Our cancer journey

Colleen Elisabeth Chao

Colleen Elisabeth Chao is an editor and author. She enjoys dark-dark chocolate, side-splitting laughter, and half-read books piled bedside. She makes her home near Boise, Idaho, with her husband Eddie, their son Jeremy, and Willow the dog. 

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Our cancer journey

Our cancer journey

Our cancer journey

If you know me, you’ve heard me say again and again, “Cancer doesn’t have the corner on the market of suffering.” Nor does cancer define me. (In fact, it’s one of the shorter chapters in my life’s story.) So I’m often hesitant to overemphasize or overshare details of it. There are many other kinds of suffering, some far worse than a terminal diagnosis.

Plus, by nature I’m a private person (not quiet, but private!), so posting personal information online always feels like I’m high diving into a bathtub: equal parts scary and foolish. Anyone else feel me on this? 😉

But over the years I’ve learned that this online space can be a gift—a unique way to share the love of Jesus and encourage others. And because many of you are also walking through cancer (your own or your loved one’s), I think it could be helpful if I share a few more details of our journey with you. Reading others’ experiences with cancer has helped me over these years: to normalize some of the crazy, to validate some of the hard, to strengthen me for the next step.

All that to say—I hope this summary of our cancer journey is helpful, not scary or overwhelming. I hope too that you can picture me sitting here at my desk with a mug of hot black decaf coffee, writing this account with miraculous peace, blown away by a God who has woven his extraordinary goodness into every dark detail and grief-filled day of the past five years. I’ll say it again: God never ever cheats his children—he always out-gives them. May you feel the truth of that even as you read this summary.

~ ~ ~

In July 2017, I felt a pea-sized lump in my right breast as I showered. After a long, complicated testing process, I was diagnosed with cancer (stage 2B, IDC, triple positive, Chek2) on November 7.

A slew of appointments and scans followed, and we formed my treatment team (medical oncologist, surgical oncologist, reconstructive/plastic surgeon, integrative MD, and holistic oncologist). Three days before Christmas, I had my right sentinel lymph node removed and my port placed. (The pea-sized mass was now bigger than a golf ball.) Twelve weekly rounds of neo-adjuvant chemo (Taxol, Carboplatin, Herceptin, Perjeta) began January 12, 2018. In May, a few weeks after my twelfth and final dose, I had a double-mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. We rejoiced over the news that the cancer was gone, and I began maintenance chemo and hormone therapy.

In October 2018 my port was removed, and by February 2019 all treatment was officially wrapped up, my hair was making a quick comeback, and I felt better overall. It was just 19 months from mass discovery to treatment’s end—and although I still struggled with chronic infections and some lingering side effects, I felt confident the cancer was gone for good.

When I found a little lump on my neck in August 2020, my oncologist ordered a PET scan—which insurance refused to approve. A less comprehensive scan was approved instead, and the results came back clear. That was December 2020.

One month later, I felt the faintest pain in my right arm pit as I applied deodorant—and a few weeks after that, my right ribs and hip began hurting. I initially assumed I’d injured them in a HIIT workout (hello there, middle age), but when the pain in my armpit grew into a palpable lump, I grew suspicious. We began the testing process all over again, even as our family packed to move out of state. Two days before our move, I had multiple lymph nodes biopsied—and one week later (5 days after we landed in Idaho), I heard the results: the cancer was back. I quickly established with a new cancer center, had a PET scan, and on June 2, 2021, heard the unthinkable: stage four. Incurable. The cancer was on my spine, ribs, hips, and in my lymph nodes. Within weeks, it also spread to my chest wall. The metastases were growing like wildfire, causing increasing pain that, by July, made it difficult for me to dress, walk, drive, bend, etc. I couldn’t imagine surviving one year—even though I was resolved to fight for every last day with my husband and son.

In June 2021 I spent two weeks at an integrative clinic in St. George, where I was able to resolve some of my chronic infections, fortify my body, and find holistic support and supplements for the rigorous journey ahead. When I returned, I had a new port placed and chemo began (Taxol, Herceptin, Perjeta), as well as hormone therapy. With a few breaks along the way (as my wonderful oncologist is deeply committed to quality of life!), I finished 12 rounds of Taxol in November 2021, then continued on Herceptin and Perjeta (often referred to as “maintenance chemo,” but technically immunotherapy). Because I was not able to tolerate hormone therapy—the goal of which is to starve estrogen-hungry cancer and thereby “buy me more time”—I opted for a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (i.e., they yanked out my ovaries and fallopian tubes, ha!) this past May, resulting in Instapot Menopause (thank you, Lis, for that term of perfection).

In September, due to my body’s struggle to tolerate perpetual maintenance chemo, I took a month off (glorious, glorious month!). Currently I’m back to infusions every three weeks and I’m continuing my protocol of naturopathic treatments. (On a side note: many people message me with a variety of cancer cures, but I’m so grateful for and perfectly at peace with how God has led us to wed allopathic and naturopathic treatments for my body’s unique needs and cancer diagnosis.) God is graciously using these myriad treatments and daily protocols to hold the cancer at bay for now, and we are unbelievably grateful for this miraculous gift of more time.

Of course, the gift of more time comes at a high price—my body is indescribably weary and weakened from over five years of cancer and treatments and surgeries and testing (on the heels of a decade of chronic illness). Ironically, I look fine, healthy even, but I have less and less resilience and energy. I spend 13 to 14 of every 24 hours in bed, and I often tire after completing simple tasks or social interactions. YET I’m living more fully than ever before, I’m experiencing more of Jesus than I ever thought possible, and I’m convinced that this terminal diagnosis is one of the greatest gifts God has ever entrusted to me. (For more on that, you can read my Cancer Updates and articles on this site.)

I’ll leave you with a Scripture passage I’ve come to dearly love (and cling to):

“Therefore, we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what I seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

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