To the victor comes new life
Minden resident Shalene Hillbrick has a new lease on life.
The 46-year-old was declared cancer-free May 2, and finished her last round of radiation June 15.
Although scans confirmed no signs of cancer, doctors wanted Hillbrick to finish treatment to ensure no microscopic particles were left behind.
“I felt completely opposite of what you’d think. I was overwhelmed with emotion. You’re fighting, fighting, fighting, and then all of a sudden it’s done,” she said. “It’s really a weird feeling. You have to stop and try and remember what life was like before cancer. It consumed my life for almost a whole year.”
On Sept. 8, Hillbrick found a golf ball-sized lump on her right breast. A week later the biopsy results came back positive for cancer, and she began chemotherapy Oct. 12.
Having triple-negative breast cancer meant Hillbrick’s body wouldn’t respond to standard cancer treatments that use hormone-based drugs. That brought her treatment options to one – 18 weeks of chemotherapy followed by seven weeks of daily radiation.
Each day that passes, Hillbrick’s energy as well as her hair continue to grow; however, she has been left with some side effects from treatment.
The removal of her lymph nodes in September caused lymphedema, a painful swelling in her arms. She wears compression bandages on her arms and receives lymphatic massage three times a week.
“My arm was so swollen you couldn’t see my knuckles or my elbow,” Hillbrick said. “It hurts and it definitely affects my motor skills. There is a possibility it could be permanent.”
Doctors also believe the chemotherapy caused probable kidney damage that Hillbrick is being tested for, as well as neuropathy which is the loss of sensitivity in her hands and feet.
“It’s been awful,” Hillbrick said. “but, I’m happy to be alive to suffer through them.”
For the single mother of two, the scariest time in her treatment was just before she received the all-clear notice when doctors thought her cancer might have returned due to the severity of her lymphedema.
“My mom and I didn’t verbalize it. It was so tense,” Hillbrick said of the five days spent waiting for results. “I was so scared because I knew if I did have cancer that grew during this chemotherapy, it was going to be fatal.”
After numerous scans and CTs of her lymph nodes and bones, Hillbrick was declared cancer-free.
For Hillbrick’s daughters Annika, 13, and Lauren, 10, the last 10 months have been a living nightmare.
“It’s definitely been difficult and really scary, the suspense of whether my mom was going to live or not,” Annika said. “There were a lot of people at school asking questions I didn’t want to answer.”
During her mother’s treatment Annika had more responsibility around the house, and took care of her little sister.
“It’s a relief to know there’s nothing else left, and we’re completely done,” Annika said. “Everything is going to fall back into place now.”
For Mother’s Day, Annika and Lauren bought their mom baby bows, headbands and a brush for her hair that had begun to grow back.
Along with her massage therapist, Hillbrick sees a urologist for her kidneys and follows up with her oncologists every three months.
“It’s hard because I want to go back to work, and I’m ready to work, but I still have all these appointments with doctors,” she said. “I’m getting a little frustrated.”
To help keep her busy, Hillbrick applied to be a volunteer with Douglas County Search and Rescue.
“I want to surround myself those kind of people. They are really giving, caring people,” she said. “It’s really big of them to take me on. I want to focus on something positive.”
Hillbrick said she could not express how thankful she was for the support she received from the community during her battle.
“I can’t believe the help and support I’ve gotten. I can’t believe for the short time I’ve been here how the community has pulled together to help me,” she said. “Total strangers ask about me. It’s amazing the support. I’ve learned to focus on the positive more than anything and let the small stuff go.”