Profile of Courage: Debbie Anderson

October 20, 2018

A Survival Story

Debbie Anderson is the director of Case Management and Behavioral Health at Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital. She is also a survivor of breast cancer. We recently asked Debbie to share her survival story with the community and she graciously agreed. Here is her story in her own words.

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My name is Debbie Anderson. Some of you may know me as an employee of NNRH. Some may recognize me from church; a few of you may even know me from different events around town. But for the most part, many of you have never heard of me for I am no one special. I am just an ordinary person who lives an ordinary life.

I moved to Nevada almost three years ago from a small town in North Dakota where everyone knew me. I was the wife of Steve, “Mom” to one of my five children, and “Grandma” to one of my five grandchildren. I was the daughter-in-law of Allen and Della. I was the woman who brought soccer to Valley City and developed it into the largest children’s activity in town. If you were ever admitted to the hospital in Valley City, you had to speak to me before leaving. I delivered Meals on Wheels every Thursday to 35 elderly individuals, and I was the most sought-after wedding and funeral singer in town. Yes, I was known, I was active, I was happy … and I would have given anything for a moment to myself.

And then I got that dreaded phone call. If you have ever received this phone call, you know what I’m talking about when I say I will never forget the very moment -- where I was and what I was doing -- when the phone rang. It was an oncologist from the Roger Maris Cancer Center who called and asked if I could come in with my husband to visit about my biopsy results. When a doctor calls to schedule an appointment with you and your spouse, you just know it’s not good news.

Breast cancer happened to me in November 2006 when, exactly one year and one day from one mammogram to the next, a small tumor was discovered in my right breast. I hadn’t felt any lumps or noticed any symptoms of breast cancer prior to that. I’d gone in for a screening mammogram that year because it was just part of my annual routine. I’m glad it was! After the radiologist spotted the tumor, I was called back in for a biopsy. And after the biopsy results had been analyzed by the oncologist at Roger Maris, that’s when I got the dreaded call and the even worse news: the tumor was malignant.

To make a long story short, I survived my breast cancer diagnosis by undergoing surgeries: first a double mastectomy and then a total hysterectomy. Webster’s Dictionary would probably define these procedures as taking away everything that made me female … but, heck, what does he know? After surgery, I endured six months of chemotherapy, 40 dosages of radiation and the extended use of Tamoxifen. This last part was a hormone therapy treatment which reduced the risk of the cancer returning, but which also induced hot flashes and moodiness. On top of all that, after the hysterectomy, I entered early menopause which I guess proved I was still a woman!

Remember how I said I would have done anything to get some alone time? Well, after my diagnosis with cancer, I had such a profound sense of loneliness. I remember laying on my husband’s lap with tears streaming down my cheeks, or sitting in the bathtub and silently crying so as not to let anyone know how scared and afraid I was. Only years later did I learn that my family too kept their fears and tears to themselves because they didn’t want to upset me.

I no longer had the strength for soccer or the ability to sing because I was always short of breath. And I would never ask someone to deliver a meal to me or my family. In many ways, I cut myself off from the world around me, which was a mistake. If you are living through cancer right now, or if you know someone who is, please hear this: there is strength in numbers. You are not alone, no matter how lonely you may feel.

When I got my diagnosis, I remember thinking, “I’m not ready to die. I want to spend more time with my husband, my children and my grandchildren.” So I made the decision to change my lifestyle so that, hopefully, I could indeed enjoy more time with them. It became about what I could do to make myself well again. I changed my diet. I learned how to exercise. I cut out some activities so that I could simply be with the ones I loved.

I was not only living for myself anymore, but for every woman who was going through the fight. People say cancer is a personal thing. I say, it’s not. Cancer is your opportunity to go out there and tell people that they are worth fighting for. Every single woman is worth it.

The tender scars that I carry are proof that I am a survivor and that I am strong and resilient. Don’t get me wrong: I still feel a bit anxious and apprehensive every year as I come up on the anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis. But I have learned to lean on my family and to stay focused on the gratitude that I feel for having overcome the disease. And when others ask if I need anything, I try to remember my mother’s words: “Don’t cheat them of their blessings, and let them help.” Good advice for anyone!

I made my decision to carry on because I love life. I love to laugh and to have fun always. And I know that I am blessed. My scars? I barely see them. I feel whole – I really do – because every day I get to say, “I am a Cancer Survivor.” I’m healthy and I feel great. And that is truly beautiful.