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Turning pain into purpose and healing from metastatic breast cancer

A yellow rose blooms in a mature woman's hands.

Thyroid cancer and becoming a firefighter

My first experience with cancer was in 1980. I was around 33 years old, a single mom of four children with a great deal to do. I was also a full-time student studying to be a firefighter. One day I was running the course at the Fire Academy when I suddenly became weak in my legs. I went to the USC Medical Center in Orange, California. Within two short weeks, it turned out that I had a cancerous tumor on the right side of my thyroid. The first thing I thought of was my children. I had to be there for them. But I wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis. When I was 12 years old, I knew that, one day, I would be in this position. My mother lost all twelve of her brothers and sisters to cancer, and, eventually, my five siblings would all die from cancer. I knew I had to do as much as I could in my life as I could.

So, for my thyroid cancer, I had surgery, and I was discharged within a few days. I went home and worked very hard to return to my usual strength and health. I worked with a trainer two and one-half hours each day. I regained my strength and more: I could carry a 180-lb. man up a flight of steps. It was exciting, but, more importantly, I knew I could do a good job as a firefighter, and be mentally and physically strong. Saving lives was important to me. I couldn’t save my family from cancer, but I could save others in this way.

Shirley Corfee

"Just being on this earth is important and I believe we’re here to help others."

Shirley Corfee


Breast cancer and the onset of neuropathy

By the year 2000, I was noticing some weakness and some pain in my legs, so I made an appointment with my primary doctor. I explained to the doctor that these sensations were very familiar to me. I told her the story of 1980. The doctor said, “I think you may be working too hard.” I drove home and decided I would call a doctor friend of mine in Orange, CA. He suggested I hop on a plane. I arrived at his office early as he had suggested. I was examined by his associate who found two lumps in my left breast. I was sent for scans and tests, the result of which indicated I had two tumors in my left breast and one tumor in my right. I had breast cancer. I needed two rounds of chemotherapy and months of radiation. By the time the radiation was finished I was diagnosed with neuropathy.

The neuropathy was so bad that I spent 3 years in a wheelchair, which was difficult for me at first, because it seemed to slow me down. Then I thought I had to figure out how to make the chair work for me. Through church, I knew about four girls who were living in deprived conditions. I turned to my pastor and asked him to put me to work. He asked, “Do you know what you want to do?” I handed my pastor an outline that was clearly written and straight to the point. “I want to work with these four girls who are aged 9 to 12 years,” I said. The pastor looked over the outline I had presented to him. He said, “How are you going to work with these young girls when you’re in a wheelchair?” I laughed and said, “The same way that I would if I could walk!” A little over a week later, I was doing activities with the girls. Yes, I struggled with the neuropathy. It was painful and difficult at times. Still, the girls and I enjoyed ourselves every moment we were together, and I always felt better after spending time with them.

A mature woman pushes the wheel of a wheelchair on a grassy field.

Stem cell treatment and new adventures

As time went on, I became aware of stem cell treatments for peripheral neuropathy, and I signed up. Six months later, I was walking with a walker. Further down the road I was walking with a cane. It was then that I returned to the pastor’s office with a new plan for the church. I proposed that the church start a food bank. And, three months later, we opened our food bank. We helped to feed 50 families a week for 6 years. I never felt better in my life!

Shortly thereafter, I applied for a job as a front office person in an acupuncture office for two and a half years. I left only to author a book, and I decided to officially retire in 2019. Sometime later, I was feeling a bit weak, I decided to go to a hospital in California for a check-up. I wasn’t a bit surprised when I was told that I had cancer. It was my third time. This time it called for a bilateral mastectomy. After the surgery, I moved to the deep South.

Metastatic breast cancer and its challenges

It wasn’t long after my move that I found an unusual spot on the left side of my chest. I was diagnosed at Mitchell Cancer Institute in Mobile, Alabama, with metastatic breast cancer and metastatic neoplasm of the bones. This fourth time with cancer was a little more complicated than ever before.

For the first time in my life, I was shocked by a diagnosis. The oncologist told me I had four and one-half months to live and said, “We will try to keep you alive.” I wasn’t angry, and, at first, I believed her, but I thought she was making a judgement that she couldn’t really know. Why, my oldest great-grandchild told me when I was homeschooling her, “You’re going to be here a long time, Gigi.” And, I’m still here, alive, and happy.

Living with purpose

My children grew up educated, and, financially, they have everything they need. That gives me a lot of relief and happiness. I have 10 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren, with a new one coming in February. My grandchildren and great grandchildren give me such hope and joy that I don’t know how I could be sad.

My treatment with Fulvestrant continues. My legs are giving out, and I spend more time in bed, but I stay busy any way I can. To me, it’s everyday life. I’ve just made 60 pairs of earrings for my grandson’s church fair, and I hope to start a visitation program for seniors here. This will help me, because when I spend time with someone, I feel happy and stronger. My love of the Lord never wavers. Even in the worst pain, the Lord guides me, and I know He is always there. Thank you for reading my story. God bless you all.



The views and opinions of our bloggers represent the views and opinions of the bloggers alone and not those of Living Beyond Breast Cancer. Also understand that Living Beyond Breast Cancer does not medically review any information or content contained on, or distributed through, its blog and therefore does not endorse the accuracy or reliability of any such information or content. Through our blog, we merely seek to give individuals creative freedom to tell their stories. It is not a substitute for professional counseling or medical advice.


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