By Bianca Mena
In November 2012, Betsy Butterworth, Director of Marketing and Web Services in the Office of Marketing & Communications, was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer.
Butterworth said: “I had a routine mammogram of my breast…They saw something suspicious and they said, ‘You know, we have to dig a little further.’” Butterworth then had an ultrasound. “They found a mass and it looked like cirrus clouds—kind of airy looking. It wasn’t like a ball. Then they did a biopsy and the next day I got a call saying it was positive for cancer and that’s when I ended up in the breast cancer clinic.”
Butterworth was shocked by her diagnosis. “I’m very regimented about my health care. I always have regular mammograms, annual physicals and I did whatever the doctors told me to do. I had no symptoms whatsoever. I felt energetic, I felt like my typical self and when I got the news, I was totally stunned.”
A few days later, Butterworth began the 18-month journey to recovery. “When I got to the clinic, everything just hit me. I knew when I went to the hospital my cancer was not simple because they booked me with a medical oncologist, which meant I was going to have chemotherapy.” Butterworth said.
“I had watched my mother die of ovarian cancer. I had watched her go through chemotherapy and it was hard on her, very physically taxing.” Butterworth said. She described the experience as surreal: “The doctors keep you so busy, getting scanned and biopsied. Intuitively, I didn’t feel like I had stage four cancer. It didn’t feel right to me. Going through cancer is almost like you are in a dream state.”
Feeling unsure of the results of her diagnosis, Butterworth decided to get a second opinion at the University of Chicago. She chose oncologist Suzanne Conzen, a woman of her same age who has a lab where she is doing internationally recognized in breast cancer research. Butterworth said: “I made an appointment, saw her the following week and I immediately liked her. In ten minutes, I knew exactly where I was with my cancer and what the next step was. I was finally diagnosed with stage two cancer, which is a huge difference.”
Butterworth insisted on going through chemotherapy by herself. “I didn’t want to disrupt anybody’s life. I could manage it on my own. I didn’t want a lot of people. My family actually wanted me to go back to Boston because that is where my siblings are and I said no because I still wanted to work, I still needed that focus. I wanted to live life as normally as I could.”
Butterworth even refused help from her 21-year-old daughter. “My daughter is in the process of building her life [in Boston] and I wanted her to continue building her life,” Butterworth said. Instead, she found support in her former husband and a neighbor who is like a sister to Butterworth. “Some people can make this whole thing very dramatic and it is dramatic,” Butterworth said. “For me it was a highly personal process that I only let a few people really in.”
Chemotherapy was not what Butterworth expected. “Thinking about chemo, I had all these visions—oh my God, I’m going to be vomiting and in pain—but the truth of the matter is I’d get my infusion on Thursday, I was sick on Saturday (you get like a 48-hour grace period). I’d go to bed Saturday at two in the afternoon, leave a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on my night table. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, eat my PB&J, go back to sleep and I wouldn’t wake up until the next afternoon. But then I was ready for work on Monday.”
Butterworth then decided to start acupuncture to help relieve some of the chemotherapy’s side effects, which improved her energy level. “I was still tired but I didn’t find the need to go to bed at two o’clock in the afternoon and sleep for 24 hours.”
Every week for six months, Butterworth had chemotherapy infusions at U of C. As a result of chemotherapy, Butterworth lost all her hair. “[Losing my hair] was very interesting,” Butterworth said. “I used to spend $200 a pop on my head because I’d get the color, cut. I think five weeks into my chemo, I woke up one morning and there was all this hair in my pillow. I was running my fingers through my hair and I had all these strands in my hand.” That night, Butterworth’s friend shaved her head.
Butterworth attempted several ways to change her appearance. “I bought a couple wigs, I’d put them on and I felt like I was dressed up for Halloween so I was like ‘I can’t do this.’ Then I tried scarves and I thought this was way too exotic and I am not exotic, I am from Boston. I ended up just wearing a baseball cap when I went out.”
The last few weeks of chemotherapy took a greater toll on Butterworth. She had lost her eyebrows and eyelashes but still found support from friends and family. “I got a lot of compliments. I’d put bright red lipstick on, I’d put these cool sunglasses on and I would be walking around downtown Chicago…so I kept my hair short and didn’t color it.” Butterworth said.
Butterworth continued her work at Dominican and found a lot of support. “We talk about Caritas Veritas and I really experienced it fully during my breast cancer treatments and still do today,” she said. “The entire Dominican community, who were aware of my situation, was extremely supportive. Everyone, from the president, my colleagues and our student workers were supportive. What was particularly nice is that they were supportive but not intrusive. They sensed what I needed and provided it.”
A month after her chemotherapy, Butterworth had a mastectomy—a surgical operation to remove her left breast. She encountered several struggles as a result of not having a left breast. “I was lopsided. I had a really great prosthesis, they created a breast based modeled after [the right] breast, but it was uncomfortable and it would rub up against my skin and I’d wear it to work and then I’d get home and I’d throw it on a kitchen counter. On the weekends, I would just wear big blousy shirts because it was just really not very comfortable,” Butterworth said. “I figured I’m still young enough that I don’t want to go 30 years without a breast.”
Six months after radiation, on Jan. 28 of this past year, Butterworth had a TRAM flap procedure that would reconstruct a new breast from the fat and skin of her belly. Butterworth said: “When you have your breast removed, there is nothing there, it’s just flat. They had to build this mound and they had to put blood vessels so it can become a living part of your body because they can’t just put the fat there, they have to get something to sustain it.” Butterworth was under intensive care for a few days after the procedure so doctors could monitor the implanted blood vessels.
Because the procedure lasted six hours, Butterworth struggled with gaining movement. “I remember waking up the next morning and the nurse saying, ‘Okay Betsy, today you are going to sit up’ and I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m not. I am not sitting up today.’ I managed to get out of bed and into a lounge chair. It was a slow return to physical activity.”
Despite the difficulties that Butterworth encountered, she is very glad that she underwent the procedure.
Earlier this month, Butterworth visited her oncologist, who confirmed she was cancer-free. Despite this status, Butterworth still has regular appointments. “I see everyone. I see my radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, surgeon and family doctor. I see someone every three months. But it’s not a big deal; you just go there, have your blood drawn wait for the ‘all good’ and then go home. My prognosis is extremely good.” Butterworth said. She will have regular checkups for the next five years.
“Once I hit five years, then I’m a survivor. I am not a survivor yet, I will be a survivor in four years, but I already consider myself a survivor,” Butterworth said.
Butterworth believes there are several ways to perceive having cancer. “You can look at cancer as being the biggest tragedy and the most horrible thing that has ever happened to you in the whole entire world. But I didn’t choose to look at it this way.” Butterworth said.
She recognized numerous positives of her cancer diagnosis: “It was a gift. It made me realize the wonderful friends I have, the great support, the great gift of life. It has made me extremely focused so that I have very a balanced life between work and fun. I love my job, I love my work, I love Dominican, but I also love my time with my friends and doing other things. [Having breast cancer] has made me really committed to being a full person.”