Stories in bravery
Turning chemotherapy into a slumber party: Deploying your friends in the breastcancer battle
When it comes to a breast cancer diagnosis, sometimes it seems like everyone wants you to put on a brave face.
But as Jackie Martin knows, there's no such thing as a typical cancer case — or a quote-unquote normal response.
"I was at my internist for my regular well woman exam. I go to Sunset Medical Clinic and they have all the bells and whistles there so I could get a mammogram, too. I got a call from the the internist about three hours later, saying she didn't like results and there appeared to be calcification that wasn't there last year. She said we need to check it at M.D. Anderson as soon as possible — that's when I knew they were serious," Martin says.
But Martin, who has her own consulting business, J S Martin Associates LP, and is on the executive committee of the board of directors at the Greater Houston Partnership, the former president of the United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast and the former executive director of the Houston area San Jacinto Girl Scout Council, did things a little differently. She went on vacation and kept her test results under wraps.
"My internist is a very good friend — I've been going to her for decades, she's fabulous. She said 'I know you're getting ready to go out of town with friends,' and I was, I had a trip planned to Santa Barbara," Martin says. "She said go and have as much fun as you can and go in when you come back. I don't even think I told [some of my best friends] when I was out there. It wasn't real, I hadn't been diagnosed, it was a suspicion.
"I told myself 'I'm not going to get upset until we find it's cancer.' But it absolutely affected my vacation. It was two weeks of hell, thinking about it in the back of mind."
When Martin returned she got a second mammogram at M. D. Anderson that also found abnormalities, though not a lump or a mass. A needle biopsy confirmed a diagnosis of invasive ductal cancer.
"I needed surgery to remove it," Martin says. "When they go in and do a surgery, they talk about your options — mastectomy, lumpectomy. I chose lumpectomy. My surgeon, Dr. Ross, said that gave the same results and it was a great answer. The first time didn't get clear marks, though, so a few weeks later they had to go back in again."
But Martin says the early part of her treatment was a "piece of cake." Then came chemo.
"Oncology and chemo, that was a bitch. I had 12 weeks of Paxil, and I was sick six days out of seven. It's like a really, really bad hangover every day. That's when you go through the life-altering phase, you realize it's happening and am I going to survive."
Martin says at first she shut herself away after the diagnosis, but the decision to let her friends help her changed her life.
"I created a cave," Martin says. "I had a major pity party. Anxiety, depression. I only saw a few people, but those few were there for me. At the end of every chemo session I would spend the night at a friend's house. I'd rotate between them. People thought I was crazy because they should be coming to me, but it was like a slumber party. We cooked and watched movies — it turned a negative experience into something fun.
"The interesting thing was that I knew what their friendship meant to me, but what I didn't get until the end was what a gift I was giving to them. They wanted to help and by letting them take care of me they were doing something. They weren't doctors but they wanted to do something for me. My friendships were strong in the beginning but they are lifelong friends now."
By the end of chemo, Martin had found that her cancer didn't just bring her closer to her friends — it brought her closer to all those going through the same things.
"At my last treatment I was ringing the bell. They make it a party, and people in the waiting room hear it's your last treatment and you have strangers hugging you, people you don't know, and you feel like part of bigger group. At first I thought 'I don't want to be part of it, I don't want to be a part of the cancer group,' but after being a part of it and getting to know these women I think they are very brave."
Martin has been finished with radiation for a month, but she says that her experience has changed her life forever.
"I'm back full speed but not really full speed," Martin says. "After radiation you get tired, but you feel like you can do anything. I did too much and you know before you overdo it and you get tired and you go to sleep and the next day you're fine. With that it really takes another day. The secret is just don't get tired.
"I have my own consulting company and I'm often moving between cities, but now I don't fly to a city the day that I have a meeting like I did before. I fly in the day before, get some rest, have the meeting the next day and fly back the day after."
Martin might try to avoid the breast cancer clichés, but she still ascribes to the the philosophy of many a survivor: To appreciate every day that you've been given.
"I met an older lady one day, we were in the waiting room waiting to go in for radiation and she said, 'You know, you'll never go back to what you were.' I thought it was negative, but it was not negative. You don't sweat the small stuff. I've discovered I can tell an ant from an elephant. Something can happen that before would really have bothered me and now I'm like, 'Ehhh, it will be what it'll be.'
"Every morning you wake up and it feels like a gift. Nothing feels better then feeling good. This is better than champagne."