KNOX — Lisa Byer lived an ordinary life. She was a wife, mother, daughter and a successful stylist. By most definitions, she was considered extremely blessed. Then one ordinary day, her world turned upside down and ordinary would not be something she experienced for a very long time.
“I found a lump while shaving. The next day I showed it to my mom (Sandy Eskridge); and she said I needed to get it checked so I went to the doctor. My doctor sent me to a specialist who watched it for two weeks — when it didn’t change, he decided it needed to be removed,” Byer said.
Once the lump was removed, it was sent away to be tested. Byer was not prepared for the results.
“The lump ended up being stage-two breast cancer and it had already metastasized,” she said.
The first thing that entered Byer’s mind was her children. And because of them, she did not hesitate to take action.
“The very first thought when the doctor said ‘I am so sorry Lisa, but you have cancer,’ was NO! My little kids need me. At that time, Siera was only seven and Eli was almost four. It didn’t take me long to realize that feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to help. I decided very quickly that I had to fight and do whatever it took to be here to raise my children,” she said.
Byer began radical chemotherapy almost immediately. However, that was just the first step toward removing the deadly disease from her body.
“I had six months of chemotherapy — it was very intense and aggressive. At that time, they decided to experiment with a drug that was usually given to breast cancer patients with a reoccurrence, not first occurrence patients. When I finished those six months, I went straight into 33 radiation treatments. Radiation was given five days a week. Chemotherapy was very hard. Like most who go through chemo, I was very nauseated, very tired; and I had to have injections to rebuild my cells that the drug had depleted — I also lost all of my hair. Radiation was just as hard on me. I was very tired and very burned; they treated the burns on my chest with ointment; but I had to keep doing it (radiation), despite the burning,” Byer said.
While the treatment appeared to be simple, the effects on Byer’s body were ravaging.
“Chemotherapy was given first through an IV that was surgically implanted into my chest. I received my radiation through a machine similar to an x-ray or CT scan. Nothing actually touched my skin. I lay under the machine and an invisible-type ray went through me. I saw the machine, but I didn’t feel the radiation going in, just the after effects. In my case it was a severe burn and extreme fatigue,” she said.
Byer hung on to the person she had always been for as long as she could.
“I lost my hair. I kept every piece as long as I could. In the first round of chemo, I lost everything but around my hairline. I would put on a bandanna or a ball cap, and it looked like I still had my hair,” she said.
Once the last strand had fallen, Byer focused on what lay ahead, not on what she was losing.
“I knew losing my hair was part of it, so I expected it. I just considered it part of the process; if I wanted to get better that was just something that I had to deal with,” she said.
Keeping up a normal routine was important for Byer.
“I worked throughout my entire treatment because I wanted my children’s lives to stay as normal as possible. I did not want what was happening to me to affect them. There were some days when I had to stay home, but for the most part I worked,” she said.
While battling cancer was difficult, seeing the effect it had on her loved ones was even more traumatic for Byer.
“I think the hardest part of the whole diagnosis was for my mom and dad who had to hear that one of their children would be fighting for their life,” she said.
Family means everything to Byer. And when she was fighting for her survival, family was her main focus.
“The love and support of my family made all of it bearable. My mom was my rock. My little angel Siera would bring me medicine and pop, when I couldn’t get up or move. My entire family, my husband Brett, my kids, my parents, and my brother and sister would probably tell you I did great because my main goal through it all was to try to protect them. I felt it was my battle to fight in order to be here for all of them,” she said.
Someone to lean on
While Byer was strong during her cancer battle, she was thankful that she didn’t have to go it alone.
“My mom was with me when I went for my results. She was with me for every chemo-treatment. She would take me and bring me home because I couldn’t drive afterwards,” she said.
Byer’s mom was a woman of extreme faith. However, she was also human and a mother; and while watching her daughter endure so much pain, she questioned God and made a request that later would prove to be prophetic.
“She was a very spiritual person. And when I first got sick, I remembered her questioning God. She’d say ‘Why God, why does it have to be her? why can’t it be me?’ At that time, I had no idea how ironic what she said would end up being,” Byer said.
The fight continues
Fighting cancer was difficult, but it was nothing compared to the next battle Byer had to face.
“My mom was diagnosed three years later with stomach cancer, which we later discovered was misdiagnosed breast cancer. Minutes before surgery, they discovered her cancer was already in lymph nodes and stage four — surgery was no longer an option. They (doctors) told her to go home and get her affairs in order. This was in July; and she was told she probably wouldn’t be here by Christmas,” Byer said.
In the midst of pain and anger Byer remembered words she had heard during her own illness — and she lashed out.
“When we heard her diagnosis, we were all upset. I was angry and scared. Here it was only three years after my cancer and someone in my family was now going through the same battle. I couldn’t forget the words my mom had said three years before. ‘Why not me, God? Why does it have to be her?’ I told her she had asked for this three years ago — I was devastated,” she said.
Taking care of her mother was the only option Byer would accept.
“My mom was absolutely and without a doubt my very best friend. I put my life on hold when she got sick in order to take care of her. My dad had to work every day to keep insurance. I took a leave from work and dedicated it to her. It was much worse to watch my mom battle cancer because she wasn’t just my mom, as I said, she was my best friend. She was there through all of my battle, to take me for treatments, cook dinners, watch the kids; whatever I needed, she was there,” she said.
The prospect that cancer could claim her mother terrified Byer.
“To lose my mother was unfathomable to me. It filled me with fear. I was absolutely terrified of losing her. And the thought of living the rest of my life without her was more than I could bear,” she said.
At first, Byer felt like her mother was giving in to the disease. She quickly discovered, she had merely turned it over to a higher power.
“My mom had unwavering faith. Very early in her fight, she said she had turned her cancer over to God and whatever he decided is what it would be. I asked her how she could give up and she said I’m not giving up; I’ve just handed it to God. Rose Tolson (a family friend) always sang a song called ‘The Promise.’ In the lyrics, God is saying ‘He never promised we would never taste the bitter sting of death or have to cross the chilly Jordan to enter into rest. But he did say, he’d be waiting right on the other side.’ I cry every time I hear that song because that played at my mom’s bedside the last days of her life,” Byer said.
Byer was inspired by her mom’s belief and walk with God.
“My mom’s walk with God and her unshakable faith inspired me. In watching my mother and her faith and knowing when she left this world she was going to Heaven; I knew I had to have that same faith, if I want to see my mom again — and I want to see my mom again,” she said.
The same selfless love that moved Byer to protect her family was something she inherited from her mother.
“My mom wrote each one of us a letter in her journal: My dad, each of her kids, and her grandchildren. She told us all what she wanted us to remember about her life. For me, her biggest fear would be that my cancer would return and she wouldn’t be here to help me. The selflessness: She was spending her last minutes worrying about us and how we would be without her instead of worrying about herself,” Byer said.
Sandy Eskridge spent many hours, despite her long illness, creating memories that her family could cherish long after she was gone.
“My mom was a huge picture taker. While she felt good, she made all three of us kids and her grandchildren a scrapbook. Then she took the photos and made all of us memory quilts. She gave us all something that we would always have,” Byer said.
And while Byer clings to the memories she has, nothing will ever fill the void her mother left behind.
“I never got any peace as far as living in a world she isn’t a part of. Every day I miss her; and there is always something I need to tell her or ask her. Not one day has gone by that I haven’t needed her or wanted her,” she said.
Byer has been cancer free for 10 years. And while she hopes she has put cancer behind her, in many ways, it still lingers around the edges of her life.
“I don’t want it to define who I am. It’s always there but more in the background. I guess my life is more than that; but then again, maybe it’s more because of that. I don’t know; I still wonder. It’s always in the back of my mind that something can always come back.” she said.
Getting through some of life’s most devastating moments is something Byer considers easier because of the special people in her life.
“I have had so many people in my life who have inspired me. I’d have to say my number one inspiration has always been my kids. I look at them every day and know why God let me stay here on Earth. And always my mom was an inspiration — she still is. I want the same kind of relationship with my children as I had with her. Another great inspiration is my dear friend Kathy Sallee who continually battles this disease and the effects of it with a smile on her face and a love for her life; also my favorite neighbor, Kathy Stacy who fought with such dignity, but in the end lost her battle,” she said.
There is hope
Fighting cancer was one of the most frightening things Byer has had to endure. But she wants others to believe there is always hope and that they can fight and win.
“If you are just getting the diagnosis, don’t think of it as a death sentence, but as a battle for your life. My life was worth the battle. I was told so much when I was diagnosed; ‘No matter what we do you may still die within three years. You will never have more children. The treatments could very well cause permanent problems.’ Now, 10 years later, I’m still here. My little Paige is eight-years-old (the child I wasn’t suppose to have). And any permanent scars or problems I have do not stop me from living my life,” she said.
A different view
Byer views the world differently since her battle with cancer.
“I have learned which battles to fight and which ones to let go. If it isn’t life threatening or life changing, let it go. Cancer makes things that once seemed so huge seem very small. I have tried very hard not to let breast cancer change my life. It’s there; it’s always in the back of my mind, but I don’t want it to overpower my existence. I look at each day as a gift; and I thank God for everyday I have been given. It is through Him that I have strength and life,” Byer said.
Making the most of every moment a person has is one of the best pieces of advice Byer has to offer.
“Don’t waste whatever time you’re given with parents or loved ones. Take every minute that you have and cherish it because when memories are all you have left, you want as many as you can possibly have to get through the loneliness. The alternative is that you have nothing,” she said.