Mark Mattson: Looking back with fondness and love. Looking forward with courage and resolution, knowing that she will always be with them!
High school sweethearts
They met in high school through mutual friends. Soon after, they started dating and continued dating through college.
“We just hit it off and dated through high school, without all the drama of breakups and getting back together. We just got along well and were a great fit together.”
He was a year older than she, and after high school, he went to the University of Minnesota Duluth. A year later, she followed suit, but told everyone she was just going up there because her older brother was a Bulldog. Mark knew better and use to tease her about it.
“I would tell her she just followed me up there,” he says. “I told everyone else that as well.”
Even in college, they talked marriage and kids
“We knew what we wanted. We wanted to wait and graduate from UMD before we got married, but even in college, she was already making calls and plans.”
They married soon after they graduated from UMD, in 1999, on the last day of July in the last year of the millennium.
Like most college graduates and newly married couples, they struggled early on, with finding jobs, figuring out finances together, and doing all the adult things they now had to do.
Then they started a family
In 2003, they had their first child, a girl they named Samantha. In 2005, Natalie was born and in 2007, Joseph was born.
“Our daughters are in now in high school and our youngest, Joseph, is going to be in seventh grade in the fall.
“As a family, we did the typical things,” Mark continues, “raising our kids, taking them to sports, and watching them grow and progress at every stage of their lives. It was normal living with friends and kids’ activities – soccer practices, basketball practices, one of my daughters got into figure skating so we were spending more and more of our time at the rink a couple times a week.
“We were able to sneak in a few family vacations over the years. We made a lot of memories that we will cherish forever, spending two weeks in the van traveling out west and back.
“It was a lot of fun for the last 5 or 6 years as the kids got older and we were really able to watch them grow up, seeing their personalities blossom and the kids develop their own identities. They were all individuals and we loved it, both of us,” Mark continues.
It was April 2018
Several years earlier, Teri had had a scare with a small lump in her breast. Doctors were concerned about breast cancer, but after tests, found the lump to be caused by a clogged duct in one of Teri’s breasts. This was easily removed through an outpatient procedure.
So, when Teri noticed a small lump in her in her left breast in April 2018, she wasn’t overly concerned, expecting that it was another false alarm.
“A lot was going on,” Mark says. “Teri was always very diligent in going in and having her mammogram done but she kind of pushed it off this time for about six months.
“I asked her if she wanted me to go in with her when she went in for her mammogram, but since it seemed like such a routine procedure, she told me to just go into work. Later in the day, though, when she called me, I could tell she was in distress. She said, ‘The radiologist looked at the MRI and told me that he was 80% sure that it was cancer.’
“She was completely devastated. So was I. I went home right away and met her before the kids got home from school. It was hard!”
The diagnosis: Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
Triple-negative breast cancer refers to any breast cancer that does not express the genes for estrogen receptor, progresterone receptor and HER2/neu. This makes it more difficult to treat since most hormone therapies target one of the three receptors, so triple-negative cancers often require combination therapies.
“She was limited in her treatment options because she had triple-negatives,” Mark says.
An aggressive and fast-growing tumor
“When she was diagnosed, she had a small tumor in one of her breasts. In the span of a couple weeks, the tumor had grown to 4-6 centimeters in her breast. The tumor was in her left breast and in one of her lymph nodes. Doctors were concerned with it spreading and suggested a double mastectomy. Her oncologist told us that doing the double mastectomy really reduces the risk of the cancer coming back, so we said, ‘OK!’"
The treatment plan for Teri was 20 weeks of strong chemotherapy to shrink the tumor then have double mastectomy surgery.
“Some of the chemo drugs they gave her were really hard. Her immune system would be down and there were many times when her blood work numbers were so low that she almost couldn’t have the next round of chemo,” Mark continues.
After 20 rounds of chemotherapy and recovery time, Teri had a double mastectomy on October 1, 2018.
Things were looking great!
“Afterwards,” Mark continues, “Everything was great! She had radiation treatment after surgery. They did the scans and tests, and everything was coming back clean. For 9 months afterwards, it was great, and she getting back to her old self. With her type of cancer, the triple-negative, they found a study group and she started going on some rounds of chemo just to see how that would help her cancer.
“Everything was great!
“She was getting stronger, her hair was growing back, she was in the cancer study, and she was even starting to plan ahead.”
Then, in May 2019, Teri started having back pains. Initially, the Mattson's assumed the pain was caused by Teri’s job as a Special Needs Paraprofessional at their son’s middle school.
“As a Para, Teri was always sitting in small chairs or on the floor, so it was always in uncomfortable positions and hard on her back,” Mark says. “We just kind of assumed the pains in her back were caused by that.
“But in early June, we had our first trip to the ER because of those pains, then she started getting really bad headaches. They were crippling headaches. Doctors ran the gamut of tests. They told us they sounded like migraine symptoms, so gave us migraine medication. Over the span of the next five weeks, we ended up in the ER and were admitted to the hospital for three of those weeks. And they kept saying they were migraines causing the pains.”
But the back pains and the headaches got worse.
It was time for further tests
The Mattson's contacted Teri’s oncologist and at the end of end of June 2019, after many more very invasive tests, she had a new diagnosis.
“They did a spinal tap and checked her spinal fluid. They did a PET scan on her. Several weeks before, her PET scan had been clean. When they did it now, it was all lit up on her liver and her ovaries. In the span of three weeks, she went from having a completely clear PET scan to a scan that showed cancer in her body, with things centering in her spinal fluid.
“They told us that the breast cancer had metastasized and moved into several organs and into her spinal fluid. She went from triple-negative breast cancer to metastatic triple-negative breast cancer with Leptomeningeal disease.
Leptomeningeal cancer is a rare complication of cancer in which the disease spreads from the original tumor to the meninges surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The cancer essentially leaks into the spinal cord and invades the brain.
“There is a membrane around the brain that is essentially there to protect it from anything getting in. The cancer cells got into her spinal fluid and were attacking those membranes. Once they were in there, they were just running rampant and attacking her spinal fluid and her brain.”
Sometimes, the degree of a tragedy is measured by the degree of the perfection it steals.
They knew right away there was no cure
"It was hard, I remember that.
"We were in the hospital room with Teri and our daughters had come to visit as well," Mark says. "The oncologist comes into the room, and we could see it in his face. He asks if the girls could step out into the hall. At this point, we knew it wasn't good. Then he started explaining the diagnosis and he said, 'it's not a long time to fight this cancer.'
“Even in early July, she had been looking forward to going back to work,” Mark continues. “She was planning to apply for a different position at school and was super excited about it. She had been setting up interviews. She had one scheduled for later in July.
"The oncologist told us, told her, not to even think about the interview. He told her to spend time with her family.
“With Leptomeningeal, without treatment, you have about 1-3 months to live. With treatments, they give you 3-6 months."
“Obviously, with Teri, being the strong fighter and the great mom, she chose to do treatments so she could live as long as she was able to.
“The treatments were terrible!”
Teri began chemotherapy treatments immediately after she was diagnosed with the new cancer and leptomeningeal cancer. To treat leptomeningeal disease, Teri had a port, called an Ommaya Reservoir, placed under the skin of her head, allowing the chemotherapy medicine to be inserted directly into her cerebral spinal fluid.
Mark transitioned back into the caregiver role
Prior to this diagnosis, life, in the Mattson household, had been moving back to normal. Teri had been getting stronger and becoming more independent. With this second diagnosis, though, Mark transitioned back to the caregiver role for Teri.
"I transitioned to being the caregiver and not just the husband. It obviously added another layer of complexity in the sense that now I'm in charge of taking care of Teri again. This second diagnosis was much more intense than the first.
"The treatment was a lot harder.
“Normal cancer treatments don’t work for Leptomeningeal because the chemotherapy can’t penetrate the membrane barrier into the spinal column and the brain.
“It still blows my mind to think of what she went through!
“The procedure was very complicated and delicate. They would hook a port into her scalp, pull out a little spinal fluid and inject the same amount of chemo drug into her spinal fluid. They need to maintain an equilibrium balance. You cannot inject more fluids into her brain, or it would create too much pressure on her brain. They couldn’t pull out too much fluid from her brain because that would create pressure problems on her brain as well.”
It was a hard treatment
“In combination with the spinal fluid treatment, Teri was also being treated with the normal chemo on the other spots on her body – her liver and her ovaries – where the cancer had spread.”
Not extra years, but extra months
“Even though the treatment went as well as it could, we knew it wouldn’t offer us more years. All those extra years we thought we would have, and this treatment would only give us a couple extra months.
“The biggest thing that Teri got from those months was the chance to spend more time with me and the kids. During that time, she was able to write letters to the kids, for times in the future, like special milestones: for their 16th birthdays, their graduations from high school, from college, when they got married. She wanted to put these memories together for the future, so when they got older, they would still know she was still around and still loved them.
“Those extra months gave us time to prepare for what we knew was coming and make arrangements. It allowed us to plan ahead a little bit.
"We did everything we could to get up and go on and fight through those battles every day. There were a lot of days, when it was hard to get up and hard to move on and press on and keep fighting. But we were still determined to fight as hard as we could . We were driven and motivated to fight to buy us as much time as we could with Teri."
Several months after treatment had begun, additional tests revealed that the cancer had spread to Teri’s bone marrow. The cancer was so aggressive in its growth that the decision was made to stop treatment.
A week after Teri’s 43rd birthday, she entered hospice care.
On October 1, 2019, Teri’s fight was over, and she passed away surrounded by most of her family.
"It was almost 3 months to the day since she was diagnosed with Lepinmengeal that she died.
Looking back, with appreciation and love
“Our journey would have been more difficult if we hadn’t gotten so much help and support from family, friends, and the community,” Mark says. “We were so blessed to have people looking out for us when we needed it the most. The help we received allowed us the time to focus on Teri and our family.
“It’s been a year since we found out that Teri’s cancer was terminal. It’s also coming up on a year since I joined Jack’s. My first event was the Stupid Fast Go-Karting. Up until the morning of the event, I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to attend,” Mark says. “I didn’t know if she’d be strong enough for me to be away. Luckily, she was strong enough and I was able to go. Within minutes of meeting some of the Jack’s guys, I knew this was right for me and it was a good thing. I was welcomed in right away. There is a special connection that all members of Jack’s have.”
It’s hard to move forward without looking back
“To say I’m ‘moving on’ makes it seem cold and impersonal, almost like I’m trying to forget the past. How can I forget the 27 years that we were together? All the memories we have, and all the memories we hadn’t yet made and won’t be able to make.
“This is something that I’ll never be able to ‘move on’ from. But we will move forward, because that is what Teri would want. That is what we want to do.
“We will honor Teri’s memory by living our lives to the fullest.
“We know she’s with us. We will always know that she’s with us when we go on vacations. We’ll know she’s with us during those big milestones in our kids’ lives. We’ll know she’s with us as we move forward. That realization - that she will always be with us - is what I find most comforting.”
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By: Mike McGarry
Mike McGarry is a caregiver for his wife, Tracy, who has multiple myeloma. Mike and Tracy have 2 boys, Joseph, 13, and Jacob, 12. Mike has been a Jack's member since 2017.
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