Two Words “It’s Cancer”

Two Words:

Good evening.  I am Carolyn Merritt.

I’m a mother, wife, gardener, motorcycle rider, presidential appointee, former agency head and CEO and I am a breast cancer survivor.  

In February 2000, following a biopsy of a lump in my breast, I got a call from my surgeon’s office. 

I heard two words that would change me forever. 

It’s Cancer

Hearing those words sets off a flurry of emotions and thoughts. 

Fear, panic, anger, worry, denial. 

Just saying the word Cancer to my husband, father, children, friends, and co-workers was unbelievable to me. 

Like a nightmare.

The days between that revelation and the date of the scheduled surgery were the worst.

Like some monster inhabited my body and all I could think about was getting it out of me! 

But the fear of surgery was looming in front of me as well.  The disfigurement of my never-perfect body was unusually disconcerting to me. 

Somewhere in the next few days however there came acceptance that I would face something heard about in whispered tones about women who were old and who had died. 

Not me.  I was only 53, but still young and active.  Not me!   

I had had a lump in my breast for years!   

Every mammogram said it was fibrocystic breast tissue.  Benign. 

Now it was cancer?  How could that be?  Words like mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation swirled in my head.   

One of the first things I did was to go online and find the American Cancer Society page on Breast Cancer. 

It told me all about the things that would be done to me and that I would experience in the months to come.

Words like survivability now crept in and mortality.

Even before I saw the Surgeon, I had read about medical terms, procedures, and chemical treatments I had never heard about before. 

I was profoundly amazed by how much information there was out there.

Some of it is very bad. 

Then I saw that with the type of cancer I had and the stage I was told it was in, I had a 60% chance of living 5 years and if I survived 5 years without a recurrence, I had an 80% chance of living another 5 years.

60% ……

My God, I was only 53 years old. I was determined to do all that was available and beat all the odds. 

I decided to take charge of this process and not be a victim of it.

When I met with the surgeons and the oncologists my next two words were Cure Me!   

But in the middle of the night, I also whispered in my prayers to my creator two more words,  Heal Me

People all over had my name on their prayer lists. In Christian churches, Jewish Temples, and Muslim Mosques,  people were putting up my name in a request for prayers of healing.   

Every month I went in for my chemo treatment. 

As the potions dripped into my body, I thought about the little molecules of chemicals searching out every cell of cancer and I envisioned the cells dying right before my eyes. Cure me! I thought. 

In my hours of treatment, I also thought of the many scientists that had spent their life’s work seeking out the right formulation of chemicals that would know how to find that cancer cell and know just how to kill it. 

I envisioned a person in a white lab coat, late at night peering through a microscope or pouring over stacks of research notes muttering another two words Thats funny?

That moment of recognition that something in this experiment was different or unexpected. 

That moment may have been the very moment when the mechanism for killing my cancer was found.  The moment meant I would have a better chance of making 5 years of life that might not have been there only moments before.

That recognition of something unusual by a scientist somewhere in some lab sponsored by donations from millions of people walking in walkathons and running in races in memory of those who have been taken by this phenomenon called cancer.  

Millions of people walked, ran, and gave in honor of those who have survived this experience. 
Many gave in the memory of those who did not.

While I was in treatment, there was a Race for the Cure in Chicago. 
The company I was working for donated $10,000 and organized a team in my honor to walk in the Race.   

I walked too, 5 miles, and between us, we carried the names of over 200 people we were honoring who had survived due to the thousands of researchers and millions of hours committed to searching for that one moment when they would say two words That’s it!  

That recognition of something different might prove to be the answer to the question about conquering breast cancer. 

March of 2005 was my 5-year mark.  I beat the odds.  I have two more words to say. 
Every day I think of two words for the people who worked to raise money and who donated to fund the research that made those five years possible.

Those two words are Thank you

Thank you for the sacrifice, generosity, and charity given to provide more opportunities to say Thats it! 
Funding that answers the prayers of people who beg Cure me and Heal Me

So what have I done with the 61/2 years given to me since 2000?

I retired from corporate life.

I helped incorporate an NGO with the mission of saving the Monarch Butterfly habitat in Michoacan Mexico.

I helped an alternative high school in Chicago develop a plan to expand and grow so it could serve more children at risk with nowhere else to turn for education.    

I traveled to Europe just for fun and have been to China, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, India, and Australia helping ministries and companies understand how to prevent catastrophic industrial accidents. 

I was appointed by the president and served as Chair and CEO of an agency in Washington, DC that investigates and promotes prevention of Industrial Chemical Accidents. The impact of this agency’s work has changed the culture of major corporations in preventing industrial accidents all over the world.

I have gone to India to work with an international body to highlight the problems still present in the place called Bhopal where hundreds of thousands of people still suffer from the impact of one of the world’s worst chemical accidents.   

I have seen my son married in Austin Texas and our daughter married in a castle in Scotland.

And I am awaiting the birth of our second grandchild, a girl named Caroline.

I have been with dear friends who are undergoing treatment for breast cancer knowing that they now have a higher chance for survival than I did because of improvements in the technology of treatment of breast cancer over the past 7 years.

But now I have another two words in my life. Bone cancer
My future and the futures of thousands of others rest in the hands of the researchers who are looking for a way to give us a longer life. 
For people like me, it used to be a 5% chance to live another 5 years. 
Now it is 20%.  That is not good enough for me. 

My two words now are Please Give.  My life depends on it. 

If I can, I would like to pass on my own story and the lesson I learned from my own experience.

Like many women for years, I was told I had dense breast tissue.   

I was diligent in my own care.   

I was about 40 when I had my first mammogram because of the amount of dense tissue I had.   

Every year I went. 

We moved around a lot so every time we moved I got my mammograms and took them with me. 

I had breast exams at many hospitals including the Cleveland Clinic and a variety of community hospitals.   

Every year I was told that the lumps were dense tissue and were nothing to worry about. 

So I did not worry. 

At 52,  I began hormone replacement therapy. 

Over the next few months, I noticed that the lump in my breast was growing.   

I went to my doctor and pointed it out.  I even drew a line around it so she would know where I was feeling the lump now about the size of a small egg. 

She sent me for a mammogram.  The radiologist’s report said dense tissue, was benign. 

Something kept nagging at me however and I went back a few weeks later and insisted we do a biopsy.

She did not think this was necessary but if I insisted she would give me the name of a surgeon.  I insisted. 

Taking my films with me, I met with the surgeon and he said it was nothing to worry about. 

He was 99.9% sure it was dense tissue but just to give me peace of mind he did a stereographic punch biopsy. 

On Friday, Feb 24th, I got a call from him.  It’s Cancer he said. 

What I learned from the second surgeon at the Lynn Sage Breast Cancer Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago was that from the study of my past mammograms the cancer was at least 7 years old and it was what was called Invasive Lobular Carcinoma. Not rare but not common either. 

It grew like a spider into the surrounding tissue.   It was hormone receptive and although it had been slowly growing for all those years, the addition of estrogen to my system caused it to really take off. 

What did I learn from this? 

  1. Go to a center with a Specialty in Breast Health or Imaging Center.
  2. Don’t ignore any lumps.
  3. Mammograms do not detect every cancer and 12% can go undetected
  4. Insist on a biopsy or MRI of suspicious breast tissue not just needle aspiration.
  5. Get educated! Be assertive!

I have also found that my story is not unique.
Talk openly with other women about their experiences. 

Help other women through the walk of cancer treatment and recovery.   

Every woman is at risk of breast cancer just because they are a woman. 
Help them recognize and take control of their own health care. 

Breast Cancer should not be the final two words in anyone’s life.  

Thank you

It is with deep sadness… Carolyn lost her fight with cancer: August 29, 2008. You were in her prayers, as I’m sure she was in yours. 

She is that ray of sunshine that looks down on us from above, and our fight continues. 

Carolyn was Marion’s first cousin – BRAC tests are important for family members.