July 1st, 2016 was a day that not only turned one Central Alberta woman’s life upside down, it was also a day that would impact her life forever for the better.
Lisa Duke, 35, a young mother of two children aged three and five at the time, discovered a lump in her left breast and went to the doctor the next day.
She was sent for a mammogram and was then pulled into another room for an ultrasound immediately after.
“The radiologist came in and said this isn’t normal – we need to do an emergency biopsy today,” said Duke.
“This all happened on a Tuesday and the results came back on a Friday – they were positive for cancer and they found more in my lymph nodes under my arms.”
She was diagnosed with Stage 2B cancer.
Duke then went to see a surgeon who said they did not have time to operate; chemotherapy had to start immediately as the cancer was not caught in the early stages.
“By August 4th I had my chemo started here in Red Deer.”
Since then, she has undergone a number of chemotherapy treatments – the most aggressive kind that could be done – all of which left horrendous side effects.
“Losing all my hair was one of the toughest – I always had long hair.
“When chemo started I got it cut short and then it was the second week in after my first treatment, it started falling out in chunks. My hairdresser came and shaved my head and my son shaved his head and my sister’s (Julie Windebank) kids shaved their heads,” said Duke.
“Other side effects were nausea, heart burn, no appetite, eventually losing eyebrows and eye lashes. The next treatments started and that came with extreme bone pain to the point where I couldn’t event walk some days. My finger nails and toenails started coming off.
“They said these are the side effects that you could experience and I experienced most of them to the highest degree that they had probably seen in some cases.”
Duke had surgery in February to remove her left breast.
She also underwent 16 rounds of radiation and is still undergoing herceptin treatment. Still left is another surgery to remove her right breast as well as to have reconstruction done.
She added there is no history of breast cancer in the family.
“Nothing pointed towards that this should happen and that is why it is so crazy that it can just happen to anyone.
“Life changes fast. I went into a spot where I was ‘poor me’ for a little bit and then I went into my first chemo treatment and I was scared to death.
“I’ll never forget, I heard a little kid come in and they don’t often treat children in Red Deer, but on the rare occasion they will. All I could hear was him crying and saying, ‘I don’t want to do this today mommy.’ All of a sudden I had this, thank gosh it’s me and not my kids. It changed my whole perspective,” she said. “Thank gosh I heard that because it could have been a different road for me for sure.
“Some people won’t understand when I say this, but it has been a positive thing in my life – as crazy as it is. Don’t get me wrong, it came with a lot of crap, but it has brought more positives than negatives in my life for sure. Life is good until you have to fight for it. Once you have to fight to live, it’s different.”
Duke said the unwavering support from family and friends as well as the staff at the Central Alberta Cancer Centre helped get her through the fight of her life.
“I want to say how amazing the staff are at the (Central Alberta) Cancer Centre.
“They are some of the most amazing people that I have ever met. I’m so thankful for everything start to finish in Red Deer – I can’t imagine having to travel to do that,” she said, adding seeing her friends and family rally was also a source of motivation.
“We all have friends and we all have family, but to see those people step up was amazing. My freezer was full of meals and baking. When I started this I didn’t want my kids to be affected in that I didn’t want them to lose out on life. Because of this experience they got to do more. People came and picked up my kids to take them to their activities. They got to go to concerts and to the corn maze.”
Duke’s sister Windebank was one of the many people supporting Duke along the way.
“I had no idea what it was like. I don’t know if I could have done it – Lisa is so strong,” said Windebank. “As a caregiver, don’t ask what you can do to help – just show up and do it. You might have 20 people helping you in the beginning, but only three helping you at the end. Be one of those three.”
Moving forward, Duke, who is now cancer-free, wants to be a motivation and support for other women.
“It’s a long journey for anyone that is going to go through it, but there is light at the end,” she said. “I was lucky to have the support, not everyone does. My goal is to help those young moms who can’t cook for their kids. I would be there for anyone in a heart beat. I need to pay it forward.”