Patricia McMorrow | 11.19.21
Between 2019 and 2020, Courtney Lamb of Marlborough, MA, went through chemo, radiation and multiple surgeries to treat Stage 3 breast cancer. Then she got long COVID before vaccines were available and faced a pandemic-related furlough from her nursing job. Any one of these is a lot; all three are an awful lot.
But Courtney, just 37 at the time of her cancer diagnosis, approached each threat to health and home as you might expect from a mom in the midst of child-rearing: No giving up. No matter what.
“I have three young children, and I make it a point to not let them see me down and out,” she said. “With cancer, they knew I would feel sick and uncomfortable, but they saw I was still smiling and that I could still do stuff with them. And when I couldn’t, my Mom or their Dad were there for them.”
For Courtney’s younger sons, Myles and Jacoby, now 10 and 8, it was enough to hear that doctors felt she was going to be OK. “I told them I had a treatment plan and that my oncologist was very, very hopeful,” she said. “That was the right amount of information for them to take in at the time.”
But it was harder for Jayden, now 17. “My older son struggled a bit. He wanted to know all the details,” Courtney said. “He worries still … what if it would come back?”
As an RN, Courtney knows cancer can return—but with the odds for continued health strongly in her favor, she is focusing on healing. She wishes that for Jayden, too.
“Even now, if I see him struggling with things, I say, ‘Do you remember when I was going through my treatments? And how I got through it? I made a point to be positive and happy.'”
This was her path to moving forward; any other approach would have put too much emphasis on the “heaviness of cancer.” Courtney said, “If I had let it weigh me down, I may not have had the same outcome. I tend to think that people who don’t have support, or the ability to stay positive and remain hopeful, have a harder time making it through.”
Courtney had extreme support from family and friends, with her mom, Eileen, at the center of that universe. “I could not have gone through this without my Mom,” Courtney said. “The cancer scared her, so she threw herself into being Grandma. That was her position, and that’s how she helped me. I knew my kids were always somewhere safe, with someone who loved them. It took such a load off my mind.”
Courtney also remains grateful for how her husband, Raheim, kept the kitchen running—no mean feat with three growing boys in the house—and for the wisdom of a friend who had just been through breast cancer when Courtney was diagnosed. And then there was her sister, who went to nearly all of Courtney’s appointments and “took notes upon notes on her phone.”
“Being a nurse, I may have had a higher level of knowledge about some things,” Courtney said. “But I was really a patient so focused on getting answers to questions I had in my head that I didn’t know how much information I missed.” Every time they reviewed her sister’s notes, Courtney found herself saying, “Oh, my gosh, I didn’t hear the doctor say any of that.”
Throughout treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, she sometimes wavered on whether to disclose that she was a nurse. Courtney said, “If they would say, ‘Oh, you’re a nurse. You know that,’ I would answer, ‘No, please, I’m not an oncology nurse. Can you explain everything to me as you would to anyone else?'”
While her medical training was helpful in navigating her treatment plan, and her positive outlook set the tone for the family, breast cancer was not easy. “Just because I carry it well doesn’t mean it’s not heavy,” Courtney said.
Reflecting on post-cancer life in her CaringBridge Journal, she wrote, “No one ever tells you that once active treatment is over there will be daily reminders and consequences. The ‘new me’ has scars that start from the center of my chest and wrap around past my armpits, and all over my torso. I can’t lift my arms as high as I used to. My skin is darker and tougher where the radiation hit. I will take a chemo pill every day for the next 10 years.”
But she is gradually adjusting. “I am very aware that I will never have the same life again,” Courtney said. “I am also very grateful that I still have my life to live.”
This “attitude of gratitude” after cancer helped get Courtney through COVID—and long COVID—and a work furlough at the height of the pandemic in 2020. “It was not fun, but what compares to radiation, chemo and surgery?” she said.
Not one to sit idle, Courtney started a master’s program in nursing while on furlough and came upon a job more compatible with her family’s schedule. Rather than working at a care facility, she is now a school nurse in the district where her boys are students. (And yes, she knows she may enjoy the close proximity more than her sons!)
Even with less time, she is having more fun and giving back, including a whitewater rafting trip with other cancer survivors, and signing up for a church mission trip to the Dominican Republic to volunteer her nursing skills.
Courtney said, “I told my sister about this latest trip, and she jokingly said, ‘Are you having a midlife crisis? Why are you going to all these places?’ And I just answered, ‘You know, why wouldn’t I? I went through something that could have killed me. But I’m here. And I’m alive.'”