Strange as it may sound, Tracy Chambers was “kind of relieved” to hear she had breast cancer. That’s because she’d been feeling badly for a few years, and she suspected something was wrong. But until the spring of 2011 when she came to UC Irvine Medical Center, she didn’t know what it was.
“When I finally got a diagnosis,” she says, “I thought, ‘Now I have something to fight against.’”
She was hopeful the cancer would be contained and the treatment swift and sure. But tests revealed that the cancer had spread beyond her left breast and armpit lymph node to her spine and shoulder blade. The day she heard the results she stayed up past midnight reading about the dismal survival rates for women with stage IV breast cancer—and she lost it.
“I cried my guts out that night,” she remembers through fresh tears more than 4½ years later. “I cried like my life was over.” It’s been a roller-coaster ride since, but that was the last time Chambers surrendered to despair.
“I think cancer either breaks you or it turns you into someone who realizes how precious everything is and how to enjoy what you do have.”
“Cancer does change your perspective,” says the 46-year-old wife and mother. “I think it either breaks you or it turns you into someone who realizes how precious everything is and how to enjoy what you do have.”
Chambers would not be broken. With a positive attitude, a little humor and a lot of guts, she got on with life.
Through weekly chemo sessions, she solidified a friendship with a girlfriend who sat with her during the treatments. When she picked up her daughter, Charlie, from preschool, she’d take off her wig to show her bald head to Charlie’s classmates, who would squeal: “Do it again! Do it again!”
Her New Normal
Chambers delights in everyday problems. So the cat barfs on the floor, oh well. Getting 9-year-old Charlie to karate after the orthodontist after school—no problem. She keeps busy with the Girl Scout troop she founded and co-leads, volunteers as her PTA’s historian and serves as a recreational aide at her daughter’s school in Long Beach.
All that welcome normality helps to temper the difficulty of what she’s been through, including 10 surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. She takes the medication Tamoxifen to help prevent breast cancer recurrence and Xgeva to help prevent bone cancer recurrence.
Chambers is grateful to have come to UC Irvine Health—even more so since learning that a mammogram and ultrasound performed at another institution missed the cancer that was already forming in 2008. She has complete faith in her healthcare team here. “It’s huge to have doctors who you can put your life in their hands, literally,” she says.
Karen Lane, MD, from UC Irvine Health Breast Care Center—the physician who performed Chambers’ surgery—“feels like a sister to me. She talks to you with kind eyes; she has a calming effect.” She also praises Leonard Sender, MD, director of oncology services at the UC Irvine Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and a specialist in young adult cancers, and Keyianoosh Paydar, MD, with UC Irvine Health Aesthetics & Plastic Surgery.
And she can’t say enough about the staff overall. Going back there, which she thankfully doesn’t have to do very often these days, is a little like walking into the bar on the TV show Cheers, where the regulars shout “Norm!” as that character walks into the neighborhood saloon “where everyone knows your name,” as the song goes.
Through dealing with her breast cancer, she has gained an appreciation for her own strength. She knew she was strong, but she wasn’t so sure her family did. “I was the wimpy one in the family, the sensitive one, the middle of three girls,” she explains. “Now they think of me differently.”
But the cancer has zapped some of the strength she needs to continue as a wedding photographer, which is both physically and emotionally demanding. She’s happy that her husband, Jon, is able and willing to work five 12-hour days each week as a mechanic for an airline’s ground vehicles. But she’s eager to get to back to contributing to the family finances. So, now in her mid-40s, she’s looking at reinventing herself in a different career.
Chambers explains that having been diagnosed with stage IV cancer means she’ll never be considered cured. “Remission” is a word that neither she nor her physicians use, but she feels as “cancer-free” now as she’ll ever be. And she has hope that she’ll be able to watch her daughter grow, get married and have children.
Before her diagnosis, Chambers had a propensity to get depressed. But she hasn’t had a truly blue spell since. “As long as I’m alive, it’s good.”