It was April of 2010 when Merry and Steve Heath of Marion decided to take a vacation to Baltimore. They had never been there together and were excited to embark upon a new journey down to our nation’s historic beltway.
That same month, Merry had scheduled a routine appointment with her OB-GYN. During the examination, however, her doctor found a lump in her left breast. A biopsy would later determine that the mass was a cancerous tumor over one centimeter in diameter.
“I was shocked when my doctor told me I had cancer. I really can’t think of any other feelings I had in that moment,” she said. Until then, there had been no history of breast cancer in her family or that of her husband.
“I got a phone call on a Monday morning. She was in tears, saying she had cancer,” he said.
“I kept it together in the doctor’s office when she told me. It wasn’t until after, when I was out on the sidewalk. That’s when I completely lost it,” said Merry.
“Can you drive home?” Steve asked after she broke the news to him that morning.
“I guess this means we can’t go to Baltimore,” she said.
For Merry and Steve, her diagnosis changed everything. Steve, who was working as a consultant for the Stoughton public school system, immediately resigned his position in order to support Merry.
“It turned my whole world upside down. At that point, she needed me to be available. Throughout her treatments, I was always nearby. I stopped playing golf so I wouldn’t be out on the course away from her in case something happened. Everything I did focused on her. She had to be my priority,” he said.
He characterizes himself as a problem solver, but her cancer forced him into a paradigm shift.
“I like to fix things, but I couldn’t make this better. I just had to try to make it easier for her.”
Dealing with a cancer diagnosis, though, is on the furthest end of the spectrum from “easy.”
After the initial shock and disbelief faded, the Heaths made a conscious decision to remain positive throughout the entire ordeal. They didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, but they vowed that no matter what was in store, they would meet it head on and with optimism.
“Once you overcome that initial fear, you can get to a place where you can see your options,” Steve said.
In the days following her diagnosis, Merry had scheduled herself an appointment with an oncologist.
“That was the best thing we could have done. She could actually explain everything to us and we needed that,” she said.
The oncologist presented them with a flurry of explanations and options, but Merry had only one question.
“Am I going to be ok?”
“We can beat this. We can cure this. But it’s going to take a year,” her doctor said.
At that moment, Merry and Steve shared a collective sigh of relief that they will never forget. All of a sudden they felt as if they were in control, like they would eventually have their lives back. They had found the cancer early enough, technically at Stage I, to ensure a full recovery. Due to the size of the tumor, Merry would have to undergo surgery in June followed by six rounds of chemotherapy and scores of radiation treatments at Mass General in Boston.
While in preparation for her surgery, the doctors noticed an abnormality in her right breast. Not taking any chances, they ran a wide range of tests to determine what it was.
“It was to the point where I had been through so many tests, they couldn’t get a read on it,” said Merry.
In the end, that lump was simply a benign growth, which they removed as well.
Despite having a positive prognosis, the day of her surgery was nerve-racking.
“I was on pins and needles the whole time. I had about 40 cups of coffee sitting in the waiting room. I couldn’t stand it,” said Steve.
It was July when Merry began chemotherapy treatments. She went on Fridays so she could take the weekends to recover.
“After the first round I thought, ‘Oh, if this as bad as it gets, I can do this,’” she said. Though she only received treatment once every three weeks, the effects of chemotherapy are cumulative. Her hair would begin to fall out after her first appointment, and from there, the experience of chemotherapy began to take shape.
“By round two, that Friday wasn’t bad, but on Saturday, [Steve] found me on the bathroom floor,” she said.
The side effects of chemo are as unpleasant as they are numerous. Patients can experience extreme nausea, loss of appetite, constipation, mouth sores, aches and pains, and sensitivity to sunlight. Merry suffered from some of these, including a condition she calls “chemo-brain,” which she describes as a very frustrating kind of memory loss.
“The chemo just beat the living crap out of [her],” said Steve.
“I had so many pill bottles for everything,” Merry said, adding that she had taken her prescriptions exactly as instructed, but still suffered considerable discomfort during the process.
“You just want to be left alone. You don’t want to eat. You just want water. I napped a lot. It feels like you’ve been hit by a truck,” she said.
“I had to be close enough to be at her call, but I had to give her the space she needed,” he said.
Despite the pains of chemo, her treatment was going well. But their positive attitudes were eventually shaken by what happened on Labor Day weekend in 2010.
“It was really hot and humid, so I decided to take a shower,” she said. “When I was in there I got a nosebleed and it just wouldn’t stop. I called my doctor and she said that we’d better go to the ER. So we went over to Tobey Hospital, but they couldn’t stop it.”
Merry was eventually transported to St. Luke’s Hospital, where they inflated a special balloon in her nostril to put pressure on the bleeding. She lost so much blood it took her three weeks to recover.
“That was a real setback for me. It didn’t make me feel very confident,” she said.
Because of the nosebleed, Merry was forced to take some time off from her private business cleaning homes and offices. She had been working regularly during her chemo.
“Work was great for her because it was like a therapy. It helped keep her mind off of things,” Steve said.
In November of 2010, Merry began radiation treatments. She went five days a week and completed therapy two days before Christmas.
By the beginning of 2011, she was returning to her doctor for regular check-ups and non-radiation drug therapy, which she continued until April. Now, she is on a five-year drug therapy regimen designed to help balance hormones and chemical changes in her body.
Today, Merry and Steve are closer than they were before her cancer. They realized from the beginning they would have to commit to one another in suddenly new ways once she was diagnosed and that bond has remained.
“Going through this, it had to be a team thing. I can’t imagine someone going through breast cancer without someone there for them,” said Steve.
“He was my rock the whole time. I couldn’t have done it without him,” Merry said.
With successful treatment, many cancer survivors and their families are left wondering what may come next. They are more conscious of their choices, more aware of the frailty of existence.
“Go forth and live your life,” Merry’s doctor told her.
For months, the Heaths had to accept the smaller victories and learn to appreciate the simple things.
“We always tried to have things to look forward to, whether it was going out to eat or sitting outside by the fire pit,” he said.
Those months of fearful trepidation have long passed and now they enjoy being back in the swing of normal life. Merry volunteers for Look Good, Feel Better, an outreach program organized by the American Cancer Society which offers hair and make-up help for women who are undergoing aggressive cancer treatments.
“The women interact with each other so it acts as sort of a therapy session. Sometimes they ask me questions about what I went through. But sometimes it’s hard to volunteer with cancer patients because you know the long, hard road they’re on,” Merry said.
Despite the emotional and physical agony she and Steve have endured, they have not let her cancer cloud their vision for their future.
“There’s no doubt it changes your life, but I think it’s changed ours for the better,” said Merry.
By Eric Tripoli