One of my first memories of Andra is seeing her at our local grocery store on Halloween about ten years ago. We were both there to stock up on candy for that afternoon, but unlike me in my work suit, Andra was proudly wearing a Super Woman costume complete with leotard, mini-skirt and wild, shiny blue wig. As we chatted, I was struck by what a free spirit she was, wearing such a wild colorful outfit so she could share in the Halloween trick or treat experience with her kids.
Several years later, after a routine mammogram procedure, Andra’s radiologist called and asked her to come back into the office for additional film work. Since there was no history of breast cancer in her family and she was only 45, Andra attributed the concern to some scar tissue in her breast and didn’t give it a lot of thought.
After the 2nd mammogram and an ultrasound, the radiologist told her she needed to have a breast biopsy done but Andra again continued to be optimistic. A few days after the biopsy she got the call from her surgeon’s office asking her to come in to go over results.
“That’s when I started to worry because if it was fine, they would have said everything’s okay and that I should just come back for a check-up in 6 months, but if he wanted to talk to me in person, I knew it was probably cancer,” said Andra and unfortunately, at this meeting, her surgeon confirmed that she had breast cancer.
How would someone so utterly enthusiastic and full of spirit, handle a breast cancer diagnosis? Some people face adversity by turning inward, becoming bitter and spiteful. Others turn outward and use the experience to make a positive difference in other people’s lives. Andra Taylor is one who took the latter path.
On a recent Friday morning, I met with Andra to talk about the year of what she calls “The Bad Mammogram.” I asked her to tell me how she managed to get through that year of uncertainty and fear. “I’ve always been very positive,” she said, “and I just stayed that way throughout the whole process.”
She also put her focus on how the breast cancer diagnosis would impact her family, sharing, “I have to say that telling the kids was one of the hardest things I had to do.” Once she and her husband explained what was happening to the kids, who were 7 and 11 at the time, she also reached out to their teachers and coaches, asking for their support. “That wound up being my thing,” she said, being open about the experience with her extended community of family, friends, and co-workers.
Because of all the tests and procedures needed to determine Andra’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment options, the uncertainty dragged on through the holidays and even her husband’s birthday in January. The fear of what she was facing was daunting as she recalls telling a friend during holiday festivities, “One of the hardest parts was waiting. I knew it was inside of me and I knew it was growing.” But even while facing a life-threatening illness, Andra drew her strength from putting her focus on others.
“What did I do that January?” she asked. “I planned a big surprise 50th birthday party for my husband! Because his birthday is so close to the holidays, it always got kind of overlooked, so I wanted to make a big deal out of this one and it was one of the nicest parties we’ve ever had.”
Even the strongest women need support going through breast cancer and Andra eventually realized that she was going to need to accept help from her close network of friends, family, and co-workers in order to get through this. She began writing updates on a site called caringbridge.org to keep friends and family informed. Finding it to be therapeutic, in true Andra spirit, she instituted a weekly “Humor Story of the Week” to keep things upbeat and optimistic, even during the tough months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Andra shared what she described as one of many small moments of beauty throughout the ordeal. “The day before my surgery, my son’s second-grade teacher had all the kids make me get-well cards. These were seven-year-old kids, so the cards were pretty simple.” Her blue eyes lit up and she softly laughed as she told me, “You know how kids are. One of the cards simply said, ‘Mrs. Taylor, I hope you get better soon because I like you.’” She still keeps all of those cards in a big box.
Later when it was time for chemotherapy, Andra worried about her seven-year-old son and sent a book called Chemo Shark to his second-grade teacher. The book helped explain what chemo was and how it worked, in kid’s terms. Afterwards, she learned that the teacher had read the book to the whole class and was worried that some of the other parents might be upset that the teacher had read it to their children. Instead, the response from other families was extremely positive.
For the first time during our interview, I saw Andra’s eyes fill with tears as she became overcome with the realization that by sharing this book with her sons entire class, she had helped many other families who may one day have to deal with a loved one going through cancer.
How does someone who is in love with life handle a breast cancer diagnosis? Andra handled it just the way she lived her life before she was diagnosed: by staying optimistic, full of life and focusing on how she could make a difference in the lives of those around her.
Now, Andra is our community’s go-to resource for any woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer. Everyone who is newly diagnosed eventually finds their way to Andra and she tells it like it is, about the reality of what the newly diagnosed will have to go through, while offering support, inside information and humor on how to manage through the process.
Her strength, honesty, and optimism have helped dozens of women in our community and this real-life Super Woman has made a difference in the lives of many women, myself included, who call her our hero.