The Annie Terpstra Story

What were you planning at age 29? I was preparing for the birth of my first child. I just finished buying a house. I was planning my wedding. I just graduated from college (Bachelor’s Degree). I was finishing off my first year in law school. Basically, life was good.

I was finally getting things together and I was getting a grip on what being an adult meant. Annie Terpstra, was basically planning her death at age 29. Can you imagine? Writing your own obituary or a letter saying goodbye to your son? Struggling to finish a manuscript when fighting for the few remaining days of your life, this is what Annie Terpstra did. Rochester Woman is given the privilege to publish Annie’s story, to share with our readers the courageous woman she was. To celebrate Annie Terpstra is an honor . She is a true survivor. The disease may have defeated her but her words live on to inspire others, they embraced her son and now our readers. Sometimes there’s more to being a survivor, then just surviving. When you can’t physically survive, there’s way to be a survivor and I think the life of Annie Terpstra does just that.

She learned at age 29, she was suffering from breast cancer. It metastasized to her brain and by age 31, she was dead (1). Two years, is a short period of time. How does one accomplish everything they need to do in two years? Annie started her diary which she wanted to publish sharing her thoughts and feelings and documenting the last days of her life. Ruth Ann Terpstra (Annie) was lucky enough to find love and get married and have a son during her young years (1). She was divorced after two years of marriage (1). She found love again and she felt secure (1). She was engaged to be married (1). Annie and her son Shawn moved in with her fiancé David and life was good (1). Who could ask for anything more?

One day everything changed….

“Today, I found out I have cancer. I sat there speechless, the tears filled my eyes. I felt numb. I tried to be strong but I failed for the moment, which is understandable. The next few moments I couldn’t really grasp what the doctor was saying to me.—except that he wanted to perform a node sampling one week from today.Actually, I felt I didn’t want to grasp anything anymore, period. I was angry, bitter, upset. Here I am- 29-years-old and I have breast cancer.

After I had a glass of water, I managed to ask Dr. Penn how this could happen. He honestly didn’t know. It just happens…Crazy thoughts running through my head. What if? What if it has spread? How much has spread? Will I get to see my son, my beautiful son, grow up to be a young man and get married? Now hearing news such as I had just heard about my cancer, I automatically thought the worst. In plain English, my mind was absolutely wacko, bonkers. I felt I was losing it, my mind that is” (1, 2).

“I have been used to living an energetic, fast-pace life, baseball league for two summers, going out with the girls, dancing, water-skiing, roller skating. Now I have no desire or energy to do these things. Depression is slowly setting in. I believe. Sometimes I felt like it was all a bad dream. My age having breast cancer” (1,2).

“Shawn knows I’m sick but he doesn’t quite understand…in time he will. How does a mother tell her child she’s sick, so sick she can hardly play with him longer?” (1, 2)

“The morning came quickly as they were prepping me for surgery. The nurse came, the IV’s were started…I remember waking in the recovery room and then being taken back to my room. Seemed as though I had slept for two days before waking. The pain was very intense. My left side felt as if a Mack truck had run over it…Dr. Penn came to see me. He told me I would know the results in four days” (1,2)

Annie learned her cancer spread in May of 1981 (1). She began treatment including chemotherapy and radiation (1). On January 7, 1982, Annie had a mastectomy (1). On July 20, 1982, after experiencing headaches, Annie was taken to the ER and it was discovered there was cancer in her brain (1). In October, 1982 Annie was told she had 6 months-to-live (1). Her son was 5 (1). February 6, 1983, in her mother’s home, she passed away peacefully at age 31(3).

In October 1982, Annie wrote a letter to her son Shawn.

“I want you to stand up for what you believe in. Believe also in God-please Shawn and I’ll see you in heaven someday. We will be together, if you believe in God, I promise. Do good in life honey, do good in school, make mommy proud of you. I love you Shawn. I will love you forever always remember this. Keep this letter close to your heart, my sweet and if you find comfort in this letter, read it often and remember I love you forever ” (4).I’ll see you in heaven someday. We will be together, if you believe in God, I promise. Do good in life honey, do good in school, make mommy proud of you. I love you Shawn. I will love you forever always remember this. Keep this letter close to your heart, my sweet and if you find comfort in this letter, read it often and remember I love you forever ” (4).

Also in October, Annie wrote these words to read at her funeral: “Be strong my friends, live each day to the fullest. If you have your health, you have your life. To each of you, I am not dead, but part of me lives in each of you. You have memories and laughter. Do not mourn or grieve for me, for I am fine I am with my Daddy, whom I have missed for many years. We will all meet again someday” (5).
Annie’s StoryDiagnosis“I decided to write about my experience with cancer, so that people would have some insight of how a 29-year-old mother feels and copes. There have been many articles and books about older people and children but not by any young adult., so I felt the need to put my thoughts down on paper. The most important thing to remember is live each day to its fullest, have no concerns for yesterday, and do not worry about tomorrow.

My morning started off as any other day, I was allowing myself the great luxury of soaking in a wonderful, hot “bubble bath” and as I started to wash I suddenly felt an unfamiliar lump, hard lump on my left side, just above my breast. I felt it four or five times, thinking no it can’t be anything serious, but the more I felt it the more I realized it could be. I felt a sickness in the pit of my stomach. I called my Mom to come right over and then I called my gynecologist and I made an appointment for three days from now.

Right away, I thought of the ugly word cancer and what if—just what if—of course I was worried, nervous and had to control my emotions a bit, as I have a three-year-old son in my life to think about…I had gone through a divorce a year ago and was raising my son alone…Then, I would think about the wonderful man that has come into my life and how we were making plans for a life together. He loves Shawn and is such a good person. As the day grew closer for my exam, I kept feeling the lump hoping it would go away or dissolve. It was the size of a quarter and hard as a rock…As I kept checking the lump, I kept thinking the worst, that maybe I’d only have a year or two to live-what would I do? …

The doctor proceeded to explain, the next step was to perform a biopsy. Working in this medical profession in radiology as long as I did, I knew a “biopsy” was the removal and examination of tissue, cells or fluid from one’s body, which means they have to cut into my breast to see what is going on…I may be strong on the outside, but inside I’m like a scared child, almost as if I was afraid of the dark all over again, my Mom can vouch for that…In reality, it is the unknown that bothered me…The hospital scheduled the biopsy for one week from today. The waiting period between now and then was going to be hard…

Today is biopsy day. I felt nauseous, I wasn’t allowed to eat anything…I was numb, seemed like everything was calm….My heart started to pound as I undressed and put on one of their cotton ,dotted, hospital gowns, you know the kind that opened in the back and you’re afraid someone will see your fanny hanging out, while you struggle to keep it closed. As I entered the waiting room and climbed into the bed, I remember how cold I was and asked for extra blankets…” (2).

Onset Treatment“Today I found out I have cancer. I sat there speechless, the tears filled my eyes. I felt numb. I tried to be strong, but I failed for the moment, which is understandable. The Dr. told me wiping away my tears…
It is mentally rough to adjust to cancer. I’ve had to repeat it over and over. I feel cheated. Why couldn’t this have happened forty years from now? Or better yet why at all?…

The doctor told me to stop trying to be strong and let my emotions out. “Cry Annie”…Dr. Penn came and asked how I was doing and checked the drainage bag. He told me surgery went well and I would know the results in about four days”. (Annie continued to document this story through her mother after this point. She was awaiting the results of her node sampling).

“We went in and sat down in Dr. Penn’s office to talk and hear the results. He removed 16 nodes and 4 were malignant so he was starting her on radiation. Annie asked him if they got all the cancer, but this is a question that can’t be answered, they hope they did, but if so much as one cell should break lose, they never know that is why the radiation…

In January of 82, I got a frantic phone call, “Mom come right over I found another lump”. I couldn’t believe what she said, but I knew how distraught she was so I had to forget my fears and keep her calm until we could see the doctor. Again, we are headed for Dr. Penn’s office and we knew this time there is only one choice left and that is a mastectomy. Annie felt as if her whole body had been invaded, this was a very emotional upsetting thing to happen to a young girl’s body, but we tried to tell her if this would be the answer to the whole problem then it would be a small price to pay for her health. Her fiancée kept telling her he didn’t love her for her body, but what was inside…The mastectomy surgery went well with Dr. Penn officiating. She had shed her tears, but she was also relieved it could be the end of all her problems…”

“The second week in July she started with congestion in her head and the doctor put her on antibiotics for a sinus infection, but as the days went by she was beginning to have such pressure headaches that she finally could not stand it anymore and we took her into emergency and they immediately did a CAT scan and found a brain tumor, it was inoperable, she was devastated as were all of us. She wanted to see Shawn right away because she was afraid she would die before seeing him…The next few days they did many tests and bone scans to see if any more of the tumors showed up, there was a small one in the lung. They immediately began radiation to take the swelling down so the pain would subside.
They told her that it was inoperable but with treatment they could make her comfortable and keep it under control and possibly shrink it so now we began the daily trek to the hospital every day and it had reached the point that she was getting weaker and needed to be transported in a wheelchair to make it easier for her.

They put her on Dilantin which was a steroid to keep the swelling down , but that had many side effects. It gave her a tremendous appetite for food and caused much swelling in her body as that she went from 90 pounds to almost 120. She could not wear any of her clothes and she had such a moon face she did not look like herself. Plus, she started to lose her hair. This was so frustrating for her…

She would say: “Why does it have to be Mom? I hurt so. I wish the Lord would take me but I don’t want to die. I want to see Shawn grow up?”…She began finding nodes on different parts of her body under the skin. They looked like a small pea and then would gradually get a little bigger and be tender. In October, Dr. Penn took a small one off under local… “Annie it will be six months or less”. That is all that could be said. The tears come and the Dr. put his arms around her and said he was sorry he had not been able to help her and he turned away. I knew he felt bad as he wasn’t that much older than her. So, I dried her tears and we headed home with heavy hearts.Finally, one night the pain was too much, she was on so many pills, plus the shots. We took her into emergency…Two days later she had two seizures…that we had to rush her back to the hospital. In the morning, they did another CAT scan and found another brain tumor…Well, I was given a week and the reason they would not keep her there was there was nothing more they could do for her. So, it was either come home or see about a nursing facility …COMING

HOME ONE LAST TIME We made arrangements and Shawn’s Daddy moved him to his house. He changed schools and began a new life with his Daddy. He made the adjustment very well and so we brought Annie home…The last week of Annie’s life she jaundiced and all the nodes on her little body looked like marbles had been placed under her skin.  I am thankful the Lord gave me the strength to care for her…The day before she died, she smiled at me and said she saw such beautiful colors, I knew it was coming to an end. And as I held her hand, the morning of February 6, one little tear trickled down her cheek when she crossed over to be with the Lord. I had let my one and only daughter go back from whence she came but I had had her and been blessed with 31 years…In closing, I must tell you about Shawn on the day that she died. He called me late in the day. He said: “Gowie, did Mommie go to heaven today?” I said: “She did”. He said: “Did you watch her go?” I said: “Yes, I sure did.” I held her hand.

THE END OF THE STORY Annie wrote the end of the story:“Yes, I have felt pain in my life. I have been deeply hurt, but somehow, some way, through strength, through love and support, and faith in God, I got back up again. I lived. I laughed. I cried. Oh, how I did struggle to survive. Life is too precious a gift. You have to want to survive and try to live each day to the fullest. I know there are thousands and thousands of people in this world, not only with cancer, but other incurable diseases and my hope for all of you is to fight be strong!”   And that is Annie’s story.

Resources(1) Morello, C. Annie’s Story, September 10, 1983, Rochester Times Union.(2) Terpstra, Annie (1982/83) Unpublished manuscript(3) Hansen, L., Her Book Unfinished, “Annie” Terpstra Dies. February 7, 1983, Rochester Times Union(4) Terpstra, Annie (1982). Letter to Shawn.(5) Terpstra, Annie (1982). Letter to Friends