The clear liquid slowly made its way through the plastic tubing, pushed by gravity into the port in Vickie Abbott’s chest.
She reclined slightly as the chemotherapy chemicals entered her body.
Since Abbott started treatment for Stage 3 breast cancer in May, the chemicals have burned her from the inside out, leaving marks on her hands, elbows and feet. She’s struggled with fatigue and nausea, losing 5 pounds or more each treatment.
So while Abbott is physically in her hospital room, she is mentally somewhere else — canoeing on White River or hiking in Yellowwood State Forest.
Type of cancer
Stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma
Chemotherapy, double mastectomy and six weeks of radiation
What cancer taught me
It’s taught me not to take life for granted. You don’t realize the little things in life you miss when you can’t do them during chemotherapy, like working in your flower garden. I missed several family reunions this year because I couldn’t be in large groups of people. Shopping, things like that. And being an outdoors person, and not being able to go outside because of the chemotherapy, that depressed me for a while because I was so limited. Also made me realize how many people cared. The people in my work have been phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for better people.
How cancer changed me
I’m a stronger and more appreciative person. God has given me inner strength that I didn’t think I had. I used to wake up every morning and thank God that I had a job because the economy has been bad. Now I wake up every day and thank God every day that I’m alive.
What I would tell someone diagnosed with cancer
Don’t give up. There’s hope. You have to keep fighting. Fight with everything you have in you, because it is curable and people do beat it.
“This is the hell year. I make it through this year, and then I’ll live again next year,” she said.
Abbott is in the middle of a rigorous attempt to slow the cancer spreading through her body. What started as a tumor in her right breast has moved to her lymph nodes, and doctors are using an intense treatment regimen to beat the disease back.
She has gone through emotionally and physically devastating chemotherapy and still needs a double mastectomy and radiation. Recovery might not even start until next year.
But Abbott is clinging to the thought of returning to the life she’s loved.
“I’ve never asked God or thought ‘Why me?’ That’s never crossed my mind. I’m trying to be as positive as I can,” she said.
The outdoors is where 43-year-old Abbott is most comfortable. She and her husband, Jack, used to walk three to five miles at least three times a week.
When she wasn’t working as the front office team leader at American Health Network in Franklin, she was planning weekend excursions with her family to local state parks. They camped, canoed and hiked.
They had planned to take a weeklong camping trip to Yosemite National Park in California this summer to scale granite cliffs, hike through pine forests and camp.
A budding nature photographer, Vickie Abbott had become fascinated with eagles in central Indiana. During a canoe trip, she had discovered a nesting site. Throughout the following year, she returned several times, capturing the birds in the summer, fall, winter and spring.
“I couldn’t have picked a better one. She loves to be outside, loves to be active,” Jack Abbott said. “She’s the best at NCAA tournament time. It’s like sitting down and watching the games with your best friend.”
But cancer has robbed her of all of that. With the chemotherapy, her immune system is too weak to handle the bacteria of the natural world. The family has postponed the Yosemite trip until Vickie Abbott is well enough to travel.
The chemicals have exacerbated her allergies, so staying outdoors for extended periods causes her eyes to swell up and water uncontrollably.
“They want to put a glass bubble around her, basically. They don’t want her to be in large crowds of people. Even the grandkids can’t spend a lot of time over,” Jack Abbott said.
The fibrous mass in Vickie Abbott’s breast first drew her concern two years ago. Though she had been going for a yearly mammogram since she turned 40, this lump had appeared between examinations.
She went to her doctor to ask about it. Her doctor tested it and found it was simply thicker tissue on the breast. When it seemed to grow larger, she went back to her doctor, and again it was determined to just be a fibrous mass.
But in April of this year, she knew something was very wrong.
“It seemed like it had grown tremendously. I remember going to my family doctor. She was standing probably three feet away from me and just blurted, ‘Oh my god.’ She could see it that far away,” Vickie Abbott said.
In about seven months, the mass had grown to be almost 10 centimeters across and 8 centimeters wide. A mammogram revealed that the tissue was cancerous, and Abbott would need a double mastectomy.
“I had the option. But I’ve heard in previous years of people having a lumpectomy on one breast, and then it came back in the other,” she said.
‘A lot of tears, a lot of doubt’
Instead of having another surgery down the road, she decided to have it done all at once.
Abbott tried to be positive, steeling herself for the mastectomy and hoping that would be the extent of treatment. But with each doctor’s visit, her condition seemed to become more complicated and require more to kill the cancer.
When she found out her lymph nodes were cancerous, she broke down.
“There was some downtime, a lot of tears at the beginning. A lot of doubt,” Jack Abbott said.
Their six children are all out of the house, and the Abbotts called each of the older ones to explain the situation. But their youngest son, 21-year-old Anthony, was finishing his sophomore year at Ball State University. His parents tried to think of a way to keep it from him but realized that he had to know.
“It was rough. I had finals the week after she found out, so it took a lot to pull it all together and not just head right home,” he said.
Dr. Erin Zusan, a breast surgeon for Community Breast Care in Greenwood, met with the Abbotts just days after the diagnosis. Additional ultrasounds and scans, as well as a biopsy, indicated that the cancer had formed in the breast duct. The cancer cells had spread from the initial location of the tumor and had been found in Abbott’s lymph nodes.
Zusan recommended she begin chemotherapy immediately, even before surgery.
“She would have gotten chemotherapy regardless, because of her age and the size of the tumor. But if we did surgery first, we would have no real way of knowing if the chemo was working,” Zusan said. “This way, we can see if the cancer cells are getting smaller and adjust the treatment if they are not.”
In Abbott’s case, adjustments were needed. Her initial rounds of chemotherapy involved a pill called Cytoxan, which stops the growth of cancer cells in the body. She received it every three weeks, giving her time to recover from the crippling nausea and fatigue that it brought on.
But by the end of July, her oncologist recommended switching to another drug, Taxotere. The more aggressive chemical also prevents the spread of cancer cells, only it is injected directly into the body as a liquid.
‘A long 12 days’
Abbott had done research before chemotherapy started. She read books about what to expect and asked for testimonials from other patients. Her sister had gone through treatment for a brain tumor.
But nothing prepared her for her reaction to Taxotere.
Her skin burned and peeled on her arms and legs. Black and purple bruises appeared on her elbows. Jack Abbott had to place ice packs all around her, since she felt like she was burning up.
“I felt like I was going to explode,” she said.
They rushed to the hospital but were told that, other than painkillers, there was nothing doctors could do. The medicine had to run its course and exit the body naturally.
“That was a long 12 days,” Jack Abbott said.
Like most chemotherapy patients, losing her hair was an additional emotional pain on top of her physical condition. Vickie Abbott had always been very proud of her long, curly brown hair that extended almost to her waist.
Early on in her treatment, she was at work and became annoyed at the hair that seemed to always be in her eyes. Going to the bathroom to fix it, she instead pulled out a handful from her scalp.
“That night, I went home and was very emotional,” she said. “The next day, after talking with a woman from the American Cancer Society, I had (Jack) put my hair in all kinds of pony tails, and he chopped it all off.”
After the terrible reaction, oncologists transitioned her to a new combination of drugs that was milder but still attacked the cancer. Vickie Abbott took this weaker chemotherapy every week, finishing her last dose in late September.
She will need to have the double mastectomy and then reconstructive surgery immediately after.
“We’ll start reconstruction as soon as we can. We’ve found it’s better for their psyches,” Zusan said. “If they wake up from surgery with that process already started, that seems to help their outlook on things.”
Yosemite trip rescheduled
Then each week, she’ll go to her plastic surgeon’s office, where a small amount of saline will be injected to expand her breasts to the correct size.
Her treatment course also requires that she have six weeks of radiation, five days each week. Because radiation treatment can discolor the skin, she will need to wait another three months before the final plastic surgery to put her permanent breast implants in.
The whole ordeal probably won’t be finished until late January or early February, Vickie Abbott said.
The Abbotts look at this as their lost year. Chemotherapy, surgery and radiation have left Vickie Abbott feeling weak and nauseous much of the time. The chemicals have aged her appearance, giving her wrinkles that she never had before.
Jack Abbott has tried to take care of the household while his wife recovers. He cooks for the family and cleans the house. His wife had always done the bills and taken care of the finances; now that has fallen to him.
Anthony Abbott has decided to take a semester off at Ball State. He’s been home to help with the cleaning and grocery shopping and to take his mother to her appointments.
They plan to make it up next summer. The Yosemite trip has been rescheduled, and Vickie Abbott is looking forward to hiking through forests of giant sequoia trees, shooting photos of ancient rock formations and riding horses through the valley.
“She is going on that trip to ride those horses,” Jack Abbott said.
The hope is that with chemotherapy and surgery behind her, the rest of the treatment will simpler. All through the worst of the nausea and the burning in her skin, she willed herself to just get through it.
“I keep telling myself the rest is going to be a piece of cake,” she said. “Chemotherapy is bad because you never can tell how your body will react. But that’s how I get through it.”