Inspiring Cancer Survivor Story

1992 promised to be a wonderful year for the Quillen family of Centennial, Colorado.  We were living happily with our five children, and planning for the birth of our sixth child.

Then, on May 30, 1992, our idyllic life was shattered.

In February 1992 my wife found a lump on her breast when she was three month’s pregnant.  It did not have the appearance of breast cancer – it was like a BB just underneath the skin.  My wife went to her doctor, who examined the hard mass and declared he did not believe it was cancerous.  He told my wife that pregnant women’s breasts frequently become lumpy, and that’s all he thought this was. Nevertheless, he suggested my wife watch it closely and come in if it got any larger.

We watched, and it did not seem to grow.  The doctor had measured it initially and at subsequent appointments there didn’t seem to be any growth in the mass.  Then in mid May, my wife found a lump in her armpit.  She went to her doctor, who again expressed his belief that it was not cancer, but to be sure, he referred her to an oncologist.

On May 28th, my wife went to the oncologist.  She examined the mass and took a needle biopsy.  Two days’ later, the oncologist’s office called.  They informed my wife that they had the results of her biopsy, and would like her to come in that afternoon to discuss the results.  “Oh,” they said, “– and please bring your husband with you.”

We went to the doctor’s office with fear and trepidation, only to hear the words we never wanted to hear: “You have breast cancer.”

The oncologist was very business-like but reassuring.  She referred us to another oncologist, reputed to be one of the finest in Colorado.  She had made an appointment for us with him that afternoon, and we went to visit with him.  He discussed with us the courses of action that were available to us.

The rest is a blur – surgery five days later – a single mastectomy.  The surgeons told us our unborn son would be fine – he would go to sleep when his mother did with the anesthesia, and would wake up when she did.  Both woke up and fared well through the surgery.

We had some options regarding chemotherapy that came into play since our son was still eleven weeks from being full term.  We learned that there was no difference in cancer recurrence whether you started chemotherapy the day after surgery or 30 days after surgery.  But – if you went beyond 30 days, the odds got significantly worse.  We opted to have my wife wait 23 days before delivering our son.  He would still be seven and a half weeks early, but the intervening three weeks allowed doctors to give our unborn son steroids that would speed lung development, addressing one of the main health concerns for premature boys.

On June 25, 1992, Bonita gave birth via C-section to Jesse Lee Blaine Quillen.  Doctors were delighted with this weight – 4 lbs., 12 ounces.  That evening, Bonita started the first of four months’ worth of chemotherapy.

A few days after her diagnosis, a cancer survivor, the mother of a friend of ours at Church, called Bonita.  After introducing herself and chit-chatting a bit, she said, “Unless I miss my guess, you have already planned your funeral.”  My wife responded: “Right down to the speakers and the music.”  And then this wonderful woman gave my wife some of the best advice we received; said she: “You can’t go there.  You have to live for the future, and live your life like you are going to beat this and live.  Plan summer vacation for next summer as though you are going to be there, because you are.”

My wife took that counsel to heart and lived her life as though she was going to be here that next summer, and the summer after that, and many summers yet to come.  She was faithful and true – she responded to her health crisis as we all hope we would – with faith in God, without saying, “Why me?” and with a determination that she was going to beat this.  And she did.

One of my wife’s biggest concerns was that she would be able to raise and mother her children, who at the time were 12, 10, 8, 5 and 2, as well as her newborn.  In May 2010, my wife was able to attend the high school graduation of that 4 lb., 12 ounce baby boy, although he was now a healthy, strapping 6’-2” young man.  We celebrated not only his graduation but her being there for it.

In the intervening 19 years, my wife has counseled, loved, supported and nurtured countless women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.  Our family physician has used her for years to reach out to others of his patients who are beginning the same journey she took.  She has truly risen above the fears and deadly possibilities breast cancer confronted her with, and has not only survived, but thrived!

Here are comments from our two daughters about their mom:

Katie, age 30:

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, she and my dad took the time to talk to each of us kids separately to help us work through our fears and concerns. During her treatment, she and my dad managed and organized things so that our lives were not disrupted in any way. There was peace and order in our home at that time, just as always. My mom is wonderful because she is selfless, loving, and giving. And she is amazing because she was all those things even during one of the most trying times of her life.

Emily, age 21:

I am one of Bonita’s daughters and I just wanted to add something small to what my dad  has said. My mom is my hero, she is one of the strongest people I know. She is also one of the most service minded people I know, she is always looking for people to serve and for lives that she can bless. She also has so much love for everyone around her and she is always making sure that they know how much she loves and cares for them. Growing up there were always people in our home, sometimes even living with us. She has such a pure heart, and she is so strong. I cannot even begin to imagine how hard it would have been to go through cancer and to have six little ones that needed their mother, but she stayed strong for us. I cannot even begin to express my love and gratitude for her and for her example. I cannot imagine my life without my best friend, my mom. She truly is an incredible woman.

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