Terlisa's Story of Long Term Survival


Terlisa Sheppard….My Breast Cancer Journey, from 1998 until now!

I started this journey on November 9, 1998, when I was just 31 years old and 8 ½ months pregnant with my second daughter, my oldest daughter had just turned two years old the month before my diagnosis.  At 31 years old; I was younger than the age that statistics says I should even be concern about having mammograms done and for sure about having any breast cancer concerns, but on this date, I became very concerned.  I had no other choice at that point!  

For you see, this is when my life would change forever, with just one simple needle biopsy.  I will never forget the grim expressions on the faces of my breast surgeon and her assistant as they came back into the examination room to deliver the unfortunate news to me.  I knew that whatever it was, it wasn’t good, but I had no idea it was what I was about to hear!

My surgeon looked me straight in the eyes, while her assistant was holding my hands, and said to me, “I’M SORRY, YOU HAVE BREAST CANCER!” At this point, I was in complete shock.  I had driven myself to this appointment alone, so I had no one to cling onto.  I remember thinking of several questions that I wanted to ask but I just could not open my mouth enough to ask any of them.  Well, there was this one question that I remember asking the doctor and it was, “Would I be able to breast-feed my baby?”  She looked at me with a surprised look and said, “No, you won’t be able to breast-feed.” Somehow, this just sealed the deal for me, so to speak!  At this moment, I didn’t even know if I was going to make it through the end of my pregnancy, which was just a little over a month away.

My gynecologist was notified that I had been diagnosed with stage 3, HER2+, ER+, PR+, breast cancer.  During my pregnancy, I had informed him about the impending lump in my left breast but he felt that it was only a build-up of milk ducts and therefore he did not feel that it required any additional attention.  Me, being young and naive, I didn’t even think that it could be anything like cancer.  I kept informing my gynecologist that the lump was getting bigger as time went on, but he still didn’t feel the need to investigate any further until I pretty much insisted that he did so.

Well, that questionable lump was now a cancerous tumor that was growing at an alarming rate because of the estrogen in my body.  A quick course of action had to be taken to save my life and the life of my unborn baby.  The pregnancy was induced and my baby was delivered six weeks early so I could start chemotherapy immediately.  I started out with Adriamycin, Cytoxan and Taxol intravenously and a Tamoxifen tablet.

My life, as I knew it, was transformed instantly right before my eyes.  I was bombarded with a regimen of doctor’s appointments, scans and MRI’s, to include receiving eight months of chemotherapy with six weeks of radiation to follow.  After that, my left breast mastectomy surgery was performed on July 6, 1999, which was also the date of my 4th wedding anniversary.  What a celebration, huh?

My cancer-free status was short-lived!  Just two years later in November 2001, my cancer came back more aggressive than before.  It had metastasized to my bones, lungs and liver.  My Oncologist diagnosed me as a stage IV, terminal cancer patient and told me to, “Go home, quit work, and get your life in order!”  Seeing that my doctor didn’t have much hope of me surviving my now metastatic breast cancer diagnosis; it left me in complete shock once again and not knowing what to think.  This time, I had some family members in the examination room with me.  My husband, my mother, my younger sister and her husband had gone to this appointment with me, so I did try to be as strong as possible just for them.  I did take my oncologist’s advice and went home and requested an early retirement from my job as an Accountant with the Department of Defense-DFAS Orlando, but in no way, was I going to give up; my daughters needed their mother!   They were only three and five years old now and therefore, I decided that I would fight this dreadful disease with every ounce of my being.

Unfortunately, I was hit with one hard blow after another.  Just a couple months later, in January 2002, while attending a movie at a nearby movie theater, I had received frantic phones calls from my new oncologist, instructing me to call her immediately.  After contacting her, she notified me to come directly to the hospital because recent scans revealed that I had a blood clot in my lungs.  I spent a grueling week in the hospital, while my medical team ran an insanely number of tests on me.  At this point, my oncologist could not determine where the blood clot had originated.   I was then released from the hospital to go home to my family. 

Just as the aggressive nature of my cancer would persist, I went to my doctor with complaints of pain in my lower abdomen area in the Spring of 2002.  It was so painful that I could barely walk.  After doing some follow-up scans, it was discovered that I had cancerous lesions in my abdomen and spine.  At that point, I remember having radiation treatments for this diagnosis.  This year had proven to be the hardest year ever in my entire cancer journey.  At one point, I felt that I couldn’t fight it anymore.  It was beginning to feel too hard to bare.  I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired!  How could this be happening to me and in such a short period of time?  How could on person endure so much?  I had many questions but it didn’t stop my aggressive pain nor did it stop my recurring diagnoses.   I am so thankful to have the amazing family that I have.  My siblings have been my back-bone throughout this entire ordeal.  My mom was at the fore-front of it all, and recently passed a year ago.  My oldest brother, who would partially call me every day just to check in on me, also passed just a month ago.  I also have my extended family and friends who have been an amazing support system for me.

In August 2003, I was diagnosed a 4th time with a cancerous brain tumor.  Now, this was it, the diagnosis that would take me out quickly!  This was my thinking and I couldn’t image myself getting through this with my already frail body.   My daughters were almost 5 and 7 years old at this point and had seen their mother fight for her life, their entire life.  Their lives weren’t the average life-style of their peers but non-the-less, we managed it all. 

I had a nine-hour stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) procedure to shrink the tumor.  Radiosurgery is a single, high dose of radiation that is very focused; the normal tissue around the tumor receives little or no radiation.  My medical team literally screwed this big, circular, steel plate or “head frame” onto my head to keep my head in a correct position so that the radiation was then directed to the tumor by a machine.  I had to lie still for nine hours during this treatment process, of course with the aid of medications.  Once the head frame was removed, I literally thought my head was going to explode.  The tension from the head frame and the screws being in place for so long during the procedure, was somewhat unbearable but after several days, the headaches subsided.  (The one great thing now is that a newer or updated stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS), and stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) system called the CyberKnife, is now used in the place of the Gamma Knife procedure that was once administered on me.  The CyberKnife procedure is capable of treating cancer anywhere on the body in one to five radiation treatments, and would not require general or local anesthesia.  This process would eliminate the long, drastic, nine-hour procedure that I once had and instead of the invasive head frame that I had, the CyberKnife is non-invasive and does not require a head frame or a painful immobilization device.) 

In 2004, I had another scare where my brain specialist thought that the brain tumor was getting even bigger, based on a routine brain MRI.  Unfortunately, my marriage was also beginning to deteriorate right along with my health.  Somehow, I came to the realization that it was the stress of my failing marriage that was starting to cause some of my health concerns.  I did not want to give up on my marriage, especially with a terminal illness and two small daughters to raise so I tried to stick it out, plus I reminded myself that if I had fought through all of this thus far, surely, I can fight through another diagnosis.  After a couple of separations, my ex-husband and I decided to get a divorce. 

When my next appointment came around in February 2005, my brain specialist revealed to me that he no longer saw the growing mass that he had once seen.  I was completely elated but I couldn’t help but think that the compounding stress had somewhat aided in my additional brain diagnosis. 

Currently, I am still being monitored through quarterly brain MRI’s and follow-up appointments.  It has been 14 years since my cancerous brain tumor diagnosis and I am still pushing full steam ahead!  I have been taking a letrozole tablet daily and taking Herceptin intravenously since the start of my last occurrence to the brain in 2003.  Due to the aggressive growth of the new tumors, my oncologist thought that this new drug, Herceptin, would work better for me, or at least give me a better quality of life than what I had recently been experiencing with my previous chemotherapy treatments.  I remember her saying that she would try it for a short period of time and go from there.  I do not think either of us thought that this drug would have worked as long as it has been working.  Herceptin, as a stand-alone treatment, has done an amazing job for me!  I was also taking Zometa intravenously for about seven years, alongside of the Herceptin and letrozole, but it started breaking my teeth badly so my oncologist took me off it. 

In early 2007, I started having horrible pains in my right hip.  Over time, it was very painful to walk and even had gotten to the point of being too painful to drive.  I had found myself using my hand to lift my right leg from the gas pedal to the breaks.  When I realize that this had gotten too dangerous, I stopped fighting it and scheduled myself for a total right hip replacement.  I guess the main thing was, I was too scared to find out if it too, was cancerous.  My bone specialist performed the surgery and reveal that it wasn’t cancerous, but it was bone on bone.  He couldn’t even imagine how I was walking on it for so long and to be honest, I do not know how I managed it for so long myself.

 I have been fighting a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis for almost 16 years now, and as you can see, it has been a tough road for me.  Through several occurrences, a divorce, a total hip replacement, the recent death of my mother and my oldest brother, and my greatest pride of raising my two beautiful daughters as a single mom, who are now both in college; I can truly say it has been worth the ride. 

Now, I do remain in some type of pain, day in and day out, but just to get through one more day, it is a great accomplishment for me!  I am now a regular fixture at my local gym.  I try to go at least five days a week to walk on the treadmill for at least an hour so that somehow my joint pain can ease up and I can remain mobile to “keep it moving” day in and day out!

 Terlisa Fights Breast Cancer, Inc. …. I started this small non-profit organization in 2008 and I’ve made it my mission to use my diagnosis and breast cancer journey to motivate, encourage and inspire other survivors to push through their illness, while living their life to the fullest, one day at a time! 

I have provided monetary donations to those survivors who have had immediate needs with things like rent, medicines, medical supplies, etc.

My breast cancer journey/testimony has been featured on the local news station, various newspapers and video interviews, the UF Health Cancer Center-Orlando Health website and Facebook page, the AARP Journal, and my very own website and social media pages. 

No matter how tired I may feel from my own battles with this disease, I try to lend a helping hand to others, whether via countless telephone calls, texts or emails.  I also make home and hospital visits, so that I can sit and talk face-to-face with others, and at times, I have even counseled other survivors while I was receiving my very own treatments.  I feel that this is my mission in life and for that reason, I will continue to do all that I can to touch the lives of others as they are going through this traumatic experience.

Awards and Organizations

I have received various awards and recognitions to include, the 2017 Community Service Award from Gamma Phi Delta Sorority, Inc., the 2016 Funk Fest Community Champion Award and in 2015, I received the Woman of Courage Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus in Washington, D.C.  I co-authored a best-selling book, “Unbreakable Spirit: Rising Above the Impossible,” with Lisa Nichols from “The Secret.”  In this book, I have a chapter titled, “Go Home, Quit Work and Get Your Life In Order” which were the exact words that my first oncologist told me in November 2001, when she was giving up on me.

I am a recent graduate of The Project Lead Institute through the National Breast Cancer Coalition and a graduate of the “Hear My Voice” advocate program through Living Beyond Breast Cancer, Inc.  I also volunteer with the METAvivor organization, the Sister’s Network-Orlando Chapter organization and the Florida Breast Cancer Foundation.  Just recently, I served as a panelist to share my experiences as a breast cancer patient and represent the topic, “Learning From Each Other:  Sharing Stories, Sharing Wisdom,” during the 2017 Living Beyond Breast Cancer Conference.