It was nothing to worry about, the doctor told her.
She was young. She had no family history of breast cancer.
Adrianne Spahr wasn’t sure.
She had no health insurance. She was substitute-teaching after earning her teaching degree.
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She decided to get that “nothing” lump taken out anyway through the free clinic, in case it would disqualify her from getting insurance later or cause problems when she had children.
She was sitting in the parking lot of her boyfriend Paul’s apartment in Bloomington, about to drive to see her sister and mother in Franklin, when the doctor called.
A biopsy showed cancer on what the doctor had thought was a harmless cyst.
“He (Paul) took me back inside and cuddled with me for a bit, and we decided it would probably be best for me to go ahead and see my family. And so I broke the news to them,” she said.
Adrianne was 22. Paul was barely 20.
They had met at Brown County High School. They hadn’t dated many other people. They’d been together on and off for four years, and when he went to college, they took a break or two but still remained close.
“As soon as I found out she had cancer, there was this moment of, ‘OK, so you just wasted the last year, year-and-a-half of your life, and she could die — because some cancers kill very quickly — and I could lose her tomorrow. And I’ve spent this time chasing something that was dumb, essentially,’” he said.
“Did you ever figure out what you were chasing?” she asks.
“Just scared,” he says. “Unknown.
“When she found out she had cancer, I went from being a teenager to an adult like that,” Paul said.
“Nothing,” Adrianne said, “gives you mortality like the word, ‘cancer.’”
She went back in for a sentinel node dissection — a removal of a lymph node on her left side that appeared to be cancerous. It was about a centimeter in circumference. It was likely at Stage 1, the doctor thought.
Within about three months of being diagnosed, she had to have a third surgery — a full node dissection — when a microscopic trace of possibly cancerous tissue remained.
Her diagnosis was upgraded to Stage 3 estrogen-positive breast cancer — one of the more aggressive types if left untreated.
The long fight
Spahr had been long-term subbing for a Helmsburg Elementary teacher who was on leave for breast cancer treatment. It was a job she had worked hard to get. She hoped she might be able to come back pretty quickly after surgery.
What followed was more than a year of treatments that drained her physically and emotionally: Two rounds of chemotherapy, then radiation.
Seventeen years later, she still remembers the smell of the chemo.
“She’d be sick, wiped out the next day, at least a day or two,” Paul said. “I thought of it like knocking her down to zero, and then she’d spend the next week or rest of the week building herself back up so she could get knocked down again.”
“I liked to pick fights,” Adrianne admits. “I was just so mad, and I didn’t know who to be mad at, and he seemed safe.”
“I felt like a punching bag sometimes,” Paul said.
“Here she is, going through this horrible thing that’s happening to her body, so I’m not going to throw anything back at her.”
They went for a motorcycle ride after she started chemo, and her hair began to blow away in the whipping wind. She worried about it hitting the riders behind them.
That night, Paul shaved her head, then his.
He told her she looked better bald than he did.
He held her while she cried.
He waited to propose after she’d been in remission for about six months.
“I didn’t want to propose to her — and I didn’t think she wanted to be proposed to — during that time. I mean, do it for the right reasons, kind of not because you think I’m going to die. Don’t pity me,” he said.
They married when Adrianne was 25 and Paul was finishing college. He got a teaching job that summer.
“By that time you think you’re done with it,” he said about cancer. “But then we were starting to have kids.”
Their first pregnancy ended in miscarriage before Caiden was born. Two more miscarriages happened among the births of their next three children.
Yet, the cancer didn’t prevent her from breastfeeding all four children, on the side that hadn’t been “killed.”
When their daughters are older, they’ll be screened earlier than most, Adrianne said. It’s important to get a baseline of what’s “normal” in your 20s, she said.
The girls have more of a family history of breast cancer than Adrianne thought she did.
After Adrianne’s diagnosis, her mother, Christina Carney-Click, was screened. She found she had breast cancer, too, on the same side and general location as Adrianne’s, nearly the same size.
Then came her grandmother’s diagnosis: Also positive, same side.
Her mother successfully treated it; her grandmother, already fighting another illness, decided not to.
Adrianne has been in remission now for nearly 15 years. She doesn’t call it “cured.”
When she’s not homeschooling their four children, she works as the youth director for St. Agnes Catholic Church.
Faith wasn’t really a part of her upbringing, but she’d always talk to God. She’d lost her father when he was young, and she’d “talk” to him, too.
Adrianne went to Mass to be with Paul; he had been raised Catholic.
While still in treatment, she went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She decided to be rebaptized in the Jordan River — still bald, in white robes, “like a monk,” she laughed.
During treatments, faith “certainly helped me a lot, get through it, because I felt like I had something to fall back on,” she said.
“I knew that God was there, so whatever happened — I didn’t want to die — I felt like I would be alright.”
And there, too, was Paul. When she entered treatment, he started attending caregiver support meetings at the Indiana University Health Olcott Center in Bloomington.
Husbands and widowers talked about how the diagnosis can rip families apart. They patted him on the back for supporting her when he didn’t have to.
“And I thought, what would I do differently? I mean, if I love her, I’m going to stay with her.”
Even now, they can’t watch movies that resemble anything they went through, and he talks with regret about how he couldn’t “fix” cancer for her.
Across their dining room table, she tells him, gently, “You did, though. You helped me.”
“To this day, that’s one subject that still has pretty deep wounds,” he said.
Family: Husband, Paul; children, Caiden, 11, Adelyn, 9, Isaac, 7, and Ella, 4.
Cancer type: Estrogen-positive breast cancer