Teacher and Mother: Isenberg Survives Breast Cancer Battle

Tori is done with chemo treatments, but is still continuing with immunotherapy until January 2019

courtesy of Lucia Isenberg
Tori at a chemo treatment

Before becoming a fifth grade teacher, Victoria “Tori” Isenberg served in the US Air Force. Having learned military protocol, Tori never thought she would need those skills for a different battle: stage one breast cancer.

“I was lucky to have a military veteran as my doctor.  I understand the chain of command and military speak. I felt comfort in non-emotional language. Once I knew my plan of treatment, these feelings subsided and I turned my emotions into action,” said Tori.

Tori’s journey began with a routine mammogram, during which an abnormality was found. The physicians assistant told her that it was just a rib and was of no concern.  In fact, the PA had been saying that for years.

But that explanation didn’t sit right with Tori, so she got a second opinion from her doctor.  Dr. Arbutina looked at the mammogram on November 1st and instantly knew that the lump wasn’t a rib.

It was after the appointments, alone with my loved ones that I let myself feel. I felt helpless at first. I wanted the, “Why” question answered. ”

— Tori Isenberg

It was determined there was a cyst filled with liquid in her breast. The potential of it being cancerous was less than three percent.

“I had a biopsy that day.  It hurt a little and I had a small incision [but] not too bad really. It was the phone call I got on a Saturday night after 9:00 that hurt. [The biopsy] came back as abnormal cells and he wanted to take out the lump for further tests,” explained Tori.

Tori was given a local anesthetic. The doctor used a cauterizer to close the incision. The medical practice of cauterization removes or closes off a certain part of the body by burning the skin and tissues.

“It smelled like burning flesh, and there were portions of my tissue that just would not numb!  So it felt like hot lava poking an unassuming marshmallow,” said Tori.

The results came back as breast cancer, which Tori had to explain to her only daughter, TAHS student Lucia Isenberg, who was a freshman at the time.

“One day, [my mom] and my dad came home from a follow up with a specialist. I was watching TV when my mom and dad came in and said, “It’s cancer.” Although I had that gut feeling, it felt like it blindsided me. Nothing can prepare you to hear that a loved one has ‘the C word’,” said Lucia.

Once it was determined the lump truly was cancerous, Tori was put under for a partial mastectomy. During this surgery, cancerous parts of the breast are removed until the samples are cancer free.

After this operation, Tori was cancer free. However, it was suggested that she undergo chemotherapy to prevent breast cancer from coming back.

She had a metal port placed under her skin and connected to a vein. A catheter, a soft, thin tube, connects the port to the vein. Chemotherapy medicine can be administered through the port along with other blood tests.

“[The port] was a lifesaver once chemo started. After Christmas, December 27, I went in for my first [round of] chemo. Basically, they just connected my IV right into my port instead of trying to get it into my hand,” said Tori.

She received chemo and Herceptin, another treatment that helps grow cancer fighting cells, every three weeks. Tori only had chemo for 12 sessions, but continued with the Herceptin for a year.

However, halfway through, Tori developed a fever. She had to be hospitalized and monitored for a week.

[My] life has changed quite a bit, but we are adjusting to the hand that God has dealt us and making the most of it each and every day.”

— Lucia Isenberg

She found it nice to sleep and rest instead of working so hard. After the chemo, Tori expected to feel better, but found it took her body a long time to recuperate.

Tori’s symptoms vary from nausea, bone and muscle pain, memory loss, nose bleeds, mouth sores, and fatigue.

Although Tori can’t control any of these side effects, there is one thing she can control: her hair loss.

“The certainty of [losing] my hair gave me the idea of not letting the chemo take it. I could take control and cut my own hair,” said Tori.

Cancer has affected Tori and Lucia in different ways, but both are more thankful for things in life and try not to take them for granted.

“Cancer is a terrible, terrible thing, but it has changed me in many ways for the better. Before my mom was diagnosed, I was a huge ball of stress. Grades, popularity, and just being the best were my main concerns. Throughout this experience, I’ve gained some major grit and perspective. What matters is family and happiness. I’m blessed to realize that now,” said Lucia.

As the child of a cancer patient, Lucia wishes people weren’t afraid to ask questions.

“I wish that people knew that it is [okay] to ask questions. No one really knows how to react when you hear the word cancer but asking shows that you care. That goes for all conditions. Sometimes people just need a shoulder to cry on or an ear to talk to….be there for them!” said Lucia.

Tori is a resilient human being with a heart of gold and the courage of a true fighter.”

— Fifth grade teacher Kaylee Kennep

The community has supported Tori and her family in many ways. Bracelets made by the Gonder family in Bellwood were sold to help Tori Isenberg. Kaylee Kennep, a fifth grade teacher, also made bracelets for Tori’s fifth grade teaching team. Her students also draw her pictures and artwork. During the period of time where Tori had to wear a surgical mask, her students also wore them to show their love and support.

“There are a lot of things that aren’t the same [since my mom’s diagnostic]. My mom doesn’t have the energy that she used to and she has ‘chemo brain’. Although she finished chemotherapy a few months ago, it is still in her system and that stuff is toxic. [My] life has changed quite a bit, but we are adjusting to the hand that God has dealt us and making the most of it each and every day,” said Lucia.

Today, Tori is still cancer-free and undergoing immunotherapy, a type of treatment that helps boosts the body’s natural defense to fight cancer. Her immunotherapy will end in January 2019.

“Tori is a resilient human being with a heart of gold and the courage of a true fighter. Never did she give up or stop battling. She wore a smile on her face no matter the amount of pain she was in and still continues to fight her way to the top. Mrs. Isenberg is the epitome of strong,” said Kennep.

Tori will be honored at the Pink-Out girls varsity volleyball game tomorrow night at seven against Bellwood.