Editor's note: In October, the nation, including UH, observed National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Staff member Ginger Walker is battling the deadly disease. Walker shares her story in hopes of helping newly diagnosed breast cancer patients.
Ginger Walker has worn many hats — seven to be exact — during the past year. All of them were purchased days before her first chemotherapy treatment in her battle against breast cancer.
“What makes you who you are is not an illness but rather how you cope with the ailment, how you fight the fight whatever that might be,” says Walker, an emergency management specialist who has worked at UH since 1997.
For Ginger, “the fight was on” when she was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in July 2013. Little did she know that less than two months after the diagnosis, she would be fighting against a deadly infection.
“In a nutshell, I had a tumor in my left breast. The cancer, while it was not traveling through any vessels, was growing outside the tumor, and it was extremely aggressive,” Walker explains, adding, “I’m an all-in or go-home kind of person, and, of course, my cancer was exactly the same way. The cancer was fast growing and growing quickly.”
Walker also tested positive for human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), which makes it more likely for breast cancers to grow faster, to spread and recur, and to be less responsive to hormone treatment.
The diagnosis came a month after she accidently discovered a lump in her breast on her 23rd wedding anniversary — June 2, 2013. She and her husband, Robert, who also works at UH, were preparing for a vacation to Utah’s Zion National Park with their two daughters.
“I was doing the laundry,” Walker says. “I threw the basket over the couch. I sort of leaned against the basket, and I felt something. I said to myself that doesn’t feel right.”
That something “felt like a two-inch river rock,” Walker wrote in her family blog, which she started to help others coping with breast cancer.
Ginger was stunned by the discovery, since she had performed monthly breast exams, especially after a cancerous tumor had been removed from her right breast in 2007. It was doing this first bout with cancer that Ginger and Robert had decided that if the cancer were to recur, they would aggressively treat the disease.
So when her doctor suggested a bilateral mastectomy, the Walkers agreed. In August, she underwent surgery, which went extremely well, she says.
A month later, she started chemotherapy — a total of six treatments — followed by a weekly infusion of the drug Herceptin for a year. In their blog, Robert expressed disbelief about the events that followed the initial chemotherapy.
“Even after her breast cancer diagnosis, her bilateral mastectomy with its brutal recovery and these being followed by the double whammy of being told she has to undergo chemo, I never thought of Ginger as being a sick person,” Robert wrote in the blog. “I think that’s why I was so unprepared for what happened.”
Ginger’s health turned for the worst just days after the treatment. So fatigued she could barely walk and with a 102-degree fever, Ginger was rushed to Methodist Hospital Sugar Land.
Over the next five hours, her blood pressure dropped dangerously low. Her heart rate spiked so high that “it was off the roof,” Ginger says. The pain was excruciating. Double doses of dilaudid could only ease her suffering for about 30 minutes or so, Robert wrote in the blog.
A nurse practitioner named Pam instructed hospital staff “to get those doctors on the phone now…. I was now very sick. I was dying,” Ginger wrote in the blog.
Later, she was diagnosed with colitis, which was caused by a bacterial infection. The colitis resulted in her colon swelling and her intestines becoming “so paper thin” that they were at risk of rupturing. If her intestines ruptured, the doctors warned, she could die.
Ginger and Robert faced a tough choice — wait and hope that the antibiotics would reduce the inflammation or allow the removal of her colon. They waited. Their decision, though, tested her will, but slowly her condition improved. She spent two months in the hospital and two months at home recovering from the illness. It was an experience, she says, that changed how she thinks about life.
“I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s the truth. You realize you take for granted things that are so simple like getting up out of a bed. I could not do that. It took me almost two weeks just to get up and start walking,” Ginger says. “It’s been quite a journey, but I couldn’t have done it without Robert and my mom.”
With the end of her Herceptin treatment in sight and plans to undergo reconstructive surgery in the near future, Ginger is optimistic and grateful to her family, friends and colleagues. She says, “God is good.”