day (except Saturday and Sunday) to Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas from Frisco (that’s about 1 hour 1 way). The cool part about that drive every day was that I got to see the sun come up every morning. At that time of year around Dallas, the air is so crisp and clean and sunrises are beautiful. J So, it was actually a blessing and I looked forward to it.

Post therapy meds were part of the case study. So, I started on Tamoxifen and Herceptin in November 2006. Tamoxifen messes with your hormones, so I was put on anti-depressants to help with the side effects. Well, I soon found out I have opposite affects of anti-depressants…I got more depressed, even suicidal. For those that know me, I am a very happy, go lucky person that enjoys life and almost always has a smile on my face. So, for me to be suicidal was VERY unusual. Needless to say, I took myself off both the anti-depressant AND the Tamoxifen in late January 2007 and kindly let my doctor know. I was not about to spend the next 5 years (that’s how long they like for you to take maintenance drugs) in the mind I was in…it was AWFUL!!!! But, I did continue the Herceptin until May 2007. At that point, I had tests done and was considered cancer free after 18 months of PURE TORTURE….YEA!!!!

Now, at this point, I knew somewhere down the road my cancer would return based on the positive lymph nodes. However, I didn’t think it was going to be so soon. In December 2008, I went to see my doctor for a check-up after having a follow up CT scan. Unfortunately, they saw some spots on my liver. So, after the holidays, which included a 2 week trip to Australia that I was NOT going to cancel, I had liver ablation surgery. There were 5 tumors total. The surgeon was only able to remove 3. The other 2 were too close to a place on my liver where I had had surgery as an infant to repair something and the doctor didn’t want to risk messing that up. So, back on chemo I went. I started chemo in February 2009. The chemo I was on, Navelbine, was causing me severe abdominal pain. And then the surgery site got infected. I was admitted to the hospital with a 104 temperature and the IDC (Infectious Disease Control) was on me. They thought I was either septic or bleeding internally from complications from the surgery. Talk about scary!!!! With lots of prayers and no reasonable explanation, my fever broke after 4 days. I went home, changed my chemo drug, and continued fighting AND working…YES, working. Working is what kept my mind active and my sanity in check. I finished chemo in July 2009 with no hair loss this time…YEA! I really like the way my hair came back from losing it in 2006 and didn’t want to lose it. After a CT scan in August 2009, I was considered cancer free again…YEA!!!!

December 2009 rolled around I was having some breathing problems. I almost passed out at choir practice one night. Well, I went to the ER and they couldn’t find anything wrong. So, I had a couple of heart tests, which included a CT scan. The heart tests came back fine, but unfortunately, the CT scan show 3 NEW tumors on my liver. I was somewhat devastated, but not too shocked. My blood level counts (tumor markers as they are officially called) had not been down where they needed to be since August 2009, which made us suspicious. We had been checking them every month and they were stable, but not normal. Well, in December they went up. So, in January 2010, back on chemo I went. This time it was 2 pill drugs and 1 infusion drug, which was sooooooo much easier to take. While sitting in the chemo lab on Monday, March 8, 2010, receiving my infusion drug, I suddenly wasn’t able to speak or move the right side of my body. My friend sitting with me noticed my whole disposition suddenly changed. I could understand him and others talking to me, but I couldn’t respond back nor squeeze their hand nor push with my leg on my right side. They called the paramedics and off to the ER I went. I was very scared. I had never experienced anything like that before. After several tests and many hours in the ER, it was determined that I had had a small stroke. 41 years old and having a stroke?? WOW!! I was admitted to the hospital to run further tests. By the time Friday rolled, I had been through 2 neurologists and numerous tests and they tried to tell me all I had was complicated migraines. WHAT?? You have got to be kidding me?? I obviously didn’t believe them. So, after being released, I found another neurologist and she instantly told me what was wrong based on what she told me she read in my brain MRI report from the ER. The report clearly stated that I had a brain tumor in my left cerebellum. Needless to say, I was SHOCKED and in tears when she told me this. I couldn’t believe that the cancer had spread to my brain. I had heard horror stories about women with breast cancer that once it got to the brain, they lived very little time after that. WELL, being the numbers and odds breaker that I am, I said no way is it time for my life to be over. I have too many things I wanna do and places I wanna see. I went to see a neurosurgeon the next week and we scheduled Gamma Knife surgery for that brain tumor on Monday, April 5, 2010. Then on Tuesday, April 6th, I started whole brain radiation, which I endured every weekday for 4 weeks. Brain radiation messed me up BAD! I had to be on steroids to keep the brain swelling down…yes, down (only God can make a drug that makes the brain not swell, but makes other parts of the body swell….go figure!) The steroids made me blow up like a balloon. I gained 25 pounds and lost my hair AGAIN. So, now I was 25 lbs heavier and bald. Needless to say, I did not look like the Cindy everyone knew. I even had a couple people at church walk right by me because I looked so different. The radiation also messed with my gait, which is the manner in which you walk. I had to walk with a cane for almost 2 months and go through some physical therapy to learn to walk again and to build up my strength. My legs to this day are still not back to where they were and doc says it’s gonna take some time. Mind you, during this entire time, I was not able to drive. I didn’t drive for almost 12 weeks. I was completely and totally dependent on people coming to pick me up and take me places or bring me things.

Recovering from brain surgery and brain radiation has been tough. I lost my job in the process due to not being able to sit and type and look at a computer screen, nor be able to think straight or like I used to. My boss tried to be as helpful as he could. But he does have a company he needs to run. I do have to give him some kudos though…he has paid and continues to pay my monthly COBRA payment as his way of helping me out. And for that, I am FOREVER thankful and blessed by his generosity!!!

In June 2010, I had another CT scan to see what the tumors in my liver were doing. I had been off chemo since I was admitted to the hospital back in March so I could focus on healing the brain and getting rid of the brain tumor. To much of my surprise, the 3 tumors that we were treating before were now 6. L I couldn’t believe my eyes. So, back on chemo once again. I have been on chemo since June 25, 2010, and am still on chemo today. In June, my doctor didn’t give me a good outlook when she saw the size of the tumors. She said I probably wouldn’t see Christmas 2011 and to start getting my affairs in order. AND to be prepared for a long, hard year of treatment. I sat there in shock thinking, I am only 41 years old, how is it that I only have about 18 months of life left?? Well, being the ambitious person I am, or tenacious as my college professors called me, I started planning trips and life.

I may have cancer, but CANCER DOESN’T HAVE ME!!!! I am not going to stop living just because I have the nasty C word. I am gonna live my life every day to fullest that I can and give God all the glory for it. HE will be the one Who decides when my time on Earth is up. HE will be the One to take care of EVERY need I have…physical, emotional, financial…ALL my needs. I will have you know that my life since March 8, 2010, has forever changed. I thought I was a faithful, strong Christian before, but now I know that God has been preparing me with His Word for the past 10+ years since I got saved to embrace this time in my life. When I lost my job earlier this year, I had no income. Since I live by myself and have been blessed with a GREAT career, I always took care of myself. Now, I had no income whatsoever and had no idea how I was gonna pay bills after a couple of months. BUT God knew. The blessings of prayer and support and financial help from my friends and church family have been overwhelming. I have truly come to the place in my life where I COMPLETELY depend on Him. Just when I start to veer off and wonder, He sends me another reminder saying “I got it, Cindy. This one’s Mine.” And what peace that brings. I wish I could explain it much better than that, but it’s actually that simple. Just when I start to worry or wonder when or how or what needs to happen, I just stop myself and remind myself that I can’t worry about what hasn’t happened yet. The bible even tells us not to worry about tomorrow and to focus on the gift of today. There are so many things I have learned from my bible studies over the years that are now making soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much sense. I actually LOVE IT! I get so excited talking about the Lord and the changes He has made in me. I just hope and pray that I am His light and I am doing His will. No matter if I am here only another year or 20 more years, I know I have had a blessed life and I have no regrets and I can’t wait to see my Heavenly Father for eternity in a place of NO SUFFERING AND NO PAIN!!!!

Cindy Semple
October, 2010