Living on the Outside
Eight months and only one more to go, Terlisa Sheppard thought one November morning as she dressed for work. Just like when she was pregnant with her daughter, Alexis, she would work until the day she had her second baby. She had discovered a lump under her arm three months ago. Her ob/gyn told her it was common in pregnant women to experience a problem with their milk ducts, and not to be concerned. But Terlisa just knew she could feel it growing, so she had insisted on further testing. She had an appointment that day at lunch to learn the results.
Stage III breast cancer. The shocking news churned Terlisa's stomach. A lump rose in her throat. What about her babies? I am too young for this. She cried. She cried for her two-year-old daughter. She cried for her unborn child. She did not want them to grow up without their mother. I want to raise them, she prayed often.
The cancer was estrogen fed, so one week later on November 15 doctors delivered her second daughter, Alyah. Shortly thereafter, Terlisa began her nearly yearlong attack on the breast cancer guided by doctors of MD Anderson Cancer Center Orlando. Her eight cycles of chemotherapy ended in the summer, followed by a combination surgery to remove and reconstruct her breast. A series of radiation treatments to eliminate any traces of the cancer occurred before doctors pronounced her cancer free in October.
Over two years went by with routine visits to her oncologist to monitor her health-no sign of cancer. Terlisa spent her life caring for her daughters. Reading books about A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s. Changing diapers and potty training. She dressed her daughters in beautiful dresses and did their hair in tiny little braids or several ponytails. An energetic woman full of love spent hours playing with her daughters, so when her lower back began to ache she thought she must have pulled a muscle lifting one of the rapidly growing girls.
The ache persisted, so she went to her primary care physician. He thought she may have a slight bladder infection and gave her a prescription to help fight the infection. With Terlisa's clean bill of health, she had not seen her oncologist in several months. When the antibiotic did not seem to help her ‘bladder infection,’ it occurred to her to update her oncologist.
"You need to come in and do the scans," she said. It had not occurred to her that the pain could be cancer related. As her doctor reviewed her results, she was obviously shaken. She reached for her hands and said, "The cancer's back." Terlisa's scans showed signs of cancer in her bones, lungs, and liver. She knew the prognosis was not good. She did not even need to know the statistics, she knew they were bad, but she had a reason to live-her daughters. Surrounded by her loving family, Terlisa began treatment again. She believes, "you pray and go with what you are given."
Terlisa got dressed that morning paying extra attention to her makeup. As she completed the process with her deep red lipstick she said, "If you look good, you feel good," and with that attitude she began her chemotherapy for the second time in December 2001 at MD Anderson- Orlando. She told Alexis and Alyah, five and three at the time, that "mommy's cancer had returned." Her daughters participated in her treatment whenever possible by going to the hospital with her, sleeping curled up beside her in a hospital bed, or reminding her the time had come to take her medication again. She did not want her children to fear cancer, so she talked openly about it.
"Are you going to have tea," her oldest daughter asked as Terlisa prepared to go to MD Anderson- Orlando for treatment. "I want to go too," chimed in Alyah. Both girls had experienced High Tea on Thursdays with their mother. Now they wanted their own tea set. She smiled at their excitement. They knew so much about her life. "I keep busy and keep living," she said.
A veteran of MD Anderson- Orlando for six years running, Terlisa feels like they are family. Medical oncologist Jennifer Tseng, MD "has been my doctor since 2002. She is a wonderful doctor and very knowledgeable. She even wrote a note to the airlines explaining my need to walk the aisles on a long flight. She is concerned about me." Her nurses, Charleen Nash, Susan Williamson, and Pam Jones have been through her cancer experience with her. They always ask about her family, and there is a lot to remember since she has nine siblings. "She is an inspiration; you wouldn’t know what she's going through," shared Charleen.
She has battled cancer for over six years. She knows she will not live forever. She has prepared her daughters for her death. "If something happens to me, listen to your aunt," she says. "I know Mommy, you already told me." Terlisa takes seriously the responsibility of raising her children and strives to give them the foundation to survive without her.
"I have a whole lot going on under the cover," she said. Because she always looks put together, many are surprised to learn she battles cancer. "She is dying on the inside while living life on the outside," wrote Terlisa's high school-aged niece in a paper she describing how her 'Aunt Faye' inspired her.
The cancer in Terlisa’s bones, lungs, and liver responded to treatment to stop its growth. In August 2003, doctors found the breast cancer had spread to her brain. She underwent intense radiation on the tumor and it too has stopped growing.