Brain surgery and breast cancer hit a Greenville, Michigan, couple with a double dose of fear in 2017.
Diagnosed only weeks apart, Amy and Bill Flynn felt their orderly lives suddenly turn upside down.
Amy knew something didn’t feel right in her right breast while doing a self-exam in the shower that summer. But she didn’t mention it to anyone. Not yet. She wondered if she could be overreacting.
Then out of the blue, her husband Bill had a seizure, putting her own concerns on the back burner.
Bill’s seizure occurred in the middle of the night, Aug. 4, 2017.
“I thought he was having a bad dream, that he was running from something,” Amy said in describing Bill’s body movements. She touched Bill’s arm and felt dampness.
“I flipped the light on and he was foaming, like drooling,” she said. “I thought he was having a stroke.”
She frantically called 911. Emergency workers soon rushed Bill by ambulance to Spectrum Health United Hospital in Greenville. A CT scan showed no evidence of a brain bleed—good news. He regained function, and scheduled a follow-up appointment with his doctor to discuss the seizure.
But three days later, Bill had another seizure, again in the middle of the night.
Instead of calling for an ambulance, Amy and the couple’s daughter, Mallory, took Bill to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids. Bill, 46 at the time, had never had a seizure in his life, and she worried his sudden symptoms signaled something else.
Abby Rogers, PA, a Spectrum Health neurology physician assistant, ordered an MRI, which showed a small tumor in the part of Bill’s brain that causes seizures. Rogers prescribed anti-seizure medication for Bill and scheduled a follow-up with Spectrum Health neuro-oncologist Wendy Sherman, MD.
After consulting with Dr. Sherman and Spectrum Health neurosurgeon Todd Vitaz, MD, they scheduled surgery for Sept. 5.
Good news: abnormal brain tissue
Dr. Vitaz removed the tumor and then the family waited for the biopsy results. Amy’s nerves crackled with anticipation.
“I kept asking him, ‘How are you staying so calm?’” she said. “If I thought I might have cancer in my body, I would be screaming to take it out.”
Amy didn’t know it at the time, but those words would be prophetic.
Soon they learned the tumor was abnormal brain tissue, not cancer. But Bill would have to continue taking anti-seizure medication, and as a precaution, he wasn’t able to drive for six months.
The Flynns felt elated, but the celebration proved to be short-lived.
Amy, then 44, scheduled her mammogram the week prior to Bill’s surgery. Then she received a call to schedule a digital breast tomosynthesis, commonly referred to as a 3D mammogram, the following week.
“At that point I thought it was nothing,” Amy said. “No big deal, it happens to a lot of women.”
In addition to the tomosynthesis, Amy also had an ultrasound during her follow-up appointment Sept. 29.
“At this time,” Amy recalled, “I’m still oblivious, to anything. Cancer never crossed my mind.”
But after reviewing the scanning results, United Hospital radiologist John Merchun, MD, delivered the bad news: Amy likely had breast cancer.
The news stunned Amy.
“I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
Despite the shocking news, Amy decided to stay at work for the remainder of her shift in patient access at Spectrum Health Cancer Center at United Hospital.
“I thought, ‘What good is it going to do me to sit at home and cry?’” she said. “If I had any questions, this is the best place to be.”
When she arrived home, she broke down.
She opened the door and started screaming hysterically. Her then 3-year-old granddaughter, Peyton, hugged her leg, asking, “What’s wrong, Grandma, what’s wrong?” “I couldn’t even talk,” Amy said. “I really didn’t handle it very well.”
Bill said that week was an emotional roller coaster. His feeling of relief slipped away as he comforted his wife.
“That Monday we got the news that mine wasn’t cancerous, that they got everything, and then the same Friday (Amy) had another test and was told she had breast cancer,” Bill said. “It just devastated me.”
Biopsy results a week later confirmed the diagnosis. Amy had stage 1 invasive ductile carcinoma of the right breast.
The couple invited family and Amy’s best friend over for dinner to share the news.
Tears flowed. Nobody wanted to eat after she told them her diagnosis. “That was hard,” Amy said, choking with emotion.
In discussing treatment options with United Hospital surgeon Jusith Amparo, DO, Amy decided to have a mastectomy versus taking out the tumor, for fear the cancer would come back.
Told the odds of cancer coming back are much lower if the surgery is followed up with chemotherapy, she started chemo Dec. 5, the day after the birthday of her son, Elliot.
“I felt good the first two days, and then whammo,” Amy said. She experienced excruciating pain in her legs due to capillary leak syndrome, a side effect of the treatment.
“I came home from work and she was lying on the couch crying,” Bill said.
Amy worked until Christmas, but then took a leave of absence due to her constant sickness.
Shortly after the holidays, she started losing her hair.
Amy had been adamant she would decide when to shave her head. A family friend and beautician would help when Amy felt ready.
“I said, ‘If I can control anything, I’m going to control when I lose my hair,’” Amy recalled.
One day at work, after losing quite a bit of hair, Amy made the decision. That evening she went alone to the hair salon.
“When she was done shaving my head, I turned around and looked at myself, and I started bawling, and bawling—and then I started laughing hysterically, because I looked ridiculous,” she said laughing.
“That was super, super emotional,” she said.
“I think that was the hardest thing she went through,” Bill said. “When she lost her hair, and had a bald head, that hurt her more than anything.”
“But I liked her bald head,” he said. “She has a beautiful bald head.”
Their granddaughter Peyton didn’t agree.
“She didn’t like it all,” Amy said. “She’d say, ‘Grandma, when is your beautiful red hair going to come back?’”
“When it’s ready, it will come back,” Amy told her.
Throughout her chemo treatments, every three weeks over the next four months, she felt lousy.
“Every day there was a new rash or a new sore or a new pain,” Amy said. “I felt like I had no relationship with my family at all, I was just sick.”
“She was sleeping 16 to 18 hours a day,” Bill said.
In April, after five treatments, and months of feeling terrible, she told her doctor, “I need to go back to work, I need to go back to my life.”
Amy went back to work, continuing infusion therapy every three weeks to block estrogen production, thankfully, with no side effects.
In October 2018, she had a mammogram on her left breast, and results showed no sign of cancer.
Today, Amy takes estrogen-blocking medication and Bill has periodic MRIs of his brain. They are both healthy, happy and grateful.
Friends and family, neighbors and co-workers, even complete strangers helped in many ways, they said.
“We had a tremendous amount of support to get through this,” Bill said. “You hear about all the bad people, but there’s a lot of good people out there.”
Amy attends the monthly Gilda’s Club meetings in Lowell to share support with other cancer patients and survivors. She also recently helped organize a cookies and canvas painting event for cancer patients and caregivers in Greenville.
“I am very glad she is doing well,” Dr. Amparo said. “Amy is a strong woman and I am happy to know she is active in helping other breast cancer patients.”
She has more empathy now for patients coming for treatment at the cancer center. She’s walked their walk.
She’s thankful for the care she received by her work family.
“It was awesome,” Amy said. “I knew I was in good hands. Our nurses are amazing.”
“They treated her like a queen,” Bill said.
Two years later, they’re now cancer free and appreciating life like never before.
“About as normal as it can get,” Elliot, now a high school senior, said joking.
“It feels like we dodged a bullet,” Bill said. Amy said it’s also given her a new perspective on life.
“I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore,” she said.