In September 2009, my wife, Darlene, was trimming hedges to clear away things in preparation for a painting contractor to paint our house. She was using what she called a “small” battery operated chainsaw to trim some wax myrtles. Each day when I arrived home from work, I drove up to another mound of trimmings. For this, she affectionately became known as Paul Bunyan.
One week later, she felt pain in her chest. Thinking it was some sort of heart condition, she went to a local urgent care office. I didn’t hear from her for a while, so I called her cell. No answer. I called the urgent care office. The doctor told me that her heart was fine, but they found a spot on her right lung the size of a ping pong ball. My heart sank. I knew that it wasn’t good.
Darlene called a local surgeon that we know. We were in his office the next week. As we sat waiting on the surgeon, we were both hopeful that he would confirm that the spot was nothing. Darlene asked what he thought we were facing. The surgeon said, “I think we’re looking at lung cancer.” We were both speechless and felt like we had been socked in the stomach.
After that meeting, Darlene went through tests to confirm the diagnosis. The surgeon performed the operation to remove the upper right lobe of her lung, two lymph nodes and some other suspicious tissue near the nodes. After recovery, she went home to rest for the next surgery to install a life port.
Darlene went through four cycles of chemotherapy with the last round on December 31, 2009. In January 2010, she started radiation for the spot near her right lung. At this point, we were told that she was stage II, that all of the chemo and radiation was preventative and that the cancer was curable.
One week into the radiation, Darlene experienced more pain in her left shoulder and left leg. We thought that it might be a pulled muscle from moving furniture. A few more weeks passed and the pain was worse, not better. After a series of tests, a CT scan and a biopsy confirmed the worst. The cancer had spread to her bones in her left scapula, her T-12 vertebrae and her sacrum moving her to stage IV metastatic bone lung cancer. The chemotherapy didn’t work. We were crushed. I think that we both cried non-stop for weeks. Stage IV- what did it mean? What were we going to do? How do we tell our boys who were both 13 and 15? We were both fairly young. Darlene was only 51. What do we tell our families and friends? What are we facing? Then, we left our pity party and decided to tackle this thing head on.
At the end of March after the radiation, we went to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Our hope was for the miracle cure. They ran a full body scan. At the end of the week, we met with the doctor, we got another blow. The cancer was also in her left leg where she had complained about the pain for months. This spot had not been treated in the original round of radiation. We were given a treatment plan to take back to Charleston with us. Our physicians at the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center worked with the recommendations from MD Anderson for a treatment plan. This started round two. As of May 2010, the new drug had kept the cancer stable for two months. Later that year, tests showed the cancer spreading. Our medical oncologist approved an oral chemo. Our hopes for improvement hung on getting the shipment for this new drug. I received confirmation that it was on the way.
Two days later, Darlene was admitted to the ER at MUSC with pneumonia. Our hopes were crushed as we heard the doctor say that things did not look good. After a week of trying to fight off the infection, we were told that the cancer had taken over and we needed to prepare for the worst. Darlene passed away on October 6, 2010 after a courageous battle with this awful disease.
In 2012, after months of healing and some very emotional times, my teenage sons – Price and Cooper – and I decided we wanted to do something to make a difference in this fight. Breath of Life is our way of making the best of our situation by raising funds for lung cancer research so that others will have a better chance to kick this awful disease. Our commitment to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center is to raise funds in memory of Darlene Westbury Walter, a loving wife and mother. We often asked each other why this happened to us. You can help so that others might not suffer by participating in the Breath of Life benefit.