ARLINGTON — In 1994, when Barb Hawkins was just 37 years old, she found a lump in the upper part of her breast. She was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer and underwent a lumpectomy and radiation treatment. She took hormone-blocking medication for five years and was considered to be in remission.
For the next 14 years she lived and worked as normal, watching her two daughters grow up and attend Highland Christian School in Arlington, then graduate and begin their own lives.
In 2007, her husband’s father, Vern Hawkins, was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was hard on the entire family, especially her husband James, who had seen the effect that cancer had on his wife 13 years earlier. Then, only months later, Barb went in for her regular mammogram and her doctor noticed something unusual. It turned out to be a reoccurrence of breast cancer — this time, Stage III.
“I was in disbelief,” said Hawkins’ daughter Sarah Lien. “I thought, ‘My mom is healthy, what do you mean she has cancer? I can’t live without my mom. I can’t run a house without my mom. I can’t be a good wife without my mom. What if I have a baby? I can’t do that without my mom.’ The thought of her being gone just freaked me out, but when something like that happens our family just comes closer together.”
“I decided to have a double mastectomy and chemotherapy,” said Barb, who also underwent reconstructive surgery. Her entire treatment concluded in 2010. She thought that it was all over and the family would be able to recover from the pain of multiple cancer diagnoses, but in March of 2010, Barb’s daughter Sarah, then 24 and newly married to her high school sweetheart, told her mother that she had found a lump in her breast.
“I just felt like the fairy tale plan that I had for my life was completely over,” said Sarah. “I felt like life was crumbling around me and I didn’t know what to do.”
Although she was young when she discovered the lump, Sarah said she knew it was cancer.
“Most women my age would have said, ‘I should get that checked out,’” said Sarah. “When I found the lump, I fell on the floor bawling because I knew it was cancer. I called my mom and said I found a lump and she said, ‘We will make an appointment, we will figure this out.’ She was very cool and collected while she was on the phone with me, but I can’t even imagine what was going through her head and how she reacted when she hung up the phone.”
Barb was stunned at her daughter’s discovery.
“It was terrifying because I had just gone through breast cancer, and then to have my daughter, at the age of 24, say she found a lump — it was frightening,” she said. “As a mother, I didn’t want my daughter to go through any of the stuff that I went through. When she was diagnosed, I felt completely helpless to do anything except offer her my support. When your child is in danger, you will do anything. Everything I was feeling about my cancer went on the back burner to focus on Sarah and helping her to find the best treatment plan.”
Sarah was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Stage III breast cancer. She moved from Arlington to Snohomish to be closer to the hospital. Almost as quickly as she was diagnosed, she was told that treatment would destroy her chances of having children.
“They told me that my fertility could be completely wiped out and my chance of having a child would be gone if I had chemotherapy — and I wouldn’t live without chemotherapy,” she said. “I decided to wait on chemo and had a whole regimen of fertility treatments. There was no break for my body doing all this stuff. We saved my embryos and then immediately started chemotherapy.”
Because she was young and her body was able to withstand it, Sarah was on an aggressive chemotherapy treatment.
“I felt so sick,” she said. “I was helpless, laying on the floor, not knowing what to do. Some nights I would sleep in the bathroom because I was so nauseated. I would drop weight, gain weight, and drop weight again. It was a constant battle of trying to stay alive.”
Chemotherapy caused Sarah to lose weight and her hair, and she felt like a different person.
“You just feel like nobody could love this person who is bald,” she said. “You look so different that you don’t even recognize yourself in the mirror when you are that sick. I felt like a light had gone out in my eyes and I was just trying to get through and trying not to die.”
Once her chemotherapy was complete, she underwent a double mastectomy surgery in September of 2010.
“I was 24, I wanted to look good. I wanted to wear my bikini in Hawaii,” she said. “I want to live, but I also don’t want to hate my body for the rest of my life.”
She found a surgeon who was willing to focus on her body after surgery, but it wasn’t the end of pain for Sarah, who used tissue expanders as part of her breast reconstruction. She had her last reconstructive surgery in September of 2011 before beginning radiation in December.
“I had third degree burns from radiation,” said Sarah. “Everything that could have gone wrong in my treatment did. Five days a week for six weeks, and every single day it would get worse, and I’d have more pain. It’s a five minute radiation treatment, and it feels like you are being burned with fire. My skin had third degree burns — all over my chest and my side.”
That fall, Barb participated in the Susan G. Komen three-day Breast Cancer Awareness walk in Seattle.
“Six weeks after the Susan G. Komen, I found a lump on my right side in the armpit area,” she said. “Doctors thought it was probably just scar tissue, but it was diagnosed as cancer again. This was my third diagnosis of breast cancer.”
At that time, Barb had 37 lymph nodes removed — every one of them cancerous.
“It was not a good prognosis,” she said. “They said that from the time of diagnosis in October of 2011, even with treatment, I would only live for two years. We are actually going to Ireland in October this year to celebrate life.”
Barb and her daughter underwent treatment for breast cancer at the same time.
“In 2008, when my mom was going through chemotherapy, I went to all her appointments with her,” said Sarah. “When I was diagnosed, she was at every single chemotherapy treatment with me, even though it was hard and emotional. Then when she was at chemo again, I went to every one with her too. My doctor told me I shouldn’t go because it was putting stress on my body. But I told him, ‘I’m sorry, I’m going to go. She’s my mother and I’m going to be there for her.’ So we were there holding hands, every step of the way together.”
Once Sarah had recovered from her treatment and was cancer-free, she and her husband decided to move to Hawaii, a place with special meaning to the couple.
“I felt that I had my life back,” she said. “We were planning on moving to Hawaii for a year, just to celebrate being alive. In that time, my mom had gone through chemotherapy and there was no cancer in her body. We felt we needed to travel because we’d been robbed by the last three years of life, and we needed to explore and have fun. We went to Hawaii in December of 2012 to look for jobs and apartments. We were excited for our future.”
Their excitement was short-lived, as the family was hit with more crushing news.
“My parents picked us up from the airport and we got home in the middle of the night,” said Sarah. “That’s when my mom said, ‘I have something to share with you guys’ — she told us she had Stage IV bone cancer.”
“I am very fortunate because I do not have any pain at this point,” said Barb. “I’m still working and I’m still living. I guess that’s the one thing that Sarah and I both have learned is not to allow our diagnosis to prevent us from looking at the future.”
Sarah and her husband were still in shock at the news of Barb’s fourth cancer diagnosis.
“We were sitting in the living room on the couches in disbelief,” said Sarah. “’Stage IV’ and ‘terminal’ are never words you want to hear from a family member. We were preparing to move in two weeks and everything we owned was packed in storage, but I couldn’t leave. Not when I didn’t know how long I would have with my mother. There is no way I could leave her when she has been going through every treatment with me and we’ve been fighting this the whole way together. We cried and cried and cried, and finally she said, ‘If you aren’t going to Hawaii, then you better be popping out some grandkids.’”
Sarah didn’t wait to start fulfilling that wish for her mother.
“We transferred two embryos in March and now we are expecting our first child,” she said.
Sarah’s daughter, who will share the middle name Elizabeth with both her mother and grandmother, is due on Nov. 20, 2013, Barb’s birthday.
“I just started crying when I found out my baby was due on my mom’s birthday,” said Sarah. “When we told my family, my mom screamed in a restaurant and started crying. It was three years almost to the day that I had been diagnosed.”
“I have an extremely courageous daughter,” said Barb. “It really is just a miracle that they are having this baby. It’s interesting because I share a birthday with Sarah’s husband’s mother. So the baby is due on both her grandmothers’ birthdays.”
Both Barb and Sarah are hoping that their story of survival will encourage other women of all ages to be aware of their bodies.
“Definitely do your breast checks, and know your own body,” said Barb. “You also need to be an advocate for yourself. Even if the doctor says it’s probably just scar tissue, it needs to be followed up on because you don’t want to push something off and have it really be serious. Never give up. There is life after a cancer diagnosis.”
Barb and family will visit Ireland this month.
“We are going to Ireland as a celebration of my life,” she said. “And I hope I get to celebrate it for many, many more years.”