The nightmare was starting all over again.
Mike and Carla Herron had just lived through a terrifying five months helping their 27-year-old daughter through treatment for lymphoma. Abby Mentzer had been diagnosed with a rare form of the disease, but came through treatment and was deemed cancer-free.
With their child healthy again, the Herrons felt like they could finally breathe again; a weight had been lifted off of their chests.
The relief didn’t last. Six weeks after Mentzer finished her treatment, Mike Herron was diagnosed with a unique form of skin cancer.
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“We couldn’t believe it. It was like a one-two punch,” Mentzer said.
For more than a year, chemotherapy, radiation, fatigue, nausea and doctor’s visits have been woven into the fabric of life for the Herron family.
They have rallied around each other, and had leaned on help from the community. With a long history working in local fire departments — Mike Herron is currently deputy chief at the Bargersville Fire Department — the Herrons have also relied on their second “family” for support.
“People always say, ‘It’s going to get better, try not to think about it.’ I can’t. It consumes me. My child, my husband, that’s all that’s important to me, my family,” Carla Herron said.
The giggles and shrieks bounced off the walls in Abby and Austin Mentzer’s living room. Their daughter Avelyn, nearly 2 years old, bounded from toy to toy. A brightly colored movie played in the background, as Avelyn darted back and forth between her parents and grandparents.
All four adults sat together, watching the toddler with smiles on their faces. Any escape from the daily stress of the past year is welcome.
“She’s what keeps us going sometimes,” Carla Herron said.
The first blow to the family came in July 2016. Mentzer had found a lump in her breast, and went to her obstetrician to get a more complete diagnosis. Since she had just given birth to Avelyn seven months prior, she figured it was related to her pregnancy.
Her doctor agreed, and they decided to wait a month to see if it went away on its own. The lump did not disappear, so Mentzer was referred to Community Breast Care.
Blood tests did not show any problems, and the mass didn’t appear on a mammogram. Only after an ultrasound and biopsy did the lump prove to be cancerous.
Even then, it was unusual. Instead of breast cancer, Mentzer’s tumor was anaplastic large-cell lymphoma, normally a cancer that starts in the lymph nodes. In rare cases, it can form in immune system cells located in the skin.
“It was really weird. No one was expecting that, and they don’t find lymphoma there,” she said. “You see it advertised on TV sometimes associated with breast implants, but I never had anything like that.”
The diagnosis hit like a sledgehammer. Her husband, Austin Mentzer, was finishing his time in the academy for the Indianapolis Fire Department. Mentzer was still adjusting to the rhythms of motherhood, and was looking forward to focusing on raising her newborn baby.
“There was lots of crying. I couldn’t sleep for a while,” she said. “I had waited my whole life to be a mom, and now that it happened, it was terrible. I just wanted to be a mom, and I was scared about what would happen.”
But almost immediately, a network of support formed around the Mentzer family. Fire departments throughout Johnson County and Indianapolis sent notes of encouragement, vowing that they’d be there to help with whatever they needed.
“It helped to get that kind of support, even before anything had happened,” she said.
Dr. Pablo Bedano, Mentzer’s oncologist, laid out a treatment plan that called for six rounds of intense chemotherapy. The chemical mixture was composed of five different drugs that Mentzer received for three straight days. Recovery from each round took weeks.
She lost all of her hair and was nauseated for days afterwards. The first night after receiving chemotherapy, she developed a case of the hiccups that would not stop. After hours, she finally called Bedano, who told her it was from the chemo and gave her a prescription.
“It was rough,” she said. “I tried not to lay in bed or take naps really. The week of chemo, I was exhausted. But after that, I’d sit downstairs and try be with Avelyn. Even if I couldn’t physically do things with her, I wanted to be in the vicinity. I didn’t want to miss out.”
Austin Mentzer balanced his schedule to shoulder more of the parenting responsibilities when his wife felt at her lowest. Her parents essentially moved in to help as well. Carla Herron had taken six months off work as a librarian at Northwood Elementary School to do whatever she could to ease her daughter’s burden.
“It was just heart-wrenching. We didn’t know anything about it, what to do. It was just heartbreaking; I can’t put it any other way,” Carla Herron said. “It’s something you always fear, especially as a parent. You don’t ever want to see your child go through something like that. I prayed that it would be me instead of my kids.”
By December, Abby Mentzer had finished her regimen of chemotherapy. Scans showed that the cancer was gone, and she slowly resumed some of the daily activities she had been too weak to do previously.
She could give Avelyn a bath, something that she was often too exhausted to do during treatment. They would take trips to the mall to walk around and try to build up Abby Mentzer’s strength.
For the first time since starting chemotherapy, she could go to the grocery store if she needed diapers or baby food.
“It was a release. I was able to just be a mom again. My strength was back,” she said. “But I was scared too. While I was going through it, I felt strong, somehow. But when it was finished, I was happy but I was scared it would come back.”
But few things could damper the celebratory mood for Abby Mentzer and her family — until the unthinkable happened again.
Mike Herron had first noticed the growth about the size of a marble on his left shoulder about four years ago. After monitoring it for about a week, he convinced himself it was nothing.
“You don’t want it to be anything, so you dismiss it,” he said.
Still, Mike Herron went to the doctor to have the mass examined. His doctor looked at it, and determined it was a harmless fatty deposit under the skin. That satisfied Mike Herron, and he pushed his worries to the back of his mind.
As years passed, he monitored the growth on occasion, and had his doctor do the same. The diagnosis of a fatty tumor didn’t change.
But in January 2017, the mass had grown to the size of a golf ball. He could see it clearly bulging from the skin on his shoulder, he was experiencing numbness in his shoulder and it was changing colors. Seeking a second opinion on his initial diagnosis, he visited Dr. Yousef Mohammadi, a family medicine doctor at Community Health Network’s Stones Crossing Health Pavilion.
Mohammadi looked at it, and immediately concluded that the lump was not a fatty tumor. An ultrasound, CT scan and core-needle biopsy showed that it was cancerous.
Mike Herron was referred to Bedano, and on April 12, he had his first appointment to plan his course of treatment.
“It was kind of a like a flashback. We were all there in the same group when Abby was diagnosed, and hers was a rare form of cancer. Then he told me that he had seen all of these different cases, and mine didn’t fit the mold,” Mike Herron said.
To best determine a course of treatment, Bedano recommended testing the genetics of the cancer using a method called cancer type ID.
“It tests what genes are active in the cancer. Many times, we don’t know where the cancer started. So when we have a cancer of unknown primary, it’s tough to know how to treat it, because we don’t know where it started,” Bedano said. “In Mike’s case, he had a tumor in his neck. We thought it might be a head-and-neck cancer, but it turned out to be too low for that.”
The cancer type ID test showed that the tumor was most closely linked to squamous cell carcinoma, a skin cancer.
Mike Herron was scheduled to have surgery to remove the mass, as well as 16 lymph nodes, three of which were cancerous. The next step was radiation, 30 rounds that he received five days a week over one-and-a-half months.
The radiation treatment left his shoulder raw and red, but otherwise did not interfere much with his daily routine. After taking two weeks off, he went back to work. He still tries to put in four-hour days as much as possible.
Physical therapy was required following the surgery to repair nerve damage suffered in his cheek, neck and shoulder.
Herron finished radiation treatment in late July, but suffered from radionecrosis in his neck where the treatments killed healthy cells and left him with an open wound. He went through a 40-day process at Johnson Memorial Health’s wound care center, spending two hours each day in a hyperbaric chamber to stimulate healing.
The past year has been hellish for the Herron family. But they understand that there are people who have to deal with much worse, and they try to be positive and supportive to others who are fighting cancer.
“Even though we’ve battled this for just a short amount of time, we have good outcomes. Unfortunately, not everybody can say that. If we can say something with our story to help the next person, take away some of the fear and uncertainty, or inspire somebody, we want to do that,” Mike Herron said.
Abby Mentzer has returned to Community Cancer Center South for routine checkups and blood work, and no sign of the cancer has returned. Now, her main focus is supporting her father like he did for her.
She also has tried to make up for the important bonding time she missed with Avelyn. To help her focus on the present, she wears a bracelet with the message “Live in the Moment.”
“We’re trying to make a point of making each day special, instead of waiting for the perfect day to do something,” she said.
Date diagnosed: July 22, 2016
Type of cancer: Anaplastic large-cell lymphoma in her breast
What cancer taught me:
“Just be aware of your body, and don’t be afraid to go to your doctor.”
How cancer changed me:
“For me, I always wanted to focus on the future. Having gone through that, I’m trying to live in the moment. I’m worried about the future, so I want to focus on each day.”
What I would tell someone just diagnosed with cancer:
“It’s scary, and won’t necessarily be an easy journey, but they can do it and make it through. Reach out to others, other people who have gone through it. Don’t feel like you have to do it alone.”
Date of diagnosis: March 2017
Type of cancer: Squamous cell carcinoma
What cancer taught me:
“Cancer has taught me a myriad of things. I have learned about myself, my God, my family, relationships, strength, courage, fear, hopelessness and uncertainty. I have learned most importantly I think that God is in control and there are blessings in every day. I see the power of God and his love for us every time I look at my granddaughter. I think about how much I love her and realize how much more God loves us. Cancer has taught me that God is in control and has a good plan for each of us. I remember each day when fear creeps in that God goes before us each day and that although I may not see or understand his plan I know his way is perfect and he continues to go with me every step of the way.”
How cancer changed me:
“I believe I am much stronger spiritually, although dealing with the fear of cancer or its return is a struggle each day. These days I try to not involve myself with the everyday distractions that make you lose focus on what is important in life, such as family, friends, giving back to others and doing things that are worthwhile. Each day is a gift and I have to remind myself to spend each day wisely. Most importantly cancer has changed me in my role as a father. Since Abigail was diagnosed and then shortly thereafter I received mine, I can relate to Abby on a different level. I understand how she feels and it makes me want to be a good role model for her in showing her how to process what we have experienced and move forward. I hope I can help all of our family put this behind us and move forward taking the lessons we’ve learned with us.”
What I would tell someone just diagnosed with cancer:
“I don’t know that I could tell anyone anything that is going to comfort them or make them feel better. The fact is two of my worst days were when Abigail was diagnosed and then when I was. For a person newly diagnosed I would sit with them, hug them, cry with them and listen. I would try to answer their questions based on my experience and tell them they are not alone. Tell people exactly what you need because there are people and complete strangers that want to help! The worst part is the time spent waiting between the initial diagnosis and treatment.”