Some miracles are quick and dramatic. Some are slow and subtle.
At twenty-three she found herself dumbfounded leaving the tall brick building. What does this mean? she silently thought. Her mind continued to reel… It was only a bump. How can something as insignificant as a bump turn into such devastating news. What does this mean? What does the future hold for me now?
She found a payphone. She dialed his number. Mike answered the phone. They had been dating for almost a year. “It’s cancer!” she numbly whispered. An uncomfortable silence lingered from the other end. What is he thinking? she wondered. Mike was her rock. He kept everything in perspective for her sometimes too-serious-nature. Finally finding his voice, Mike reassured her. He told her everything was going to be ok. Mike’s dry sense of humor had seen her through some of life’s more solemn moments. But, this was different. This was very serious; very serious indeed!
Finally finding the courage to discuss the horrible fact with her father, a doctor, she questioned, “Am I going to die?” Hope filled his eyes as he gently shook his head, smiled, and tried to offer some comfort, “Not today!”
That was more than twenty years ago. The former Midland Daily news reporter, Erika Hirschman, shared her battles with me on a gorgeous, sunny, August afternoon as we sat on the beach enjoying the still waterfront at her cottage. This beautiful lady with a terrific smile and warm eyes, bravely recalled how scared she was when she faced her first confrontation with that dreadful six-letter word, cancer.
This mother of two was no stranger to fear! She has stared the unthinkable in the eye, not once, not twice, but three times. She has endured and by the grace of God triumphed over three types of cancer, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and two forms of breast cancer-triple negative and estrogen positive.
She was terrified when first diagnosed, but after 44 radiation treatments she came out strong. Donning her rosary beads she prepared herself for the lonely drive to Southfield; looking at the bright side she thought, At least the treatment center is close to home. Diagnosed in May, she completed her treatments four months later. She chose the fast path so she could get back to living.
“Prayer was important.” she told me, especially as she faced the effects of the treatment; burnt skin, hair loss, intense follow ups, and the continuous CAT Scans. Expressing how difficult this was at twenty-three, when she had her whole life before, her she continued to explain, “I would not have moved past this [devastating disease] without my faith.”
Hirschman, a devout Catholic, described how her battles brought her from fearful to courageous.
“The second time…well…that was hard.” She said as I sat amazed at the life this gentle woman had to endure. “It was breast cancer; induced by the radiation treatments. They [the doctors] treated it aggressively.”
Erika said that after she hit the ten-year cancer free anniversary from the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma she thought she was in the clear. She had just gained her confidence back when a strange coincidence, or what I like to call ‘God Moment’ occurred. It was October 2007, when she went on a special assignment for the Midland Daily News. She found herself interviewing a breast cancer survivor. This story did not sit well with her. She had this nagging feeling after the interview. She decided to go directly home for a self-breast exam even though she had been diligent in keeping her mammogram appointments. All of them had been clean, she tried to reassure herself. Yet, that fearful feeling ate at her very core as she pulled into her driveway. It a blink of an eye, she entered back into the dark nightmare of her past…
What is this? she thought sinking to her knees. She found one! All those feelings that she had finally pushed away suddenly flooded back, engulfing her. She did not want to believe it, but that nagging feeling proved to be right…it was definitely a lump. She had to tell Mike, her husband, one more time.
The next morning, she immediately called her doctor who, because of her history, swiftly made the necessary arrangements for a biopsy. She was told to call the following Monday for the results.
Monday came. She looked at the phone. She could not do it. Mike made the call. He was still at work. Erika heard the garage door open that afternoon. Mike had come home early. She was in the bedroom when he walked through the door. He slowly lowered himself to the edge of the bed where she sat. Dread filled the room. “It is a triple-negative.” Oh No! she thought. This is horrible news.
Everything snowballed. Decisions had to be made—quickly. “There was no time to think!” Erika told me as she took another drink of water recalling those difficult days. She explained that triple-negative breast cancer was very aggressive, requiring a very aggressive treatment.
Erika and I sat quietly as we watched our ‘tweenagers’ play. “They are having fun.” I said and smiled, breaking the serious moment. “Yes!” she said as a smile crossed her lips when the pair jumped off the floating, wooden dock and back into the water leaving ripples to make their way back to shore.
After a few moments, she slid back to her memories. “I remember asking God, ‘Didn’t I pay my dues?’ during a weak and frustrated moment.” Yet, the reality was so many decisions had to be made and promptly. Single or double mastectomy? What about plastic surgery? The questions continued… She found them overwhelming. “It was paralyzing.” She recalled.
“Then one day,” she stated with confidence, “God told me to move forward.” So even though she was overwhelmed, she made the necessary decisions and was quickly found herself whisked away for a double mastectomy.
Just when she thought it could not get any worse, the real cross came when faced with the chemo treatments. “Everything hurt! My hair hurt! My fingernails even hurt. It was awful! It was worse than the radiation treatments I had from the first battle.” This was Erika’s fate when she should have been playing and enjoying time with her most treasured gifts, children.
Although life was difficult, Erika felt blessed. She was told that due to the radiation treatments with her first cancer she most likely would never have children. But, God, in his goodness, defied the odds and blessed the couple with two lovely daughters.
When Erika’s treatments started this second time, her youngest daughter was only two. She told me, “I could not lift anything! I could not pick up my adorable two-year-old. I could hardly lift my arms I was in so much pain.”
She continued to tell me how she again turned to God one day when she was at her breaking point…she could not even change her daughter’s diaper. A task so easy for most people was practically impossible for her. “God, help me! How am I going to do this?” she cried in desperation.
I could see boldness in her eyes as she looked at me and recalled, “Do you know what God did? He answered me!”
She went on to tell me how her daughter was suddenly potty-trained within that very week. “She did not even have one accident,” Erika proudly stated, believing it was a sign from God. “He told me, ‘I will help you.’” Through what most would consider insignificant Erika regained confidence in yet another God Moment, “God did not abandon me!” she said. She explained how in that moment she was renewed in her resolve to move forward. From that moment on she battled the awful disease not for herself, but for her husband and kids.
If that was not profound enough, she adopted a new attitude, Pay it Forward! Looking at me, she justified this new attitude with a simple statement, “It seems that someone always has it worse than you.”
The chemo treatments proved to be successful. Soon Erika found herself back in remission. One year went by and she found herself cancer free. She was finally healthy enough to help others as she tried to live out her new motto. Then two years came and went, then three years…again she hit the five-year mark and everything looked great. Erika started running and getting into shape. Not only did she become physically fit, but also took great strides to grow in her faith as well. She decided to pursue a Montessori certificate so she could work at St. Stephan’s Catholic School and continue her paying it forward mantra. The girls were doing great in school and were involved in many extracurricular activities. Her family life was flourishing as her husband’s business was doing well too. Life was good. Peace and harmony finally became a regular rhythm.
Almost ten years after her last bout of cancer, just before Christmas, life came to a screeching halt once more. The cancer battle ensued once again when she spotted a red mark under one of her incision scars. There was no warning, just BOOM and it was back! She found herself faced with yet another type of breast cancer—estrogen positive.
She was an expert at this drill by now and was ready to face this monster head on! Her fear had turned into determination…courage! She decided she had plenty of fight in her as she tried to cushion the blow from the girls. She remained strong even amidst the difficult days when she would retreat to her room—alone—and let the emotions run their course. Yet she never lost focus on God. She remained hopeful. Reflecting on this third battle she realized that God had been preparing her. This time she was physically fit, she was strong in her faith and she was surrounded by a loving family.
Although she would not have to endure the surgeries as she did previously, she would have chemo treatments to deal with. Fortunately, Mike was able to go with her this time.
So, when she started to lose her hair for the third time she was not shocked. As a matter of fact, it became a family event. Her close friend started to shave it while her girls brushed the patches of hair off her shoulders and arms; a beautiful gesture of love and support. Mike, with his sense of humor, even drug the vacuum into the bathroom and attacked the hair as it gently fell to the ground; something that made everyone laugh.
As I listened to Erika’s story I contemplated the virtues that have sprung forth from such suffering. It became clear to me that Hope helped this family take a terrible moment and turn it into Love and Compassion. Courage was forged in that Hope and replaced the fear that tried its best to linger within in the Hirschman’s home. That, in itself, is a great miracle; for with Courage comes Trust, with Trust comes Peace. Although there will always be bumps in the road, this resilient family has found something that many people chase most of their lives, Peace.
Yes, Erika is truly a courageous woman! She has taken tragedy, three times mind you, and turned it in to a silent strength that can be seen in everything about her— especially, in her eyes. She has miraculously turned that fear from her first battle at twenty-three into courage that emulates from within her. Be prepared if you are ever blessed to meet her for her warm smile and handshake quietly yet confidently states, “Hello, I am Erika! I am a fighter! It is my pleasure to meet you!”
May the good Lord continue to shower the Hirschman Family with healing, strength, courage, love and peace. Erika is a true witness of someone living for Christ. Hopefully her story will help others face their cross with strength and courage too.