A Rockville Mother's Battle with Breast Cancer
With four daughters counting on her, Lisa Frost chose to stay positive in the face of adversity
Frost and her husband, Mitch (pictured with their dog Maggie) met when they were working at Children’s Hospital in D.C.
Frost describes the two weeks between her initial diagnosis and her biopsy results as surreal. “I felt like I was on the outside looking in at someone else’s life,” she says. At times she got angry—angry that mammography had failed to identify her cancer, and angry at herself for never feeling it. “But who wants to be angry all the time?” she says. “I’d cry and be angry or sad, but you can’t live your life in that state.”
Frost shared her diagnosis with her family and close friends, even as a part of her doubted the veracity of it. She carried on with her daily routine: going to work, helping with homework, shuttling the girls around, preparing meals. “When you have four children, you have to go on with your life,” Frost says. “You are constantly busy. I didn’t have time to shop or read or watch TV.”
Her state of denial was interrupted by flashes of reality, such as the moment she had to tell her daughters she had cancer. Mitch and Lisa already knew the biopsy results, but when their home fax machine emitted a copy of the report and Frost read the definitive diagnosis—“invasive lobular carcinoma”—she burst into tears. Her kids were standing close by.
“At that point we told them as much as they needed to know—what we thought they could handle,” Mitch says. “We told them that it would be a tough year, but she’d get through this.”
Erin, who was 9, didn’t understand all the details and medical terms. “But Mom was crying,” she says, “and she said that they found the cancer late, and I knew that was bad.”
Erin was 9 when she found out her mom had cancer.
Lauren, then a senior at Wootton High School, grasped the severity of the diagnosis but felt her mom had a distinct advantage. “I thought that she had a leg up, compared to others, because my parents are both in the medical field,” she says. “I knew that she wasn’t going to die. Whatever happened, she’d get the best treatment.”
As she and Mitch figured out a treatment plan, Frost saw patients at the hospital every day, which helped distract her from her illness. She’d always wanted to be a nurse, she says, and had gravitated toward a job in the intensive care unit, where she would manage difficult cases and work closely with a few young patients—and their parents—at a time. “I was healthy, I felt fine,” she says. “I remember being at work, with my surgery approaching, and I kept thinking, ‘This is all a big lie.’ I didn’t feel sick. I’d think, ‘What if I don’t have cancer? What if I just don’t do anything at all?’ ”
But she didn’t have that option—she had to be treated right away. “The lymph nodes serve a sentinel role. The presence of disease in any of them suggests that the cancer is more advanced or it has spread, since the lymph nodes filter fluid as it leaves the breast,” Haggerty says. “In Lisa’s case, an inordinate amount of nodes were involved—cancer was detected in 24 of 30 tested—and that’s very worrisome.”
Doctors told Frost she had to have a mastectomy on her left side, but that she could decide whether to have both breasts removed. They said her cancer was aggressive and that many women diagnosed with ILC opt for a double mastectomy. On the other hand, Frost had tested negative for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations that greatly increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. That meant she wasn’t necessarily at a higher risk of developing cancer in her right breast.
She wasted little time deciding. “I just thought, ‘get rid of them,’ ” she says. “You’re in life-saving mode and you think, ‘who cares, they’re just breasts.’ But I didn’t have to remove the right one. And looking at it four years later, I kind of wish I hadn’t.” She is silent for a moment before quietly adding, “But it’s a privilege to think about that—instead of thinking about cancer.”
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In January 2012, Frost left her job and underwent a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery of her right breast in a procedure that lasted 12 hours. Surgeons extracted tissue from her buttocks to reconstruct her right breast. Reconstruction of her left breast would require a separate operation after she underwent chemotherapy and radiation.
Mitch and the girls spent the day camped out in the waiting room at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, passing the time on their laptops and phones, leaving only briefly to grab a bite to eat. “I wanted the kids to be there because in my mind that’s where they belonged,” Mitch says. “I thought it was important for Lisa to know that we were all there for her, and I wanted the kids to fully understand the magnitude of the procedure.”
From the moment she learned of her mother’s cancer, Lauren tried to avoid thinking about the disease. But it was unavoidable that day. “It didn’t really hit me until that first surgery,” she says. “It was so long, and when she came out she didn’t seem like our mom. She looked so worn out.”
Even after her breasts were gone and her body was scarred and recovering, Frost still struggled to accept her diagnosis, she says. That changed when the next phase of treatment began. “That first day when I went to chemo, I looked around at all those people with bald heads, sitting in reclining chairs, and IV poles everywhere,” Frost says. “The reality hit that I’d be one of those people. And I totally broke down crying.”
Frost required weekly six-hour chemo sessions for five months, and those appointments took up the better part of a day. She had to meet with medical staff and get checkups and medications before the cancer-fighting drugs were released from a bag to flow through the surgically-inserted port in her chest. “You can literally see the poison going through you because it’s red,” Frost says.
The Frost family, clockwise from top: Mitch, Lauren, Erin, Lisa, Stacie and Jodie
She spent most of her chemo sessions sleeping or reading, and Mitch went with her to all of them. “Mitch isn’t that caretaker type,” Frost says. “He’s a surgeon, he’s very clinical. But with my cancer, he did a 180. I felt like he was the only one who really knew what I was going through because he was there every step of the way.”
“It’s where I belonged,” he says, “and nothing was going to keep me from being there.”
Frost lost her hair, but took it in stride. She knew it would grow back, she says, so she asked a friend to shave it off. Her daughters had a more difficult time adjusting to their mother’s bald head. “After she lost her hair, I told her that I didn’t even recognize her. She looked so different,” Erin says. “It was easier seeing her with a wig, but I knew that it was itchy and hot, and she was more comfortable without it. I’m really close to my mom, and she talked to me about her cancer—how she felt day to day—and in a way, knowing more made me feel better.”