Seventeen and a half years ago, Patty Holleran had a nagging feeling that something was wrong. As a vibrant, 36-year-old kindergarten teacher, she could never have imagined the extent of the problem, though.
Holleran said that summer she felt tired all the time, but put off visiting a doctor because she did not think much of it at the time. When the problem persisted, she gave in and saw her physician, but the tests came back clear, and she shrugged it off.
Months later, she noticed a lump under her arm, and the exhaustion was still not subsiding, but she “didn’t want to think” about it, so she let it go for a while longer.
When she went back to the doctor again, she was told that it was just an infection and she should not worry, but she should call if it were to get worse.
The lump did worsen, quickly growing two times in size. When Holleran finally returned to the doctor for a third time, she was scheduled for surgery to have the spot removed, but was still told not to worry because she was so young.
When she awoke from the operation, she received some shocking news – she had cancer.
“The room kinda started spinning,” Holleran said.
The spinning continued as she was herded through a series of tests and a mammogram, on which there were still no visible signs of the breast cancer which she now knew she had.
She said her oncologist acted “like I wasn’t even there,” barking orders at the nurse as though no one else was in the room. He called for chemotherapy and a mastectomy for the Stage II cancer without ever consulting her.
During this time, her family was a huge comfort to her. Holleran lived with her twin sister, and each of her close-knit family members offered their affection and assistance in any way she needed. Her mother would stay with her during the days she needed help and her father kept track of the every-accruing medical bills. Her sisters were always there to lend support as well.
In addition to her family and the hospital staff, Holleran said she was lucky to work for the Grayson County School System, and to be allowed to keep her job and to come in and teach on the days she felt like it.
Barry Anderson was the principal of Wilkey Elementary School, where she worked, and Holleran expressed her gratitude to him for helping her stay connected to the “real world” by coming into work when she could.
“What a blessing that I got to keep my job, to do normal things,” she said.
Holleran soon began an eight month course of chemotherapy, going in every three weeks for the treatment. She found out quickly that she was allergic to the chemo after the first dose, but the allergy was “a blessing,” she said.
Because she was allergic, her insurance company paid for her to stay in the hospital during each treatment, which otherwise she would not have been able to do.
“The nurses at the hospital were just awesome,” Holleran said, adding that “the middle of the night is the worst, when everything is still and quiet,” but she remembers vividly remembers one night in particular that a nurse came in to sit with her through the night.
The following morning, she asked about the nurse who had spent the previous night in her room and no one at the hospital knew anything about the woman she described. Holland believes that the nurse may very well have been an angel, but either way, she was an invaluable comfort during a very difficult time.
“The worst part of chemo was when they told me I was going to lose my hair,” she said, adding that she had long hair for the first time in her life.
She refused, for a while, to do anything that might shed her beloved locks, avoiding showers and brushing altogether. Finally, she said her sisters told her the time had come, and she was going to keep going with her life, hair or no hair.
She remembers distinctly her sister brushing her hair as they talked and laughed together, depositing the fallen strands in the trash all along.
Afterwards, they visited a wig shop. “We had the best time that day,” Holleran said, “it was the first time I felt normal.”
Holleran said she and her family and friends couldn’t help but laugh at some of the wigs, which were “pretty hilarious.” Laughing, she recalled one exciting day in her kindergarten class, by the end of which her wig was only half way on. Her coworker had to put it back on her head for her.
While she was able to laugh about some things, she was also struggling emotionally at the time, praying and telling God, “I just want to be normal.”
“There were times I wanted to give up and my family wouldn’t let me,” Holleran admitted.
But in the midst of her anguish, her friends and family managed to give her some moments where she could feel normal again.
Holleran’s Sunday school class held their lesson in her living room to give her a chance to feel that interaction even when she was not well enough to go to church.
She also recalled one drive to work with her twin sister, during which they got into a heated argument. Holleran said that when the girls were children, they would yank each other’s hair when they got really mad. This particular day, her sister forgot about the wig she was wearing and reached over to tug her hair in exasperation.
“Now that’s normal,” she laughed, remembering the two of them laughing and trying to get the wig back on as they drove.
“She forgot I was a cancer patient – I was just her sister getting on her nerves,” Holleran said.
Despite her amazing friends, family and co-workers, Holleran felt like as a 30-something cancer patient, “marriage was just not in the cards,” but decided to go after life and the things she had not yet done but wanted to try.
One of those things was finding a man she would like to marry.
Lucky for Holleran, he proved to not be that difficult to find. He showed up in the pew in front of her at church, and as Holleran recalls, “I don’t remember what the preacher preached on that day.”
A year and a half out of treatment for breast cancer, Holleran began the pursuit of the man who she would eventually marry. She sent him cards and letters at first, and won him over.
She and her husband, Jeff Holleran, have been married for 14 years now, thanks to her persistence and his good fortune of picking the right church pew that fateful Sunday morning.
“It’s by the grace of God; that’s why I’m here,” Holleran said of her nearly 18-year journey since she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She said that she has had coworkers and family members who have been diagnosed after her, and who have not survived the battle with this disease.
She has struggled with the question, she said, of why she is still here and they are not, but says, “that’s for God to tell me one day.”
If Holleran could say one thing to other people who are following in her footsteps, she says that it would be to quit looking at statistics. “You’re not a statistic,” she said, “let’s just keep fighting.”