Chrissie’s Journey: End of the World We Know
“I made up my mind that after my treatment, I was going to be healthier than I was before or than I was at that moment.” ~ Chrissie Wagner
The mammogram that Chrissie had three weeks before her gyno appointment was perfect—crystal clear, as she says. But her gyno was puzzled; something was going on.
So Chrissie, just 46, scheduled an ultrasound with a biopsy to follow. “I could see the doctor performing the biopsy on the screen, and I kept singing R.E.M.’s It’s the end of the world as we know it. You know that one: you feel amazing, but everything is changing.” Instinctively, she knew.
Maybe it was because her mother, who had died three years before, had gotten larynx cancer at 38, and then breast cancer. Chrissie had taken care of her every day for the 23 years she faced the disease. Or maybe it was because of the way the medical personnel were racing around the office. In any case, she knew.
“I said to myself, ‘It’s my time now, but I will not let this steal a moment of my life.’ Then I left the office, went to vote, waited in line for 45 minutes, and went to work, attending finance meeting after finance meeting.” She sits up straight, balancing on the toes of her pristine white sneakers.
She wouldn’t know definitively until Friday morning, when the doctor would call. And when he did, he said, “First, I want to tell you that you will be fine. But we have to deal with this. You have cancer.” The rest was a blur.
Chrissie and her husband John, who ran their own business, had offices across from one another. John, hearing the phone, joined her. Chrissie had stage 3 breast cancer, and her tumor was five centimeters.
“I don’t think I cried. I was angry, but I said to myself, ‘It will get better,’” the Bethlehem native says, glancing out a window of her grey-toned home office onto an expanse of lawn. “John said he guessed we wouldn’t go to the black-tie event we’d scheduled that night. But I said we would go, and we would have fun. I remember talking to a friend about our daughters’ upcoming weddings. And my husband bid on everything at the auction; he just wanted to give me presents,” she laughs ruefully. Still, there was this gnawing in the back of their minds.
The gold bangle on Chrissie’s wrist slips down her arm, as she continues. “I knew I would have to be the rock for our children, family, and friends. So, we kept this news to ourselves until we were sure we had our composure. Then the process began: figuring out what to do and telling family and close friends. I only told close friends because I didn’t want to be a walking billboard. I wore my wig and put on eyebrows and wore makeup so I could blend in.” Chrissie’s lustrous gold hair has now grown back–long and full. “But it wasn’t a secret either. If I saw someone who might benefit from hearing my story, I would definitely share it.”
Her eyes dart to the window again. “I had five opinions, and then made up my mind.” She fingers a gold hoop earring, then shrugs almost imperceptibly. “You can’t change it, but you just figure out how to deal with the cards you’ve been dealt. I made up my mind that after my treatment, I was going to be healthier than I was before or than I was at that moment.”
She stands and points to a light brown lump on the lawn. “Do you see that little fawn? He’s been in the grass all day. I don’t know where his mother is. I’m worried she won’t come back. It’s been so long.”
Chrissie returns to her story. She began five months of chemo to shrink the tumor. “When I was in chemo, I would spend the four hours writing about everything that was good and beautiful in my life. That was the best way for me to handle the situation.”
Then she had a mastectomy, after which her doctor inserted an expander in preparation for an implant. Radiation followed, and it was tough; she had burns on her shoulder, and the skin surrounding the expander tightened, failing to expand sufficiently. But at last, 32 days later, radiation was over—it was August 5, the anniversary of her mother’s death.
“On the last day of radiation, typically, you ring a bell for the number of treatments you’ve had,” says Chrissie, “but I rang it just twice—once for my mother and once for me.”
She continues, “The breast implant surgery was tricky, and I had a lot of reconstructive surgeries because the expander hadn’t stretched the tissues. A lot of women have double mastectomies so they don’t have to go through this.” But, at last, that, too, was finished. There was only one more step: hormone therapy: Tamoxifen for five years.
But Chrissie only got through four-and-a-half years. For one day, she suddenly realized that the dizziness, the sweating, and the flushes she kept experiencing were caused by the medication. The moment—with her doctor’s concurrence—she stopped taking it, she felt fabulous. “I thought it was my body’s way of telling me I didn’t need it, that the cancer was gone.”
Now Chrissie could heal. She avidly studied nutrition and changed her diet; she studied yoga and became a certified yoga teacher. She had lists of projects. Her daughters married. She became a grandmother.
Six years have now passed since her diagnosis. She stands, her hand resting on the chair back. “I love every birthday because every one is a celebration. I am not worried about getting old. I am doing everything I can to age as healthfully as possible.” She gestures toward a knee-high stack of books about nutrition and health that sits on the floor.
Then she peers out the window, and smiles broadly. “Ahh, the deer is gone. His mother came for him.”
Chrissie is a member of Ambassadors of Hope, a community advisory board for the Cancer Support Community