One Member Shares Her Story and What She’s Learned
Debrah Farnell is a busy wife, mom, grandmother and woman entrepreneur of a successful financial planning firm that she started in 2008 to provide everything from planning to insurance and investments to mostly women. As a NAWBO member for the past five years, Debrah was also serving as president-elect of the NAWBO-Greater D.C. chapter. So when she was feeling tired, she chalked it up to her lifestyle, moving into her 60s and a previously diagnosed thyroid issue.
Even her doctor said, “You’re building a business. You’re going to be tired.” That couldn’t have been further from the truth.
You see, Debrah has metastatic (stage 4) breast cancer that started as a lobular carcinoma. It’s not the kind that is diagnosed when you or your doctor feel a lump, but a more elusive kind that only accounts for 10 percent of breast cancers, forms in the cell linings and goes undetected in mammograms. In fact, Debrah had a negative mammogram just six weeks ago, despite the fact that she has cancer.
Thinking back, though, there were signs other than fatigue that something was wrong. After a physical in September 2014, she had a negative sonogram for chest pain. Early in 2015, she consulted a registered dietician and began a focused eating program that cut back on carbohydrates and sugar and eliminated alcohol, which she thought was working when she began to feel better. Debrah says she went to the emergency room with chest pain after Memorial Day in 2015. She thought she had pulled a muscle, and after a normal EKG, she was prescribed 24 sessions of physical therapy and an anti-inflammatory. Although the chest pain seemed better, she had pain off and on in her left and then right rib. The day after Labor Day in 2015, however, she felt rib pain again that was so bad, she went back to see her orthopedist.
“He said, ‘Something is really wrong,’” Debrah recalls. A physical with her primary care doctor was followed by appointments with a gastroenterologist, oncologist and other specialists to figure out as quickly as possible what it might be. Tests were also performed, including an endoscopy and bone marrow test, which discovered she had estrogen positive breast cancer—a subtype of breast cancer—and the cancer was already in her bone marrow and stomach. “We don’t know how long I was sick; probably 12-18 months,” she shares. “Even then, all my physical results were in the normal range.”
Another sign that might have raised a red flag earlier is the fact that although the results were in the normal range, Debrah had trended toward anemia with every set of bloodwork until her bloodwork in September 2015 when she was clearly in the anemic range. “The doctors didn’t know why,” she says. “With anemia, you’re either losing blood or your body isn’t replacing red blood cells fast enough—which mine wasn’t because of the cancer.”
Today, Debrah has stepped down from her NAWBO leadership position and retired her business to focus on her health and family. She is eating healthy, resting, exercising regularly and undergoing treatment, including a promising new drug that was just approved by the FDA last February. “We’ll see what happens,” says Debrah. “I need to give myself the time to help myself. As women, though, backing up and putting ourselves first is hard to learn.”
To that end, Debrah offers this advice to her NAWBO sisters and women in general to be their own best health advocates:
- Have an annual physical and look for trends: “I had been having an annual physical for years because I wanted my husband to have one,” Debrah says. “There was a trend in my bloodwork that I didn’t see. If I had compared year-to-year, I would have noticed the trend with my anemia and helped my doctor to help me. That’s how I can be a partner in my own health.”
- Print and read every doctor report: “I had an MRI in June where a radiologist wrote to have further tests for acute leukemia and other possible causes,” Debrah says. “I didn’t print it out until September when my health issues were escalating. Always get a copy of the CD and print out any doctors’ notes. My radiologist threw out a red flag, and we all missed it.”
- Listen to your body: “Don’t rush to say, ‘It’s because I’m building a business or getting older,’” says Debrah. “Don’t easily dismiss things. We know our bodies the best. If I had remembered I had previous chest pain, I may have been diagnosed sooner. Follow up. Dig deeper. Be your own health advocate; don’t just rely on your doctors.”
What NAWBO Has Meant
“I love NAWBO,” says Debrah. “I think it’s an amazing resource for women that you just can’t get elsewhere. Our chapter is a really warm and welcoming group of women who go out of their way to approach other women business owners and ask, ‘How can we help you move your business to the next level?’ We don’t just say it; we do it. It helped me to polish my brand by enhancing my public speaking skills, using my leadership skills and giving me the platform to help other women. I’ve made some amazing friends. It’s been really incredible.”