From the best shape of her life one day to a cancer patient in full-blown treatment the next
By ELLYN SANTIAGO
Cassie Morrison was 41 in the winter of 2019 and was arguably in the “best shape” of her life. The Westbrook wife and mother, also a ZUMBA instructor and half marathon runner, was copious about staying up-to-date on mammograms and routine ultrasounds owing to dense breast tissue.
But she had noticed some dimpling on her breast. The only thing caught in an ultrasound was a slightly enlarged lymph node. But, as she explained, two ultrasound-guided biopsies and an MRI later, she was diagnosed with Stage 3A lobular breast cancer, a type of cancer that is very difficult to see on traditional imaging, she said.
“They didn't see much until the MRI,” Cassie recalled. “Which lit up like a Christmas tree.”
‘Light at the end of the tunnel.’
Cassie and her husband Scott, who were high school sweethearts, have one daughter, 11-year-old Charlotte. Co-president of her daughter's middle school PTO, she works for the town of Madison and Madison Public Schools as the Senior Network Support Specialist: “If it plugs into an electrical outlet, our department is responsible for it. It's a very rewarding position. Our work has a direct impact on teachers and students.”
Cassie also has “too many hobbies.” She knits and crochets and is teaching herself piano. She and her family typically ski every weekend at Mt. Southington. And though this bucket list hobby may not be realized, “I've always wanted to sing in a barbershop quartet. I think I'd make an enthusiastic, if slightly off-key, tenor."
Her life was full then and is full now. But after the diagnosis, there was little time to process.
“I started treatment pretty much right away, which was terrifying. I went from being in the best shape of my life one day, teaching Zumba two to three times a week, running 5Ks and half-marathons to a cancer patient in full-blown treatment the next -- four months of chemo started just a week after the MRI.”
Cassie spent every other Thursday at the Middlesex Health Cancer Center in Westbrook from March to June 2019.
“I was so scared because the outcome was unclear,” Cassie said. “I made the mistake of consulting Dr. Google, which spat back some scary statistics. After that, I didn't do any other online research. I put my trust in my doctors and just asked them a ton of questions.”
Almost immediately, she lost her hair. Though she had “hoped to rock a bald head,” it wasn’t for her, and she wore a wig to work but otherwise, wore her “great bad hair day baseball cap.”
In July 2019, there was a big end-of-chemo party with all her family and friends. A henna artist painted a crown with lotus flowers and a big Tree of Life, all symbols of strength and regrowth, on her head.
“I finally saw my bald head as powerful and beautiful,” she remembered.
In August 2019, she underwent a unilateral mastectomy with reconstruction and lymph node dissection. The procedure “knocked me on my butt.” And the drains were problematic at best, followed by the “extremely uncomfortable and unnatural” expander. Around a month after the surgery, she began five weeks of radiation which was at first “okay,” but at around four or five weeks in, her skin became very irritated. She then developed a seroma at the radiation site, which refused to heal.
“Unfortunately, the seroma developed into necrosis around my expander,” she said. “My surgeon tried hard to get me to heal, but ultimately, the expander needed to be removed. The result isn't great looking, and I don't think I now have many options for reconstruction, unfortunately.”
For Cassie, the treatment journey was arduous. More than four years since it began, there’s no evidence of disease. She continues to have imaging every six months and is on multiple hormone blockers to reduce the chance of recurrence. “The side effects of these meds, frankly, suck, but the alternative is much worse,” she said.
When Cassie was asked how breast cancer has affected her life, she was candid: “How hasn’t it?”
“When you get diagnosed, it feels like the world is crashing down around you. There are so many scary unknowns. How serious is this? Has it spread? Will I still be here to see my child grow up? I worked hard to keep a positive attitude, and I think that helped me get through treatment a lot easier. Everyone involved in my treatment was truly amazing. Once I saw that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, I just focused on that and kept moving towards it.”
‘Life is complicated, and so is survivorship.’
“Probably the biggest change in my life is that I don't put off doing anything that I want to do anymore,” Cassie said. “You don't know if you'll be hit by a bus tomorrow, so go out there and live life to its fullest.”
She and her family have been doing just that, she said. In 2023, for example, it was the “year of live music for my family.” Every month, they attended a live show and, they did something they “always wanted to do,” travel to New York City for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“But it's not just the big things,” she explained. “Getting a pedicure, taking time off work to spend with my family, ordering dessert. These are all the things that make life worth living, so reach out and grab them while you can.”
One of the things she grabbed was agreeing to model in the 2023 Smilow Looking Forward Fashion Show, which she described as a “blast” but an otherwise “big step out of my comfort zone.”
Making an effort to make each day count as a survivor can be a challenge some days.
“When you're in active treatment, there's a kind of comfort in knowing that you're ticking off the boxes of what needs to be done -- you have a clear plan. Another round of chemo. Check. Surgery. Check. Finished another week of radiation. Check. But then when you're done, there are fewer and fewer boxes to check. You're left with the uncertainty of what comes next. I've found that as the years progress, I get more and more anxious with each scan. Logically, I know that I'm doing all that I can to keep recurrence at bay, but you don't know if something is going to show up on the next MRI.”
For example, at her last mammogram, she needed to “go back for secondary imaging.” Though she had a “really hard time dealing with it …everything turned out fine. It was a false alarm.”
But it’s on her mind.
“On one hand, I'm proud that I'm a strong survivor, and I'm happy to tell my story to help other survivors. My experience has changed the way I look at my life, and I work to appreciate every second of it.”
“On the other hand, I hate the ravages that cancer brings and resent that I now have a lifetime of "scanxiety," medication, and disfigurement ahead of me. Life is complicated, and so is survivorship.”
‘Incredibly grateful for TBBCF.’
In 2019, she was diagnosed, underwent treatment, had surgery, and, “came out to support the TBBCF walk.”
“I'm friends with a bunch of the ladies on Team Strong Enough. But I wasn't up to walking that year,” she recalled. She’s walked with the Westbrook Holy Walk-a-Molies since 2020.
“The walk is an amazing event, and I'm moved every year listening to the experiences of other survivors,” survivor Cassie said. “I'm incredibly grateful for the work the Foundation does in helping develop a cure.”
Editor's Note: If you just scrolled to the end of this article, keep going and enjoy Cassie Morrison's photographic journaling of her breast cancer treatment journey. Then SCROLL up to the beginning and read her incredible story. You will be glad you did.