Friday mornings Adam Howarth doesn’t go to work, instead he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and drives an hour and a half from his home in Orlando to Tampa to wait.
He waits for close to five hours with his wife, Erin, at their usual spot, a mint green couch beneath the window of the waiting room of Moffitt Cancer Center. She holds a beeper similar one used by a restaurant, but instead of waiting for a table she waits for a chemotherapy chair to treat her breast cancer.
“To sit there on your own with nobody around you would leave you open to contemplating too much,” Adam says. “It makes you reflect on the negative side of things. Together we stay positive.”
Adam pounds away at his laptop while Erin plays games on her iPad. Sometimes they watch the Today Show, other times they sit and talk, waiting for the results of Erin’s blood tests. If her white blood cell count is normal she can have chemotherapy, if not it’s a wasted journey.
Erin’s cancer is an anomaly. At 33, she is the youngest person in the waiting room, often by 20 years.
Diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in November of 2008, at 31, Erin’s right breast bore a two by three centimeter tumor and her bones, especially those in her spine, are home to cancer cells.
Despite being the second most common cancer in women, the chances of her being diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40 is 0.44 percent, or one in every 229 women, according to the American Cancer Society.
Erin noticed the tumor first in the shower. She visited two gynecologists who shrugged her fears off, assuring her she was too young to have breast cancer. A third agreed to send her for an ultrasound and a mammogram. The results were a surprise.
The ultrasound showed Erin was five weeks pregnant and the mammogram evidence of cancer. Due to the advanced stage of Erin’s breast cancer she required immediate chemotherapy and was unable to keep the fetus.
“It was a nightmare. To continue the treatment that they were going to give me I couldn’t continue the pregnancy, which was almost more difficult than being diagnosed I think for me. It was like two blows at once. I remember just thinking ‘How am I going to deal with all this?’”
The answer came from Adam, who has been with her for the entire duration of her treatment, shaving his head with her before she began chemo, finding her a white kitten to cheer her up, even driving her to Sarasota once a month to see her second doctor.
“If it wasn’t for Adam I wouldn’t have been able to stay in Orlando,” Erin said. “I would have had to go back to my family in Ohio.”
Today, Erin’s scans bear no evidence of disease. Should the scans taken next week provide the same result, she hopes to go down to two chemo treatments a month.
“Just having to go to chemo twice a month would be the best thing ever but there is no real protocol to follow because there are not a lot of people like me in the country who’ve been on the same treatment for this long or that have the type of breast cancer I have or that are my age. There’s no person to look to. I’m almost a clinical study myself.”
Erin encourages other young women to learn their bodies and trust themselves more than a doctor’s opinion or statistics.
“Breast cancer at Erin’s age is very rare, but it’s been known to happen,” said John Kiluk, Moffitt Cancer Center surgical oncologist. “I’ve seen patients in their 20s with breast cancer. They get told they’re too young to get breast cancer and it’s a big trap to fall into. You have to know your body and if you’re not getting the answers, you want keep looking.”
On the way back to Orlando, Adam drives while the car rocks Erin to sleep, exhausted from the early wake-up call and chemo treatment. The one day a week they give to cancer is over. The next six are theirs again.