Diane Fox watched as the chemical concoction seeped into her body. Clinched and terrified, she waited and braced for the worse.
What could be worse than what she’d already endured? After an agonizing, painful nearly three-month ordeal, really the only thing worse would be death.
On Sept. 25, the 44-year-old Cortez woman had her first chemotherapy treatment.
The chemical, which by its very nature is designed to kill, nearly killed Diane Fox.
“It attacks everything,” Fox says of chemo. Cancer is the target but there are other hideous effects.
“Chemo kills things, it kills cells,” then she pauses briefly. “With me, it almost killed me.”
Hair is a casualty of chemotherapy and the war on cancer. Debilitating nausea, energy sucked away. Chemotherapy is a harsh necessity in many cancer battles for life over death.
But it’s not supposed to kill the patient.
Today, her smile has returned. Her gusto for life and her joyous personality are back.
She’s returned to light-duty work with the Cortez Police Department and has resumed her place on the Montezuma-Cortez School District Board of Education.
As she talks about her battle, she jokes and chuckles, and then seriously says she’s not ready to let her guard down yet.
Cancer has a way of shattering hopes and dreams, even when things are looking good.
After a double mastectomy on Aug. 12, Fox was sure that she had the upper hand on her breast cancer. Chemotherapy would finish the job, then it would be on with her life.
But little did she know that chemotherapy would conspire against her.
After the Sept. 25 treatment, Fox became severely ill.
But that’s what chemo does.
“I just thought it must be the chemo,” she says. “I got to the point that this can’t be right.”
She was too sick. Something was wrong. The chemo was attacking her, killing her.
Rushed to a Durango hospital and right into ICU, Fox was teetering on the edge of death.
“It really could have gone either way. It was bad,” she says matter-of-factly now.
She was suffering from a deadly infection brought on by the chemotherapy.
For 10 days, death was perched at the side of Fox’s hospital bed. Then a little improvement. Out of ICU but still in the hospital. For 35 days, sick, disorientated and scared beyond words, Fox remained in the hospital.
Her husband Ray rarely left her side.
A SERIOUS INFECTION
This type of infection brought on by chemo is rare in breast cancer patients. The chemo-related infection attacked her with brutal repercussions. Surgery was even needed to remove 18 inches of her bowel. She also lost 30 pounds during her sickness but even found a quirky silver lining in that.
“I could stand to lose a few pounds,” she says. “But seriously, I needed to lose those pounds correctly.”
This type of infection is called neutropenic enterocolitis, also known as typhlitis. It normally attacks patients whose white blood cells are down.
But Fox’s white blood count was down and the chemotherapy caused the deadly infection.
So, as she watched the chemical pumped into her body the second time, Fox was understandably concerned. Terrified, she waited. Remembering months of nightmarish pain and torment.
This time the formula was right and Fox was on the road to recovery. The road to that point is still difficult for Fox to fully absorb.
As dreadful as the situation looked with Fox in the hospital, the family was always optimistic.
During the rough times, Derek Fox, 25, and his Air Force flight squadron all shaved their heads to support his mom in her battle.
For eldest son Kade, 26, who lives in Grand Junction with his wife and son Jackson, he knew Mom was not going to give up.
“It didn’t look good but I know how strong my mom is,” he says. “She knew she had to fight. That’s my mom, she’s a fighter.”
DISCOVERING A LUMP
In early August, Diane was on vacation visiting Derek at Fort Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
A trip to see her 1-year-old grandson Elijah. A trip with quality family time to the brim.
That’s when she discovered a lump in her breast when she was adjusting her shirt.
Diane admits that she hadn’t been diligent when it came to her breast examinations.
“I never had a mammogram before, and I know that’s a no-no.”
But the lump was there. On Aug. 2, the diagnosis confirmed cancer.
Fox is focused, determined and task-oriented. She approached this frightening and daunting situation with the same persevering attitude.
“I took my diagnosis, it scared me, then it was time to focus. Now what? I’m just that type of person. What’s the next step?” She says.
She went on an aggressive offensive in her battle. Just 10 days after diagnosis, she had a double mastectomy.
“I just wanted to know it was gone,” she says.
Recovery, then chemotherapy — that was the next step.
The plan was in place but then the chemo attacked her, and the plan went haywire.
Now, 242 days have passed since her harrowing diagnosis. Nearly eight months that passed with the speed of a turtle trudging through mud, and Fox is getting healthier. Her life slowly inching back closer to normal.
NEW APPRECIATION FOR LIFE
Cancer and this thing called typhlitis have hammered away at joy and happiness for the Fox family.
But what didn’t kill Diane Fox has made her stronger.
“You don’t have bad days now,” Fox says bluntly.
Yes, there are difficult days when the chemo — the new chemical concoction — drains her energy and forces her back to bed with sickness, but life is good because life continues.
“I’m just blessed, beyond blessed, for having people around me, people who rallied around me.”
For the mother of three, the silver linings are everywhere.
“People are so much worse off than I am. I have a new appreciation for life,” she says.
She jokes and remains as grounded as a wingless airplane, never deviating from who she is and how she embraces life. For now, the roller coaster continues.
More chemotherapy and challenging days. She recently finished her final breast reconstructive surgery, and she’s developed cataracts in both eyes, and that means more surgery and more pain.
Still she jokes.
Taking about her hair loss, she just chuckles.
“It was weird at first. But it doesn’t bother me too much. I’m not a real high maintenance girl anyway. It’s coming back now and it’s coming back in gray.”
Then she confesses a little secret.
“Between me and my hairdresser, we always knew it was gray,” she says, then laughs.
Then there are the friends.
“I have such great friends. They’ve made and sent me silly hats and do-rags. I look at everything with a bit of humor so you gotta laugh or you’ll make yourself crazy,” she says.
She’s given away most of her headwear to other women who are now fighting their own cancer battle. But she saved one. A simple, gray wool cap. It’s the one she wore the most.
“You’d think I’d want to throw it away,” she says. “But it became so much of my identity through that time that I just kept it.”
As for the reconstructive surgery, that was Diane’s choice. A courageous choice that many women who have breast cancer must face.
“I chose to have surgery, because I still want to look and feel like a woman.”
A TOUGH BATTLE
Only cancer survivors can comprehend how tough the recovery can be.
“It’s not an easy battle. Good friends make it easier,” she says bluntly.
Fox has a way of shifting the focus to others, in this case, others who are facing the same horrendously tough battle.
“It’s amazing to see all the people battling cancer here. They just put their wigs on and go to work every day. I’m just amazed,” she says. “They are all amazingly strong people who have to go through it.”
For Ray, the torment was unrelenting.
He was fortunate to have an understanding employer that allowed him to spend time with Diane.
“They kept my job for me but work ran out, so I’m unemployed now,” he says.
He too, finds those silver linings.
“In some ways it’s good. I get to spend more time with the family,” he says.
On this day, he’s helping get the baseball field ready for the Panthers. Their youngest son, Devin plays shortstop and pitches for Montezuma-Cortez.
As for the community, both Diane and Ray are humbled by the outpouring of support.
“They are incredible. It’s so good to hear all the things they are saying,” she says. “I don’t know if people are paying them to say nice things about me but it’s just incredible.”
Diane Fox knows that the fight is far from over. Every three weeks, she’s back for another chemo treatment, which will continue until September. She’s working and focused on returning to full duty at the police department.
“I really feel pretty good. I’ve got a ways to go. I’m just taking it one step at a time,” she says.
One step at a time for the cancer survivor with the returning gray hair and an endless string of silver linings.
Reach Dale Shrull at [email protected]