LAMOINE — Lisa Crosby isn’t shy about discussing her diagnosis of stage four breast cancer.
“I was very quiet when I started this process,” the Lamoine resident said. “You have to be open. If people have questions, answer them.”
“I’m here to show them that no, stage four doesn’t mean that’s the end.”
Crosby was diagnosed with triple-negative stage four breast cancer over Memorial Day weekend in 2015. Triple-negative means the cancer cells do not have the three most common receptors found on breast cancer cells.
The CDC puts it this way: “Think of cancer cells as a house. The front door may have three kinds of locks … But if you have triple-negative breast cancer, it means those three locks aren’t there. So doctors have fewer keys for treatment.”
Crosby was 52, scheduled for a mammogram that August. She had had an abnormal scan the year before, but doctors said it was “just fatty tissue,” Crosby said.
“But I noticed that my lymph nodes were swollen, and I knew enough to know that wasn’t a good thing.”
Doctors moved quickly. She underwent a biopsy and received a phone call shortly thereafter with the diagnosis.
“They called me at work. It was kind of weird,” Crosby said. “I hung up the phone and just started to cry.”
Cancer cells were found under her right breast, in her right armpit and under her breastbone. Surgery wasn’t an option for the mass under her breastbone, Crosby said, because of its location. So she started chemotherapy, traveling weekly to Mount Desert Island Hospital from her home in Lamoine.
It’s been two and a half years, and Crosby is still undergoing chemo each week. But she is undaunted.
“With my kind, there’s always going to be cancer cells in there,” she said, likening her chemotherapy to treatment for a condition like heart disease.
“That’s sort of how my chemo works. It’s working for me and they’ll keep me on that until the cancer gets smart and then they’ll go to Plan B.”
Crosby was not unfamiliar with the disease. Her mother had suffered from ovarian cancer, and her aunt had breast cancer “years ago.” And her sister, childhood friend and dog were all diagnosed within months of Crosby starting her own chemo treatments.
“I broke down when my dog and sister were diagnosed,” said Crosby. She decided to put her dog down (“I wasn’t going to put him through chemo”). Her sister is doing well, as is her friend, Crosby said.
“It all happened for a reason,” Crosby said. “Not that you ever want anybody to go through this, but I would hope that they could at least experience the gifts that it gives you. Every day there are gifts.”
Crosby jokes about the good parts: “I finally lost the 60 pounds I was hoping to lose. I don’t have to pluck my chin anymore. No more shaving.”
“I can look in the mirror now and say I love myself, much easier than before.”
Her priorities have changed: “I would’ve thought I’d have been devastated by losing hair. But it really is a small price to pay.”
“I’ve been able to spend time with my niece and her children. My niece has been like a daughter and been there all the way.”
But she willingly acknowledges the difficulties.
Nutrition was a surprising challenge, said Crosby. She had to eat smoothies for weeks because of mouth sores. Sugar was a dilemma: some told her to stay away from it, saying it could influence cancer cell growth, but others implored her to eat any food to keep on weight.
Finding a nutritionist covered by her insurance was also a challenge, said Crosby, who eventually did track down a healthy meal plan.
“I changed my whole lifestyle, really,” said Crosby. “I was a vegetarian before. I ate lots of pasta and quick meals. I’m on a much more plant-based diet now.”
And then there was work and paying bills: “One of the hardest ones for me personally was making the decision about work,” Crosby said.
She had been a housing specialist for the MDI and Ellsworth Housing Authority.
“Foolish me: I thought I’ll just go and have my treatment and come back to work. They kept me on payroll for a year before I finally realized that I couldn’t do it. I was the paperwork girl and now paperwork is so overwhelming for me,” she said. “I couldn’t keep them waiting.”
“We’re all brought up to be hard-working, viable citizens and that was really hard to wrap my head around, not being able to do that anymore.”
Finding resources for fuel assistance, income and food assistance was also challenging.
“That definitely is one of the hardest parts-finding the resources,” Crosby said.
She applied for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Social Security and disability, as well as a voucher program for healthy food from Beech Hill Farm.
“Even clothing. All of a sudden you’re 60 pounds lighter and you have no clothes in your closet,” Crosby said. “Luckily I’ve got hand-me-downs from everybody.”
But clothing seemed a small challenge, in the scheme of things.
“If I have to wear a rope around my waist I’ll wear a rope around my waist,” Crosby said.
Crosby has a few messages for those struggling with disease. A scary diagnosis isn’t the end.
“You definitely need to advocate for yourself,” she said.
And you aren’t alone.
“I try to pay it forward. I can’t go do the nitty-gritty digging in the garden or painting a house or helping move,” Crosby said. “But I can spend time with people. I can send them some happiness when they need.”
She went on.
“The kindness of strangers is just immense,” Crosby said. “Don’t be afraid to let people in.”