Eastern Iowans make their own success stories

And they want others to learn from the challenges they face

Published: December 25 2013 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:16 am in
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Giving advice after a long fight

This time last year, Mary Porter thought she was going to die.

Instead of buying gifts and decorating her Cedar Rapids home between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Porter was diagnosed with breast cancer and believed she was going to have to spend a good part of 2013 planning her funeral.

“That’s exactly what you think when you get cancer,” Porter said, sitting at her kitchen table gripping a white mug with a pink breast cancer ribbon on it. “I had to think, who’s going to take care of my son? You think you’re going to die. You’re not, but you think you are.”

But after a year filled with doctors appointments, surgeries, radiation and continued chemotherapy, the 47-year-old hair stylist said she is finally beginning to feel like herself again. And she wants to help others dealing with the disease that affects thousands of women a year.

The first warning sign came in September 2012.

“I started noticing that one breast was firmer than the other, and I thought, ‘That’s just odd.’ But then I thought it could be my age and menopause and things like that, so let’s see what happens next month,” Porter said, adding she had a perfect mammogram just months earlier, in February.

A month passed, and Porter found a lump under her arm, then another week went by, and she said she couldn’t feel it any more so she put it out of her mind. She later started to see dimpling — another warning sign — and called to see if she could do a walk-in mammogram.

Needing a doctors referral, Porter said she decided to wait until her yearly physical, as she was preparing to go into surgery for a gym injury around that time.

The weekend of Thanksgiving 2012, Porter said she attended a wedding where a friend gave her a bear hug that hurt her chest. That’s when she decided to go to her family doctor, who sent her to get a mammogram and an ultrasound.

She was diagnosed with stage 2 ductal carcinoma in situ on Dec. 4.

Then it was doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment. And because Porter said she didn’t have any close friends or family who had dealt with the disease, she often felt underprepared for appointments, relying heavily on online breast cancer chat websites.

“When I was, they had a nurse in there and all she did was work with breast cancer patients, but she wasn’t a survivor — unless she was and didn’t tell me,” Porter said. “It would have been so nice to have someone sit there and say, ‘You know what, look at me, I went through that and, it sucks, yes you can’t get out of bed, and you lose your hair and you can’t get out of bed, but that all comes back.’”

Porter will finish her chemotherapy treatment in January or February.

After being off work for nearly eight months due to the treatment and not being able to go to the gym, Porter said she’s happy she is now able to work and starting to feel like herself again. She’s focused on making memories with her friends and family, and trying to make herself available to other people who have been diagnosed with the disease that overwhelmed the last year of her life.

“I think there’s just so many questions that I wish I would have asked that I didn’t,” Porter said. “And if I would have had an advocate or somebody that had been through it, it would have been a little easier.”

Mary Porter can be reached by email at: luv2styleu@yahoo.com.

‘A second chance for everyone’

After missing birthdays, holidays, sports, family events and her friends over the past year, Taryn Erbes is happy she will be able to spend this Christmas at home with her family.

And now, after completing a five and a half month inpatient substance abuse program at the Area Substance Abuse Council (ASAC) of Cedar Rapids — and staying clean throughout — Erbes said she wants people to know that every person who struggles with substance abuse has a second chance at “It’s OK to ask for help, there are people that are there that will help you,” Erbes said as she sat on her family’s couch in Cedar Rapids before a brightly lit Christmas tree. “I want people to know you don’t have to use substances to be happy.”

Erbes, 17, said it all started her junior year of high school when she began drinking with her friends on the weekends.

“I started to realize I had a problem because it was easier for my friends to say, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to drink,’” Erbes said. “But I could never say no, I always had to drink and drink until it was gone.”

But quickly the drinking and partying turned into prescription-pill use. Before she knew it, Erbes said she was taking things like Xanax and OxyContin all the time, every day, feeling as if she couldn’t function without them.

“It got really bad, to the point where I lost all my friends, I lost my job, I lost some contact with my family and I was a completely different person,” Erbes said. “I was a stranger to myself and I did not care about myself, and it took me until I had to get admitted into the hospital to realize I needed to change something, or else I probably would have wound up dead.”

After almost nine months of prescription-drug abuse, Erbes was admitted to the hospital in June. She wanted to go into treatment and, after a second hospital stay, was admitted to ASAC in July where she said she had to self-reflect.

“When I first went into treatment, I was tired of hurting people like my family and my friends. But the person I was hurting most was myself, so I really had to take a good look at who I was as a person and figure things out because to me I was a stranger,” Erbes said.

“So I worked on my self-esteem and figuring out who I really am and how not to hurt myself and how to better myself and making myself happier.”

Taryn’s mother, Melissa, said their relationship suffered greatly during those months and, though she tried to get help for her daughter before, she was relieved when her daughter finally was willing to get help and advocate for herself.

“It’s really cool because it was like she finally saw herself and said, ‘Hey, I have a problem, and, he, I really need help,’” her mother said. “And you know, having her be at ASAC and seeing all the kids there, not a lot of them are there because they asked for it. A lot of them are there because they got placed there.”

Since her recovery, Taryn has spoken publicly about her prescription-drug abuse story in hopes of raising awareness of the issue, and that it’s possible to recover from addiction.

Erbes was released from inpatient treatment on Dec. 9, and is in the midst of a 46-week outpatient treatment program. But said she plans to continue speaking at awareness events through ASAC.

“I like to make an impact and make people think,” Erbes said.

Because she was able to earn her GED while in treatment, Erbes said she plans to start taking college classes at Kirkwood Community College in January.

After 200 pounds, ‘Life is fun again’

When 55-year-old Boyd Shaffer lost his brother to diabetes five days shy of his 67th birthday in 2009, he knew it was time for a change.

Schaffer, who retired from a career in cardiac telemetry at UnityPoint Health-Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids in May, weighed about 410 pounds when his brother, Loyd, a longtime head wrestling coach at Marion High School, died.

And after losing his father to a massive heart attack in 1980 and his mother to diabetes in 1994, Shaffer said the death of his brother motivated him to quit drinking and start looking into ways to drop weight.

“I was working in the cardiac unit, and seeing what goes in with people’s hearts being over weight — I was turning 55 in October and I was like, ‘I have another 15 years and I’m not going to get close to 70 (years old) if I’m overweight,’” Shaffer said. “I’m 55 and my wife is 42, and I want to he around her for as long as I can be.”

Between wrestling and playing football in high school and more football in college, Shaffer said he would often have to bulk up. But as he got older, it became harder to get that weight off.

“When you get older, you get a sedentary job and it’s hard to lose because the weight adds on when you’re sitting there for 12 hours,” Shaffer said, noting that fellow night-shift staffers at the hospital also would bring crockpots with food and other treats as the cafeteria was closed at that time.

Even though he had done some research on weight loss surgery before his brother’s death, he didn’t have enough coverage from his insurance to have a Gastric bariatric sleeve surgery until he started working at St. Luke’s, for the second time, in 2010.

On March 26, 2012, the Waverly man said he finally was in a position to get the procedure that removed two thirds of his stomach, making it the size of an index finger.

Gastric bypass surgery is considered a major surgical procedure and can include health risks such as infection and excessive bleeding, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. It took Schaffer three weeks to recover and return to work.

But then the pounds started coming off.

Seventeen months later, Shaffer said he’s down to 190 pounds, which he’s been able to maintain by avoiding sugary foods, cutting pop from his diet, and drinking protein shakes with the help of a dietitian.

“It was definitely a life changing moment for me and my wife,” Shaffer said.

Body copy ragged right: Even little things, such as carrying laundry around his split level house have gotten easier. Where he once may have had to stop to take a breath while carrying laundry up the stairs, Shaffer said he’s able to take three flights on at once, flying right up them.

“My wife and I go for walks with our two labs, and she goes, ‘Where’d my husband go?’ because I’m 10 steps ahead of her,” Shaffer said. “I have so much more energy, it’s unbelievable.”

Since the surgery, Shaffer said he’s received a lot of positive feedback from friends and family, and his success has inspired others to look into the surgery as well.

Comments: (319) 398-8230; hayley.bruce@sourcemedia.net

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