“You have cancer.”
Those three words bring one’s world to a screeching halt, Columbus resident Sue Becker said.
The 56-year-old certified oncology nurse said she thought the abdominal pain she was experiencing this spring meant the Humira she’d been taking for her Crohn’s disease, which had been in remission for nearly five years, wasn’t working.
Her gastroenterologist suggested she have a CAT scan, but hoping her symptoms would subside Becker declined. When she started feeling worse, she had the scan performed.
A few days later, she received a call that changed everything.
“He said the CAT scan looked suspicious for malignancy, particularly lymphoma,” Becker said. “I was scared to death. I thought, ‘It can’t be right.’”
She immediately called her husband, Dan, who came home to be with her. And then they had to tell their children the news.
Becker described the doctor’s phone call that day in May as the bomb that dropped. Everything changed.
Two days later, she underwent a biopsy to determine staging. Doctors determined she had lymphoma, but imaging tests also showed there were several suspicious nodes in her abdomen and spots in her lungs.
While resting in the recovery room with Dan by her side, Becker learned she had Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin lymphoma that was centrally located in her stomach.
Hearing the phrase “Stage 4” is unnerving for anyone, she said. But Becker said she was glad to learn from her oncologist that Stage 4 with lymphoma is not the same as Stage 4 with a solid tumor. In her situation, the staging was more related to treatment planning and prognosis.
“I have a good prognosis,” she said.
The same day, Becker was fitted with a port to make intravenous administration of medication and chemotherapy easier. As her symptoms had become considerably worse, she began an inpatient dose-adjusted IV chemotherapy infusion the next day.
“That was five days in the hospital with constant chemo,” Becker said. “When the genetic testing came back I found out I was able to have outpatient therapy with the usual lymphoma chemo treatment — which was once a week every three weeks for six weeks.”
Being a certified oncology nurse helped her navigate things, she said, but it did not necessarily lessen the gravity of the situation or make it any easier for her and her family.
Since Becker’s tumors where in so many places and far below the skin, radiation therapy was not an option, she said. Normally, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can be near the surface, presenting as visible and palpable raised nodes, which makes for easier targeted radiation therapy.
After finishing her six-week chemo regimen in August, Becker now waits for a three month follow-up testing in November.
When Becker’s 29-year-old daughter Carrie Firth, of Hanover, found out about her mother’s diagnosis she said she thought it was a mistake. But when she realized that wasn’t the case, she and the rest of the family rallied around their mother and a battle plan was put in place.
The cancer diagnosis brought back similar uncertainty and anxiety the family experience when Firth was 20 months old and fighting leukemia, Firth said.
“Our family has fought cancer before and we are going to do this again,” the daughter said. “We are going to figure it out and do it together.”
Watching her mother’s journey has made Firth all the more vigilant about her own health, she said. Although she was essentially considered cancer-free as a preteen, Firth realizes if it can happen to her mother, it can happen to anyone.
“I think through this process it is easy to pity your situation and think, ‘This is a horrible situation, can it get any worse and why me?’ But it could be so much worse or be a different situation,” Firth said. “I am really proud of my mom for pushing through. I really see her inner strength and it is really inspiring.”
Becker said the experience this summer has made her rediscover her Christian faith. She said she has always gone to church, prayed and read her Bible, but facing a crisis like cancer puts everything in perspective unlike anything else.
Not only do you re-evaluate your life, she said, but you have a greater appreciation for the little things.
Previously, she was so busy living life that finding time for family and sleep seemed a near-impossible task and now today she has difficulty finding things to fill her days, Becker said.
“I went from doing things for others to being the recipient of help,” she said. “I never knew I was so loved. People really come out and rally around you.”
She also has learned that one cannot sit around and think, “What if this? What if that?”
“If you play the ‘What if’ game, you will drive yourself crazy,” Becker said.
“You just cannot go there,” she added. “You have to take things one day at a time.”