By MARILYN TINNIN
Darlene Gore—A Breast Cancer Journey
Darlene Gore sat in the treatment room at MD Anderson Cancer Center last year. She was awaiting the news on her annual scans. Even though eleven years had passed since her original diagnosis of stage IV metastatic invasive ductile carcinoma and she had been living each year in the category of NED (no evidence of disease), there was always some anxiety associated with this appointment. She had pretty much defied the odds as the longest surviving stage IV patient without a single recurrence. Her original hope had been to live just one year—long enough to see her oldest daughter walk down the aisle.
According to her prognosis at the time, a year was going to be a long shot. Although her doctors would not talk to her about survival rates telling her that everyone’s cancer is unique, she had done exactly what she was told not to do in the beginning. She looked online and discovered that with treatment, she had a 2% chance of living for one year.
As He has been known to do, God answered her prayer in an Ephesians 3:20 sort of way, beyond all that Darlene could ask, dream, or imagine. She has seen both her daughters marry. She has been blessed with five precious grandchildren. Life has been, for the most part, abundant and full of love, laughter, friends, and the opportunity to wake up every new day with a sense of gratitude and deep joy. Still, she took nothing for granted each time she walked through the doors at MD Anderson.
Finally, the team of doctors who had become almost an extension of her family entered. Eyes brimming with tears, Dr. Beranis said, “We are going to use the ‘C’ word today.” Darlene’s heart dropped and she held her breath. She knew only one ‘C’ word. But he continued, “Cured.” He added that never had there been another Stage 4 survivor at MD Anderson to hear that word.
“We fell on our knees,” Darlene says.
The Journey Began
Darlene Arnold Gore is a speech-language pathologist by profession. Working in a hospital setting for decades had made her especially mindful of regular health screenings. She had never missed her annual mammogram, and she had not skipped it that particular year either. It was 2004, her fiftieth year, and she passed her annual exam with flying colors that spring.
Just one week after the “normal” mammogram report, she noticed a sore lump in her left breast. Surely it was nothing serious, but she called her doctor to see if she should be concerned. He reassured her that it was unlikely anything to cause alarm but suggested she come on in to make sure.
Darlene’s confidence began to wilt when the doctor examined her and said that an ultrasound was indicated. She had wanted to hear, “Oh, this is nothing. Here is a pill, and it will dissolve by itself.” Such was not the case, and when he told her that it would likely be at least a week before she would be able to get the ultrasound, she began to cry pleading that they find someone who would do the ultrasound sooner.
Hanging in the balance between certainty and uncertainty was just not something Darlene thought she could handle. As a woman who describes herself as a “fixer,” she was accustomed to knowing the facts, weighing her options, and solving the problem. The only totally unacceptable situation, or so she thought, was NOT to know what she was dealing with here. The ultrasound was scheduled for the next day. She convinced herself this nightmare would be over within 24 hours, and she would have her nice normal life back. She had so talked herself into that scenario that she refused to let her husband Jay accompany her to Memphis for the ultrasound the next day.
However, she could tell even before the doctor got the words out of his mouth that the ultrasound was not going to give her the news she wanted. She was told she would be having a biopsy right away.
Every bit of news seemed to get worse. There were three tumors in her left breast, all formed separately. She would meet the surgeon that very day and schedule her surgery as soon as he could do it. The biopsy reports would reveal the kind of cancer they were dealing with and she would follow up her mastectomy with numerous rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
The surgeon seemed to be in such a hurry. Darlene had questions like, “Don’t we need to know if the cancer has spread to somewhere else? Shouldn’t we get a second opinion?” Every question she asked brought a brusque reply from the surgeon.
Only one short week stood between that day’s whirlwind of tests and a major surgery that she felt woefully unprepared to undergo. Darlene asked the staff in her physician’s clinic to call MD Anderson. She and Jay agreed that was the place to go to get a second opinion, one that would give her the peace she needed to deal with whatever battle was ahead.
The bad news was that MD Anderson would not be taking any new patients for six weeks. As Darlene says, she is just obstinate enough to persevere either around or through an obstacle. One of her closest friends was Irma Paris Buchanan, whose father just happened to have a cousin who was a physician in Houston. Although he did not work at MD Anderson, he had many connections there. It was a long shot, but Darlene planned to leave no stone unturned. Maybe. Just maybe.
Henry Paris was in the middle of a golf game that afternoon, but miraculously he answered the telephone even though he did not recognize the number. Darlene recounts the story in her book. “Immediately, he called his cousin in Houston (who, as Jay says, “didn’t know us from Adam’s house cat”), who immediately stopped whatever he was doing at his practice in the middle of the afternoon and made a phone call. About an hour later, as we crossed the Yalobusha River Bridge, only ten minutes from our home, we got a phone call from MD Anderson. I had an appointment for eight the very next morning.”
Darlene and Jay were instructed to bring the tissue slides of her biopsies (which were ninety miles behind in the lab in Memphis), a bone scan, a CT scan (which she had not had at this point), and to show up at 8 a.m. the very next morning in Houston, Texas, which was a nine-hour drive from Grenada. These two did not for one second consider that to be an impossible dream. As Darlene says, “We are just hard headed can-do people.”
A Memphis friend picked up the tissue slides before the lab closed while two Grenada friends headed up I-55 to meet her halfway. Another Grenada friend, a radiologist, kept his staff late to do the requested scans.
Just before Jay and Darlene pulled out of their driveway for Houston at 9 p.m., they stood in their kitchen with daughter, Meredith, who prayed, “Heavenly Father, we know You have a plan, and for some reason, You have ordained these days. We beg you now for peace, total healing, and supernatural strength that only You can give. Keep Dad’s hands steady at the wheel and Mom’s hope secure. Keep them strong, Lord. Protect them. Heal them.”
Jay and Darlene drove all night, arriving for that appointment at straight up eight o’clock the next morning. The tall, dark oncologist, Dr. Esteva, took the scans and the slides Darlene had brought with her. He was soft-spoken and very serious as he told Darlene and Jay that there were suspicious spots on her liver. An MRI and a biopsy confirmed the cancer had spread.
Darlene was now considered a metastatic Stage IV breast cancer patient, a category that did not have a one-size-fits-all protocol for treatment. She would not be a candidate for surgery, nor would she be leaving MD Anderson anytime soon. Chemotherapy would begin right away.
Cancer has undeniable power to wreak havoc far beyond the physical body of the patient. The entire network of friends and family find their lives disrupted as they attempt to carry on a semblance of normalcy while an oppressive weight seems to have wrapped itself around their own heart and soul.
Jay’s steady and even temperament did not waiver on the outside. Whatever despair and fear he may have felt, he continued to be the strong silent type. He describes his intentional effort to demonstrate to his daughters how to respond to adversity. He knew as a Christian husband and father that Meredith and Grace would forever remember every nuance, conversation, and prayer during this trial. As Darlene was courageously fighting for her life, he was fighting to support her and to show his daughters how to deal with whatever the future would hold.
Grace, age 20 at the time, describes a season when she could not pray. “I would try to pray, but no words would come. It was only after that season had passed that I found out a dear friend from our home church had been led to pray on my behalf. He had no idea that I was dealing with an inability to pray on my own. It still gives me chills to think that the Holy Spirit would intercede for me in such a way. The fear of Mom dying was very real. I never lost faith that she would be in Heaven, but was terrified of the thought of not having her here in this life with us.”
Meredith, age 22 in 2004, says there was just a sheer penetrating sadness that was always there. The summer was filled with chemo and waiting and knowing there were no guarantees that any of the aggressive treatment was going to extend her mom’s life by even one extra month.
Darlene’s sister, Gay, poured her efforts into locating a stage IV metastatic breast cancer survivor who could offer Darlene some encouragement. After an exhaustive search through the MD Anderson Network of 1,700 current and former patients, the reality was that there was not a single stage IV survivor.
Darlene was not going down without a fight. Although her every waking thought was focused on beating the Cancer monster, she was unknowingly teaching everyone around her the authenticity of her walk with her Lord.
Scripture was indeed her “sword of the spirit,” just as God was her Father and the Source of her courage and strength.
Darlene says, “I knew in my heart that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust, but we, as His children, need to embrace His ways even when we don’t understand what’s going on. We didn’t know any of the answers to the ‘why’ questions, and I began to ask, ‘what’ instead. What, Lord? What do you want me to do? What are you trying to teach me?”
A Heartfelt Prayer
There was quite a sense of fraternity among the families who trudged through “Cancerland.” This was one place where there was no self-consciousness about appearance. Bald heads were the norm, and total strangers shared their personal stories, their joys and sorrows. There were no rich people and poor people. There were none of the artificial lines drawn between one group of people and another. There were only people who shared the same invading enemy and a common desire to get well.
Darlene had not been there very long when a kind man named George handed her a small book, Healed of Cancer by Dodie Osteen, mother of Joel Osteen. The book recounted her metastatic cancer of the liver, but focuses on forty specific scriptures that had been her go-to during her illness. Darlene found the book to be very encouraging, and she called Lakewood Church to see if she could order more copies.
A friendly receptionist mentioned that there was a healing service every Tuesday. As Darlene recounts the story in her book, she admits to being highly skeptical. The thought of a healing service conjured up images of a circus atmosphere led by loud, glitzy television evangelists. She was, however, curious.
Grace happened to be staying with her that week, and she persuaded her daughter to go with her to check it out. Darlene was bedecked in a floppy hat, gloves, and a mask as they drove through the congested freeway and into the church parking lot. Mother and daughter had argued the entire way there. Grace’s account in Darlene’s book is really quite hysterical until she shares their encounter with Dodie Osteen.
There was none of the flash and dash associated with the Osteen prosperity gospel. The enormous room was filled with sick people. There were no microphones, bright lights, books for sale, or people falling on the floor claiming healing. Dodie Osteen was at the front, quietly moving from person to person, speaking softly and personally to each one, then taking their hands and praying.
When she came to Darlene and Grace, Darlene told her that she wanted to live long enough to see her daughter marry the next spring. That was obviously not a big enough request for the God to whom Dodie was going to pray. With a few more questions, Darlene confessed she wanted to see her younger daughter marry also, and yes, she wanted to know her grandchildren. Darlene had not let herself ask for something so big.
Tears all around as Dodie Osteen prayed with sincerity using Scripture and praying in the name of Jesus. As Grace said, “This was a major life moment for me. So often I have caught myself going back to this experience in times of uncertainty to be reminded of just how sovereign God is.”
A Rocky Road Left to Travel
The risks associated with cancer treatment are many. The list of potential side effects, from infection, low immunity, and the toxic effects of chemotherapy, are all threats to the patient who is fighting to beat cancer. The road to recovery was riddled with potholes for Darlene.
In August 2004, she suffered a pulmonary embolism. She was told how fortunate she was that it was discovered BEFORE an autopsy. Needless to say, that was a temporary setback.
In October, scans showed her to be in remission although her doctors told her with near certainty that remission would likely be very short-lived. Darlene was overjoyed because it gave her hope that she would indeed live to see her daughter Meredith walk down the aisle in a few months.
Dr. Esteva also told her when he delivered that good news that he wanted her to see Dr. Curley the next day. He was doing some innovative research on metastatic cancer. Darlene, of course, went back to her apartment and googled everything she could find on Dr. Curley. The words “curing metastatic cancer” appeared in the information. Darlene tried not to get her hopes up, but she met with him the next day.
Dr. Curley had examined Darlene’s records and told her she was a good candidate for a possible cure. There was just one lobe of her liver affected by the cancer. That fact was significant. A surgery to remove just that part of her liver followed by a mastectomy would give her a very good chance to beat the “C” word permanently.
The preparation for such an ambitious cure would involve several rounds of brutal chemotherapy with a potent drug that she had not yet experienced. There were no guarantees, but there was a real ray of hope. What would she do?
Darlene was torn. No doubt the surgery would put her tired body through even more difficult challenges than she had just come through. But it just might give her many years, to grow old with Jay, to see Meredith AND Grace marry, and to know the joy of grandchildren.
She took a day to pray about it, but the next morning she was still not certain what to do. When she asked Dr. Esteva who had taken such amazing care of her these past four months what he would want her to do if she were his wife, the answer came back, yes, he would want her to go for it.
She was all in. She rolled up her sleeves and prepared to continue her fight.
The Toughest Leg of the Journey
Darlene’s body was definitely weakened from the previous treatment. The new regimen was ferocious, but she was determined to follow through. Her medical team agreed to let her go home for a short visit in early November as long as she stayed away from crowds. It was Grace’s twenty-first birthday.
All began well, but about the third day Darlene landed in the emergency room with a neutropenic fever of 104°F. She was gravely ill and placed in isolation. Her immune system was simply wiped out. Her head pounded with pain, and she lay there in what seemed like a suspended state thinking how odd it seemed that she would die in Grenada rather than in Houston.
But to everyone’s surprise, she did rebound. A week later, wearing her gloves and mask, she was headed back to MD Anderson. She was still fighting.
She finished what was intended to be her final round of chemo on December 7 and scheduled the big surgery for January 7. Darlene had missed being home for Thanksgiving, and she begged her doctors to let her go home for Christmas. With promises to follow instructions to the letter, she was looking forward to celebrating another Christmas with the family she loved more deeply than ever before. She would take nothing for granted.
It was Christmas Eve when she began to feel faint. Surely this was not going to be a replay of her November visit. Her temperature registered 104.2°F, but this time it was not neutropenic fever. She was septic—the deadly Methylcillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was raging. This was the closest Darlene ever came to just giving up.
Again, however, to everyone’s surprise, she continued to fight. Weakened by the months of chemo, she was back in isolation although this time she was at home with home health administering intravenous antibiotics. Her surgery would be postponed.
“That’s the only time I felt like I could not even pray,” Darlene says. “I really thought I had planned everything out so that I would be done with everything in time for Meredith’s wedding in April.” She had lived with so much uncertainty this past year. Now she had been handed another big dose of it.
“I believe in intercessory prayer,” Darlene says. “I began to look at the baskets of cards I had received over the past months and remember that those people are praying for me.” She knew she had to keep going.
The MRSA setback did indeed cause a delay. When Darlene returned to Houston after the MRSA event, the surgery was put on the back burner until she was stronger. She busied herself with Meredith’s wedding plans and tried to resist the fears that began to prey on her mind.
She discovered there are 366 “fear not” scriptures in the Bible. She read them over and over as she waited for tests that would tell her if she was still a candidate for the surgery. Unless her scans continued to show no signs of cancer, the surgery was not an option.
Finally the day came. On February 4, 2005, Darlene was rolled into surgery for a liver resection and radical mastectomy. She and Jay had prayed together the night before and that morning before she checked into the hospital at 5 a.m.
Darlene says, “I tried to be in a state of prayer and thankfulness for making it this far, but after hearing all the risks and signing the papers of consent, I did not know if I would wake up or not.” Fortunately, it was just seconds before the anesthetic sent her off into a deep sleep.
Ten-and-a-half hours later Darlene opened her eyes. She was alone and there were tubes everywhere. She was still lightheaded from the anesthetic, but all she wanted to know was, “Is it gone? Is the cancer gone?” As her family began drifting in with smiles and good news, the story they tell is that she began to sing “Oh, Happy Day” into the pain pump button.
Nothing Is Ever the Same
The “Cancerland” journey behind her, Darlene has quite intentionally documented lessons learned. As difficult as those lessons were as they were being learned, they are of great value indelibly written across her heart and embedded in her soul.
Relationships—with God and with others—are the real treasures in life.
Waiting is hard, but it is a wonderful reminder that we are not in control. Cancer taught “Darlene the Fixer” who she is and who God is in a way she had never known before. Her life these days carries far fewer to-do lists, and nothing takes precedence over her keeping the Lord in the driver’s seat!
She learned that God’s promises are true and that when He said, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness,” He meant that, too.
Over the last few years, Darlene has had many opportunities to share her story with others.
As a member of the MD Anderson network, newly diagnosed patients or their families frequently contact her. “Nothing gives me greater joy than to share my experiences and help others realize they are not alone in this journey. My desire now in life is to tell people about my Lord who loved, saved, and healed me. The truth is that my cancer could come back at any time, or I could get hit by a car tomorrow. Or I could live another twenty years. Death will happen to me just like it does to everyone.”
With a warm smile and glistening eyes she adds with certainty, “God is in charge of all my days.”