It is hard to imagine someone more diligent in checking for cancer than Terri Butz. Yet even so, the Richland woman didn't catch her breast cancer until it almost was too late.
Butz, 51, began receiving annual mammograms at age 35 on her doctor's recommendation because her tissue is dense and hard to read, making diagnosis especially difficult. Two years later, a benign lump was detected and removed, and she continued regular self-exams and annual mammograms.
In late 2006, she noticed something unusual. As she was due to be checked anyway, she headed to the doctor, and tests came back normal.
Then life started going haywire. In January 2007, her daughter Ashley became very ill, and the beloved family dog started having seizures.
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"As a mom, my focus wasn't on me," she said.
In the back of her mind, she remained suspicious, so in early June, she went in for an ultrasound and mammogram, even though she wasn't yet due for her annual check. Tests showed something suspicious, and her doctor wanted more tests. Later that month, she got the diagnosis: aggressive infiltrating ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer, and it was stage 2B with two tumors.
"It was a Friday afternoon," she said. "That just shook my world."
In July, Butz went through four rounds of chemotherapy, then had a mastectomy at the University of Washington. During the surgery, a third tumor was discovered. In addition, 18 lymph nodes were removed, 10 of which proved to be cancerous. Butz's condition was changed to stage 3C.
Because she also was having some back problems, Butz had an MRI. It showed the cancer had metastasized into her spine, and she was recategorized as stage 4.
"That was a test of my faith," she said. "I began to wonder, 'Can it get any worse?' "
It would get worse before it got better. After the surgery, she went through four more rounds of chemotherapy, followed by radiation treatments, a hysterectomy and a year of infusions with the drug Herceptin. By November 2009, Butz was done and, remarkably, free of the cancer.
Someone who hasn't been through the battle might not understand how cancer can provide blessings along with trauma, but Butz does.
She marvels at the more than 100 people who took care of her throughout the ordeal. About the meals that were lovingly prepared for her family for six straight months. About the "angel basket" that was anonymously filled with goodies and left on her doorstep every morning during her treatments.
If not for her cancer, Butz might not have connected with someone who now is one of her dearest friends. They are the same age and were diagnosed with breast cancer on the same day. They met a few months later and went through treatment and recovery together. When one had a bad day, the other understood.
As she faced her cancer, Butz often asked, "God, what am I supposed to be learning from this?" she said. She now sees her role as one who can assist others through the journey.
"I have been blessed to help lots of women over the past couple of years," she said. "I won't usually even know them, but I'll spend an hour on the phone with them. I've been able to use my experience on the other side of the fence to give them hope."
-- The lavender ribbon we are using in this series represents awareness of all cancers.