By Margaret Cooper
In 2009, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my left breast and in some of the lymph nodes on the left side. I had a successful surgery and treatment with chemotherapy followed by reconstructive surgery. They removed 12 lymph nodes, and I had radiation. Everything was going well.
As I approached the five-year mark that would have given me a clean bill of health, I started not feeling well. I had a lot of pain in my upper back, and I felt a lump under my right arm. But my dad was dying at the time, and I was at the hospital a lot. I thought it was just fatigue.
When I went to the doctor, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in my bones. It was very, very aggressive. I went to the same hospital near my home where I’d received my first round of treatment. The doctor there told me that there was nothing they could do. That it was hopeless, and I only had a short time left to live.
It was like getting ice water thrown on your face. I’m the caretaker for my mother. I have kids and animals that to me are like my children. I would miss the experience of watching my sons’ journeys in life, watching them seek to fulfill their dreams and goals and to find their own unique places in the world. And I have a granddaughter I want to watch grow up.
I saw all of that going. What was I going to do? I was devastated. I can’t even explain what it feels like to have someone look you in the eye and take your future away.
‘A glimmer of hope’
A friend of mine strongly encouraged me to get a second opinion. She recommended Dr. Melody Cobleigh at Rush because my friend had had cancer, and she said Dr. Cobleigh is phenomenal. If anybody can help you, she can.
I went to Dr. Cobleigh in 2014 without hope. And she said the only thing that I agree with is that the cancer is not curable; but, Margaret, we can treat it. We can control it. You can have a full life. You can work, and you can continue to enjoy yourself. You just have to follow a treatment plan.
She looked me in the eyes and said it with such conviction and self-assurance. It was a glimmer of hope, like seeing sunshine in a dark room. She said it’s going to be rough. We’re going to have to test and find out what kind of chemo will work for you.
I also asked her about clinical trials. That was one of my reasons for going to Rush for a second opinion. I did some checking, and I knew that they had clinical trials. So I thought if I’m going to get a second opinion, I need to go somewhere I can also have access to clinical trials. Dr. Cobleigh said I could enroll in a trial as well. I responded really well to the trial medication.
I was here several times a week for a couple of months while they were doing testing to develop the treatment plan. Dr. Cobleigh had told me that the cancer would likely mutate. She said that I’d be on chemo for a certain period of time and that the chemo might stop working, but then they would have another one that they could introduce.
I had chemo for a year and three months. Then they had to switch it to another one. Now I’m on an oral chemo that gets delivered to my home.
‘I don’t want to just exist’
Throughout, the medical team at Rush kept telling me to be positive. They’d say, “Yes, you’re doing good. Tell us what you need.” They worked with me on my schedule and in so many other ways.
I can’t say enough about the medical team that supports Dr. Cobleigh. Every single one of them nurtures your spirit. You feel that you are a person of value. They cover every single base: They set me up with a psychologist so that I could talk through my fears and anxieties. And they set me up with a beautiful human hair wig when my hair came out. Dr. Cobleigh even personally called to track down my medical records from my previous hospital when they weren’t sending them to her in a timely manner.
Dr. Cobleigh told me at one point, “Just stop worrying about your disease, and go out and have fun.” And I am enjoying life. I am doing Latin dancing, ballroom dancing, exhibition dancing and hip hop to Michael Jackson’s Thriller in my next exhibition. Dr. Cobleigh gave me back my life. And now I don’t want to just exist. I live life and love life.
A good attitude is so important in recovery. Now Dr. Cobleigh has me mentor other patients because of my attitude. I feel like I was given a second chance. I value every single minute. If I get a little stressed at work, I take a deep breath, get up and walk away. I try to calm myself down and think, “You’re in control. You can change the situation.” And that’s what I do.
I appreciate life so much more now. I look at my 10-year-old granddaughter who plays piano and is trying to teach grandma: I want to see her when she’s 20 and when she’s 30. I want the experience of watching her grow up.
If I hadn’t gotten a second opinion, I wouldn’t be here now. I thank Dr. Cobleigh and the whole team at Rush every day in my prayers because they have helped me so much. I wouldn’t have thought three years ago that I could be this happy. And I’m not going to waste it.