The doctor didn’t hold any hope. Advanced breast cancer meant the young woman would need to say her final good-byes.
“I was given two months to live,” said Gwen Monteney of Kennewick, Wash., who was diagnosed when she was barely 43 years old. “The Seattle doctor told my family they’d send me home because I had only a short time to live.”
Before life had taken this dramatic turn, the busy mother of two worked at a local hospital as a financial counselor. In that longtime role, Gwen often came face-to-face with cancer patients as she walked them through the medical system. But that summer she started getting frequent sore throats, colds and other lingering problems that didn’t seem to clear up.
“I’d come home from work, get dinner and then I’d collapse,” Gwen said, remembering how sickly she felt all the time and how antibiotics didn’t seem to help. “I was just keeping one foot in front of the other and had to keep going — so I ignored it.”
Not one to dismiss her annual mammogram in spite of not feeling well, Gwen went in for her appointment. A good report came back, but her local doctor thought something wasn’t right.
“He felt he saw something even though there were no abnormalities on it,” said Gwen who at first was going to postpone a follow-up mammogram because of her hectic schedule. The doctor told her to come in the next day. That was when worry crept in.
Further tests and exams came back with the formidable news: It was too late. The cancer had spread. Gwen’s Seattle medical team concurred that it would be best she go home to die — a prognosis shared with the family, but not with Gwen.
Unknown to Gwen, her mother immediately became her advocate, begging for a surgeon who would at least try to save her daughter’s life.
“I knew nothing. The cancer doctor came into the hospital room and said, ‘We’re going to do a radical mastectomy,’ ” Gwen said of the unexpected announcement and not understanding this was a last grasp at hope. “It was the Saturday before Easter, and I argued that I didn’t want to bother him.”
But after surgery, what felt like a raging storm descended upon her.
“He came out and said, ‘I didn’t get it all,’ ” Gwen said about the surgeon’s news that nine out of 13 lymph nodes were malignant. “I just pulled the sheet up over my head and cried.”
Nothing could hold back the tears and feeling of hopelessness. The journey ahead felt overwhelming as the intense cancer treatment began. The oncologist told her that even with a year of chemotherapy, she would still only live three to five years.
“Through this, the doctors thought I wasn’t going to make it,” Gwen said as she remembered the many prayers on her behalf. “Then after four months, it was almost impossible to give me chemo intravenously because my veins had collapsed.”
A long tube inserted into the chest and heart could allow for continued chemotherapy treatment. But during the surgical procedure, Gwen’s body rejected the numbing agent administered numerous times as she lay awake.
“They gave me about 40 injections and it wouldn’t numb,” Gwen said of the unfolding nightmare. “They kept cutting — I felt it — and I begged them to quit.”
The agony was relentless, Gwen said. Then as she felt she could barely hold on, Gwen experienced a sudden vision that is as clear to her now as it was that day, a hope-inspiring event she rarely shares.
“At the end of my bed, I saw Jesus standing there with a lamb in his arms, and he was looking at me with such love,” Gwen said, her eyes welling with tears. “In that moment, I felt he was holding me.”
An image this woman of faith held close through the difficult months ahead — and to this day a poignant memory of her loving shepherd who has never let go, even 34 years later.
Luginbill is a television producer-host and the spiritual life editor for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, Wash. In her column, she reflects on the meaning of her name, “light bringer.”
From staff reports