September 29, 2013 | by Roberta Nichols
When Sterling Abbott takes her 20-month-old son to the park, grandmothers often approach her to admire the cheerful, blue-eyed toddler – and offer advice.
“Just appreciate these days,” they’ll say. “They go so fast.”
Thirty-five-year-old Abbott, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, does not need to be reminded to cherish her time.
“I feel like I understand that in a way that I wouldn’t have [before the diagnosis],” she said.
Abbott, a former accountant for an investment fund in Dallas, moved to California with her husband, Chris, in 2011 when he was offered a job as an executive with a food company. Settling in Orange County, they were elated to learn that she was pregnant. Their son was born in January 2012.
While breastfeeding the baby, Abbott discovered a lump in her breast. She initially attributed it to hormonal changes, but it lingered in the same spot and “always felt the same.” She made an appointment to have it examined in February 2013.
Fortunately, a nurse practitioner in her obstetrician’s office did not dismiss the lump. “That was a big blessing for us, especially given the breast-feeding wrinkle, because had she just said, ‘Let’s wait six months,’ I would have said ‘OK.’”
Instead, Abbott immediately underwent a mammogram and an ultrasound followed by a needle biopsy, which led to a diagnosis of HER-2 positive breast cancer, one of the most aggressive forms of the disease.
A friend from her church who had been successfully treated at City of Hope was “very insistent that we get a second opinion at City of Hope.”
The diagnosis soon was confirmed by Laura Kruper, M.D., head of breast surgery service at City of Hope and director of its Rita Cooper Finkel and J. William Finkel Women’s Health Center. Presented with her options, Abbott chose to have a double mastectomy.
She remembers her joy of being a first-time mother colliding with the reality of the life-threatening diagnosis, a realization crashing into her like waves.
She fought the feeling of helplessness by researching everything she could find on HER 2-positive breast cancer. “It’s such a new vocabulary. If you don’t even know the meanings when you go to the meetings with the professionals, it’s hard to make decisions.”
One of her first decisions was one of the most painful. Given the diagnostic tests and treatments she faced, “it became very clear that I immediately had to wean my baby. Thankfully, he had just started having one bottle of nonbreast milk a day.”
For six weeks after surgery, Abbott was not allowed to lift her son. “It made me feel like I was falling down on my job of being a stay-at-home mom.”
Yet her son took these changes in stride. “He’s a very social, sweet-mannered boy,” she said. “This diagnosis was not a surprise to God, and he blessed us with a child that has really handled this amazingly well. It was a lot harder on me, I think, in hindsight.”
She has found solace in family, friends and former breast cancer patients. “It’s very important to connect with people who have been down the same road, especially those who are just a little further ahead in treatment.” With other survivors, “you will not be perceived as being negative or hopeless when you’re just sharing things that are difficult.”
Abbott has a message for women, particularly younger women who might think they are immune to such a diagnosis. “It’s kind of a dark message, but you can’t assume that this could never happen to you,” she said.
“You need to trust your instincts when you think something might be wrong, instead of burying your head in the sand. You can be hopeful that if there is something wrong, you can get good treatment and you can get through it.”
Abbott has completed chemotherapy, but will continue to receive Herceptin treatments for an additional seven months near her home in Orange County. She also plans to undergo reconstructive surgery at City of Hope next year.
“I have been so pleased with my care at City of Hope. The team is really incredible, from the surgeons to the cleaning staff. They always speak to you and go out of their way to make your care amazing.”
Above all, she has been sustained by her faith, which she now embraces even more tightly.
“I know that we’re not promised tomorrow,” she said. “That presents itself in a very personal way when you’re diagnosed with cancer,” she added, her voice breaking. “Hopefully, I’m using my time more intentionally, and being more grateful and thankful that I’m alive.”
Now, when grandmothers fuss over her baby and remind her to enjoy her days, she just smiles.
“Life,” said Abbott, “is such a gift.”