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Terlisa’s Story: Getting a third chance

My name is Terlisa Sheppard and at the age of 31 and 34 weeks pregnant, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer while carrying my second child in November 1998.

I had been complaining to my gynecologist about feeling a lump under my arm, but he informed me that it was probably a milk duct that had formed due to the pregnancy and told me not to worry about it. The lump continued to get bigger and I voiced my concern again, this time he told me that if I insist, he would do a mammogram at that point and another one after the baby was delivered, to compare the two results. Neither my OB-GYN or I, thought that I would be getting the news that I did, once a biopsy of the lump was done.

The breast surgeon that performed the biopsy, looked at me straight in the eyes, while her assistant held my hands as they delivered the news– the cancer was advanced. It was stage 3, aggressive and fueled by estrogen from my pregnancy. I was completely shocked. Too young, I thought, to worry about anything like breast cancer, especially while being pregnant with my second daughter.

My baby pretty much saved my life.

Because of my young age and my pregnancy combined with cancer, I was quickly placed under the care of a team of doctors at the cancer center. The first step included inducing my labor six weeks earlier than my planned delivery date. Just 6 days after my diagnosis, I gave birth to a healthy, 6-pound, and 6-ounce baby girl that I named Alyah Monique. I also had a 2-year old daughter at the time, named Alexis Monet.

While in the hospital, doctors placed a port in my chest to deliver chemotherapy that was scheduled to start right away, but my white blood counts dropped so low that treatment wasn’t possible at the time. I ended up starting chemotherapy about a month later.

I underwent chemotherapy every three weeks for eight months, followed by six weeks of radiation, five days a week. I had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery on the same day in July 1999. I thought I was done with cancer and could move on with my life.

That phase was short-lived. In November 2001, I was still seeing a doctor every six months, and between visits, told my physician I was having back pain. I figured it was from lifting my daughters, but my doctor knew it was one of the symptoms of recurrence.

I was diagnosed again and this time, the cancer was deemed terminal in stage 4 (I am HER2+, Metastatic). It was now in my bones, lungs and liver. I started to feel defeated but knew I had to keep it together for my family, especially for my two daughters. And this time, chemotherapy left me sicker, sometimes leaving me so weak that I had to crawl from my bed to the bathroom a few feet away.

I managed to get through, until the next diagnosis. In August 2003, my doctors found a cancerous brain tumor that was treated with a nine-hour procedure, stereotactic radiosurgery, to shrink the mass. They literally screwed this big, steel plate onto my head and administered some meds to relax me so I wouldn’t move and so that the radiation would go straight to the tumor site.

Then, in November 2007, after resisting it for over a year, I had a hip replacement because my hip bone had deteriorated from so much chemotherapy. My doctors say I’ll be on some type of therapy for life.

My daughters are now teenagers, and I mentor others with cancer. I am so grateful I was given a second chance – even a third chance at life. Just having a strong need to be there for my daughters, family, friends and loved ones… really got me through it. It’s not about me. I’m not the only person in this fight.

While I’m not cancer-free, I completely wish for that dream to come true one of these days. I hope my zest for life and unbreakable spirit will encourage other survivors to continue their fight as well!

Terlisa Faye Sheppard
HER2+, Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor
1st diagnosis – November 1998 stage 3
2nd diagnosis – November 2001 metastatic to bones, lung, liver
3rd diagnosis – August 2003 metastatic to brain
Living 17 years with MBC as of October 2018

2018 Update

“Mother Terlisa” as she is affectionately known to her fellow MBC patients and breast cancer advocates remains as busy as ever. Earlier this year, she and Judy Erdahl were LBBC’s Hear My Voice honorees. Here is the write up from that accolade:

Terlisa Faye Sheppard of Orlando, FL, was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in 1998, at
the age of 31, while pregnant with her second child. A month after giving birth, she started the
grueling process of chemotherapy, and then had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
After two years of moving on with her life, lavishing love on her young daughters, a mysterious
back pain led to a new diagnosis: metastatic breast cancer. “I started to feel defeated, but knew
I had to keep it together for my family, especially for my two daughters,” she wrote in a blog
post for the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance. “It’s not about me. I’m not the only person in this
Sheppard’s case has been exceptional. Seventeen years after receiving her metastatic
diagnosis, with her daughters now young adults, Sheppard continues to inspire others with her
strength and spirit. After attending LBBC’s Metastatic Breast Cancer Conference, Sheppard felt
compelled to educate herself and others further about metastatic breast cancer. She became
a font of trustworthy information, reaching out to her peers and making sure the library at her
cancer treatment center is stocked with information. She is a patient advocate who constantly
shares information on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and via her nonprofit organization,
“Terlisa Fights Breast Cancer, Inc.” She co-wrote a chapter about her experience for the 2011
book Unbreakable Spirit: Rising Above the Impossible, provided articles for AARP and her local
paper, and was featured on a billboard in New York City’s Times Square for National Metastatic
Breast Cancer Awareness Day in 2013.