Sally and Greg Brown, in their late 50s, should be planning for retirement, dreaming of their future.
But no one knows what that future will hold.
A husband. A wife. Married for 33 years. So much love. So much history. But so much fear.
She is worried about him, and his cancer diagnosis. He is worried about her, with a more recent cancer diagnosis of her own.
Greg, 57, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma five years ago. Sally, who works as a nurse at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital, has been at his side, caring for him, both inside the hospital and at home.
My immediate emotion was how much more can we take? I think I was more devastated by her diagnosis than my own. I was doing better, beating all the odds … then she got diagnosed.
“It’s terminal,” Greg said. “I had pretty much accepted that I wasn’t going to be around all that long. We had kind of set up our lives that way.”
While Greg underwent two stem cell transplants, Sally, who had been a nurse at Spectrum Health since 1993, went back to school to get her bachelor’s degree. She planned for a future. Possibly without her husband.
Two years prior to his multiple myeloma diagnosis, Greg battled prostate cancer.
Another cancer blow
The Browns were full-up with the “C” word. Done. Enough.
But there’s more.
In the spring of 2016, Sally felt a lump in her breast. After battling benign cysts much of her life, she didn’t think much of it.
On June 7, 2016, the “C” word returned. Diagnosis? Stage 3 breast cancer.
“My immediate emotion was how much more can we take?” Greg said. “I think I was more devastated by her diagnosis than my own. I was doing better, beating all the odds … then she got diagnosed.”
There’s disbelief, certainly. Confusion, for sure. Wishing things could be different? Definitely.
“None of this was like it was supposed to be,” Greg said. “It wasn’t how we planned our lives. It seemed so unfair for the caretaker, the person who has taken care of people all her life, to have to deal with this herself. It was horrible. It still is horrible.”
Because of family history, Sally had been faithful to regular breast MRIs.
“I was probably about six months behind on my checkups,” Sally said. “Because of my husband’s health, you start taking care of other people. The MRI I had prior to my diagnosis was clear.”
In that 18 months, Stage 3 triple negative cancer took root in her body.
It numbed her. Stunned her. Chilled her.
“She told me right then and there that I had Stage 3 breast cancer,” Sally said. “It was almost disbelief. I could not believe here my husband had cancer and now I have cancer.”
Her grandmother and mom both battled breast cancer. She, the heir apparent.
“I went through a series of genetic testing but mine was not (genetic),” Sally said. “That was terrifying to me because I have two daughters and a granddaughter.”
And a husband, facing a terminal diagnosis. But hope remains.
“Both of his stem cell transplants failed,” Sally said. “He’s on oral chemotherapy constantly. He’s doing so much better than expected. My understanding is they always expect myeloma to be terminal unless you have complete recovery with stem cells. But they’re making so many breakthroughs. The goal is to keep him alive long enough and maybe there will be a cure.”
Because Greg’s disease made it impossible for him to continue his work in the forklift industry, Sally has been the family’s sole supporter. Not only financially. “I try to be as much as possible emotional support for him,” she said.
She had to undergo her own cancer battle—six months of chemotherapy, which caused blisters and hives on her helping hands and 37 days of radiation.
In January of this year, she had a left modified radical mastectomy and 21 lymph nodes removed. In November, she’s planning on complete breast reconstruction.
You start to look at what really matters, what really counts. I just look at every day you wake up as a good day.
“The chemo must have worked because there’s no sign of disease at this point,” Sally said.
She returned to work, fittingly, the day before Independence Day. Free, she hopes, from cancer. Forever.
“I feel very good, but I’m tired,” Sally said. “I think it will be a while before the energy comes back.”
Greg and Sally are living life the best they know how right now, traveling to the east coast to visit their daughters, traveling north to spend time at their cottage on Portage Lake near Manistee, Michigan.
They boat. They fish. They dream of the future.
“We just love it up there,” Sally said. “We’ll retire there someday. The whole group of people there is like family. They couldn’t have been more supportive. They threw a “Survive Party” for me and were all dressed in pink. When I got my degree, they held a surprise graduation party for me.”
They dressed Sally in a cap and gown, and played “Pomp and Circumstance.”
She and Greg are ready for more pomp. And less circumstance.
“You start to look at what really matters, what really counts,” Sally said. “I just look at every day you wake up as a good day. You can either curl up in a ball or you just keep moving forward and fighting.”
Continuing, with hope
Greg agrees. He remembers being diagnosed around the same time their daughter started medical school in Boston.
“I remember my husband saying to me that he had a great life, and the only thing he’s going to regret is not seeing Kelly graduate med school and that he wasn’t going to have any grandchildren,” Sally said. “And there he was at Kelly’s graduation from med school holding our granddaughter in his arms. He said anything after that is just icing on the cake.”
So make that more icing. Lots of icing.
“To be here today wasn’t supposed to happen,” Greg said. “I’ve already passed that mile marker of five years. I had two stem cell transplants in 2013. When those didn’t work, I was given two to six months to live. Through the grace of God, something turned a corner and I’m holding my own. Cancer’s not doing anything more to my system, and I’m just kind of living with it.”
They’re living within reality, but transcending beyond it. For as long as possible.
“Sally’s story is this was a knockout blow that she refused to accept,” Greg said. “She’s an amazing superwoman. She took this on like she has everything else. She’s a fighter. I didn’t have any doubt she was up for the challenge.”
Amy Vander Woude, MD, an oncologist at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center, said Sally’s triple negative breast cancer carries a high risk of recurrence.
“As of her last visit in June, there was no evidence of active malignancy,” Dr. Vander Woude said. “Throughout her treatment course, Sally maintained a positive attitude regarding her cancer and its treatment. The possibility of recurrence is often threatening to survivors. Although one cannot necessarily squelch the feelings of fear that arise, having a positive attitude toward treatment, and any side effects that might occur in conjunction with it, goes a long way to improve quality of life, both during and following active treatment. I witnessed that with Sally.”
Dr. Vander Woude said because no residual tumor was detected after chemotherapy, Sally has a decreased risk of developing recurrent disease in the future.
“We will continue to monitor Sally closely,” Dr. Vander Woude said. “I admire her inner strength and positive approach to life.”