Everyone knows that dealing with breast cancer can be a long and often treacherous road, but for Shelby Coriaty it became a six year test of endurance and the ability of the human spirit to overcome monumental adversity. Not only did Shelby manage to survive, she did so with enormous patience, compassion, and humor.
“I never even thought much about breast cancer prior to my diagnosis. As far as I knew, there was a zero history in my family, so I just never thought about it or looked for it. In 2000 I was determined to get into the best shape of my life. I began running four miles in the morning and four miles in the evening. My husband Mark got me a stopwatch, and I distinctly remember calling to tell him when I would beat my previous best personal time. I was a fruit smoothie kind of gal, if you know what I mean. Well, there was just one little thing on my mind that I suppose needs to be shared. From the time I can remember I had harbored a fear that when I turned 40 I was going to get sick and die. I’m not quite sure where this fear originated, but I can tell you when I celebrated my 40th birthday and was still here, I REALLY celebrated! Was I ever in for a surprise!”
“When I went for my first mammogram everything looked just fine, so I was still living in that rosy place thinking everything was A-okay. In September of that year I was sitting at the dinner table (funny how we always remember these sorts of details) and I had an itch in my armpit. When I scratched it I felt a bump that was a bit bigger than a walnut. At the time, I didn’t think much about it, I just figured I’d pulled a muscle. My husband was able to feel it to, and convinced me it would probably be a good idea to get it checked out. Of course, as luck would have it, since we are self-employed, we have to provide our own health insurance – and we had just switched to our new insurance company – which meant I had a brand new doctor I’d never even met.”
Shelby continues her story, “Okay, so I felt the lump on Thursday and by the following Monday I was meeting my new doctor. She drew blood to see if I was fighting an infection, and within 15 minutes she had sent me to a surgeon’s office for further evaluation. They scheduled me for an outpatient surgery on that Friday. I remember going in and thinking I would wake up in a recovery bay. When I woke up I was in a private room and my husband was on his knees sobbing. He told me that I had cancer. I was still pretty heavily sedated, so this wasn’t registering with me like it probably should have! We went home and Mark spent the entire weekend worrying about me. I was still in an emotional fog because I didn’t feel like I had to believe the worst until I actually heard it from the doctors! On Tuesday of the next week the surgeon confirmed my diagnosis. He actually told me I was very sick and needed to have a mastectomy. Mark and I decided it was time for a second opinion – so we decided I needed to head to Moffitt for further evaluation.”
“Moffitt wanted to expedite things, so I actually went and picked up my tumor and drove it to them for evaluation. I was by myself during this drive, so the whole way I was trying not to freak out. I swear this was just the beginning of an unbelievable and surreal journey in more ways than one!”, Shelby shares, “I had a phenomenal surgeon at Moffitt! When I actually had surgery that first time, I had a lumpectomy – so this meant I needed to have chemotherapy as well. My hair fell out three days into my treatment. Mark shaved his head as a sign of support, and my family (all of whom live in Georgia) took turns coming to help me. Although in many ways it was an awful time – it was a wonderful time too – because I had so much love around me! Once the chemo was done, I had a radioactive seed implanted into my breast that was left in place for six weeks. My actual diagnosis was Stage III with an unknown primary. They never could find a mass in my breast, but it was very active in my lymph nodes.”
But that wasn’t the end of Shelby’s journey – or story – not by a long shot! When she finished radiation the left side of her throat became numb. To this day she still has no sensation of hot or cold on the left side of her neck. Just a few days after her radiation treatments ended Shelby felt a little bit “off” – so she went back to Moffitt and had a CAT scan that resulted in what is known as an “overread”. What this meant was that for two weeks Shelby thought the cancer had spread. During the spinal tap done to rule this out, Shelby endured three lumbar punctures, which landed her back in the hospital. She had to remain in bed from September to November of 2001.
As she was recovering from this ordeal, Shelby began to experience pain in her right hip. At first she was reluctant to tell anyone, because she simply didn’t want to hear any more bad news. Finally, the pain became so intense that she had to take action. The primary X-ray came back showing that she had a growth in her hip socket. At this point Shelby was sent to a bone cancer specialist. He didn’t think what was going on looked malignant, so she was referred to an orthopedic surgeon. Throughout the entire year of 2002, Shelby endured cortisone shots into her hip. In November of that year they decided to do a CAT scan biopsy. The resulting surgery showed that the chemo had caused Shelby’s bones to become brittle enough for bone fragments to create a sort of tearing in her hip socket. And she had thought she was just being a cry baby!
When Shelby decided the time was right to try to repair the breast that had gone through the lumpectomy, she developed a terrible infection while in the hospital and ended up losing her breast. Her trials and tribulations were not over yet. Her sister was also diagnosed with breast cancer when she turned 40, so Shelby’s doctor felt this warranted gene testing. The test confirmed that Shelby is what is sometimes called a Triple X . She is receptor negative and carries the BRCA1 gene mutation. In order to do everything possible to save herself Shelby had to have her other breast removed, as well as a full hysterectomy.
It wasn’t just health scares and problems that were besetting Shelby. During all of this, she was trying to raise her children in some sort of normalcy – which was not an easy road either! “My son was only eight years old when all of this began. I can’t tell you how many Little League games I missed, or how many other important parts of my kid’s lives were lost in the shuffle! (Daughters Erin and Alex are now 24 and 16, son Clay is 14.) My son had a band concert recently, and I just sat there and cried. He is now 6’1” tall – which is a reminder of just how much time we have lost. I feel like my kids and I have been robbed of time we will never be able to recapture.”
Today, it appears that Shelby is finally out of the woods. She and Mark recently started a new business, and she is happy that her life is falling back into place. It’s actually a relief to have to focus on work! Although she still has to go for her six month check-ups, for the most part Shelby feels recovered. “Of course breast cancer changes you mentally. How could it not? I think any woman in her heart will say she is always sort of waiting for the ball to drop. Every time I go for lab work I sort of hold my breath. I try to always remember that every PET scan I’ve had to date has come back with a false positive. That certainly keeps me on my toes! I’m certainly not the same person I was back in 2000 by any means, but I think I’m a better person. I don’t hold anything back. I tell people what I need to say. I reach out – and I’m not afraid to do that!”
When asked what she would say to other women who are just beginning their journey, Shelby replies, “From day one I made sure I was educated about what was supposed to happen to me. Although there was nothing that could have prepared me for some of the problems I encountered, at least I knew what was supposed to happen! Remember, this is your only life, so don’t be afraid to ask whatever questions you need. Actually, don’t be afraid to question either! Don’t ever hesitate to tell a doctor he or she is not the right one for you. Find a doctor or team that feels like a perfect fit! You need to be proactive when it comes to your treatment and your life in general. And on a more personal level, enjoy the things that are important in your life.”
Shelby Coriaty is living proof that although there may be many twists and turns thrown at us before we reach our final destination; they can make reaching the finish line just that much sweeter!
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This article was reprinted by permission from www.thebreastcaresite.com, which is devoted to addressing the general needs of all who have been touched by breast cancer, including newly diagnosed patients and long time survivors, as well as their friends, family members and coworkers. Breastcaresite.com’s specific mission focuses on providing breast cancer survivors with accurate information about everything from post-surgery options and products to information about insurance and intimacy issues.
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