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Surviving Breast Cancer

In an intimate first-person account of her experience with stage 3 breast cancer, NC State staffer Clarissa Spencer demonstrates an unbreakable spirit — and the power of faith and family.

woman standing by Lake Raleigh

Voices is a new series of first-person narratives written by members of the NC State community reflecting on experiences that have shaped their personal and professional lives. Clarissa Spencer is the administrative support associate for NC State’s Center for Integrated Pest Management.

I am a 20-year breast cancer survivor. It’s been a long time since I went through the ordeal, but I remember it just like it was yesterday.

It was a chilly December morning, and when I woke up, I had my hands across my chest to keep warm and I felt the lump on my left side. I immediately started thinking the worst. So I met with my primary care doctor and she recommended that I see a surgeon. I remember his name, Dr. Jerry Stirman. He was wonderful. He performed a biopsy and sent the results off to pathology. And a few days later, he called me into his office to talk about the results. I knew something was wrong.

He told me to bring family, so I invited my auntie, my mother and my longtime friends Sheila and Lee. I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. It was an aggressive cancer. It was the worst news I could have received. It really felt like an out-of-body experience. It was like a dream. I was only 32 years old at the time, and I’d never had a mammogram. And there was no history of breast cancer in my family.

We all sat around a large conference table, and I’m so grateful my family and friends were there to comfort me and try to help me accept the news. We talked about how to move forward, and they helped me decide on my treatment plan. I chose to start chemotherapy as soon as possible.

Fighting On

After that, everything happened really quickly. Things went downhill fast. The chemo lasted for about six months, and it made me very nauseated and weak and in pain. The veins in my arms began to deteriorate from the treatment, so they put in a port for me to receive the chemo. That helped, but it left some scarring.

breast cancer ribbon pin with the word "endurance"
Spencer wears breast cancer pins faithfully throughout the month of October to raise awareness. She says of her favorite pin, “You’ve definitely got to have endurance.”

All of it was just devastating. I lost my hair after the first treatment of the chemotherapy drug. It all, literally, just tore out like paper. That was really difficult, losing my hair as a woman. My friend Lee would come by and feed me. I was so weak I couldn’t feed myself. I was a single mom with three children at the time, all girls. And even though they were only 13, 11 and 1, they were there for me. They were my hands and my feet, really.

My neighbors, my church, my family and friends, they all helped. My mom came and lived with me for a while … I’m tearing up. It’s very emotional to relive this. But because of my faith in God, it was during those months that I found myself relying more solely on God to get me through, and really, he did that. So, God first. And then all of the people in my life, and all of my doctors and their staff really helped me. That’s how I made it. They were my strength and my support helping me to fight on.

‘I’m Still a Woman’

Toward the end of treatment, my heart began to weaken, so I was taken off the chemo just before the six months were over. I had to accept the possibility that this cancer could take my life.

By the following year — as a matter of fact on my birthday in February 2001 — I was in the hospital having a radical mastectomy on my left breast.

Trying to get back to a sense of normalcy after all that took time. There were things that had occurred to my body that would be very different. The doctors said that my hair, for instance, wouldn’t grow back like it had been prior to the experience. My cycle stopped, and I was told that I wouldn’t be able to have more children. But I was thrilled when it returned and I was able to have two more daughters, in 2003 and 2008. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m still a woman. I’m still functioning.”

Today I have five children and three grandchildren: two boys and one diva granddaughter. And I’m just happy about life. The ordeal really changed my perspective.

Living in the Moment

woman standing on dock at Lake Raleigh

I get my mammograms faithfully, and they’ve all been normal since then. The only doctor I see now is my primary care physician. I’ve been released from cancer treatments and screenings. I see no oncologist; I take no medications. I’m just living a healthy life, trying to eat right and exercise.

Being a single parent and working a full-time job, especially during this pandemic, is really challenging. So I try to find ways to relax every day. I like reading, watching a movie or a sitcom, just entertaining my mind and letting go of whatever happened that day. I enjoy walking and preparing a good meal. It’s so important to just really live in the moment.

I love catching up with my family, just talking with them and being together. My children and grandchildren live nearby, and we’re very close. We communicate daily through text or video chat or phone calls. Family is very, very important to me. It’s what I’m here for. That’s why I’m trying to stick around, so I can make sure that I live to see my grandchildren grow and be with my children, and just live that American dream.