Fighter and friend
Jan. 31, 2014
Editor's Note: With the Vanderbilt women's basketball program set to host its annual Pink Out game to promote the battle against breast cancer on Sunday, we are spotlighting Christy Passmore. A cancer survivor, Passmore worked at Vanderbilt for almost 21 years, including serving as the chief development officer for Vanderbilt Athletics for two years. Last year, Vanderbilt head coach Melanie Balcomb dedicated her team's Pink Out game to Passmore's battle against breast cancer. Here is her story, told in her own words and published by the VICC News Center.
My cancer story is not unique, not special in any way. But telling my story is a form of therapy for me--a way to exorcise some of the less pleasant details of an unexpected journey and exalt some important things I learned along the way.
To that end, I have decided to write a memoir of the great unpleasantness. What follows are some excerpts from my "therapy." To date, eight chapters have been written; a total of 20 chapters have been outlined. Extensive and priceless.
Before we get to my cancer journey, you have to know about the hip journey. A left hip replacement surgery 2.5 months before I got the "c word" played a big role in the discovery of my tumor.
I was a cheerleader and dancer in junior high and high school. I paid for those jumps, kicks, splits and drops with a hip replacement. Hip replacement surgery went well. The pain of a bone-on-bone hip joint was gone, and life was good again. During the preoperative checkup with my internist, she became interested in elevated sugar levels, so with the hip pain gone, I dedicated myself to a nutritionist's advice and guidance. The result was a 13-pound weight loss and return to normal blood sugar.
Within 45 days of surgery, I was back at work traveling to San Francisco for my fund development job with the Chi Omega Foundation. I knew a cross-country trip as the first outing for my new hip would give it a real workout. I told all the flight attendants of my recent surgery, and they graciously allowed me to walk and stretch and stand in the galley. Apparently they had witnessed one or two of the flying public with blood clots. They were a-OK with me hanging out with them versus having to do the paperwork necessary for an in-flight "health incident resulting in resuscitation," if I recount their words correctly.
On the second night of my trip, I rolled over on my left side for the first time since the left hip replacement. And there it was.
In the middle of the night, I came straight up out of my sleep as I felt the hard little knot that would become my mortal enemy.
Perhaps I am dreaming. Perhaps this will not be there when I check again.
The lump was easy to find. It felt like a small pearl under my skin. Hard and knotty. It had been there awhile I guessed. My recent weight loss was probably the reason I found it.
Completing my California schedule, I flew home on Tuesday, had a mammogram and ultrasound on Wednesday and a fine needle biopsy on the next Monday. Two days later on Oct. 3, 2012, my surgeon, April Jackson, M.D., with Surgical Group of Paducah, called to tell me the results.
"Christy, it's cancer," the doctor said softly.
Talk about a game changer.
When I heard those words, I could only spin around the myriad ways things would be different for a while. It only briefly occurred to me that I could die from something like cancer.
The surgeon was great; she stayed on the phone with me for almost an hour answering my barrage of questions that came from shock and a very limited understanding of where cancer comes from. I thanked her for her time, and whispered that I would go to the Vanderbilt Breast Center for further work-up and treatment. I explained my 21 years with Vanderbilt as an employee in Development and Alumni Relations. She understood immediately that Vanderbilt was "home" to me.
I cried a little after that phone call, then called my cousin, Jill, who is more like my sister. She was calming and reassuring. "We got this," she said. But I knew she was rattled having lost her precious husband just five years earlier.
Cancer was just an unwelcome nuisance in a family that had been through a lot already. I was unable to call my brother, David, in Arkansas to share my medical dilemma. His 20-year journey living with polycystic kidney disease had resulted in a kidney transplant at Vanderbilt in 2009. I had been his primary caregiver, and I just could not bear the idea of a role reversal.
What I did was contact a friend at Vanderbilt and asked who he would recommend as the "A Team" for my assault on breast cancer. I had answers within the hour and had calls from the clinic the next morning for appointments that would begin immediately to assess the extent of the disease and its type, which would lead to a treatment plan.
Somehow, my confidence to fight the fight was seeded in those first 24-36 hours following the diagnosis. The way my family and very close friends responded was affirming. Vanderbilt's quick response calmed me and gave me a sense of momentum in my war on cancer.
In the days immediately following the diagnosis, the reality came into focus. Triple negative breast cancer, high grade and aggressive. The treatment plan would include 12 weeks of chemo (a clinical trial) and three to four weeks rest. Then surgery and three to four weeks rest. Then four more chemo treatments (the "red devil") would be administered over eight weeks, again followed by three to four weeks rest. The last element would be 33 radiation treatments.
Doctors sent me home to Kentucky to physically and mentally prepare for the battle before treatment began. It was during that time at home, alone, I made some decisions about how I would fight cancer. My weapons of choice--the three Fs:
Faith. Family. Friends.
Killing cancer quickly became my work. Enlisting the aid of prayer warriors was at the top of my list, and I sought prayers from everyone regardless of their faith preference. My friends Lydia and Roger had cared for me during the 12-week clinical trial. When I had surgery on Feb. 7, 2013, to remove my left breast and assorted lymph nodes, they were in St. Martin where Lydia solicited the prayers of the house manager where they were staying. I plan meet her and attend her church in St. Martin on Jan. 26, 2014.
Next on my work list was how to fill the treatment time--and the rest periods. Asking family and friends to come to Nashville to sit through long treatments was awkward at first, but everyone reassured me they wanted to be there. Old friends from home and college flew and drove to be with me and spend time. Family from great distances, at huge personal sacrifice, gave up time in their homes to help me through treatments and surgery both in Nashville and Mayfield, Ky.
My brother came frequently from Arkansas to be with me, perhaps too frequently. His trip for my surgery landed him in the hospital at Vanderbilt for dehydration, something a kidney transplant patient should avoid. His hospital stay was two nights; I was home after one!
The medical team around me was astounding. Drs. Vandana Abramson and Ingrid Meszoely never let me falter. Not only are they phenomenal, but so are the teams they work with each day--the nurses, assistants, technicians. All professional and so, so compassionate.
My friends went to amazing lengths to let me know they were in it to win it. Melanie Balcomb, head coach of Vanderbilt Women's Basketball, had long been a breast cancer awareness advocate and her teams have played "pink out" games for many seasons. At one particular away game, she was asked if she had someone in her life fighting breast cancer whose story she wanted to share. She called me three hours before tip-off to tell me she was thinking about me and paying tribute to my fight that day at halftime.
I was speechless, which no one could ever say about me. But this time, my breath had been taken away by her dear gesture of friendship and concern. I will never forget how her call made me feel. It helped me take my game to a new level of resolve to be well, to end this dreadful cancer this round. "There will be no more cancer," I promised myself.
Meals, transportation, lodging, encouragement, tributes, prayers--family and friends were in abundance. All I had to do was put aside my pride and open my heart to their sweet and loving gifts.
My life is forever changed--for the better. Because of cancer, I have learned so much about focusing on faith and hope, recognizing heroes along the way, the importance of team and working together to solve a problem, and laughing as often as possible.
Cancer is wicked, and it is never my intent to make light of it. My parents gave me and my brother the gift of a merry heart. It is not our way to be down and depressed for long. We long to laugh and smile, to find the humor in the oddest circumstances. Even as a teenager when I longed to be sultry and mysterious, I just could not overcome the cheerleader within.
Whatever time I am allowed on this good earth will be better post-cancer than it was pre-cancer. My heart is full of joy and praise and gratitude. My faith is stronger, my understanding of grace clearer. My appreciation of all of life's gifts is richer, fuller.
Turns out my cancer work was not just about cancer at all. It was work I needed to focus on before I ever had cancer.
So is cancer a game changer? You bet, and for me, in the best possible way.
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