Starkloff’s Debbie Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993, when she was just 34 years-old. In the midst of one of the happiest moments in her life, having just gotten married, Debbie found a small lump in one of her breasts.
“I wasn’t even doing a self exam. I found it totally by accident, and didn’t think much of it. But I did call my doctor.” She was told to get a mammogram, and within a week, was in surgery.
At the time, staging was different, so it can’t be equated to today’s staging criteria. But the lump was in her lymph nodes. Her lumpectomy surgery was followed by chemotherapy and radiation, and then she thought she was finished.
Two years later she and her husband Eric had a healthy son, Bryce, who is now a sophomore at Colorado State University.
But then in 1996, the cancer came back in the same spot. She had a single mastectomy. In 2000, she found out she had metastatic or Stage IV breast cancer that was discovered in an unlikely way.
“I was pulling my young son in a wagon, and my back started to hurt,” Debbie explains. She thought it was from pulling the wagon, but was told to report any kind of pain to her doctor. “He did a bone scan and found a tiny spot on my skull that was an indicator that the cancer had metastasized and was in my bones.”
Since 2001, Debbie has been treated at The Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. Wash. U.’s Med. School is an NCI-designated facility. One of the requirements of this designation is that it fosters teaching and research. Debbie is pleased that people are learning from her illness.
Over the course of the next few years, the cancer spread to her other breast (she had another single mastectomy in 2003) and chest wall. In 2007, it went to her liver. Her doctor recommended traditional chemo and additional radiation.
“I’ve lost all my hair four times in the last 22 years,” Debbie says. “I just bought my first human-hair wig, and it makes all the difference in the world. I had synthetic wigs before, which were probably fine, but this one is really nice.”
A long list of medications and procedures encapsulate Debbie’s cancer treatment. She continues to have chemotherapy — daily pills — which includes maintenance drugs. And she has routine CT scans every two months.
As a Stage IV cancer survivor for more than 16 years, Debbie is a phenomenon, and has enjoyed a bit of a celebrity because of it. Her rare condition has helped shine the spotlight on cancer detection, treatment and survival. She was featured in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 10, 2010; the Gazelle St. Louis, 2016 magazine; the American Society of Clinical Oncologists magazine’s “ASCO Post” of February 2017; Brenda Warner’s interview on KSDK News Channel 5; and in the book Celebrating Life Decades After Breast Cancer, by St. Louis breast cancer survivor Beverly McKee.
And celebrating life she is. “I’m not worried about the future. I recognize the precariousness of my health, but I refuse to let it limit or define my life,” she says.
“I found out quickly that survival is more than just living. It is a renewed appreciation of life,” Debbie says. “Every person is different, every cancer is different. But you need that hope. So much of it is mental. When I start to think negative thoughts, my mind just won’t let me go down that path,” she explains. “I always have hope.”
Debbie’s professional career has centered on making a difference in the lives of others. “As corny as it sounds, the truth is that I am who I am because of my breast cancer,” she shares. “Knowing I have survived cancer for so many years has made me confident that I can survive anything, and I am a stronger person because of my experience.”
“Debbie came to work with us about a year ago and she fits in perfectly,” concedes Lori Becker, SDI’s Director of Development and Communications. “She is a hard worker and doesn’t let anything faze her. She just gets it. She understands that life can be full of challenges, especially for people with disabilities. But sharing in that person’s life makes everyone that much richer. Our lives are certainly richer after knowing Debbie.”