In 2000, Dee Easley made a deal with her two sons that if they learned to scuba dive and liked it, she’d learn as well. It was promise she briefly regretted when they both seemed enthusiastic about the sport.
“I thought, ‘Oh, man. I’m not so sure why I said that,’” Easley said with a laugh, adding that she had always been uneasy about submerging her face in water.
But these days, one of her most cherished quotes alludes to a love of deep waters. It’s from the late author Karen Blixen, who often wrote under the pen name of Isak Dinesen.
“It says, ‘The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.’” It’s a fitting sentiment for Easley, who lives in Kansas City, North.
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In 2006, she faced stage II breast cancer. In 2011, she faced the diagnosis again. Today, Easley continues to fight Stage IV breast cancer. Upon her second diagnosis, she learned that the cancer had metastasized to almost 100 bones.
While she keeps most in check, tears have certainly been shed over the years. And check “sweat” off the salt water list as you watch the athletic 65-year-old work out.
But the salt water Easley hold most dear is the sea.
“I feel better when I’m in the sea,” said Easley, who now has 500 dives under her belt. “It’s beautiful down there. Nothing runs from you.”
Steve Easley, her husband of 36 years, is her diving partner and travel companion.
“Becoming a scuba diver was not normal for her, but she fell in love with it,” he said.
When she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, Easley had a lumpectomy to remove only part of her breast. After researching her cancer and consulting with her physician, she opted not to have radiation.
“I thought it was nothing, a little black speck (on the mammogram), but a biopsy proved otherwise, and I had to go back to have the margins removed,” she said.
After the removal of the margins, Easley thought she was finally done.Years passed, and she began to feel like a survivor. But the pain in her back, and then her bones, told her otherwise.
Easley still remembers that she learned of her diagnosis of metastatic, or stage IV, breast cancer on the Friday afternoon of a three-day weekend. The cancer was back in the same breast and had invaded her bones.
“I thought it was a death sentence, that I had three to four months to live,” Easley said.
The journey to feeling well again was neither simple nor painless. Easley had a modified radical mastectomy in 2011 followed by reconstructive surgery. She has had more than 100 radiation treatments, as well as chemotherapy, both of which left her weak and often in pain.
Today, her therapy is continuing through a KU clinical trial, which compares different scheduling of an oral chemo drug. She takes the drug one week, skips a week and repeats the regimen, rather than her previous two-week rotation.
She said it’s working well for her.
“I feel good,” she said. “I feel strong.”
She’s quick to point out all the things she needs to be strong for. She can now get down on the floor, play with her four young grandchildren, and easily get back up again. When she was going through the worst of her treatment, even going up and down stairs would wear her out.
“I felt like it wasn’t my body anymore,” she said. “I’ve always been strong, but I’d have to use my hands to even get out of a chair.”
These days, she works out with a personal trainer twice a week. Fifty sit-ups with a 12-pound ball and many other exercises help her build and maintain body strength.
She follows a healthful diet of organic food with no sugar, and avoids food with additives or anything genetically engineered.
And she’s strong enough to travel. She and her husband have documented their travels to exotic locations like Tibet, Fiji and Africa through photos and memories.They have plans to travel to the Serengeti and to Australia, among other lands.
Her friends describe Easley as nothing short of inspirational.
Linda Jenkins met her through the Northland New Neighbors League Club. Jenkins had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, and Easley called her friend for support after she learned of her own diagnosis.
Jenkins describes Easley as a kind-hearted friend, citing the time Easley, a master gardener, and a friend landscaped and replanted Jenkins’ yard as a birthday present.
And Easley has a sense of humor. After chemo treatments, Jenkins said her friend realized she’d soon be cursed with a common side effect.
“When she knew she would be losing her hair because of chemo, she decided to make it a fun event without tears,” Jenkins said.
Easley tried out a mohawk, texted pictures to her sons, then finished her haircut and tried on a new wig. Her oldest granddaughter and two daughters-in-law helped her choose the right style.
Those daughters-in-law, along with her sons, grandchildren and friends, have helped her through the difficult times, Easley said. As has the man she describes as “a truly nice person,” who has been by her side through good and bad days.
“My husband is very supportive,” Easley says. “I am very independent, but I allow him to go to the doctor with me. He helps listen and he hears (what the doctor says) in a more restrictive way.”
The doctor, who knows both Easleys well, oncologist Robert Pluenneke, points to his patient’s fighting spirit.
“She has never let her diagnosis get in her way,” Pluenneke said. “When she elected to participate in clinical trials, I presented her with several and she chose the treatment. The regimen was picked for her by random choice, and she has done amazingly well.”
It’s an exciting time to be in oncology, he said, citing the discovery of new drugs and therapies that come out every few months. Immunotherapy, for example, shows great promise, he said.
While he doesn’t expect a cure for cancer in his lifetime, the oncologist said he believes it will be treated more as a chronic disease, and he points to improvements in survival numbers and dropping rates in breast cancer, especially in women younger than 50.
Easley is among the 2.8 million U.S. Americans who are completing, or who have completed, treatment for breast cancer. Much of his practice involves educating the people in theose ranks to build up a foundation of knowledge, Pluenneke said.
“A patient who understands the disease and the treatment and side effects does better.”
Pluenneke, who has been in practice for 20 years, says a patient’s approach to the diseasecan have a significant impact on his or her wellbeing.
Easley says one piece of advice she would offer anyone with a cancer diagnosis is to find a good medical team and do research.
“I really believe I’m in charge of my own health,” she said. “There’s a lot of good research out there, so there’s no reason you can’t be part of that (medical) team.”
And it’s important to realize that each cancer patient is unique.
“It’s a long, tough journey,” she said. “The same medicine doesn’t work for all. All cancers are not the same.”
Easley found a unique way to show gratitude to her doctor. On her 500th dive, Easley posed for a picture at a depth of 80 feet. In it, with a shark swimming in the background, she is gripping a sign that reads: “Thank you Dr. Pluenneke.”
Though her illness slowed their travel briefly, it hasn’t stopped the couple entirely. Since her more recent diagnosis, the Easleys have been to China. They go on a dive trip twice a year.
Were his wife to get ill while traveling, Steve Easley would take things one step at a time.
If something happens, it happens,” he said. “It is better to have had half a trip than none at all.”
His wife had a similarly pragmatic answer.
“You can always come home,” she said.
When they travel, they often go through an agency that arranges for them to spend time with the people of the country. In an African village, they watched grain being pounded for a breakfast meal, and in China, they were served a meal in a resident’s home.
“The best thing about these trips, it’s not the Great Wall or the palace or the safari,” Easley said. “It’s the people who are so friendly and kind.”
But while she looks forward to many more trips to foreign countries, Easley said it’s because she was born in the United States that she’s been able to take such adventures.
“As Americans, we want more and more, and we don’t realize how much we already have,” she said.
“It’s because I was born in the United States that I’ve had good health care, and I’ve been able to do these wonderful things.”
A monthly support group for women who have been recently diagnosed, are being treated for, or are in remission for breast cancer meets the second Saturday of the month from 10 am to noon at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, 1600 M-291, Liberty.
For more information, call Sharon Jones at 816-781-5959, extension 218 or by reach her by email at email@example.com