After undergoing a double mastectomy, four rounds of chemotherapy, and 35 radiation treatments for stage 2 breast cancer — all with a one-year-old son — Rhonda Howell was declared cancer-free in late 2013.
Now the 36-year-old is living with metastatic breast cancer (MBC), and has reprioritized her former career-driven life so she can spend more time with her son. In her spare time, while her son is at school, she volunteers for METAvivor, an organization which funds research for stage 4 MBC.
Health Central (HC): How were you diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer?
Rhonda Howell: In June of 2015, I started having back pain. The first thing I did was call the oncologist. They said to go to my primary care doctor, and eventually, I was sent to an orthopedist. When I met with him I explained I’d had breast cancer, and I was afraid it had returned. He pointed to my X-ray and said, “This is a healthy 36-year-old spine and this is not your cancer.” I sobbed tears of relief in the car. I thought, as long as it’s anything besides cancer, they can fix me and I can handle it. He said it was muscular, and he prescribed six days of steroids. It did improve the pain, so I thought he was right.
But soon after, I got out of bed one morning, took three steps, and collapsed. I kind of crumpled to the floor. I thought, maybe I can crawl, because I needed to go to the ladies’ room. But I couldn’t. I laid on floor for eight or nine hours. In the end, we called an ambulance, and within an hour of getting to the ER, an MRI showed that the cancer had returned to my spine, pelvis, and liver. I was diagnosed with MBC on July 23, 2015.
HC: How has the experience changed you?
Rhonda: It’s really changed my perspective on life. Before, I was very career driven; I worked full-time. The doctor I had at the time explained that work is fine, but stress can accelerate the growth of cancer. My husband and I decided it was more important for me to live longer and see our son, now six, grow up. I retired, and with my long-term disability plan, I was able to still get two-thirds of my income.
HC: What’s your day-to-day life like now that you’re retired and able to spend more time with your son?
Rhonda: My son was three when I was diagnosed with MBC. When he was 4 we explained that Mommy takes medicine because of yucky stuff she’s trying to get rid of, and he was good with that, but the child life specialist at my hospital said we’d be better off correlating yucky stuff with cancer so he didn’t hear it from someone else. She helped explain it at his level. He kept asking if he could play, like he wasn’t even paying attention. That was on a Friday, and the following Wednesday we were eating dinner when out of the blue he asked who my oncologist was. He asked a couple more questions and we answered them honestly, but we didn’t discuss the terminal aspect. We didn’t feel it was the appropriate time, and the child life specialist agreed. He knows he can ask questions any time, and we want him to enjoy his childhood and not tell him until we have to.
During the school year, my husband drops my son off at school in the morning so I can sleep, and in the afternoons, I pick him up and we do homework, Legos, visit with neighbors, and in summer we spend a lot of time at the pool. He likes to hang out with friends. We went to vacation Bible school together, he did an art camp, we go to Target, we get ice cream. We can travel whenever we want. We’ve done Disney for his birthday in May, and we’re doing a week-long trip to the mountains of Tennessee next month.
While he’s at school, I do my volunteer work for METAvivor. I’m on the board; I’m the secretary. And my husband and I held a gala in April and raised $101,000 to benefit METAvivor.
HC: What have you learned that could help someone else in your position?
Rhonda: There’s a lot of resources out there that not all patients are familiar with. There are financial and doctor resources, free housecleaning, meal delivery, individual and family retreats. I’m very fortunate because I have my parents and in-laws 15 minutes away. But not everyone has that circumstance.
HC: What would it be helpful for people to know about MBC?
Rhonda: For me personally, when I was diagnosed and I Googled it, the stats give you an average of two to three years of life expectancy. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of my friends pass in that timeframe, but there are women living much longer. When I was diagnosed my son was three years old, and I was depressed about dying before he finished elementary school. But within 30 days of my diagnosis, a coworker came to visit and brought me a meal, and he told me about a family friend who had been fighting MBC for 15 years. I asked him to connect us, and I became friends with her. That really was able to give me hope for a future where I might actually get to see my son graduate from high school. There are a lot of people in online support groups who have lived with MBC for 15 to 16 years, and for me, I needed that hope.
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