Columbus resident Stacey Foster, a mother of three, was diagnosed with breast cancer Nov. 4, a day after her 33rd birthday.
“I was numb,” Foster remembered recently, sitting in her living room southeast of the city.
“The last thing that you’re thinking about (at that age) is cancer,” she said, peering through her partially rimless, red glasses.
Her husband, Tamage, noticed a lump on her breast about half a year earlier and encouraged her to see a doctor.
She’s not a worrier by nature. But when Tamage got concerned, she took it seriously.
With her husband and sister, Ashley Walton, accompanying her to the appointment, Stacey Foster learned that the lump was a cyst. She was told to come back six months later for a checkup.
That next appointment, she went by herself. After an ultrasound, she was told she needed a mammogram. Then a biopsy. Foster still wasn’t too worried.
The next morning, however, she went to work, which is where she got the dreaded call.
When at the cancer center in Columbus, Foster recalled thinking, “I’m not supposed to be here.”
On the day of the diagnosis, the couple sat down with their children — Caleb, now 14; Trevor, 11; and Jairis, 9 — and explained the situation, that a surgery would be followed by chemotherapy and more surgery.
“I vowed that I would fight with everything I had in me,” Foster said.
Though she had the option of a lumpectomy, she chose to undergo a double mastectomy.
“I didn’t want to do it again and again,” she said.
She felt her decision was validated after learning that she had a genetic predisposition for breast cancer.
Her surgery in December was followed in January by the first round of six months of chemotherapy. The first three months were the toughest, involving an injection each Friday to improve her blood work.
“The shot from hell,” she called it, because it made her whole body ache.
“You couldn’t touch me,” she said.
On many days, even thinking about putting on clothes filled her with dread. But by Mondays, she usually felt good enough to return to work.
Foster also worried about losing her hair, which reached far down her back. But for the self-described “girly girl,” losing her hair proved less traumatic than she expected.
To prepare, she kept getting her hair cut shorter each time before the chemotherapy.
And then on Valentine’s Day, each family member shaved a portion of her head with clippers.
Foster said the support she has received from her husband, children, friends, church and co-workers has proved invaluable.
Tamage and Caleb shaved their heads in solidarity. All of the children had part of their hair dyed pink. Family members have collected money to fight breast cancer and participated in fundraisers. The whole family has chipped in with chores. Jairis, the youngest, can take care of the laundry by herself.
The Fosters’ church, from January through July, delivered hot meals to the family twice a week.
Foster’s employer, Barcons, where she works as a loan officer, has paid to have her house cleaned.
“I’ve been very blessed,” she said. “The amount of support and compassion has been phenomenal.”
But there also have been complications, as was the case in August.
Foster’s left breast did not heal properly, and she had to use a wound vacuum, used in negative-pressure wound therapy to aid the healing process.
It was noisy, family members remembered, sometimes so noisy that it made sleeping difficult.
Foster was discharged from the wound center Aug. 9, but the wound got infected.
“It was very painful,” Stacey said.
The emergency surgery Aug. 26 was harder on her than the mastectomy.
The unexpected delays have taken their toll.
“You think you’re just about there ... after so long, emotionally, you just get tired.”
Meanwhile, her treadmill has collected dust.
“I love to walk,” she said, “but it’s just the energy level isn’t there.”
But she frequently reminds herself that she has a good support network — and she is still alive.
Three other people she knows were diagnosed with cancer within the same month as she. Two of them have died.
So she tells herself, “Suck it up. You can do this a little bit longer.”
“You just think about it all the time,” said Caleb, the eldest son. He wears pink gloves when he plays football, and his teammates frequently ask him about his mother. That support gives him hope.
“In the beginning, I was pretty scared,” he said.
Tamage, an assembly supervisor at NTN and former transportation specialist in the U.S. Air Force, described the situation as difficult.
During Foster’s chemotherapy treatments, her husband sometimes had to work 12-hour night shifts. He would come home, sleep for a few hours, get up and meet his wife at the hospital, then go back home and sleep some more. Sometimes the couple would fall asleep together at the hospital.
“I think I was numb to it all,” Tamage said, “(but) it’s just something you’ve got to deal with.”
Foster said her darkest moments were not being able to support her children in their extracurricular activities. Both boys play football, and Jairis is a cheerleader.
When she was healthy, you could always spot her at football games, wearing the same shirt as Caleb or Travis.
“The hardest thing is to watch them walk out the door ... and know you can’t go,” she said, as her voice cracked and her eyes welled up with tears.
In those situations, she recalls telling herself, “I’m so close to being done.”
A planned trip to Cancun after reconstructive surgery likely will have to be postponed a little while longer.
“I think everything (will) come together in the end. I am determined not to give up,” she said. “We’ve got our passports ready.”