Editor’s note: This version corrects an error in referencing a favorite Bible verse of Mrs. Shultz’s.
Sabrina Shultz’s breast cancer survival story started in early December 2013 as many do, with a routine mammogram.
The first hint of health concerns for the mother of two came when she opened the mailbox on Dec. 23, 2013. She opened a letter asking her to come back to Baptist Women’s Health Center in Memphis for a diagnostic mammogram.
Her husband comforted her. After all, they had been through a similar scare six months after their youngest child was born, when Shultz simply had a benign cyst.
But she couldn’t get the second mammo scheduled until after Christmas. The wait for more information – any information – was hard.
She had the second mammogram in January, and it was unnerving when the technician had to keep stepping out of the room, measuring and re-measuring what was showing on screen.
“After that, they called me into the doctor’s office and said, ‘Do you want to call your husband in here?’ So then I knew something wasn’t right.”
Dr. Anna E Mize, a highly rated local diagnostic radiologist, told her the spot in Shultz’s breast was “lobular” instead of ductal. That meant it looked spiky instead of being contained in a smooth ball. Shultz recalled that Mize said, “I’m not sure until we get a biopsy, but whatever it is, I want it out within three weeks.”
Shultz had a needle biopsy on Jan. 11, 2014, and three days later she and her husband had a long Thursday night meeting with the doctor to discuss test results and treatment. Mize offered the option of a lumpectomy (surgery to remove just a lump rather than the entire breast).
“I said okay and I went home,” Shultz said. “And I cried, and I would pray, and then I would cry some more, and by Saturday morning I went to my husband’s office in the house, and I said, ‘I’m gonna have to have a bilateral.’ Something just tells me I need to do this.”
Her husband reminded her the spot of cancer was tiny, but she persisted and said she wanted to have both breasts removed. Her insurance approved the decision.
A week and a half later, she had the surgery and woke in a room with her dad and husband. Her husband told her the cancer was also in her lymph nodes.
She was 43 and was in stage 3B of breast cancer. The classification means, among other things, that the cancer is invasive, has invaded the chest wall or breast skin and has invaded up to nine nearby lymph nodes. Shultz’s surgeon removed nine of her lymph nodes, and cancer had already spread to seven of them.
On the good news side, the tissue samples showed that her type of breast cancer could be treated to block certain receptors on any remaining cancer cells, inhibiting their growth and their spread.
She was glad she had trusted her gut instincts, prayed and made the right decision.
Her aunt moved in with the family temporarily to help Shultz during her recovery. “She was such a huge blessing,” Shultz said.
She learned a few weeks later after a PET scan that she had no further signs of cancer. The encouraging news was worth the drive in a heavy snowfall to keep the appointment with oncologist Dr. Kurt Tauer, despite a heavy snowfall.
“My husband and I just broke down, thanked the Lord,” she said.
The road ahead was still long and hard. At her age, with decades of life ahead of her, Tauer said he wanted to treat her disease very aggressively.
Shultz told him, “You do anything you have to do to keep me alive and with my family.”
So she did four rounds of chemotherapy (Adriamycin) and targeted drug therapy (CytoSen). The process involved cycling through post-chemo exhaustion so profound it was hard to get up out of her recliner, then building up more strength and having to head back for more chemo.
She went straight into 16 weeks of Taxol and then one week later started six weeks of radiation at Baptist Cancer Center. She passed on the opportunity to rest for a month before radiation, wanting to go ahead and get it over with.
“I made it through it,” she said.
The treatment side effects were memorable, but she’s able to laugh about the tearful moments now. About 17-18 days into chemo, her hair started falling out in clumps. “I would just run my hand through it and it would come out. If I brushed it, it would come out. I had a sad little ponytail hanging out the back.”
Shultz smiled as she recalled how long it took her to face cutting off that ponytail, but her husband encouraged her. “So he just cut the very sad little ponytail off, and I just cried like a baby. It’s sad that we let stuff like that –,” her voice trailed off. “Now I don’t care if I color it, I don’t care if I cut it. … It’s fine – it’ll be fine. It’s amazing how it puts things in perspective.”
She had chemo on Mondays, returned on Tuesdays for an expensive Neulasta shot that her insurance covered to stimulate the growth of white blood cells. Radiation treatments visibly affected her skin, looking like red, raw burns, but Shultz the skin was also regenerating.
“It was a lot, but – it was a lot,” she said.
She’s grateful there were treatments to help her cope with side effects. One thing she really appreciated was “magic mouthwash,” a concoction that helps to heal and partially numb mouth sores caused by chemo and radiation. The sores can be extremely painful and make a patient unable to eat, speak or swallow.
“It was better than I expected, but I don’t ever want to have to go through it again,” Shultz said with a rueful laugh.
When she finished her treatments in September 2014, she had a hysterectomy in December to protect her from other cancer risks that rise because of aggressive breast cancer treatments.
Her children were ages 5 and 15, and they handled their mother’s illness differently. The oldest prayed for her mom but had a hard time coping with the worry. Shultz’s younger girl was curious, though.
Shultz remembers coming home from her mastectomy with five drain tubes, and she tried to shield her children from seeing those. Her littlest burst into the bathroom, though, and was fascinated. She wanted to help.
“So from then on, she would help Mommy drain the tubes,” Shultz said, recalling how her two daughters reacted differently. “It was just a difference in personality.”
In February 2015, Shultz had reconstructive breast surgery by Dr. Karen Quigley, a Memphis plastic surgeon. Preparations required Shultz to have chest expanders placed at the time of her mastectomy, and she made weekly trips to her healthcare provider to get those filled. It was just one more part of the complicated, painful process that she and other breast cancer survivors go through. She also has continued regular checkups to ensure her health remains good.
Today, Shultz has her family close around her, and she’s three years into 10 years of more medication she must take, despite how it causes joint pain. She takes Femara, a hormone therapy, to help protect her from further breast cancer developments.
Nevertheless, she is a busy mom and wife, and she has worked as a Department of Defense employee at the Navy base in Millington for the past 18 years, including working from home while she was undergoing radiation therapy. She kept up her role as a supportive mom through it all, even going to one of her younger daughter’s cheer competitions while she still had drain tubes in from surgery.
“We just wanted to keep things as normal as possible for them,” Shultz said.
Today she has thick red hair, a healthy glow and an attitude that life is good on the other side of breast cancer. A small tattoo on her left wrist marks her journey. It says, “Be still.” It recalls the Bible verse Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.””
A positive attitude, her faith, and the God she prays to helped her and her family get through her diagnosis and treatment, she said.
“We prayed about it a whole lot, and my faith grew a lot stronger. Which is, I think, what He wants, really.
“That was the Bible verse that I went back to, over and over again, because I just had to listen. From the very first diagnosis to me not settling for a lumpectomy, just kind of listening to Him –– you know you kind of have to be still and listen – to what He’s trying to tell me. …
“God got me through it. He put amazing people in my life to help me get through it, and I’m so thankful for all that.”
Breast cancer changed her, she said. “You learn to appreciate things a lot more. I’ve always appreciated my family, but to have them right by my side going through all of it, and for my husband to not waver – I mean, he didn’t care if I had hair. He said, ‘I just want you healthy. We will get through this.’”
She continued, “Things don’t bother you as much. You tend to learn what’s important and what’s not, what you let bother you and what you don’t. It puts everything into perspective.”
Shultz couldn’t bear to talk to friends and colleagues about her cancer treatments while she was undergoing them, but now she welcomes the opportunity, she said. “Because the mammogram saved my life. It for sure saved my life. … It wouldn’t have been detected any other way.”
She is glad to talk about her private struggles if it helps others. “Bringing awareness to it – it just means a lot to be able to let people know that you can go through it, you can come out of it a lot stronger. But you have to have a strong faith; you have to have a strong support system.”
She continued, “I cannot preach enough how important it is not only to get a mammogram but to go for a yearly physical. There’s too many things that could be wrong with women that you don’t know, that you can’t see. … You can have things going on inside your body that you can’t feel or you can’t see. And the only way you can detect is to go have it checked out, to go stay on top of it and be proactive. And for anybody that’s diagnosed, you have to trust your doctors.”