Dr. Andrew David has been caring for cancer patients for more than 25 years, with 20 of those years right here in northern Arizona at the Cancer Centers of Northern Arizona Healthcare. But last year, he had an unexpected patient – his wife, Starla David – who was diagnosed with stage 2B estrogen-positive breast cancer; a fast-growing cancer.
Starla is a 55-year-old, petite, energetic, yoga-practicing, health-focused, Flagstaff-loving woman who had no history of breast cancer in her family and no apparent risk factors for the disease. Regardless, she religiously went for her annual check-up and mammogram each year.
“I was surprised when they told me I had a suspicious lump, which I had no idea was there,” Starla recounts. “The biopsy revealed it was cancerous and that’s when we began an unexpected journey. Treatment started in April 2016 and took every ounce of my strength. There is no way I would be here today without Andrew’s love and the support of family and friends. It took all our combined fortitude and determination but in October 2017, we celebrated the one-year anniversary of no signs of cancer in my body.”
As a radiation oncologist, Dr. David knew the best doctors and medical staff – from surgeons to nurses to social workers to dietitians – throughout the nation and locally.
“We could have gone anywhere for my wife's treatment and chosen renowned physicians, but why would we when we have the very best doctors and cancer experts right here in Flagstaff, close to home, to family and to friends,” Dr. David explained. “As an oncologist, I know the odds of beating cancer are really good. I know so many hundreds of people who have undergone cancer-eliminating treatments and are living cancer free. My only concern was developing and starting the best plan for her as soon as possible.
Starla’s cancer treatment plan included a surgery to remove the cancer tumor in the left breast as well as lymph nodes. She also had a port placed into her chest for the delivery of the chemotherapy medications. Once the surgical sites healed, she started an aggressive chemotherapy regimen that lasted fourteen weeks. Next was 30 treatments – five days a week for six weeks – of radiation.
The final treatment was Oct. 27, 2016.
On Oct. 27 the Davids celebrated the one-year, post-treatment anniversary at the Grand Canyon – a place of strength and joy for both of them. After that, they said there will be no more celebrations or anniversaries involving cancer.
“It was the last time we would think about the cancer that tried to invade my body I will honor the past two years, then put it all behind me,” Starla said. “On Oct. 28 we restarted living our lives to the fullest and embracing the present; it feels so good to close this chapter in my life.”
When asked what was the hardest or lowest moment she experienced after being diagnosed, Starla recounts the day her dad died. “I had talked with him often, but I wasn’t able to be there when he died; it broke my heart. I did fly back east for his funeral and delivered the eulogy with my brothers; it was such an honor. By this time in my treatment, I had lost my hair due to the chemotherapy. Before my dad died he told me I looked like Cleopatra. He made me feel so beautiful, so when I spoke at his funeral I proudly let my beautiful bald head display who I was at the time.
"My husband, my mom and dad passed on so much strength and determination to me that I never wore a wig during treatment. It just wasn’t right for me but I honor other women who do what’s right for them. This is a difficult life-changing diagnosis for any woman. I encourage others to follow their instincts, and tell them 'you are your own best teacher'.”
As for her best day? “When Andrew looked at me, smiled and said, ‘We are going to have fun with this’. And we did; we made the best out of the entire journey. Andrew is always my best day.
“There were so many people who supported me and encouraged me throughout my treatment, but two women really made a difference to me and both are breast cancer survivors – oncology nurse Nancy Foreman and new friend Laura Decker. As soon as I was able, I wanted to support other women who are facing cancer. One of the best ways to begin again is to help someone else. I even taught yoga at a cancer patients’ retreat a few months ago. It was amazing to be with those beautiful, strong women.”
One thing that took a back seat after her diagnosis was Starla’s passion for yoga and for becoming a yoga instructor. In August, she achieved that goal and is now teaching yoga at Flagstaff’s True Fitness. “I want people, especially those who are battling cancer, recovering from illness or even the hardships of life, to remember how good it feels to move your body. I want to help others get back to doing the things that bring them joy and contentment.”
The Davids message for others:
1. Get regular screenings and checkups
2. Understand and know the cure rates are very, very good
3. Avoid the internet and talk to experts
4. Embrace joyful living
“Andrew and I went to our senior prom together more than 30 years ago and then found each other again,” Starla said with a big smile. “You just never know where life will take you; the most important things in life aren’t things at all; rather it is who holds your heart. I am blue sky blessed. No way I could ask for more than what I have this very minute."
Is there a health topic you would like to know more about? Contact Starla S. Collins, health writer and success coach, at StarlaSCollins@gmail.com