Eliza Behrendsen’s battle with cancer has been a journey filled with beautiful moments; from the support she received from family and friends, to her sisters buying her wigs to wear, to the treatment she received locally in Natchitoches.
It all began over a year ago when she first noticed a lump in her breast on a family vacation in July 2016. At first she tried to put it out of her mind, but when her mother-in-law passed away from cancer less than three months later, Eliza knew she needed to get it checked out.
She mentioned it to her sister Cissy Picou at Thanksgiving. Since the holiday season was in full swing, the closest appointment they could get a doctors appointment was in January.
The time frame got moved up, not just because her doctors loved her as Eliza first thought, but because the lump in her breast was a major concern. Dr. Ben Hogg performed an ultrasound and five days later Eliza was sent for a needle biopsy.
Cissy and Eliza’s husband Gunnar went to the doctor on Jan. 12 when she received her diagnosis. A gene test revealed that the cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma and in situ carcinoma, wasn’t an inherited kind.
Her first reaction personifies Eliza’s outlook on life and was how her whole treatment plan evolved. She bravely asked her doctor, “So what do we do?”
The first step was to break the news to the rest of their family. Eliza and Gunnar took their children Ashton and Bear to lunch. Important life announcements over lunch was a tradition Eliza’s father began and she wanted her children to look at her cancer as a new chapter in their life, not something to feel sorry about.
“It didn’t feel real for a few days,” said Bear. I didn’t know what to think, but I knew she was going to power through it like she does everything in life.”
Eliza lives her life out loud, never asking for permission or for anyone to feel sorry for her.
In true Eliza style, she gathered her family at a lunch her sister LaLa Sylvester hosted to tell them the news. They even had her sister from Nashville on a conference call.
“I’m known as the crier in my family,” said Eliza. “But my whole family was in tears. They’ve been there for me 100 fold. Most families drift apart after the passing of a patriarch, but the passing of my father in January, 2016 only drew us closer. I appreciate them and all the support they’ve given me.”
Dr. William Ball performed a lumpectomy on Jan. 19, taking more tissue than planned to make sure Eliza’s margins were clear. Her cancer was a Stage 2B because of the sheer size of it.
Somewhere between finding the lump and making it to the doctor, Eliza embarked on a healthier lifestyle journey. She was coming home from work exhausted to watch TV and drink a double vodka before eating and going to bed. Frustrated with this routine, she took the money her father left for her and started working out with Sara Ziegler.
“It was in homage to my father,” said Eliza. “He went to the gym three times a week, even in his eighties. I was extremely close to him and we bonded over water skiing in Cane River. He would ski miles to equal his age every year. This is where I found my ‘how’ and my ‘why’ to get fit and start living better.”
Eliza began her chemo on Ash Wednesday. She made a Facebook post to announce to the world that she was giving up cancer for Lent. It was her way of infusing humor into the situation.
Eliza’s mother always said her long gorgeous hair was her crowning glory. Eliza has always kept her hair long in honor of her mother. She went to her hairdresser Rita Metoyer to get a pixie cut so it wouldn’t be such a traumatic experience when her hair did fall out. She donated her long locks to kids with hair loss.
The following week her hair started falling out. She gathered her family in their back yard on Cane River and they shaved her head. When the pictures were uploaded to Facebook, Eliza said it gave her so much strength when the people she loved, and even some she didn’t even know, gave her wonderful feedback and encouragement.
Months later, radiation treatments began and Eliza chose to go to the Northwestern Louisiana Cancer Center.
“They’re the most professional, loving, caring group of medical professionals I’ve ever witnessed,” she said. “It was so special to go there everyday and have such a cheerful experience for such a rough treatment. They were a huge blessing in my journey. This experience has allowed me to grow in my faith even deeper and has allowed me to grow in my love of people. I’ve been gifted when it comes to loving people. Anyone who allows Natchitoches to take care of them will have all the love, support and medical professionals they need. Natchitoches can take care of you.”