My name is Terlisa Sheppard. I was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer in November 1998 at the age of 31, while 34 weeks pregnant with my second child.
I had been complaining to my gynecologist about feeling a lump under my arm but he informed me that it was probably a milk duct that had formed due to the pregnancy and told me not to worry about it. The lump continued to get bigger and I voiced my concern again, this time he told me that, if I insist, he would do a mammogram at that point and another one after the baby was delivered, to compare the two results. My OB-GYN didn’t, and neither did I, think for a chance that I would be getting the news that I did, once a biopsy of the lump was done.
It was stage III, HER2+, ER+, PR+ aggressive breast cancer that was fueled by estrogen from my pregnancy. I was completely shocked! Too young, I thought, to worry about anything like breast cancer, especially while being pregnant. Just six days after my diagnosis, my OB-GYN induced my labor, which was six weeks earlier than my planned delivery date, and I gave birth to a healthy, 6-pound and 6-ounce baby girl. My oldest daughter had just turned 2 years old the month before.
I underwent chemotherapy every three weeks for eight months, followed by six weeks of radiation, five days a week. I had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery on the same day in July 1999. I thought I was done with cancer and could move on with my life.
That phase was short-lived. In November 2001, the cancer was deemed stage IV, terminal (metastatic disease). It was now in my bones, lungs and liver. I started to feel defeated but knew I had to keep it together for my family, especially for my two daughters.
In January 2002, my oncologist discovered that I had a blot clot in my lungs, after reviewing some scans that I had taken earlier. I spent a week in the hospital and my medical team never could find where it originated. This illness has taken me from one roller coaster ride to another!
Right after finishing rigorous chemotherapy treatments in early 2002, cancerous lesions were discovered on my spine and in my abdomen and radiation was done to combat that. This time, chemotherapy left me sicker, sometimes leaving me so weak that I had to crawl from my bed to the bathroom that was just a few feet away.
I somehow managed to get through my third diagnosis, until August 2003 rolled around. During my fourth diagnosis, my oncologist discovered a cancerous brain tumor that was treated with a nine-hour procedure – stereotactic radiosurgery – to shrink the mass. They literally screwed this big, steel plate onto my head and administered some meds to relax me so I wouldn’t move and so that the radiation would go straight to the tumor site.
Then, in November 2007, after resisting it for over a year, I had a total right hip replacement because my hip bone had deteriorated from so much chemotherapy.
I continue to be in some type of pain daily. To help ease the constant joint pain, I go to the gym five days a week and walk on the treadmill for at least an hour. Because of my stage IV metastatic disease, I’ll be on some type of therapy for the rest of my life. In the meantime, I am going to continue to advocate for more research to find a cure for this dreadful disease that is taking the lives of too many, way too soon!