Surviving cancer was just the beginning for Nancy Drexler. Since her first diagnosis in 1995, she’s been doing whatever she can to help others facing that same situation. Whether it’s driving patients to doctor appointments or dressing up as Peter Rabbit to visit those undergoing treatment at Texas Oncology, she’s up for anything.
She’s the very definition of paying it forward. Drexler moved to Texas from Maryland for her career, during which she was an investigator. Since retired from that, she’s now the office coordinator at her church, again, giving back to her community. Drexler met with Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley to talk about her experiences with breast and ovarian cancer, and how she found her purpose helping bring hope and happiness to others navigating the unique emotional and physical struggles that come with the disease.
WACOAN: You survived cancer a few years back. How long ago was that?
Drexler: My first diagnosis was in June of 1995.
WACOAN: You said first diagnosis, so that probably means there was another.
Drexler: That would have been in a February of 2012. The first was breast cancer. I had just relocated from Austin. I’m a transplant from Maryland, and I had moved to Austin in 1982, for my employment. And then in June of 1995, I moved to Waco, same job, just a different location. Three weeks after I had arrived, I felt a lump in my breast. I knew two people here, two girlfriends, so I called one of them and said, ‘I need a doctor.’ I had a mammogram eight months prior to this in Austin. She gave me the name of a person and I went. They saw me the next day and he said, ‘Well, let’s try some antibiotics and we’ll try to get your mammogram results (from Austin).
I went back in a week, and he said, ‘Well, you know, if this is cancer, we need to be very aggressive.’ I kind of blanked out when he said the word cancer. I was an investigator, so I was used to asking questions. I wasn’t asking any questions, because I was shocked. And I was by myself. We decided to do a biopsy.
Now, mind you, that was 1995, and we’ve come a long way since 1995, in terms of just diagnosing and treatment and so forth. They don’t usually put you to sleep for biopsy, but in retrospect, I think he knew 95 percent that it was cancer, because they had done an ultrasound, and it didn’t take a dummy to see the mass that was on the X-ray. He said, ‘We’ll do a biopsy and if it’s malignant, we’ll do a mastectomy. If it isn’t, we’ll wake you up and send you home. And if we’re not sure, we’ll still wake you up and send you home and go from there.’
I decided to do it on a Friday so I’d have the weekend to recover. And I was thinking, ‘Well, I think it’s going to be OK,’ so I didn’t really tell anybody except a good friend of mine who took me to the hospital that morning, and she couldn’t stay with me, so she left. And the next thing I remember is waking up and them telling me I had mastectomy. I’d signed all the papers and so forth. So onward we go to start to treatment, and I did a lot of chemotherapy, massive quantities of radiation. They took some 17 lymph nodes from underneath my right arm. And consequently, this (right) arm is larger because this whole lymphatic system is compromised. So I have another set of challenges there.
At any rate, my life had kind of come to a halt. And my bosses came in from the Dallas area, and you could have heard a pin drop in my living room. They sat with me and I said, ‘Gentlemen, I’ve given you lots of hours.’ And I had. I worked a lot of hours. I said, ‘But it’s over. I’m fighting for my life. You’ll get eight hours a day and that’s all,’ and I meant it.
WACOAN: What kind of an investigator were you?
Drexler: I was a personnel security investigator. I did background checks for security clearances, all branches of the military. And in the private sector, anybody with a defense contract like L3, Texas Instruments or whomever. I covered about eight or nine counties when I moved here. I had a pretty large territory and I first thought, you know, I just moved here and I’m fatigued, I’m tired. But then I felt the lump, and I knew that wasn’t right. And it wasn’t. I believe they staged it as a stage 2, but it was a grade 3, which means it was pretty aggressive.
So I consented to all of the therapy, and it was a rough road. I wore wigs and did a lot to try to fix myself up because I was still doing investigations and meeting with the public and I needed to be professional. So I got through it, and the hair grew back. I went on and life was good.
Then in 2010, I had five heart bypasses. I thought I had developed asthma until the night that I was having trouble breathing so much that I called a friend and went to the emergency room, and sure enough, that’s what happened. They think it was a result of all the massive radiation I had, because of where the tumor was and because the radiation was so close in the chest cavity towards the heart. They really feel that’s what kind of compromised my system, I guess you would say.
So I’m here to say that I’m feeling like the bionic woman. I’m doing OK. I have a daughter who lives in Austin, and her doctor that delivered her babies said, ‘Has your mother had the BRCA2 test?’ It’s genetic testing. She said no, and he said, ‘I highly recommend it.’ And the reason I think he said that was he had a sister that died of breast cancer. And I wasn’t on any protocol. I didn’t have to go back and have checkups and so forth. So I thought, ‘Well, it’s just a blood test. I can do that.’
I went to Texas Oncology, which is where all my treatment has gone through. They’ve been fabulous. And I’ve had the same doctor for since 1995. Dr. (Carlos) Encarnacion, also known as Dr. E. He’s a wonderful doctor, and I had the blood test and I got a phone call saying you need to retest. So I went back and retested. Well, apparently my cancer tumor marker was off the Richter scale, which is an indication that there was something else going on in my body, so I went back for more tests. And they did an ultrasound internally. And when they called in another doctor, I said to myself, ‘I don’t think this is good.’
I had had a hysterectomy, but I didn’t have my ovaries removed because I was in my 30s when I had that. I was just having a lot of female troubles, so I went on and did that but left the ovaries due to the hormone situation. So Dr. Encarnacion very candidly said to me, ‘I can’t help you. I can recommend two specialists that I would send my wife to,’ which is a high recommendation. One was in Temple and one was in Austin. I chose the one in Austin because my daughter lived in Austin. Fortunately, they saw me right away. And probably inside of 10 minutes of meeting with Dr. (Michael) Teneriello – I have Dr. E and Dr. T. – he said, ‘I believe you have ovarian cancer, but you’re ahead of it.’
Not very many patients walked in there with all the test results that I had, because I also had exploratory surgery done, which I might back up and tell you that that the surgeon who removed my breast, and when he did the exploratory surgery, he came out and told my friend, ‘She’s got stage 4. There’s nothing we can do for her.’ Now in his defense, because I think highly of him, he wasn’t an oncologist either. He was a surgeon. But that friend never told me that until after the fact, thank the good Lord.
On Valentine’s Day of 2012, he removed my ovaries and another cancerous tumor in my stomach area. And he told my daughter that what they saw was like if you take a dandelion and you blow it, that was what they saw in my peritoneal, so I was going to need chemotherapy. OK. So here we go again.
And I did fine and I supposedly was in remission, and about a year-and-a-half later, it reoccurred. In the meantime, I had tested positive on the BRCA gene, which means I carried the gene. I start on chemo again. I took my chemo in Austin, because Dr. E. and Dr. T. are working together. Dr. E. tests my blood and takes me from the waist up, Dr. T takes me from the waist down. And they work in concert. But Dr. T.’s the quarterback, according to Dr. E.
I had a reaction, and they had to stop the chemo. I became allergic to one of the drugs. I was just scared to death, like where do we go from here? So back to Austin to the specialists. And this was in 2015. A new drug got FDA approval in December of 2014 called Lynparza. And he said, ‘I’d like for you to try it, if you can afford to.’
I don’t know what Texas Oncology did for me, but they did something so that I could afford it. I took 16 capsules a day, eight in the morning and eight in the afternoon. There were some side effects, but they were minimal, nothing I couldn’t tolerate. I would get nauseous sometimes. Then they changed the formula. Same drug, but now I only have to take four a day, two tablets in the morning, two in the afternoon. I am probably one of the longest patients on it. I’m really a maverick when it comes to this drug. I have done so well on it. And it has not reoccurred. My numbers have been good.
I was just into the oncologist Monday as a matter of fact, testing my blood. The reason they’re testing me more now, with discussion with both doctors, is I’ve decided to come off of it. We call it a drug holiday. So in the middle of November, I stopped taking it. And neither doctor can tell me if this is the right thing to do or not the right thing, because nobody knows.
WACOAN: Why did you decided to stop taking it?
Drexler: I was starting to have a lot of ulcers on my tongue, and it also keeps me anemic. Another side effect is I was just so achy. Kind of like flu-ish, but I didn’t have the flu. I could take ibuprofen and I’d be OK. I dealt with it because in the grand scheme of things, I felt like these were minimal side effects. But the ulcers on the tongue were really becoming annoying. I could get rid of them for maybe a day and it would be back again.
So that’s when I decided maybe I can come off of it. But I’m really nervous about it. I’ll be quite honest. And they both know that. I don’t feel like I’m going to stay off of it. I feel like I’m going to go by back on it, but I hope I haven’t become drug resistant either. And that’s a chance I take. I’m going to see the doctor again in February. We’re gonna do another blood test and then we will decide whether I’ll go back on or not. Even though this time, this past Monday, my numbers were good. I was a little less anemic. The ulcers on the tongue have gone away. I do have a little more energy.
And we talk about quality of life. I’m 75 years old. I’m so thankful to be alive. And my doctor said, ‘You know, you have exceeded expectations. It’s good that we’re having this conversation.’ In other words, you’re not dead. You’re still alive. And I feel the same way because ovarian cancer is a silent killer. Unfortunately, you don’t have really any symptoms until it’s too late.
My daughter (Denice Vincent) is 53, and she took the (BRCA) test and she also tested positive. She’s not doing any more childbearing, so she had the hysterectomy. We went to a conference in Philadelphia about this very thing, about the gene, about the ovarian cancer and the breast cancer and the association, because they’re associated.
And so she did a lot of research and found a team of doctors in San Antonio. She went and had both breasts removed, and had her own tissue to make new breasts. But I’m here to tell you, if you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t know it. She looks wonderful. But it’s a hard surgery, and it was a hard recovery. I was with her around the clock, having to give her meds and so forth. But she said to me, ‘I don’t want to go through what you’ve been through.’ And I don’t want her to either, of course.
It doesn’t guarantee that she’ll never get cancer, but at least she increases her odds by doing what she did, being proactive. And that’s the key. She was proactive. It was kind of the Angelina Jolie surgery, that’s exactly what it was. I have two granddaughters. One is 13, the other 17. When they’re of age to be tested for this, we’ll have them tested.
WACOAN: So are you still working? Are you retired?
Drexler: I retired as an agent after 38-and-a-half years, February of 2005. I stayed off and did a lot of volunteer work for the American Cancer Society. And then in January 2009, I went back to work and I’m working part time at Central United Methodist Church as the office coordinator.
WACOAN: You have used your experience and now you’re helping others who are facing similar situations. How do you go about doing that?
Drexler: I’m going to be perfectly honest. I’m not doing a lot right now, unless somebody calls me. As soon as the policy in the American Cancer Society’s guidelines would allow, I got trained as what they call a Reach to Recovery volunteer, which meant that you went out and visited other newly-diagnosed breast cancer patients. And we took gifts to them, gifts like information and bras, and especially just being in front of them and showing them that there’s life after breast cancer.
I lost track of how many that I have visited over the years, but I’m not sure that the program is real active right now. Because what happened is, there’s so many women that have been touched by it, that a lot of times they know a friend, and they’d rather talk to a friend. And that’s perfectly fine. I get that. I understand. But we would show them exercises after their diagnosis, and after their surgery, and so forth.
I just wanted to pay it forward. I got a second chance, and so I just wanted to help other women. And I feel like, if I touched just one woman, my time on this earth was worth it.
I also went on the speaker’s bureau and would go to groups and talk to them. At one time I belonged to the Ladies Auxiliary, the VFW 6008 in Hewitt, and when it came October we do the breast cancer awareness, I had some little forms and I did a talk. I showed the ladies how to look for a lump in their breast with these forms. Well, it turned out unknowing to me, I don’t know how many years later, I got a letter from one of them that said, ‘You saved my life because of that demonstration. I felt it. I did something about it, and I’m fine.’
Thank you, Jesus. Really. I’m happy for her. I’m thrilled for her. Anytime anybody calls me, I’m more than willing to talk to them about it. And even other kinds of cancer. There was a man that I worked with who was our custodian, and we shared the same office. He died of pancreatic cancer, but going through his journey, we talked a lot about treatment and so forth.
I just feel like if I can relate to someone, if I can help someone, if there’s something that would be encouraging, give them hope, I like to do that. I want to do that. I also did Road to Recovery, which meant I would take patients to their treatments. I’d get a call and somebody needed a ride. So I did that for a lot of years.
WACOAN: I understand that you didn’t just show up and talk. You dressed up and made it fun.
Drexler: I’m a little bit of that. What I’ve learned about my biological father is that he was in vaudeville. He knew the Three Stooges. I have a picture of him with the Three Stooges.
WACOAN: I love the Three Stooges.
Drexler: I don’t know a man that doesn’t. So maybe I have a little bit of that in me. I’ve always loved theater and I love live theater. I have a pumpkin costume and a Mrs. Claus costume and Raggedy Ann and Peter Rabbit. I will go online and buy these costumes. I wanted to bring some sunshine to the patients at Texas Oncology, so during those holidays I will dress up and I’ll take some goodies. And the staff love it. The doctors love it and the patients love it. I just want to bring a little happiness to them.
I enjoy it. I do it for the kids at my church, and I thought why not do it for the cancer patients.
WACOAN: Are you hoping to resume your volunteer work after COVID subsides?
Drexler: I hope I can. I’d like to be able to go back and do those things at Texas Oncology. And as far as the American Cancer Society, there’s been some changes in what they’re doing. They sold the building. And so I haven’t had the contact I used to have with them.
I used to be so very active with Relay for Life. I chaired it a couple of years including the year of 9/11. Relay for Life is where they get teams and they stay on the track. It used to be a 24-hour (event), and all that’s changed too. But the whole motivation behind it was cancer patients never get off the track. You have to stay on the track. And so that’s what that was all about to begin with. They still have them. But it’s very, very different. And I’ve not been involved in quite a few years now. But I had my own team. I’ve chaired it. I’ve been very, very involved. And there again, I would wear wigs. I wore a purple wig one time, because their color is purple.
I just enjoy bringing some happiness and hope. And in showing the other cancer patients that there can be life after your diagnosis. I know that not everybody makes it, but they have made great strides and research. And a lot more folks, if they will do their testing and get early diagnosis, may have a pretty good long life.
I say it was a God thing for me that doctor said to my daughter, ‘Has your mother had the BRCA test?’ I’m here to tell you, I would have never known until it was too late because I didn’t have any symptoms. And I was rocking and rolling along and I wasn’t on a protocol to go see Texas Oncology. It wasn’t necessary, or so we thought. And then boom. He said that, and my whole world changed.
So I say, when you can be proactive, when you can advocate for yourself, do it. I’m all behind it and I’m more than willing to tell anybody that.
WACOAN: When you were going through your treatments, was there anybody doing what you do?
Drexler: I had a Reach to Recovery volunteer come to see me, who I later became friends with through the whole process.
WACOAN: And how important was that to you to have that person?
Drexler: It was very important because I could see she looked, I hate to use the word normal, but she looked good. She had reconstructive surgery. She was very honest. She said it wasn’t for everybody, and it wasn’t for me. And the reason it wasn’t for me, and I would like to have had it done, but I was so tired of going to doctors. I was so tired of being down. I didn’t want to be down anymore. I wanted to get going, and I knew if I had that, that would delay my getting going, so I just chose not to.
WACOAN: How old were you when you had a mastectomy?
Drexler: I was 49 when I had mine done. And on my 50th birthday, I had just finished up all of my treatments, and I was just beginning to get my hair back. I told my daughter, for my 50th, do not give me any black balloons. Do not do anything black. I was serious. I said give me color. I want color.
She threw me the biggest surprise. Unbelievable. I had never been in a limousine. We were in Austin and we were at dinner with some ladies. This guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Your limo’s here.’ Yeah, right. He said, ‘Look out there.’ And of course, I cried. I cried all the time. That was so fun. And then she had another surprise party at another location, and it was just wonderful. And everything was color. It was so fun and so many people, I never even got to taste my birthday cake.
WACOAN: And that was 25 years ago. You’re still here and it seems like you’re doing well.
Drexler: I am. I think I believe that the good Lord had left me here for a reason. At least a lot of my friends have told me that.
WACOAN: What do you think that reason is?
Drexler: That reason is to be a vessel to help others, to be that thread that maybe can help somebody else. That’s what I think. Or maybe, when it’s all said and done, the fact that I’ve taken this drug that had just gotten FDA approval, will help somebody else.