Yvette Engel and her best friend, Jennifer Reid, and Engel’s son, Josh, arrive at Memorial Hospital Central for a big, big day.
Yvette wears crazy, colorful cat-eye glasses, a pink tutu and a pink wig to mark the end of chemo. Jennifer and Josh wear pink wigs, too, and Josh has a button pinned to his shirt: “Real Men Wear Pink.’’Jennifer, who is not only Yvette’s best friend, but also her soul sister, motivational coach, fashion designer and caretaker, has made a sign: #16 Baby!
When the chemotherapy is finished, Yvette will ring a bell at the nurse’s station in the outpatient oncology unit to signal completion of the first of three rounds in her battle with breast cancer. Round 2 includes surgery, followed by Round 3 – radiation therapy.
“You know, never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d have cancer,’’ Yvette said. “I had always been watching movies when people get a diagnosis of cancer and you always wonder, ‘What would I do if I was sitting on that end of the desk?’ ’’
There’s no playbook for getting through cancer – no right, no wrong way to do it. But as the nation takes notice of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, Yvette wants everyone to know that one of the lessons she has learned is that you’ve got to lean on people for support and you’ve got to focus all of your energy on each round of the fight. You’ve got to have hope – and a Jennifer.
They met at work at the Family Resource Council, an agency in Colorado Springs that helps families in crisis. In no time, they shared stories about their husbands, their kids, their best recipes, everything. Work wives.
Like many women, Yvette had gone in for a routine mammogram in April. When the clinic called back to say they’d like to do another mammogram, Yvette figured the first one wasn’t a crisp image. When she returned, a nurse told her she would also need to have a biopsy.
She called Jennifer on that Friday: “I’m at Pikes Peak and they’re going to do a biopsy.’’ Jennifer dropped everything and headed to the Woodland Park hospital. She stayed with Yvette and then placed a call to Dr. Laura Pomerenke, a Colorado Health Medical Group physician at UCHealth Memorial Hospital.
“I’ll see her on Monday,’’ Pomerenke said.
The weekend dragged on and then Yvette found herself on the other end of the desk. Dr. Pomerenke said she had triple-A negative aggressive ductal breast cancer.
“It doesn’t sink in,’’ Yvette said. “Okay, yes, you have cancer, and she’s talking about ‘oh, there are different types of cancer,’ and then she’s explaining things to me and she says, ‘this is the kind that you don’t want.’
“And then you think of being in the movie and you’re saying something like, ‘That’s bull—-.’’
Dr. Pomerenke said Yvette would have a nurse navigator, Christina Payne, who would help answer questions, schedule appointments, and be her go-to person to navigate her breast cancer journey. She is a key person in the comprehensive breast cancer program at UCHealth.
“I still think I was in a fog, and everything happened so fast that you don’t have a chance to really let it sink in. So, we saw Laura on Monday and Dr. (Geetika) Srivastava (hematologist) on Tuesday. I had surgery on the following Monday to get the port in and I started chemo on Tuesday and it was so fast, and I was very impressed with that.’’
Yvette and Jennifer showed up for the first round of chemotherapy. They cried when the first dose oozed in through the port. One of the things they learned from Payne was to have a point person for communication, so Jennifer sent a photo and a text message to family and friends, reporting on her progress that day.
“Go mamma!’’ one of her sons replied.
The first four doses of chemo were more aggressive than the remaining 12 doses, so during the first two months, Yvette came to the hospital every other week. Jennifer always brought a craft for them to work on to pass the time – adult coloring was a favorite.
During one of the earlier chemo treatments, Yvette learned that the Benadryl made her a bit loopy. She placed Teddy Graham cookies in a container of peanut butter and called it “bears in a hot tub.’’
Jennifer brought magazines and read motivational messages to Yvette, one time asking: “What makes your heart flutter?’’
Without hesitation, Yvette answered: “Having all my kids together.’’ Her son, Josh, lives in Seattle, Washington. Her other boys, Brooks and Tommy, are in the Pikes Peak region, as is Makayla, 12.
During chemotherapy, her husband and her children have all gathered in their Florissant home to support her.
“They’ve spoiled me. They make dinner and do the dishes and if I even think of getting up, they’re telling me to sit still,’’ Yvette said.
One of the hardest adjustments she said she has had to make is to take a step back in her role as family caregiver and focusing on her own needs – physical and spiritual.
Since her husband travels often for work, Jennifer has arranged “chemo sleepovers,’’ when Yvette and Makayla come over and spend the night. Jennifer cooks for her family, and makes sure that Yvette’s every need is met.
“She’s being well taken care of, and it’s comforting to know that’’ Josh said.
Jennifer held a “Blessingway’’ for Yvette. These gatherings are often held for moms-to-be. A community of family and friends gathers around the expectant mother, offering tips for labor and delivery and child rearing.
For Yvette, each person who attended brought words of encouragement and a charm, a tree for grounding and strength; a butterfly for the wings to soar; a cross for help from above. Yvette wears the necklace full of charms to each chemotherapy treatment.
During the gathering, Yvette had begun to lose her hair. So each person who gathered around her took a turn with the Norelco, and shaved the auburn locks from her head.
Afterwards, when they came to the hospital for chemotherapy, she and Yvette periodically wore their pink wigs and crazy cat-eye glasses. They went to La Henna Boheme in Manitou Springs, which donates a tattoo for those who have lost their hair to cancer, so Yvette could get a nice design for her head.
“Jennifer is my best friend and she actually pretty much stopped her life to help me,’’ Yvette said during her last chemo treatment.
“Can’t imagine being anywhere else,’’ Jennifer said.
When the last dose of chemo pumped through the port for the last time, Yvette and Jennifer cried – just as they did when the first dose went in.
In the coming days, Yvette will meet again with a team of physicians to talk about a lumpectomy and partial mastectomy. Then she’ll meet with radiation oncologists to talk about radiation treatment.
Through each round, Yvette will have the support of her husband and of all those who make her heart flutter. Her best friend, soul sister, motivational coach, fashion designer and care taker will be there, too – in pink.