Editor's Note: Look each Monday in October for @Ford Online to profile some more of Ford's own breast cancer survivors…the company's very own Warriors.
DEARBORN - Forty-two-year-old Jody Collino says cancer is like boxing. It’ll knock you down, but you’ve got to get back up and keep fighting.
Collino should know. She’s still standing after two grueling rounds in the ring.
In the summer of 2006, Collino – who was working at Ford’s New Model Product Development Center at the time – noticed a lump in her breast. She didn’t think much of it at the time because her two-year-old son had kicked her in the chest and she assumed the lump was from that. But it wasn’t.
After reviewing her mammogram and ultrasound – but without doing a biopsy or any other tests – Collino’s doctor told her that she had Stage IV breast cancer and needed a double mastectomy. The doctor also recommended that she start getting her affairs in order.
“You can imagine the fear when you have a young baby you want to raise, and you have a doctor telling you that you’re going to die,” said Collino. “I was an absolute emotional wreck. I cried for days.”
Once the initial shock wore off, Collino began searching for information. She talked to friends, searched the Internet and called the American Cancer Society. A nurse friend suggested she get a second opinion.
After running a multitude of tests – MRIs, CAT scans, biopsies, PET scans, blood work, bone scans, etc. – the new team of doctors presented Collino with two choices. She could have a unilateral mastectomy or try to shrink the tumor through chemotherapy and then have a lumpectomy. She opted for the latter and began 12 weeks of what she describes as “evil, nasty chemotherapy.”
“We called it ‘the red devil’ because it was red and after you took it you would have to go home and crash for three days because it was so rough,” said Collino. “It took its toll on my body and mind. My hair fell out everywhere. I lost my zest, and I was reduced to a weak zombie.”
After an additional 12 weeks on another form of chemotherapy, the tumor shrunk in half and doctors scheduled Collino for a lumpectomy. Following the surgery, she had radiation therapy for 42 consecutive days followed by chemotherapy treatment for 52 weeks.
“During that difficult period, I bought hats I liked and wigs that gave me a new look,” she said. “I was glad to be alive, glad to have my breasts. and I looked forward to getting back to work and being normal again.”
But just when it seemed like things were starting to look up, fate rang the bell for round two.
Collino was bike riding with her son on a bright, sunny day in April of 2008 when she collapsed suddenly. Paramedics rushed her to the hospital where doctors informed her she had nine tumors in her brain.
“They told me that one of the tumors was the size of a golf ball,” said Collino. “It was pressing on the lining of my brain, and that’s what caused the seizure.”
Doctors rushed Collino to surgery to remove the largest tumor and told her they suspected that the cancer had spread to her spinal cord fluids – a terminal condition.
“I was told that I only had four to six months to live and that I should get my affairs in order,” she said. It was the second time in Collino’s young life that doctors told her to prepare for the worst.
“This time I took it even harder,” she said. “I was afraid to go to sleep for fear that I would never wake up.”
Collino says she was touched by the outpouring of support she received from her co-workers at Ford.
“Half the plant came and visited me,” she recalled tearfully. “Never in my life have the words, encouragement and support of my friends meant so much.”
After being hospitalized for four weeks, Collino came back for regular treatments where doctors would extract fluid from her brain and replace it with chemotherapy through a port in her head. She also had to undergo radiation treatments to her head and brain, which caused her to lose her hair again.
“Slowly I began to realize that my doctors – who were experts in breast cancer – may not be the best choice for the changes in my condition,” she said. “I was so scared and began to lose faith in my doctors and treatment plan.”
After another exhaustive search, Collino found a new medical team who ran another battery of tests and determined that the cancer had not spread to her spinal column after all.
“What a relief!” recalled Collino. “I had a chance to beat this, again.”
In the fall of 2009, Collino’s test results showed that the tumors in her brain were gone. Because of the nature of her illness, however, she will have to have chemotherapy and undergo regular testing for the rest of her life.
Despite all the struggles – or perhaps because of them – Collino says she has discovered a deeper meaning to life.
“I was told that I had only four to six months to live, and through the grace of God I am still here four years later,” she said.
Collino says the unending support of her husband Dennis meant the world to her throughout her struggle with cancer.
“He has been at my side every step of the way, and he still is,” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done without him.”
Collino says she is a living testament to the fact that doctors aren’t always right and that there is always hope.
“My purpose is to tell my story and to help other people who are fighting cancer,” she said. “You can’t let this disease knock you out. You’ve got to get back up, and you’ve got to beat it.”
Collino would like to offer her support for anyone struggling with breast cancer. If you would like to contact her, please do so at email@example.com.