My name is Terlisa Sheppard, and in November 1998, at the age of 31, while I was 34 weeks pregnant with my second child, I was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer.
I had been complaining to my gynecologist about feeling a lump under my arm but he informed me that it was probably a milk duct that had formed due to the pregnancy and told me not to worry about it. The lump continued to get bigger and I voiced my concern again, This time, the gynecologist told me that if I insisted, he would do one mammogram now and a second after the baby was delivered, to compare the two results. Neither my OB-GYN nor I thought there was any chance that I would be getting the news I did once a biopsy of the lump was done.
The breast surgeon that performed the biopsy looked me straight in the eyes, and her assistant held my hands as they delivered the news: the cancer was advanced. It was stage III, aggressive, and fueled by estrogen from my pregnancy. I was completely shocked. Too young, I thought, to worry about anything like breast cancer, especially while pregnant with my second daughter.
My baby pretty much saved my life.
Because of my young age and my pregnancy, I was quickly placed under the care of a team of doctors at the cancer center. The first step included inducing my labor six weeks earlier than my planned delivery date. Just six days after my diagnosis, I gave birth to a healthy, 6-pound, and 6-ounce baby girl that I named Alyah Monique. I also had a 2-year old daughter at the time named Alexis Monet.
While in the hospital, doctors placed a port in my chest to deliver chemotherapy that was scheduled to start right away, but my white blood count dropped so low that treatment wasn't possible yet. I ended up starting chemotherapy about a month later.
I underwent chemotherapy every three weeks for eight months, followed by six weeks of radiation, five days a week. I had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery on the same day in July 1999. I thought I was done with cancer and could move on with my life.
That phase was short-lived. In November 2001, I was still seeing a doctor every six months, and between visits, I told my physician I was having back pain. I figured it was from lifting my daughters, but my doctor knew it was one of the symptoms of recurrence.
I was diagnosed again and this time, the cancer was deemed terminal: stage IV metastatic, HER2+, ER+, PR+. It was now in my bones, lungs and liver. I started to feel defeated but knew I had to keep it together for my family, especially my two daughters. And this time, chemotherapy left me sicker, sometimes leaving me so weak that I had to crawl from my bed to the bathroom a few feet away.
Unfortunately, I was hit with one hard blow after another. Just a couple months later, in January 2002, while attending a movie at a nearby theater, I received frantic phone calls from my new oncologist, instructing me to call her immediately. After contacting her, she told me to come directly to the hospital; recent scans had revealed that I had a blood clot in my lungs. I spent a grueling week in the hospital while my medical team ran an insane number of tests. At this point, my oncologist could not determine where the blood clot originated. I was then released from the hospital to go home to my family.
The aggressive nature of my cancer persisted. I went to my doctor with complaints of pain in my lower abdomen area in the spring of 2002. It was so painful that I could barely walk. After doing some follow-up scans, it was discovered that I had cancerous lesions in my abdomen and spine.
I remember having radiation treatments for them. That year would prove to be the hardest year ever in my entire cancer journey. At one point, I felt that I couldn’t fight it anymore. It was beginning to feel too hard to bear. I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired! How could this be happening to me and in such a short period of time? How could one person endure so much? I had many questions, but it didn’t stop my aggressive pain, nor did it stop my recurring diagnoses. I am so thankful to have the amazing family that I have. My siblings have been my backbone throughout this entire ordeal.
I managed to get through until the next diagnosis, which has been my fourth and final diagnosis. In August 2003, my doctors found a cancerous brain tumor that was treated with a nine-hour procedure called stereotactic radiosurgery to shrink the mass. They literally screwed a big, steel plate onto my head and administered some meds to relax me so I wouldn’t move and so that the radiation would go straight to the tumor site.
Then, in November 2007, after resisting it for over a year, I had a hip replacement because my hip bone had deteriorated from so much chemotherapy. My doctors say I'll be on some type of therapy for life.
My daughters are now college students, and I am a patient advocate and mentor others with cancer through my non-profit organization “Terlisa Fights Breast Cancer, Inc.” I am so grateful I was given a fourth chance at life. Just having a strong need to be there for my daughters, family, friends and loved ones really got me through it all. It's not about me. I'm not the only person in this fight. I hope my zest for life and unbreakable spirit will encourage other survivors to continue their fight as well and “Live Your Best Life Every Day!"
Terlisa Sheppard (HER2+, ER+, PR+ Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor)
1st diagnosis - November 1998 (stage III, with lymph node involvement)
2nd diagnosis - November 2001 (stage IV, metastases to bones, lungs and liver)
3rd diagnosis - May 2002 (stage IV, metastases to abdomen and spine)
4th diagnosis - August 2003 (stage IV, metastases to brain)