Her hands lack feeling and her brain sometimes gets so foggy that she can forget what she’s saying mid-sentence.
The retired nurse knows she won’t fully recover but hopes her condition will improve enough that she’ll be able to go back to responding to fires and other emergencies as a Red Cross volunteer.
Breast cancer survivor Elaine Falconbury used to drive across Johnson County in the middle of the night to give food and sacks of clothes to families who had just lost their homes to fire and had traveled around the country to help victims of tornadoes and other natural disasters. She served in New Jersey in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and had been named the Red Cross’s central Indiana volunteer of the year.
The Greenwood resident has been motivated to get better because her dream and goal is to return to volunteering. She just hasn’t been well enough to since she was stricken with cancer two years ago.
June 15, 2011
Type of cancer
Stage 3 breast cancer
Chemotherapy, double mastectomy and radiation
What cancer taught me
Life is short. Don’t sweat any minute of it. God is the blessed controller of all things.
How cancer changed me
I look forward to birthdays instead of regretting them. I’m enjoying life.
What I would tell someone diagnosed with cancer
I would tell them God is in control and you can get through it with his help. It’s not the end of the world. A lot of things are worse.
She overcame her cancer and was declared free of cancer by doctors in July. But she’s lost both breasts and endured three major surgeries in less than three weeks. She has regrown her hair after relying on a variety of home-knitted wigs and crocheted caps, including one of a shark that appeared to be eating her head and she joked was eating her cancer.
Falconbury, who had been a clown for a church ministry, tried to stay whimsical and keep her lighthearted sense of humor through her ordeal. She said it helped that she has a high endurance for pain. But she also drew on her faith, especially her belief that God is the controller of all things.
“It’s not the end of the world,” she said. “A lot of things can be a lot worse.”
Her husband, Larry, prayed with her and accompanied her to every medical appointment, often waiting in the car in the parking lot. They’re very close and often hold hands in their side-by-side recliners in the living room of their Greenwood home.
They were fishing together in a boat while on vacation in Missouri when she suffered muscle strains just below her knee. She sat down and later went to a hospital, where doctors explained that she suffered blood clots that could be a symptom of cancer.
“I thought I was in lots of trouble,” Larry Falconbury said. “All I could think is that I was in lots of trouble. But she has a wonderful sense of humor, and I’m in awe of her attitude.”
She couldn’t believe she had cancer, because no doctor’s visit had turned up any evidence of it. Falconbury had gone for annual mammograms every year but had never seen a problem other than that the right breast was bigger than her left one.
No one has any history of breast cancer, cancer or even blood clots in her family.
But a recommended surgeon, Dr. Chace Lottich, brought her in for a biopsy and then asked to see her the next day at noon. Falconbury knew that was normally bad news, a sign that she was in trouble with breast cancer.
She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, which doctors later determined was in fact Stage 3C but was still fast and aggressive. She had gotten a clean bill of health from a mammogram just a few months earlier, but the cancer quickly spread to lymph nodes and under her right arm.
“It was a train we couldn’t stop,” she said. “It was happening so fast you couldn’t wrap your mind around it.”
She went through eight weeks of chemotherapy sessions through the last week of November. Her double mastectomy didn’t go well, and she had to go back for two more surgeries, including to get a skin graft on the right side of her breast so that she could have tissue expanders.
She also underwent more than 35 radiation therapy treatments at Franciscan St. Francis Health-Indianapolis. She often had trouble getting to sleep after the treatments.
“Her energy level was way low,” Larry Falconbury said. “She didn’t feel good.”
During chemotherapy, she suffered sores in her mouth and on her tongue and got neuropathy in her hands, which tingled and had no sensation. She got blood-red blisters around the edge of her feet, so it hurt to walk, forcing her to wear slippers to get around the house.
Reading was difficult, as she couldn’t concentrate. Her neck hurt too much to bend, and she couldn’t do the knitting and crocheting she enjoyed so much. Falconbury instead started making jewelry such as purple charms and bracelets for cancer survivors to keep herself busy.
When she started losing her hair, she decided to have it shaved off in front of her grandchildren to get a laugh. They giggled when she sported a mohawk that eventually was sheared off.
“My head was shining,” she said. “I looked like my daddy when I was bald. I had a Charlie Brown head.”
Falconbury tried to keep the mood light during her frequent visits to doctor’s offices and to get the nurses laughing.
For instance, she once dressed up with shark hat and a long blonde yellow wig she had worn while serving as a clown at Greenwood Christian Church and on mission trips abroad to Haiti, Taiwan, Panama and other countries. She occasionally sported a crocheted turkey hat that she joked showed the world that cancer was a turkey.
“I wanted to keep it fun and upbeat,” she said. “I’ve been in offices where everyone is overworked, tired and grumpy, but they were just so pleasant and friendly.”
Falconbury wasn’t afraid because she trusted her life to God. She believed that the Lord would do what’s best for her, and that whatever happened was meant to be.
She and her husband asked God to take care of her. Friends she had met in missionary trips across the world, including in far-flung locales such as Belarus and the Czech Republic, also prayed for her.
“I’ve just been saying ‘thank the Lord,’” she said. “My faith is my lifeline. I trust in everything God does, and you can’t pick and choose what you like. He’s sovereign, and I believe he knows all things and that even hard things are for his glory.”