Gig Harbor resident Sheila Aay has always had a passion for teaching and education. She spent the last 5 years as a special education teacher and was planning to start a professional tutoring business when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I pretty well knew what it was”
Aay said her journey with breast cancer started in November 2011. She said she was giving herself a regular breast exam in the shower when she felt a lump in her left breast.
“I was amazed because it wasn’t there a day ago,” she recalled. “But I pretty well knew what it was.”
Unlike cysts, which tend to be soft and mushy, she said the tumor felt hard and rooted.
“As the days had gone by while I waited for my appointment, I could actually feel it grow. I could feel the stretching of the tissue around it,” she said.
Aay said her mother had breast cancer, however, genetic testing did not show any signs that she, too, had the same risk.
The 59-year-old mother of two said she was in disbelief and fear, especially because she didn't have health insurance.
“I was in the process of revamping my career options,” she said. “Taking cancer 101 wasn’t on my agenda.”
She qualified for the Breast, Cervical & Colon Health Program at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, which supports women with limited income and no health insurance.
“Mammograms don't catch everything”
In December, Aay went under multiple tests, MRI and CT scans, brain scans and biopsy at the Carol Milgard Breast Center in Tacoma. Doctors eventually diagnosed her for Stage 2 invasive ductal breast cancer.
In addition, the MRI also spotted cancer in her right breast, something that the mammogram had missed.
“I couldn’t feel the other one,” she said. “But mammograms don't catch everything.”
Friends and family, including Aay’s two daughters Eve and Susan and her sisters Pamela and Arlene, quickly stepped in to form a support group.
“I tried to learn everything I could”
Aay began her chemotherapy treatment at St. Anthony Hospital’s Jane Thompson Russell Cancer Care Center in January. She had to have 3 different kinds of chemotherapy once every three weeks, which took about three and a half hours each time.
“The kind of cancer I had, the stage and score that they gave me warranted really strong drugs,” she said.
At the Gig Harbor hospital, Aay enrolled in an education class where patients learn about the treatments and what to expect during the process.
She said the program prepared her with multiple topics including cosmetics and nutrition.
For example, she said had to give up her favorite herbal peppermint tea because it counteracted with one of her chemotherapies.
“I tried to learn everything I could,” she said.
“Everything tasted like aluminum”
She said chemotherapy affected her sense of taste.
“Everything tasted like aluminum. I would try to eat something, and it would just be gross,” she recalled.
As a result, she lost nearly 25 pounds during the treatment.
She said her diet consisted of mostly cereal with milk and strawberries. But in order to provide nutrients to her body, she often times had to force herself to eat other food.
“Somebody would make me something, and I ate three or four bites of it, and that was it. I couldn’t have any more of it or I gagged.”
From what she had learned in her chemotherapy classes, she was very mindful of what went into her body.
Since sugar also counteracted with her medicine, she swore off all sweets, with the exception of cheesecake. In fact, Aay said she hasn’t had any cake, pies or cookies since last November. (Aay did rave about the quality of food at St. Anthony. She recommended the split-pea soup.)
Another side effect included peripheral neuropathy. As chemotherapy attacked cancer cells, it also damaged end nerves, causing numbness in her fingers and toes.
“You drop things, you can’t hold on to things,” she said. “I’ve lost the sensation in my fingers. When your toes get cold, it’s painful.”
“Oh yea, you have cancer”
Extreme fatigue was another issue Aay dealt with during her treatment.
“It was an effort to just get up and move from one place to another,” she said.
Despite her willing spirit, Aay was not able to drive or cook and constantly had to take naps throughout the day.
“I would be lying in bed a lot of times, and I think, ‘Oh, I feel pretty good.' I’ll sit up and I’ll go, ‘Oh yea, you have cancer.'”
“Radiation was mentally the worst for me”
Aay underwent surgery for double mastectomy in June. (Click on the video to listen as Aay talks about her experience before her surgery.)
Finally, Aay started her radiation treatment at St. Anthony in August, which lasted every day for 5 weeks.
“The radiation was mentally the worst for me, emotionally, because it was every day,” she said.
She said the harsh radiation gave her sore throat and back burns on her shoulders.
With only 2 days left of her treatment, she hit a wall.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. I was in so much radiation burn pain. Mentally and emotionally, I could not do it,” she said. “I told the hospital, ‘I’m done. I’m done with radiation. I’m not coming back,’” she said.
Despite her reservations, Aay was able to complete her treatment thanks to the support from her doctors, she said. St. Anthony even awarded her with a certificate and a cup to celebrate her accomplishments.
Almost a year after putting her life and career on the back burner, Aay is forced to face the reality.
During her treatment, she received help from non-profit organizations like Gig Harbor FISH, United Way, Salvation Army, and Key Peninsula Community Services. Aay said the Breast, Cervical & Colon Health Program also covered all of her appointments and medical bills.
However, she said she hasn’t paid her mortgage in 9 months and is now struggling with depression. In addition, she said most of her clothes don’t fit due to her drastic weight loss.
To learn more about Aay’s journey, visit her blog page at The Lighthouse Community website. The non-profit organization, based out of Puyallup, allows you to donate money to benefit Aay. So far, she has raised $424, and her goal is to raise $10,000.
Click here to learn more about St. Anthony Hospital’s Jane Thompson Russell Cancer Care Center.