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Gin Schaffer is a former higher education administrator and works part-time at MWHC's Regional Cancer Center as the Coordinator of Integrative Medicine. She lives in downtown Fredericksburg and enjoys walking and biking with her husband and 2 kids (especially if coffee is involved).



Pink Ribbon Journey

You Are A Warrior

As I’ve been processing this journey of mine, I realize I need to continue to fill you all in a little as to how I learned I have breast cancer and the initial chapters in this story. Here goes! 

My family and I had just returned to Boston from a lovely Easter trip to see family in Virginia and to introduce Fredericksburg to the kids as their new hometown.  Feeling hopeful about our future, I got my to-do lists ready, made lots of final appointments with physicians, and went for my annual exam; a lump was found in my right breast.

It was April 24, 2014 when the lump was found.  I quickly tried to trivialize it to my OB/GYN, the nurse, and the medical student who probably was thinking “holy crap, this is cool that I’m seeing something abnormal, but crap, that’s bad to be thinking that.”  Given that I had experienced a lifetime of cysts in my ovaries, wrists, and head, I just figured, this will be benign.  But, at the same time, I thought to myself, this is it, this is the answer to the looming question of why I just could never feel better, why I continued to struggle to work, live, and play.

From that very moment of discovery, I was supported with helpful information, but thrusted into a head-spinning array of appointments, tests, and procedures. May 1st was the mammogram, May 8th was the biopsy, May 15th was the diagnosis meeting, followed by multiple pre-operative appointments before my June 2nd lumpectomy.  All of this while trying to leave (as gracefully as possible) my higher education career, raise 2 kids, sell a house, and finalize moving plans. 

My type of cancer, HER-2 positive, dictates a treatment plan including chemotherapy for one year, radiation, and hormonal therapy, so it was recommended I get a port (portacath) on June 10th.  Because cancer was found in my lymph nodes, I had to then go through a variety of scans to check for cancer in the rest of my body.  I had to endure a liver biopsy on June 25th - it was like child labor all over again. Seriously, if a man has this type of biopsy, cut him a little slack in that he has just a wee bit of understanding when we describe back labor pain and contractions.  No lie. You have to be awake while they insert a needle that looks about a foot long.  Then, you have to move, breathe, hold your breath, move, per the surgeon’s instructions.  Yes, you are given a topical numbing agent and something to make you “relax”, but nothing prepares you for someone poking your liver, while awake, nothing. 

Ironically, as difficult as it was to enter the world of oncology, receive an exhausting number of phone calls, go to appointments, and see new faces, I think my project-event-management-self appreciated that I was given tasks that might make a difference.  I guess I was feeling validated for not feeling well all those months, even years.  Since 2005, I had been on a roller coaster of lows (ovarian cysts, endometriosis, and treatments delaying dreams of becoming pregnant) and then highs (being pregnant, having 2 healthy children) back to lows (migraines, cysts all over my body, and unthinkable pain and fatigue).  I think this is what is fascinating about the mind, body, and spirit connection.  My body had been in such rough shape and since my mind and spirit hadn’t been getting any answers as to why, I was just stuck with no direction.  Then, the answer of cancer seemed to make sense, like my body had been trying to tell me something.   And, of course, life is full of surprises, so my body found one mysterious time to give me an answer.   

In Boston, I had a team of really strong, empowering women doctors with answers about my body and they helped my mind and in some ways, my spirit understand the breast cancer diagnosis, even embrace it.  Knowing that my doctors had probably seen every type of early to advanced stages of cancer, I again felt validated for not feeling crazy about all my ailments when my surgeon said to me, “You are a warrior!”  It was then that I felt somewhat released from the burdens of my past health issues and ready to tackle my cancer. 

My team of Boston physicians “delivered” me to my Fredericksburg doctors ready to start my treatment.  I’ve been going to chemo since July 17th - my “bartender” at Chemo Clubhouse mixes me my own special cocktails (9 IV bags) that last about 4-5 hours.  The doctors, nurses, and staff work hard to help my mind and spirit stay positive so that hopefully my body will come along for the ride.  Their support, along with family and friends, also helped me to feel good about my new look as bald Gin.  Of course, I wish I was doing something else on Thursdays, but I’ve yet to enter or leave the Chemo Clubhouse depressed.  Plus, where else could you go sporting a Sir Elton John look and truly be accepted 100% for it? 

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Happy New Year

I’ve always thought of the start of a new school year as another ceremonial flip of the calendar, a chance to start anew.  This year, I’m pretty sure I’m at the top of the list of parents who are elated that school starts next week.  Our summer of transition has emphasized how the past year was probably the most emotionally exhausting year of our lives.  I look at the calendar and am filled with hope that the start of school will bring some balance and order to our lives. 

It was August, 2013 when I was released from the hospital after a week stay; I had been diagnosed with viral meningitis.  Being alone in a hospital room for that long gives you plenty of time to reevaluate your life.  It seemed time for Steve and me to have more serious conversations about moving back to Virginia from Boston, where we were living at the time, but it felt unattainable, just too hard.  Little did we know, the hard part had barely begun. 

gin-catAs summer turned to fall, our lives started to play out like a bad country music song. First our beloved cat, Buck died soon after I came home from the hospital.  It was pretty heart-breaking to tell my children, who already feared I was going to die, that their cat actually did.  Then, that dreaded phone call came in the middle of the night - my mother-in-law was in the hospital and the prognosis was bleak.  Again, we had to tell our children that someone they loved, their Grammy, had died.  We pretty much went into survival mode through the rest of the year and that was pretty hard for me given I was dealing with joint pain, migraines, fatigue and hormonal surges that made me feel like a beast.  I didn’t want to be around anyone, including myself. 

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2014 brought a revived energy to figure out a plan to move to Virginia and work with new specialists on my health issues.  A benign tumor was removed from my right forehead in February and of course, we thought that would help, and it did at first, I felt great.  But, by March, I just knew something was still very wrong.  There were lots of appointments regarding my health and our pending relocation, it’s all a blur now.  However, I will never forget the 5 day period of May 7 through May 11: we sold my mother-in-law’s house, celebrated Anna’s 3rd birthday, sold our house and found out I had breast cancer. 

Here we are, August 2014.  One year after my lonely, meningitis-filled nights in a Boston hospital.  I have more answers now than I did one year ago. I may not like the answers, but at least I’ve got something to work with and that’s a start.  A second chance.  A new beginning.  So, I’m wishing myself a Happy New Year!  A party and a little champagne certainly seem in order.  Cheers!

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The path of love and recovery

It was a hot day in late June 1998 and my new husband Steve, a few of our friends and I were loading a U-Haul on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg.  Steve and I were heading to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.  I had accepted a position at the University of North Florida and was excited to be in my new, white VW Cabrio convertible.  In that moment, if anyone had said, “You’ll be back,” we would’ve laughed at them, as if we already knew all the answers to life. 

Over the past 16 years, Steve and I have ventured into every new experience on our own, miles away from his family in Pittsburgh and mine in Northern Virginia.  When things got tough, we stumbled, we screwed up, and we eventually figured it out.  When our children were born, we used every possible aspect of “the village.”  I’m proud of us for it.  But, in the summer of 2013, when my declining health really started to impact the quality of our daily lives, we knew something had to change.  It was scary to think of the changes we needed to make.  What about our jobs that we love, is the housing market going to kill us, what about the kids and their friends, their schools, our neighbors, our friends…? The list went on and on - what were we going to do? 

After roughly six months of lost sleep and countless what-if scenarios, we realized that taking risks is what we’ve always done.  Reflecting on the good when things were bad helped us to see we had the strength to make the tough decision to move.  When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it became a flashing sign, a crystal-clear choice.  And maybe, just maybe, by returning to the place we met and fell in love, moving would not only bring us closer to the family and friends we love, but it would also give us a chance to start healing, to walk our path of recovery.

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