Courtney Wisler – Breast Cancer Story

I will never forget the day that my parents sat my sister and I down on the couch for a family meeting and told us that Mom was sick.

“We told you girls that we were going out to dinner but we actually went to the hospital to talk to doctors about some tests that Mom has been having done. Mom has been diagnosed with breast cancer. We don’t know how bad it is yet but we do know that we caught it early.” Dad looked as serious as could be and spoke these words while holding back tears.

My sister, Sydnee, and I didn’t know what to say. We were young so the only thing we were certain of was that cancer was not good. The weight on our shoulders suddenly got 10 pounds heavier, the room felt smaller and we had no idea what to think or say.

I was 8 years old and the only bad things that were happening in my life were missing a few words on my 3rd grade spelling test. This was new to me and to my family. Obviously, no one chooses this. It struck a fear in me that I had never known before. My thought as an 8-year-old, and honestly still at 21, was that Mom’s aren’t supposed to get sick. Mom is supposed to be superwoman, the best at everything and 100% immune to anything the world throws her way. In that moment on the couch, my thoughts about a lot of things changed. There were so many questions to be answered but my parents were both in tears so it clearly wasn’t the time to ask. We cried as a family for the next few minutes…. What was life about to look like? How was my 3rd grade world going to change? Was my Mom going to die?

The next few weeks went by as if everything was normal. The only thing I noticed was that my Grandma was at the house all the time and I got to have a lot more play dates with my friends than I did before. It didn’t feel like anything serious until we were told that Mom needed surgery. She was going to undergo a double bisectomy with reconstruction. We were fortunate enough to live in Atlanta and have world-class surgeons readily available. The hospital she was sent to was about an hour from home and Dad was going to “live” with her for week while Sydnee and I would “live” at our Aunt and Uncle’s house. They wanted us to keep our mind off of Mom being in the hospital, so for 7 days we were beyond spoiled. They let us skip school, eat ice cream for breakfast, took us to the movies on school nights, and drove us to see Mom whenever we asked. Although we were distracted at our Aunt and Uncle’s house, when we visited the hospital during surgery week, it was a period of time during this process that was an ugly depiction of the seriousness surrounding this sickness. Mom looked extra pale, skinnier than normal, dark circles around her eyes and all around weak. Again, Mom’s aren’t supposed to be sick.

After a few weeks, Mom was slowly getting some energy back after surgery. But her fight for recovery didn’t seem to be enough. The cancer was still attacking her body and the tumor needed to be treated with chemotherapy. The gravity of this statement didn’t impact Sydnee and I until we saw it for ourselves. One afternoon when Sydnee and I got off the bus, we eagerly ran up the stairs to say hi to Mom. We were quickly stopped and her door was closed with towels blocking the little space between the door and carpet. Dad followed us up the stairs and stopped us before we turned the handle. “Mom is really sick today and she doesn’t want you to see her like this.” She had her second round of chemotherapy earlier this day and it was hitting her hard. She felt weak, didn’t want to smell anything and needed complete silence to try and block out the pain that had taken over every ounce of her body. This was the another one of those times where we realized that Mom was truly sick. This wasn’t just some stomach ache that you could get some medicine for and be good to go. This was our new reality.

During these months of closed doors and quiet hours, Mom’s tennis team and other neighborhood ladies stepped in to fill her role of keeping us well fed. I remember checking the calendar on the fridge each morning to see what kind of food we were getting delivered and to see if I knew the lady dropping it off. Enough casseroles were eaten over that 4-month span that I was satisfied for the next 4 years and I had my fair share of cream of chicken. We got so much food but if it was not for their generosity, Dad would have fed us cereal and pizza every night. The casseroles were also 50 times better than the school cafeteria meals we had to buy since Mom usually packed our lunchboxes.

One of these nights, one of Mom’s best friends came over with what we thought was dinner but instead she was holding a gallon-size plastic bag, scissors and an electric razor. Sydnee was the first to notice and tell me that Mom was losing her hair. It was slowly falling out around the house but it wasn’t quite noticeable to everyone yet. Mrs. Diane was at our house to make it noticeable. She came to shave Mom’s head so that it was done in one fell swoop. She let Sydnee and I cut a chunk off before she got the razor out. That night, as Mom’s curly blonde locks fell to the floor, we were all laughing and making this haircut the best one that Mom was ever going to have. I was genuinely concerned that my Mom was going to look like a boy but she looked even more beautiful than before. She began to cry because it is something that you never think about losing, usually it’s a choice to make a major change to your hair and looks. Cancer gave my mom no choice. After the haircut, Mrs. Diane took her to a wig shop that was specifically for women with breast cancer. It was all donated locks from women that have been affected by this disease. She tried on all different colors and styles but nothing was perfect. She came home with a short dirty-blonde haired one but it wasn’t the long bleach blonde we were used to seeing. Syd and I refused to go in public with her wearing it; it just didn’t feel like we were with our Mom and she wasn’t confident in it. Instead of another trip to the wig shop, we took her to Target and bought what seemed like hundreds of bandanas and hats. They became an essential piece of her wardrobe over the next year.

The seriousness of this illness was not something I fully grasped at the time that it was all happening. Like I said before, I was only 8 years old when she was diagnosed. It wasn’t until I was in 6th grade that this whole “Mom had cancer” thing truly changed my life.  This was the 5-year mark and it was the first year that she could stop taking medicine and no longer had monthly check-ups. The 5-year mark is the year that you can officially say you are cancer free. It was also the year that we made drastic health changes within our four walls. Mom had already made big changes in her diet after surgery but at this point she began sharing it with the rest of us and encouraging her family to make the same changes. We joined a gym and used a lot less butter and sugar in our recipes. She started to become educated about this disease that could have killed her and she made it her personal mission to teach her two daughters, and other women in her life, ways to prevent going through this hell like she did.

When Sydnee went to college in 2012, she joined Zeta Tau Alpha at Samford. She called home during recruitment after philanthropy night and told my Mom all about how ZTA is an organization that is committed to raising funds to make women educated about breast cancer. Sydnee knew that this was the organization she needed to be a part of because she was already connected to what they support. Fast forward two years, I came to Samford and was going through recruitment just like Syd did. But this time, Sydnee was in the front of the room at ZTA on philanthropy night and was talking about our Mom and her breast cancer journey. She was telling a room full of girls about how breast cancer made a personal impact on our family and how harmful it can be if you aren’t educated on how to detect it early enough. I broke down in tears and knew in that moment that I also needed to be a part of this organization. I wanted to make my Mom proud and become an advocate for telling other women about this disease and help raise money so that one day, no one else will have to fight for their own life.

Breast cancer is something that obviously hits super close to home and has clearly impacted my life. Most people would say that cancer is the worst thing to ever happen to a person or family but I can’t say that is true for my Mom’s battle. She came out victorious and learned a lot of valuable life lessons along the way. She depended on Jesus to be her Rock during her fight which naturally poured into my whole family’s walk with Christ. She showed perseverance every day when she chose to get up out of bed. She was a fighter and advocate for her own health when the tumor wanted the final word. She was sicker than we wanted to admit but she came out stronger than ever. She proved that she was still superwoman and that cancer wasn’t going to make her back down. The Lord has brought so many good things out of this experience and breast cancer is something that will forever be a part of my life. She has shared her cancer story and Jesus with a lot of other women that have also had to walk this path. As a daughter of a survivor, it is proven that I am almost 50% more likely to also be diagnosed with breast cancer. Genes aside, 1 in every 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.  If my Mom was not affected by this, I am not sure when in my life I would have heard about breast cancer. Sydnee or I might not have joined ZTA if it weren’t for our connection to the philanthropy. I also don’t know If I would have made any diet or health changes back in 6th grade that have followed me to today.

I think the details in this entire story are important because if you haven’t been personally affected by cancer in general, it’s hard to know what it all entails. No one tells you the powerful facts about the number of visits to the doctor, the number of daily pills you must take, how it will forever be a part of your life story, how everyone around you aches with you but feels helpless, the fear that comes with everyday, and so many other factors. On the other hand, people also don’t tell you about the positive things it can bring to light. My family’s faith and health is forever different and better because of the cancer journey we underwent together.

October is national breast cancer awareness month and I smile every time I see a pink ribbon or an advertisement. I think it’s really cool how many people get behind this disease and agree upon the importance of education and awareness for women around the world. Self-breast exams are a no brainer for me at least once a month, but to think that some women are unaware of this concept is a scary thought. Pink ribbons make people curious and give the educated ones a platform to share what they know. My Mom and whole family would say the same thing, but I am truly thankful that my Mom experienced this disease, conquered it and that countless lives are changed because of it. I am not naïve to the fact that every woman diagnosed isn’t lucky as my family was but that is why education, awareness and being vulnerable about the details is so so important.

13 years cancer free! (and counting)

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