Stage 4 vet takes on cancer and reminds us all what it really means to get involved.
Rachel Wickman isn‘t the woman who would get breast cancer, but she did.
And once she did, she was told she would be the woman who certainly wouldn‘t survive it. Five years later she is doing more than surviving. The 39-year-old is fighting tooth and nail.
Wickman, a veteran who served in the Marines, was diagnosed in 2009 after finding a lump. In that time she has seen many friends diagnosed, a number of them die and has watched her own life expectancy ebb and flow with the growth of new tumors as the cancer spread. And through it all she is loud and proud and not giving up. There are no inspirational quotes or wistful statements from her. She‘s angry as hell at cancer. And she‘s not sorry about it a bit.
"I am mad at cancer," she says. "It‘s a thief that comes and takes away what‘s yours. Your health and your stamina and your patience with the kids and your ability to play in the yard with them. I don‘t like it. I work at the crime lab and I like to make the bad guys pay. I don‘t want anyone else to have to go through this. If I can get the awareness out there, I will, and I think it‘s more than an awareness of breast cancer."
Wickman says most women know about the best ways to prevent breast cancer, yet statistics from Breast Cancer.org still show 40,000 women will likely die of breast cancer in 2014.
"I feel like everyone knows it‘s here, and I feel like we need to move beyond that at this point and do more than make people aware. We need to do more research."
She says from a personal standpoint it‘s about looking at every cause you support. Checking where funding is spent when you donate and putting your efforts toward those who are doing the most to put a stop to breast cancer. For Wickman it also looks like helping women one by one who are either dealing with a cancer diagnosis or have a loved one who is.
"People ask me all the time, My mother-in-law was diagnosed. What can I do to help her?‘ I‘m a resource at this point. I will tell them anything. The dirty things no one wants to talk about. I feel like it‘s my job to make people aware of what‘s going on."
While Wickman is devoted to helping other women, she has a full-time job and her own cancer diagnosis to deal with. After her initial diagnosis, she was treated aggressively including a full mastectomy and hysterectomy. Her particular type of cancer is fast moving. But, she says right now she‘s "doing pretty good."
"I have tumors in my brain and tumors in my liver, but they are all doing well right now and kind of shrinking down and responding well to treatment. There are a few spots in my spine that are still kind of acting out and not being good," she says.
She takes oral chemo and works at the parish‘s crime lab. She has two sons who were but babies (ages 1 and 2) when she was first diagnosed and told she had very little time left to live. Her goal quickly became to see them to their first day of school.
"I saw both start school, and for me that‘s a big thing. I wasn‘t sure they would make it that far, and now it‘s their first date or high school I want to see," she says.
As Wickman took a moment for this interview, she was packing for Disney World - a trip that was happening thanks to CKE (the parent company to Hardee‘s) because of Wickman‘s terminal status. She says the organization is a kind of adult Make a Wish foundation. She was thrilled for the respite with her boys.
"Reality is my doctor had to sign that I have a year left to live. I had to fess up and say Yes, I‘m going to die of this.‘ It‘s kind of surreal. You only have a year," she says.
Wickman, however, remains hopeful in her own way - with a belly laugh humor and a dash of snark.
"Some tumors are aggressive. My tumor is lazy, which is great for me," she says. "Even my tumors procrastinate. How am I still around? It‘s a luck of the draw. My tumors are responsive, which has kept me around, and my doctor is aggressive in treating it."
What began with breast cancer has metastasized and plagued Wickman‘s body from her liver to her brain. At one point the tumor in her gut was volleyball size and she was feeling just fine.
"We learned then that we had to scan more frequently," she says.
She‘s had brain surgery as well as a cyberknife procedure and a kind of direct shot of chemo into the liver via the femoral artery several times. She says it was more painful than the brain surgery. Her body has been to hell and back. Through it all she‘s been a fighter and a mom to two boys and a wife. Her boys today still don‘t know she has cancer. They know she goes to the doctor and has surgeries but the details remain vague. She has a collection of books on standby when it comes time to get specific. For now, they‘re enjoying a Disney vacation.
And Wickman is fighting the good fight to encourage other women facing cancer - and the rest of us - to ask and research what‘s behind all those pink ribbons and pink goodies in October.
"Everything is happy and pink. What are we doing about this really? I‘m Stage 4. I‘m not the happy ending everyone wants to see people are still dying. Do you even know where that money went?"
Wickman says while her snarky tendencies have grown about whether people are really making a difference when they throw around pink labels, she‘s certainly still hopeful about her own future.
"I feel very positive I‘m still going to beat this even though the odds are not in my favor. One day they will figure that out. I already saw my kids go to kindergarten, and I never thought I‘d see that."