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Fighting Cancer, Again and Again and ...

Annette Myer, an art teacher, has been struggling with breast cancer for 13 years.

Annette Myer is not sure if she believes in miracles, but some would say she is one.

Myer, a River Bend Middle School art teacher, said she prays every night that her cancer will go away for good. But a miracle? “I’m not sure I do,” she said in a recent interview. “I believe more in science, and I wish science would hurry up.”

Myer, 51, of Winchester, is in the advanced stages of breast cancer, a disease she has been struggling with for 13 years. Every time she thinks she has beaten it, she finds it has emerged again. She remembers when she was first diagnosed, and her daughters, Kimberly, then 7, and Marlene, 3, thought their mother would die.

She encouraged “Kimmy” to write about her feelings and to make drawings. “I gave her a journal and said I’m not going to be around a lot Kimmy. If you are angry or sad, you can write words. You can put them on paper. This is all for you, just you.”

Even then, the youngster believed. She wrote, “Once my Mommy saw a dandelion seed floating in pouring rain. Me, Mommy, Daddy and Marlene think it was a sign from God that meant Mommy was going to be OK.”

DOCTORS FIRST diagnosed Myer after she did a self exam and found a lump in her right breast. Her doctor found two more and prepared to surgically remove the knotty tissue. It turned out the lumps were malignant and had metastasized into her lymph nodes. “I thought they were going to do a lumpectomy, but they removed my breast,” she recalled.

As if that shock wasn’t bad enough, she had to go through eight months of chemotherapy. “You’re head’s in the toilet all of the time,” she said, with a grimace.

Myer, who had grown up in Montgomery County, was living in Silver Springs, Md. Her friends took care of the children and drove her to the hospital. “And then I would get sick the next day, or two or three or four or five,” Myer said.

She had reconstructive survey and eventually, it appeared she was cancer free. Myer continued to have bone scans, because once the disease had invaded the lymph nodes, it could travel to any part of the body. The doctors were particularly concerned about it moving to the bones, brain, liver or kidneys. “They are all very bad places,” she said.

“They said if you are five years clear, you are pretty much cleared,” she said. “Five and a half years later, it showed up on my left chest wall.”

Myer didn’t recognize it as cancer right away. “I thought I had dislocated my shoulder. The pain was unbelievable.”

She learned that a cancerous tumor was pressing down on a nerve in her chest. The tumor was generating the shoulder pain.

She was an art instructor at the Johnson-Williams Middle School in Berryville. She had the lump surgically removed followed by six weeks of radiation. “I would go in the afternoon and get zapped and then I went back for the Year Book Committee after school.

AT THIS POINT, she decided she must be on the 5-year plan. But in the winter of 2002-2003, she started coughing and wheezing. “I thought, ‘This isn’t a cold, bronchitis, and I couldn’t stop it. Hot tea wouldn’t even help.”

She saw a doctor, who diagnosed adult-onset allergies and prescribed three types of allergy medicines and two inhalers. “They had files, but never made the connection that it was somewhere else in my body,” she said.

Myer didn’t make the connection either. I said, “OK, I guess people get adult allergies.” In April 2003, she woke up and could hardly breathe. She couldn’t get out of bed. Five hours later, an emergency room doctor told her that she had a collapsed right lung. And then Myer heard the dreaded words, “I think it’s your breast cancer again,” she recalled.

The cancer this time had moved into her air passageway and her lung. She was a teacher at River Bend in Sterling. “I didn’t work for five days,” she said. “That was a lot of time for me to be out of school.”

River Bend Principal Ben Lacy said her courage was astounding. “‘Brave’ probably doesn’t even come close to define it,” he said. “She is a great staff member, a great teacher, a great artist. I don’t know many people who could handle what she has gone through.”

Myer said the fight against cancer has grown easier in some ways. “The first time I had it, I was devastated. The second time, it was, ‘Oh my God.’

“As time goes on, I have come to terms with it. Yeah, I have my moments when I’m alone ... and I sob.”

But she said she won’t give up. “It can’t stop me from what I have to do.”

AFTER THREE WEEKS of radiation treatments, she began to feel like her old self. During the summer of 2003, however, Myer had trouble breathing again. “I had radiation-induced pneumonia. It can show up 50 days after the last treatment,” she said. “It was one of the side effects.”

The doctor put her on heavy doses of a steroid. “With that, I gained 35 pounds in two months,” she said. “I was literally moon-faced. I couldn’t feel the inside of my cheeks with my tongue.”

The steroids made sleep impossible for two weeks. “I didn’t blink or yawn,” she said. Myer painted, cut down trees, poured a concrete footing, stripped the kitchen floor, moved the refrigerator and stove, and more. Her neighbors teasingly said they were concerned she would cut their trees down. “It was like, ‘Put locks on your gates. Annette is lose! I was on a mission” she remembered, smiling at the memory “Picasso had his blue period and his rose period, and I had my steroid period.”

Myer told her doctor she needed a smaller dosage. For the next two months, her energy dragged. She said he had enough strength to teach, but crashed when she got home each night. “I have to have energy for the kids. You have to be ‘on’ all the time.”

After the cancer had showed up in her lung, she asked Dr. Nicholas Gemma of Shenandoah Oncology to give it to her straight. “He said, the bad news, it is on the run, and it’s looking for another place to grow,’ she recalled. “The good news is you just take a pill.”

The pill would block the estrogen that carried cancer cells in her body. Myer was ecstatic. “I was doing high fives, because I didn’t have to do chemo,” she said.

But the treatment failed, and the cancer settled into her bones this spring. “I was on the one-year plan now,” she said.

Gemma told her about a new medication for women in the advanced stages of breast cancer. She paused a moment, as if to make a point. “I’m not in the end stages. There is a difference,” she said. “I don’t want to be in the end stages.”

He prescribed a high dosage of bone-building medicine to be taken intravenously to strengthen the bones. “I go in once a month for an infusion to build up my bones, and I’m doing the pills,” she said.

This summer, however, Myer discovered a lump on her head. “I thought, ‘What’s this? I have breast cancer growing out of my head?’”

Gesturing with her arms at her sides and the palms of her hands facing up in a questioning manner, her voice rose at how incredulous this seemed.

In addition, Gemma found a lump on her back. She now takes the bone-building drug once a month, a vaccine twice a month, and another injection once month. Her daughter, “Kimmy,” goes with her to the hospital. Kimberly Thomas, now 21, said she finds it difficult to look back at the words and images she committed to paper when she was 7. “It was the hardest time,” she said. “It’s 13 years we’ve been living with it.”

While some might call Annette Myer a walking miracle, she refers to herself as a veteran of the disease. She said her own acceptance of the situation has provided stability for her daughters and helped them to better deal with it.

“You do what you have to do,” she said, a phrase she used repeatedly as she shared her story. She is not in any pain right now. “It could be worse,” she said, remembering those early days of chemotherapy. “Trust me, I know.”

Like “Kimmy,” Annette Myer journals her thoughts and feelings. In one entry, she writes, “I have breast cancer. You wouldn’t know by looking at me.” In another, she talks about trying to keep her head up and staying positive. She draws a picture of a woman and a red heart entitled, “Trying to keep my heart afloat.”

On one page, she writes, “God, please help me, please.”

Thirteen years ago, “Kimmy” wrote, “My friend said that if you had cancer and you wished you didn’t have it and the next day you didn’t have it, that would be a miracle.”