Breast Cancer Survivor Keeps Collecting Yesterdays
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“My life changed on a dime with a picture,” Ms. Merens said. “I had a triple negative, very aggressive form of breast cancer.”
The Boca Raton resident got the news on Nov. 16, 2011, at Lynn Women’s Health and Wellness Institute, part of Baptist Health, where a nurse navigator told her she would be with her throughout the whole process. “I was like, ‘What whole process?’ At the moment, it didn’t compute,” she said. “Life got scary after that.”
Ms. Merens, who was 57 at the time of her diagnosis, did her homework, researching numerous doctors and advocating for herself. She had a full list of questions for her oncologist, Jane Skelton, M.D., at Baptist Health Lynn Cancer Institute. “She was wonderful and always very honest. She and her assistant were very kind and spent a lot of time with me and answered every question.”
Genetic testing didn’t reveal any known mutations that put her at high risk for breast cancer, although her grandmother was diagnosed at age 80 and her brother later had prostate cancer. On Dec. 16, Ms. Merens underwent a double mastectomy and while she felt that she was in a drug-induced haze afterwards, the pain of the expanders placed for reconstructive surgery was a constant reminder of her illness. She chose to look at the bright side ― that surgery was behind her and that she was being proactive and taking measures to eliminate the cancer in her body.
The next step of her treatment was chemotherapy at Lynn Cancer Institute. Over a period of 16 weeks, Ms. Merens had eight rounds of chemotherapy. It was a difficult time, both physically and mentally. As the single mother of a disabled child, Ms. Merens needed to ensure her autistic son was safe and cared for and she placed him in a group home.
“Chemo took me to my knees,” she said. “But chemo day was also special. My daughter-in-law and I were not that close. She had 2-year-old triplets, yet she became my chemo buddy. Her mom watched the babies and she and I would sit during that five-or six-hour day and talk. We really got to know each other and developed a lifelong bond. And when she couldn’t join me, my friends did. We would play games and share life stories.”
Surgery and chemotherapy resulted in a good outcome for Ms. Merens, Dr. Skelton said. “Treatment is personalized for each patient,” Dr. Skelton explained. “She didn’t require radiation therapy and she has been disease-free all these years. It is the best news you could have.”
Ms. Merens joined a breast cancer support group at Lynn Cancer Institute. It was a group that stuck together for seven or eight years, supporting one another, sharing concerns, asking and answering questions. Through the support group, she also took part in the Stroll for Well-Being program at Morikami Gardens.
“It was lifechanging,” she said. “It was part of the healing process. You’re given a guidebook and journal with thought-provoking questions. I would go there and write my soul out. It’s such a beautiful place and was built as a healing garden. To this day, when I take someone there, I point out the spots where I would sit and write.”
As she recovered, Ms. Merens worried that every little headache and body ache she experienced was cancer. But with the passage of time and reassurance from her doctors, who compassionately checked her symptoms, the fears faded. “It wasn’t until about the 10th year that I relaxed. It really wasn’t a conscious thing, it just naturally happened.”
Ms. Merens never imagined the good that would come from her experience. In addition to the support system she built and the relationship with her daughter-in-law, the niece who helped care for her after her surgery became a chemotherapy nurse.
She’s happy to share her survivor story and some thoughts with women. She urges all to remember their yearly mammogram and listen to their bodies. “A friend told me, ‘Just keep collecting yesterdays and tomorrow will come and you will get to the other side of this.’ That became my mantra. Keep collecting yesterdays. And I did. Now it’s 10 years later. I feel well and I’m living my life the way I want to,” she said.
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