Brave, courageous, funny, inspirational, supportive, and spiritual. These are some of the words people use to describe Rae Brown, of Falmouth, Maine.
Rae hasn’t been feeling too brave or courageous lately. She’s taken some devastating hits – hits that might knock any one of us right off our feet. Rae’s take: “We all have our journeys, and this is mine.”
About 10 years ago, at the age of 45, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a lumpectomy to remove the tumor, she had six months of chemotherapy. Two weeks on, two weeks off. It was hellish. “I was miserable. Just when I got back on my feet, I was back in for more.”
Chemo finally ended and she started six weeks of radiation treatments that left her with a blistering burn.
Rae’s best friend and “soul sister” Deb Carter says the treatments, especially the chemo, were brutal but through it all, Rae remained calm. “She’s always been the kind of person who has to get all the facts, so that’s what she did. She researched her cancer and the treatments and simply went forward.”
“I do what I need to do to get the job done, that all,” says Rae.
Rae got through it with a lot of support from family and friends and because she has a great sense of humor. As a gift for her surgeon, she baked cookies shaped like breasts, adorned with a lumpectomy incision complete with stitches.
Nine years later – and cancer free – Rae mentioned to her doctor that she had some indigestion and wondered if her gall bladder was acting up. He ordered an ultrasound, and to everyone’s amazement it showed a mass in her right kidney.
Deb remembers that her friend was shocked, frustrated, and nervous, which most people probably didn’t notice, because Rae tried to keep everyone in good spirits. When she went into surgery to have her kidney removed, she taped a tiny kidney bean to her skin to mark the spot “I did it,” she laughingly recalls, “so they wouldn’t get mixed up and take out the wrong kidney!”
It was a tough surgery. Rae has severe reactions to pain medications, so could only have a nerve block and acetaminophen. “One of my doctors told me he’d never had a patient go through this with so little medication – I had a 13-inch incision but I couldn’t take morphine or other pain killers. I have a high threshold for pain, but this pain was unbearable. “
The diagnosis was even more unbearable. Stage III kidney cancer.
Rae was grateful the surgery was her only treatment. “At least I didn’t need to go through chemo and radiation again.”
The two separate primary cancers and the fact that she also had benign nodules on her thyroid and uterine fibroids led her doctors to suspect she might have a genetic disorder known as Cowden Syndrome (CS). People with CS don’t inherit the cancers themselves, but have an increased risk of developing both benign and malignant tumors. Rae has been clinically diagnosed, but is waiting for a definitive diagnosis from specialists at Cleveland Clinic.
Because of her history, Rae was now considered at high risk of having a recurrence of breast cancer. Her doctors recommended a bilateral mastectomy. Even though a recent mammogram had come back normal, she decided to have the surgery because, “I didn’t want to have any regrets.”
For fun, she had buttons made sporting the words “boobs, bazookas, floppers, jugs, gazongas, honkers, hoohas, hooters, knockers, jugs, mammaroonies, melons, tatas, and tits.” Her surgical team, family, and friends, including Deb, wore the buttons while she was in the operating room.
“Oh yeah,” laughs Deb. I wore a button in the waiting room – a whole group of us did!”
Three days after her surgery – remember she only had it to prevent another occurrence of breast cancer – the pathology report came back positive for triple negative breast cancer, entirely different from her first and one of the most invasive breast cancers.
Rae, and everyone close to her, was devastated.
When her brother Ron heard the news, he wept. “Finally, I calmed down and asked myself what I could do. My sister keeps getting kicked down. I felt so guilty and I felt so helpless. Then it came to me. What Rae needed was support and love.” Ron contacted everyone he knew and asked each to mail her a card with a simple message: “You can beat this.”
Within 24-hours the cards began arriving.
“They were a huge thing for me,” Rae says.
Chemo was much worse than the first time. “I would leave my treatment with seven anti-nausea medications and be just as sick. It was so hard to take. I was miserable.”
The cards kept coming. “You can beat this.”
“It meant so much to me that people took the time to send me a card. I got nearly 400 cards from around the world. Imagine.”
Today, one year later, Rae feels like she’s back to normal, whatever that is now. She will need to be watched carefully for the rest of her life. She takes one day at a time, although it’s not always easy. “I’m always wondering what’s next.”
Cancer has dominated the past ten years of Rae’s life and sometimes she feels like a wounded person whose body has attacked her – taken a huge chunk out of her.
In her worst moments, all she wanted was to “get back to my stupid, simple little life.”
Now, each moment is her best moment and she feels grateful for every single one of them.
Diane Atwood was the health reporter on WCSH-TV for more than 20 years. She is now a freelance medical writer and also has a health and wellness blog called Catching Health. To read her blog or learn more about the writing services Diane offers, go to www.dianeatwood.com/catchinghealth. You can also send her an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rae Brown with some of the more than 400 “You Can Beat This” get well cards she has received since being diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer.To lighten the mood in the operating room before undergoing a bilateral mastectomy, Rae Brown created “Boob Buttons” that she, her family and friends, and the hospital staff all wore.