Phyllis Ise always had long blonde hair that went down the length of her back. It made her feel beautiful and feminine, and she felt like it made her unique. But after she lost her hair during chemo treatments, Phyllis knew she was going to have to adapt.
Prior to her fight against breast cancer, the only time Phyllis had ever cut her hair was to donate her locks in memory of her daughter Sara who passed away at just 4 years old from pineoblastoma, a form of brain cancer. Although the loss of her only daughter and second child was the most difficult event Phyllis ever faced, this was not the only test she has overcome.
Two days before her 18th birthday, Phyllis had from a major stroke. In addition to quashing her dream of enlisting in the military, she went through six months of intense physical, occupational and speech therapies. Mobility is still limited on her left side. So when Phyllis was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, she wasn’t surprised.
“It was just one more thing. But I had already been through the worst with Sara, so I knew I could manage this,” Phyllis said.
During one of her annual mammograms, her doctor discovered a small lump on her left breast. Although her radiologist assured her it was benign, Phyllis could still feel the lump a year later. Tests revealed cancer.
This was all too familiar for Phyllis and her husband, Tom. They inundated their oncologist with lingering questions that were left unanswered from Sara’s illness. Dr. Rosen immediately recognized that their questions were unrelated to fears Phyllis’s breast cancer diagnosis, so he asked about their connection to cancer. Phyllis told him about Sara, and Dr. Rosen’s response was firm but sympathetic.
“He told us that breast cancer and brain cancer are different. We can’t have the same fears that we had with Sara, because the cancers aren’t the same, and Sara and I aren’t the same. That was during our first appointment, and it was reassuring. He explained cancer in a way that made sense,” Phyllis said.
While Phyllis would trade places with Sara in a moment, she still had Tom and Kurtis, her son who was attending the University of Wyoming at the time.
“I wanted to see him graduate. I wanted to see him be successful and be a part of his life.”
So, as she had done following her stroke and the death of her young daughter, she prepared herself for recovery. She endured six grueling rounds of chemo treatments. She balanced her treatments with her work schedule, and trying to help her husband while he maintained their home.
Shortly after she began chemo, she was washing her hair when she suddenly began pulling out handfuls of her long blonde hair. It came out in gobs so thick that Tom had to snake their drain for two days. After that shower, Phyllis called a friend to shave her head.
“I think it was harder on her than it was on me. But I just wanted to get it done. I didn’t want to lose my hair, but I knew it was coming,” Phyllis said.
Phyllis’s treatments fell during the dog days of summer, and temperatures were too high to wear a wig. Instead, she began collecting a wide assortment of hats from friends and family. She received a cowgirl hat, hats from her father and a number of baseball caps representing her beloved Colorado Rockies. Her co-workers even gave her a humorously off-colored hat that Phyllis still wears with pride.
Following her chemo treatments, Phyllis began radiation. Thought it wasn’t as grueling as the chemo, Phyllis still has the scars that represent the battle she fought with cancer. Two years later, she’s cancer-free but a dramatically changed person. While she had already experienced too much hardship, surviving cancer changed her in a way that nothing else had.
“I just wanted to do stuff. I wanted to travel. I wanted to see stuff. I wanted to do more,” Phyllis said.
Following her treatments, she has since made big changes and additions to her life. She got her very own golden retriever, Brooklyn, who has become her loyal companion. She revisited a lifelong desire to learn to fish, and following lessons from her husband, fishing is one of the couple’s favorite activities. She’s also making big dreams for her and her future, including traveling around to every baseball stadium in the country.
More than anything, Phyllis wanted to see her son succeed, and she has gotten to do plenty of that. Kurtis graduated from the University of Wyoming in the spring of 2014 and began graduate studies in the fall. He has been to Italy three times, and he will go again in the summer of 2015 with his mom.
“I wanted to do this stuff before, but the cancer woke me up. I’m limited from a lot things because of my physical condition, but it’s not like I want to go out driving Ferraris. I just want to go to Italy and experience that with my son. Sara never even got to learn to ride a bike, so I want to make sure I live life.”
Although it’s been three years since her hair first fell out, Phyllis now keeps her hair short and spiky with blonde highlights. It’s youthful, outgoing, playful and beautiful, and people say this “do” is a perfect fit with her personality. Phyllis doesn’t ever plan to grow her hair long again; she’s grown enough.