Choose Your Own Journey: A Story of a Warrior Queen
By Sarah Rosin
When I sat down in front of my computer to meet Cary Wilson for a Zoom call, I was surprised at how radiant the woman on the screen was. Zoom has a way of making even the healthiest of us look half dead, but this woman was glowing (and it wasn’t just one of those web camera filters). From her rosy pink cheeks to a legit sparkle in her eye, I was almost wondering If I’d been texting the right person to set up this call. Wasn’t this woman a cancer survivor?
Clad in an electric blue blouse with half a dozen or more beaded bracelets and bangles on her wrists, Cary introduced herself and her identity was confirmed. Yes—this was Cary. Tennis enthusiast, artist, happily married for 39 years, mother of two, strong advocate for self-advocacy, and, yes, a cancer survivor.
We start the interview and there’s no tiptoeing around the topic we’re gathered to discuss. We go straight to the cancer. Where some would speak with softened tones or hushed humility for the second most common killer in the world, Cary goes all in like a cheerful poker player. I can tell this woman is not afraid to get real.
“Don’t Worry About It”
Cary was 39 when she found out she had cancer for the first time. For many diagnosed with cancer at such a young age, the news comes as a bold and brazen shock. For Cary, it was a validation of what she had suspected since finding something unusual on her breast five months earlier.
It was September of 1997. Instantly, once she realized that not all was right with her breast, she jumped into action and did all the recommended things. She promptly contacted an OBGYN, who happened to be her father. He scheduled her for a mammogram and an ultrasound right there and then. When those tests returned normal results, she was told by the radiologist, “Don’t worry about it.” Instead, she did worry about it. Cary continued to monitor her breast and, thankfully, ultimately trusted herself to go back.
This time, her father recommended her to a breast specialist who did a biopsy that immediately returned results that indicated what she had found was indeed suspicious for cancer. What happened next would set Cary on a path she never expected.
Cary was born in Portland, Oregon, and like many of us from the Pacific Northwest, her life is influenced and shaped by movement and art. After completing her degree at Lewis & Clark College in psychology, Cary met and married her husband, Ken. They embarked on a robust life together that took them all over the west coast and on many adventures with many friends. From skiing to hiking to tennis to camping, Cary pursued her passion as an artist and through activity.
In February of 1998, five days after her biopsy, and five months after being told that everything was fine, Cary had a two-inch ductal tumor removed from her breast and a second lobular tumor that was found during the operation. Shortly after her surgery, Cary was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. Her two young children were four and five years old at the time.
A Message from a Guardian Angel
With the support of her family and specialists, Cary decided she would have a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction using her abdominal muscle and stomach tissue. During that operation, the surgeon did some lymph node incisions and found that the cancer had spread to five of her lymph nodes. It became apparent that Cary would need chemotherapy.
Anyone who has gone through chemo, or watched someone go through chemo, knows it is its own kind of clinical hell. It takes a debilitating toll on the body and there’s no guarantee it’s going to cure anything. Before Cary’s first round of chemo, she was given a MUGA test–a kind of test to determine if she was healthy enough to endure the physical stress of the treatment.
Hooked up to wires and tubes, suddenly, Cary heard a resounding voice fill the room. In her own words, it “wrapped me in a cloak of love” and said: “Cary, you’re going to go through hell but everything’s going to be okay.”
As Cary looked around to see if the other patients had heard the declaration, her husband and two young children came in to see her. After Cary explained to them what just happened, her husband told her that he and the kids had just returned from the chapel. Neither her daughter Carlee, or son, Cole, had ever been to a chapel before so her husband decided they would go in and “pray for mommy.”
The question of who’s voice had just filled the room was answered. Cary knows it was her guardian angel coming to comfort her as she began this new chapter of recovery.
After her Chemo and radiation was completed, Cary found a lump in her other breast. Doctors assumed it was just a cyst, and her ovaries were starting to function again, since her treatment had put her through early menopause. She did not want to take any chances and chose a prophylactic mastectomy again with immediate reconstruction. Although no cancer was found, she has never regretted that decision.
Thank Goodness for Sponge Baths
In 2018, though her cancer had not come back, Cary had to return to surgery because the radiation she had received twenty years earlier for breast cancer had resulted in a huge calcification of bone in her upper breast. When the surgeon made the incision, a half-inch thick plate of bone, measuring 5 inches by three and half inches came out. Unfortunately, after removing the plate, the wound wouldn’t close. Cary’s surgeons were stumped.
They would later discover that the radiation had killed all the cells in that area and the tissue couldn’t regrow to close the wound. Cary described it as a “huge pita pit” in her chest. A friend who happened to be a plastic surgeon said she had to be treated at a wound clinic.
She began treatment which included eight weeks of treatment in a hyperbaric chamber breathing 100% oxygen every Monday through Friday. After forty treatments, surgeons were finally able to close the wound using reconstituted placenta.
From start to finish, the ordeal lasted nearly half a year.
“Five and half months without being able to take a full shower because the area couldn’t get wet… Thank goodness for sponge baths!”
“That’s Not How My Mind Works”
Then, nineteen years after her first diagnosis, doctors found another tumor. This time, it was an 18-inch-long tumor that Cary felt through her abdomen. The tumor was perineal-ovarian cancer. After it was removed, and a total hysterectomy was performed, another round of chemotherapy would be necessary to make sure all the cancer was gone.
However, two weeks after the surgery, the doctors detected sepsis from her operation. Now, a second operation would be required to remove her spleen, part of her pancreas, gallbladder, her appendix, and part of sigmoid colon, resulting in a temporary colostomy.
In a stroke of good luck amidst all the turmoil, the surgeon that operated on the sepsis would end up becoming one of Cary’s good friends and ultimately a critical advocate for her in the years that followed. “I call him my guardian angel on earth,” said Cary. “He saved my life.”
After this second course of chemo, she was declared cancer free December 2019. For twenty-two months, Cary’s numbers remained stable. But then, in September 2021, a little uptick in her CA125 indicated that her cancer may be returning.
The oncologist deduced that her tumors were inoperable and that several rounds of chemotherapy would be necessary. Cary wasn’t so sure about this direction.
“The oncologist said, ‘My recommendation is we just do the exact same chemo we did before. You got 22 months out of having this chemo. Now, next time, when we do it, you’ll get a shorter amount of remission and then a shorter amount.’ Then he literally clapped his hand together, let them drop and he was basically telling me I’m gonna die. And so, I’m thinking…. Nooo, that’s not how my mind works.”
Instead, she requested information about joining a clinical trial. Her request was met with reluctance, so she changed oncologists and reached out to her good friend, the surgeon who operated on her sepsis. Between the two of them they agreed treatment elsewhere was needed.
With a new Oncologist, her trusted team, and a heart full of hope, Cary embarked on a new chapter that would take her to the M.D. Anderson cancer center in Houston Texas.
The Warrior Queen
Since 2019, Cary has been known as The Warrior Queen, but since her trips to M.D. Anderson, Cary received a new title: the Am“badass”ador of Hope. She wears a hot pink cape signed by her friends, loved ones, and caretakers and a 10 ½ inch crown.
“I’m wrapped in a cloak of love and support.”
Cary was flying to Texas weekly since June, but now hopefully every three weeks for cancer treatment and to pick up her meds since they cannot be shipped. She is currently in her third trial. Every trip, she brings her spirit case. It’s a pouch full of her favorite things. Sea glass, Peruvian artefacts, sand from Bethlehem, items that have been blessed, various intricate and special things. She keeps it next to her at home and in her hotel room.
As a warrior queen, Cary lives her life shrouded in blessings. Even down to the bracelets she wore during our interview.
“A friend of mine, who I mentored when she had breast cancer after I did, started making these warrior bracelets and she sent some to me when I first got diagnosed with ovarian cancer.” Cary held up her wrists to show me the beautiful, beaded bracelets stacked one on top of another.
“Her and her sister made these to spread out to other people so that when they prayed or sent juju or whatever you know, it got spread around. Well, since then, she has continued to make them for me, and I think I’ve spread 300 bracelets to people all over the country. And they’re all part of my warrior tribe.”
A Card Your Dealt
As our interview time was wrapping up, I asked Cary what wisdom and hope she would impart onto someone who just received a diagnosis or for someone currently going through it all.
Cary has truly been through it all… many rounds of chemo, surgeries galore, multiple tumors, different cancers… if there’s a cancer sampler pack, Cary got the extreme version. But, in my hour of talking with her, you’d never guess it. To this, she credits her warrior tribe and a mindset of positivity.
“This is a card you’re dealt with at the moment. It doesn’t define you. Unless you want it to, but it doesn’t have to define you. You can be given so many life gifts by being given this card. You look at life totally differently.
“Surround yourself with supportive people, surround yourself with things you love, things that make you happy–especially when you’re going through the initial aspects of it. Stay away from anybody negative. If you can, stay away from the news. Just try to keep yourself in a real positive mindset. It’s all about a positivity mindset. You have to stay positive. You must know, “I can, and I will get over this because I still have a lot of shit I gotta do.”
The Warrior Path
Over the span of her journey, Cary has owned her story and shared it with others through a multitude of volunteer, support, and advocacy opportunities–including Flock Cancer. At one point, Cary was featured in a Lifetime Channel special called Life Moments that documented different people going through adversity. She joined a mountaineering group to summit Mt. Hood to raise funds for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. In Portland, she worked with BMW’s Ultimate Drive to Cure Breast Cancer. She also allowed a local TV Station to film her journey with breast cancer from doctors’ appointments surgeries and treatments in hopes to bring a face to this nasty disease.
Cary encourages those battling cancer to choose their own journey and carve their own path.
“I hope what somebody doesn’t do is go down a rabbit hole because there are so many different options out there… spiritually, medically, you know, holistically…whatever path somebody wants to take, and it’s not one person’s path that defines another person’s path.”
“Everybody has to figure out how to have their own journey. Being outspoken isn’t for all people, and maybe being quiet isn’t either.”
“We’re hearing so much more about people being diagnosed with cancer because of how they detect it now. When I go down to M.D. Anderson, I hear the miracle stories. People come up to me all the time and they want to share with me how long they’ve been alive and how they were supposed to be dead 40 years ago. It’s just one foot in front of the other. You don’t get to that survival rate without hitting a bump in the road.
The Story We Carve for Ourselves
It was hard for me to believe that the gal in front of me–joking about having to go through menopause twice because of breast cancer chemotherapy, talking about how she can’t wait to be playing tennis again, smiling a big, beautiful smile–was in active treatment for cancer. In the short time I spent with her, I was honored to hear her inspiring story.
Cary is right when she says that it’s not what happens to us that defines us, it’s the story of how we carve for ourselves and how we share our hope and light with others. I certainly experienced Cary’s light, even over a brief Zoom call. Now that’s some powerful Warrior Queen magic.