What is HER2 positive cancer?
HER2-positive breast cancer is a cancer that tests positive for a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), which promotes the growth of cancer cells. In about 1 out of every 5 breast cancers, the cancer cells make an excess of HER2 due to a gene mutation. This gene mutation and the elevated levels of HER2 that it causes can occur in many types of cancer - not only breast cancer. HER2-positive breast cancers tend to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer. They're also less responsive to hormone treatment.
Sylvia Shy isn't just a survivor. She's also a natural born storyteller whose message of hope and love captivates and deeply touches anyone who cares to listen. Shy, 57, has been sharing the story of her journey with cancer since 2002, when she was first diagnosed.
A lifelong resident of Covington, Shy said it all began Memorial Day weekend when she noticed something amiss. A cyst ruptured on her left breast. She went to the doctor immediately. Shy takes great pride in the fact that the cancer was caught in its earliest stages because she was punctual for her annual mammograms and check-ups.
It was a Friday evening when the doctor called to tell Shy he had good news and bad news. Which did she want to hear first? The bad news was Shy had cancer. So many cancer cells were detected in her left breast that the doctor was recommending a mastectomy. The good news - they caught it early enough that, with a mastectomy, Shy could be cancer free.
Shy opted for a bilateral mastectomy. "I said, ‘Breasts, you've been good to me, but it's time to go!' I thought I should have a bilateral mastectomy and be done with it. I didn't want to have to go through it all again."
Shy says she remembers sitting in her bathroom and asking God, "Why me?"
"God answered me - ‘Why not you? You will survive this and give Me the glory.'"
The mother of two adult daughters, Shameeka Ayres and Chanci Shy, never had to take a pill. She had no chemotherapy or radiation treatments. After the surgery, she didn't even talk to another doctor. Shy was told she was cancer free and that's how she lived her life- until 2009 when she noticed the recurrence of a lump where her left breast had been. At first, she thought the lump was scar tissue, but she went in to have it checked out by her doctor just in case.
Shy was diagnosed with stage 4 HER2-positive cancer. (See the sidebar for more information on HER2-positive cancer.) "This was a whole different ball game than I played in 2002," says Shy, who began chemotherapy treatments immediately.
The cancer metastasized to her liver and spine. Treatment means going for an infused chemotherapy every three weeks, as well as taking pills daily.
"The chemotherapy affected my ability to walk. I lost all my hair. I was suffering many other negative side effects."
The chemotherapy was hurting more than it was helping. Shy says her doctor switched medications and she doesn't suffer as much as she did before, but suffering is not the part of her story Shy wants people to focus on when she talks to them.
"You watch the news and you hear about people dying every day of this form of cancer and that form of cancer. I'm not dying from cancer. I'm living with it. I try to make each day meaningful to me and to others."
Shy goes on to say, "It doesn't matter what I'm dealing with, what's going on with me. My ability to talk, my voice, never seems to be affected by the cancer. That's because God has a story for me to tell."
This cancer survivor credits her faith in God and her network of friends and family for helping her manage her illness.
"I have such an awesome support system. I talk about my unwavering faith, but this support system of family, friends, co-workers, church - I can't begin to talk about how important they have been from day one. The cards, the prayers, the financial giving, the kind words, the phone calls - it's been awesome. I've had time to sit and think and I thought about how blessed I am to have that kind of support and I know there are other people who go through this and they don't have anyone."
Shy worked for 27 years at Security Lighting (formerly Lithonia Lighting) in training and development. Her job was eliminated in 2008 and she's been unable to work since due to the various side effects of stage 4 cancer treatment, including a recent scare this past spring.
After visiting her podiatrist for an issue she was having with her foot, it was recommended she stay off her feet until her next doctor's appointment. Shy went to stay with her daughter, Chanci. It was while she was there that she blacked out. Once she as admitted to the hospital with dangerously low blood pressure, tests were run. It was discovered Shy had four blood clots in her lungs.
If she hadn't been staying at her daughter's house, she could have died from the blood clots, a common side effect of her medication.
"I call that just another miracle. I spent one night in ICU and six days in a regular room. Things improved quickly. I was eating like a horse the very next day."
"I'm going to keep on telling people to never give up hope. Just when you think this battle is lost, the journey will come to the end, God shows up. There is hope. You can't give up. Keep fighting and trusting and believing until you can't anymore."
Shy shares her story with civic groups, churches and anyone who'll listen. She's experienced everything from early detection to stage 4 cancer, but she translates what could be a story of pain and suffering to one of hope, joy, faith and strength.
"I'm not a pessimistic, glass is half empty kind of person. I try to surround myself with positive people. Positive people attract each other."
For now, routine CAT scans and other tests are run to determine what the cancer is doing, if it's spreading or if medications need to be adjusted. The cancer is treatable and Shy is determined to live with her illness, not die from it.
"Part of my responsibility, one of my purposes, is to talk to other people and share my journey with as much humor as I can. I believe laughter is the best medicine and this is a tough subject."
Shy wants to continue to reach out to people in her community and can be reached at email@example.com.