Our journey began in 2013 when I was thirty-six, and we had been living in Malawi, Africa as a missionary family for one year. My daughter celebrated her second birthday in June by deciding that she was finished nursing, and in November, we took our first trip home to the USA to see family and buy supplies. We were in California, planning to fly to Michigan in two days, when my husband walked in on me after I got out of the shower.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“What’s what?” I questioned and looked to where he was looking. Blood was coming out of my right nipple. “Oh, I asked someone about that, and they said that if milk still came out, too, it’s probably okay–though I did wonder how long it would take to stop,” I added.
“You need to get that checked out as soon as possible when we get to Michigan. Call someone today if you can to schedule an appointment.”
We flew to Michigan, and my husband flew to Utah for a conference. After my first and only mammogram, the radiologist took me immediately into his office.
“This is cancer, and here’s why.” He proceeded to point out some curvy cells or something that blurred into something I couldn’t hear. Then he called my husband. “This is diffuse and aggressive. It’s cancer until proven otherwise.” Jamie immediately flew home. We were devastated, laid low, and somehow that made us feel intensely compassionate to each and every person that we saw.
We were so overwhelmed that we did whatever the doctors told us to do. What resulted was a double mastectomy and immediate reconstruction. With the double mastectomy, we were assured that I would not need any chemotherapy or radiation or medication because “We got it all with clean margins. You have a less than one percent chance of ever having ductal carcinoma again.” With that, we flew back to Malawi with renewed purpose and vision. Our lifestyle remained the same. We had been gone from our mission for six months.
Two years later—surprise! I was pregnant with our third child! While pregnant, my gallbladder attacked a couple of times, and the surgeon and doctors in Malawi recommended that I go to the USA to have our baby and that I have the gallbladder removed. We changed our plans and returned to the states to have our little son, but I had no intention of giving up my gallbladder. I had already lost my breasts and therefore, could not breastfeed my son, which broke my heart. The OB ordered an ultrasound and called with the message that I needed to see my breast surgeon immediately. “An incidental finding on the ultrasound is two liver lesions. With your history, this is very concerning.” I called the breast surgeon, and her nurse was clear, “This doctor works on breasts, not livers. However, because your reconstructed breasts are lactating, you may come see her.” To shorten the story, I saw the doctor when Caleb was six days old, and the next day the nurse called me and told me that I had cancer and needed a liver biopsy. “Ductal Carcinoma.” The next time I saw the breast surgeon—the one who told me that I had a less than one percent chance of having ductal carcinoma again–she was visibly trembling.
So there we were: my husband, me, an eight-year-old son, a four-year-old daughter, a one-week-old baby boy, and a diagnosis of stage IV cancer. With that diagnosis, my husband lost his job, we lost our home and our pets, we lost our purpose and reason for which we had worked our entire married lives. We lost our mission. What were we to do now? We clung to what we had, for it is what matters anyway: God and each other. It makes absolutely no sense to me to abandon the only One who can help us in our time of greatest need.
My body was not yet ready to endure the onslaught of chemo, so we went to a lifestyle and detox center for two weeks. It was a challenging experience, and I felt better there than I have felt ever since I was a child! That motivated me to keep doing the alternative treatments that increased my health. I began chemotherapy in Indiana and then Michigan, and no oncologist seemed concerned at all with any supplements or alternative treatments that I used. In Indiana, there was a naturopath on staff whose job was to prescribe supplements that help patients better tolerate chemotherapy. When I moved to California, that completely changed.
My oncologist was adamantly against any supplement or alternative treatment. “That’s pseudoscience!” She actually yelled at me. I left her for about 15 months and simply did alternative treatments. She had the audacity to have a nurse call my house and say, “The doctor wanted you to know that she will order scans for you anytime to see how bad your cancer is getting without chemotherapy.
”Finally I had to return because the cancer did get worse. When that chemo stopped working, the tension between the oncologist and I grew to the point that I cried every time I had to go see her. It was an ordeal. When I requested to see another oncologist, the first one refused to see me as her patient any longer, but it ended up being the best thing for this journey. I left the cancer center again, added my supplements back into my life, and did fine for a time. Eventually, I returned to the cancer center and this time I chose my oncologist. She was a fellow, and I was her patient for less than a year, but she was kind and supportive. She didn’t approve of every supplement and she also didn’t reject everything as “pseudoscience.” he encouraged me that oncologists should listen to their patients and that I had a right to find a doctor who would be an advocate for me.
So what she truly did was heal the hurts of my heart caused by the former oncologist, and I didn’t feel beat down by an uncompassionate and somewhat ruthless system anymore.
Now, where are we? My children are 12, 9, and 4. I have been on and off chemo for four and a half years. The current chemo is the fourth line. My skin has aged and I’m tired a lot, but I am here! When I’m tempted to think of all the things that make me sad, I sometimes cry. It’s okay to face a tough reality! I don’t stay there, though. I have a gratitude journal and write in it. Sometimes I pour out my sorrow, but I always write my gratitudes. I have added many alternative things, like the wonderful supportive gifts from Pinkies Up for Wellness: Kangen water, massage, essential oils, and JuicePlus! Also food as medicine. Hydrotherapy. Exercise when I’m able to. Nap if I’m super tired. Write a letter. We have snuggly pets. And I homeschool my children! When I do feel anxiety or discouragement, deep breathing, meditating on Scripture, and doing the next thing help tremendously! As a pastor once told me, “Live like you’re living; don’t live like you’re dying.” It’s the best advice I’ve ever received!
Mother to three beautiful children, Jedidiah, Abigail, and Caleb. And wife to Jamie Crouse. Shallena is a Breast Cancer Warrior, spiritual giant, and the inspiration behind Pinkies Up for Wellness.