Cancer times five: Each bout a different struggle for Salisbury woman
How do I explain to my family and friends that I have cancer for the fifth time?By Shavonne Potts
In five years, cancer has struck Chris Whitaker five times. Each time, the cancer attacked a different area of her body.
Each time, she fought back.
The 54-year-old Salisbury native is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer of the back and hip. She has also had breast cancer.
In February 2005, Whitaker found a lump in her right breast. She went to her doctor, who recommended she have a mammogram. Then came an MRI and an ultrasound that led to a biopsy. She was 50 years old when she got the verdict: cancer.
No one in her family had a history of breast cancer. She lost her mom, Nancy Faggart, in June 2004 to lung cancer. Her brother is a cancer survivor.
“It upset me the most because I didn’t have my mom,” she said.
When her doctor asked Whitaker what she wanted to do.
“I said, ‘I want it out of me,’ ” she said.
She had her right breast removed in February. Doctors took out 21 lymph nodes and found cancer in three. She was in the hospital for four to five days.
She had another few months of chemotherapy and radiation. In 2006, she was put on Herceptin as part of her chemotherapy regimen. She took it intravenously once every three weeks.
Whitaker lost her hair during the treatments.
In early 2006, Whitaker had reconstructive surgery. She underwent a TRAM flap surgery, where muscle, tissue and skin are taken from the stomach and tunneled through to the chest area.
In June 2006, Whitaker fell at home and fractured her hip bone. She went to see an orthopedic surgeon. Around August, doctors found cancer in her hip. She had treatment, but did not lose her hair.
In the latter part of 2007, Whitaker began having back pain. Doctors told her she had cancer in her L4 vertebra (lower back). The lower back region begins almost flush with the pelvic bone at L1 and goes down to L5.
She underwent chemotherapy, this time in oral form. Whitaker had to take Tykerb, a pill for the treatment of patients with advanced breast cancer whose tumors are HER2-positive. HER2-positive promotes the growth of cancer cells and tend to be more aggressive.
She also had rounds of radiation. She was able to keep her hair.
In June 2008, the cancer returned in Whitaker’s back, this time in her L1 vertebra. She was only able to take Abraxane, an anti-cancer chemotherapy drug. The drug can be used to treat breast cancer after relapse or failure of prior chemotherapy.
Nearly a year later in August 2009, the cancer came back again. The cancer was in her right hip, her L1 and L2 vertebrae.
Despite having cancer for the past five years, Whitaker is confident in her purpose ó to beat it and help others along the way.”The way I look at it is God is doing this for a reason. It’s made me stronger. I’m able to help other people.”
When she moved her hands through her hair, it started to come out. She’d always kept her hair cut short, but this time, she shaved it.
This go round, it was harder to tell her family, she said. She hadn’t felt it coming.
She felt the pain before her other diagnoses. She didn’t feel right during those times.
“Normally I can tell when the little booger’s back,” she said.
Each visit for treatment is met with a similar routine that can last up to three or more hours.
During her treatment, Whitaker goes from jovial to tired to a little loopy.
Before she receives any medicines, her port is flushed with saline. The saline clears the path for medicines.
Whitaker begins with a treatment, Zometa, which strengthens her bones. For one hour, the clear liquid drips slowly into a catheter. The catheter, a small flexible tube, leads to her port just under the skin below the collar bone where medications are delivered. After the Zometa, Whitaker receives Herceptin for 30 minutes.
It also takes 30 minutes for Abraxane, a chemotherapy drug. Last, she gets Benadryl to prevent an allergic reaction. The popular antihistamine makes Whitaker a little spacey and sometimes tired.
Nurses are careful to monitor Whitaker’s weight and blood pressure. The amount of chemotherapy she receives depends heavily on her weight and blood pressure.
The nurses also check her blood to make sure the electrolytes, liver and kidneys are properly functioning and the body has recovered, said registered nurse Susanne Sparger. Sparger administers Whitaker’s medications.
After chemotherapy, which she has on Tuesdays, she said she feels great.
She even felt good enough to play pool with her team, The Silver Bullets. She used to play golf, but is not able to play anymore. She’s been playing pool for about three years with the Charlotte Metro League. The fatigue and sometimes pain sneak up on her Thursdays and Fridays.
“I’m tired on Thursday and Friday and before I had severe nausea. Your bones hurt,” she said.
By Saturday, Whitaker is back to herself again.
Her support system consists of her friends in Living In Pink, a breast cancer support group. The women have been her encouragement throughout each of her bouts with cancer and her subsequent treatments. They’ve stayed at her home and looked after her. They’ve made dinner and sat with her through chemotherapy treatments.
Some of her friends even went shopping with her when it was time to find a wig and a prosthetic just after her breast was removed.
Whitaker and her friends spent four hours in a store trying on wigs and “tossing a prosthetic boob back and forth,” she said, laughing.
Her father, Sonny Faggart, lives in New Orleans. When they saw each other in July 2005, Whitaker didn’t have hair.
“My father shaved his head for me,” she said.
She bought two wigs, but never wore them.
“It was beautiful hair, but it just wasn’t me,” she said.
“My friends said I had a pretty bald head,” Whitaker said.
She usually wears a baseball cap or scarves.
Her sons, Scott and Joshua Triplett, check on her as well. Scott, who is in the U.S. Air Force, received a Good Samaritan Transfer when Whitaker’s cancer returned in 2007 so he could be closer to her.
How can a woman who has experienced cancer five times be happy?
“Positive thinking. I don’t know. I guess it’s me. I’ve already determined it’s not going to beat me. I’ll beat it,” she said.
After each treatment of cancer, Whitaker has gone more months cancer-free. After her third diagnosis, she was “clean” for five months. Following the fourth diagnosis, she was cancer-free for seven months. She’s hopeful that this time, she’ll be free of cancer for a year.
She attributes her repeated diagnoses to stress from changes in her life.
“God knows I can handle it,” she said.
Being diagnosed with cancer for the fifth time is merely, “another step in the road for me,” Whitaker said.
“The feeling I have is, I’m happy I’m alive,” she said.