When Christine Conway was 47 years old she went in for a routine mammogram, never expecting to hear the word “cancer.”
“It’s devastating,” said Conway, who works as an executive assistant at Ford. “I fell apart, to be honest. I was a mess for days.”
Conway, who is the mother of five children, said the early days following her cancer diagnosis were the hardest.
“Your mind goes all over the place before you find out what your treatment plan is and what your prognosis is,” she said. “You really go into some kind of shock. I was feeling like I couldn’t escape my reality. I couldn’t believe that this was happening, and it almost felt like the ceiling was coming down.”
Conway underwent a lumpectomy. The doctors originally said that it didn’t appear that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. But the lab pathology conducted following the surgery told a different story.
“When I found out there was lymph node involvement I think that was the turning point for me,” she said. “You’re trying to wrap your head around what’s happening to you and as soon as you feel like you’re on your feet they pull the rug out from under you again. That’s how I felt. When the lymph node involvement was recognized, I thought I was a goner. I thought that was it.”
Doctors advised Conway to have the most aggressive treatment possible, which included 20 weeks of chemotherapy and 6½ weeks of radiation.
“It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever been through – to lose your hair, your eyebrows, your eyelashes,” she said. “Physically it was very, very tough. There were times when I couldn’t even walk up the stairs without feeling exhausted. I would get up to take a shower only to go back to sleep.”
Conway said the experience of going through chemo was different than what she expected.
“Prior to this, if I thought of chemo I pictured someone kneeling over the toilet or being sick and it really wasn’t like that for me,” she said. “That said, you don’t expect the full experience of chemo. I didn’t expect my skin to break out in a rash. I didn’t expect my fingernails to lift. You know about losing your hair but when you see yourself in the mirror as a cancer patient and you look so seriously ill it’s frightening.”
Even after the treatment was over, Conway said, the fear continued.
“I get now why people call breast cancer survivors ‘warriors,’” she explained. “When you finish the treatment you feel really good at first because it’s over, but then you start wondering if there are residual rogue cancer cells in your body that are going to start growing. It’s a real mental struggle because you have to live with that fear.”
Conway said it was important for her to come forward and share her story with others because she didn’t have anyone to talk to who had gone through breast cancer when she was first diagnosed.
“I ultimately reached out to a breast cancer survivor at Ford,” she explained. “It was nice to be able to talk to somebody who’s been through it who can offer you encouraging words – tell you that you’re going to be alright, you’re going to get over this and this isn’t the end for you.”
A year later, Conway says she feels good but still struggles with fatigue. She sees her oncologist every three months, her radiologist every six months and her surgeon every year.
“I don’t want to test fate, but I’m told I’m cancer-free,” she said. “They say reoccurrence is most likely in the first five years and my chances of it coming back are between 10 and 15 percent, so I’ve got my fingers crossed.”
Her message to others facing breast cancer is that it does get better.
“It gets easier. It’s a battle. It is. But somehow and some way it does get easier,” she said. “People would say that to me and I didn’t believe it. But it does get better.”