“Cancer” is a word no one wants to hear, but for two Salem women, a phone call following routine mammograms changed their lives forever.
“When my doctor called me on a Thursday afternoon after I got off work, I knew something was wrong,” says Sue Harris, who was diagnosed last year with stage 3 breast cancer. “My doctor doesn’t usually call me.”
In October 2014, Harris’ mammogram showed signs of lumps. By her next mammogram in January 2016, one of those lumps proved to be cancerous.
“My official diagnosis was ‘left breast invasive ductal carcinoma,’ which means the cancer had extended to beyond the immediate region of the tumor and invaded three lymph nodes, but had not spread to distant organs or muscle,” she explains. “Why this didn’t show up on my earlier mammogram demonstrates how a year and two months can make all the difference.”
Kathy Mason’s breast cancer was also found during her yearly mammogram. What was unusual was for breast cancer to hit these two prayer partners just weeks apart.
“It was a very sad time for me,” Mason says. “I felt scared and sad. My mother died at 62 from cancer, so that made it all seem so much more like it could be the same for me. I began hoping and trusting God that it wouldn’t be.
“I had to wait two months for surgery so that seemed like forever,” she adds. “I kept working, but it was hard.”
Mason and Harris also kept praying, an action that helped them through the tough times they encountered.
“My brother, who is a pharmacist, was very comforting,” Harris says. “He told me that treatments these days are so advanced that my prognosis was not necessarily a death sentence, especially at stage 3.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States is about a one in eight chance for women, and only one in 1,000 for men. Several of the more common risks for the disease include being a woman, getting older, inherited genes, family history, having dense breasts, starting menstrual periods before age 12 or menopause after age 55, hormone therapy after menopause, being overweight or obese, lack of physical activity, and drinking alcohol.
Mammograms are still the gold standard for screening for breast cancer, although other options are available, including ultrasound and MRI for select situations, according to two Salem Health doctors. Dr. Nancy Reyes-Molyneaux is a radiation oncologist and the medical director of the Oncology Service Line at Salem Health. Dr. Beth Dayton is a surgeon and chair of the Salem Hospital Breast Committee.
Diagnostic Imaging of Salem offers a Hologic Lorad Selenia full-field digital mammography system that delivers “quicker exam times, decreased radiation dose and less patient discomfort.” Computer-aided detection software enables DIS to “find breast cancer earlier than before,” according to its Women’s Center brochure.
Reyes-Molyneaux and Dayton advise women to talk to their doctor about the possible benefits or harms of mammograms, what age to start, and how often to be screened. If cancer is discovered, treatment options will be discussed, they say.
Patients will face many unknowns when breast cancer is first diagnosed, they say. But with support from their family and friends, as well as competent and compassionate care from their cancer team, most people can expect to get back to enjoying their usual activities and experience a normal lifespan.
Both agree treatments have greatly improved, and most are individually tailored to each patient with chemotherapy before surgery to shrink tumors, targeted therapies to keep cancer from spreading, and even no chemotherapy or radiation if the benefit to the patient is small.
Those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer are advised to talk over treatment options with a surgeon, who performs a lumpectomy, excision of the tumor and additional surrounding tissue to ensure removal, or a mastectomy, removal of the breast.
The patient will next talk to a radiation oncologist who prescribes radiation treatment to help preserve the breast and prevent recurrence of the cancer. Lastly, the patient will consult with a medical oncologist who prescribes chemotherapy or hormone therapy, such as estrogen blocker pills, to reduce the chance of recurrence in the breast or other organs. People with breast cancer may be a candidate for a combination of these treatments, the doctors say.
Harris had two surgeries — one to remove the lump and three lymph nodes, and a month later, another surgery to remove eight more lymph nodes. The surgeries were followed by chemotherapy for 16 weeks with eight treatments every other week.
“Chemotherapy was a strange out-of-body experience for me,” Harris says of the two-hour treatments. “The day of, I wouldn’t really feel any effect, but the following three days, I couldn’t get out of bed except to go to the bathroom or get something to eat. I couldn’t stand longer than a few minutes. All I could do was sleep and maybe watch a little TV.
“Day four, I started to come out of the deep fog and gain some energy to walk a little more,” she continues. “By the fifth or sixth day, I felt a little more like myself, and that lasted until the next treatment the following week. This was my life, over and over, for 16 weeks.”
Radiation followed chemo-therapy for five weeks, with “a two-minute zap … every day except weekends,” says Harris, who was a patient of Dr. Reyes-Molyneaux.
“They gave me lots of creams and things that helped to minimize any burn, but I didn’t experience any redness until the fourth week,” Harris says. “By the fifth week, the redness was getting more uncomfortable, but my skin didn’t break down. I was very happy when the last day occurred.”
Lastly, a breast therapist helped Harris to keep her skin healthy and blood flowing to the affected areas post-surgery.
“She helped my arm to stay limber,” says Harris, who still uses the exercises she learned in therapy sessions to retain her mobility.
Mason underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction because of her family history, but since her lymph nodes were negative for cancer, chemotherapy was unnecessary.
“I have blood work now and see the doctor every three months,” Mason says. “I’ve had a CT scan, PET scan and an ultrasound since the surgery. It’s a relief when the cancer is over, but you still have times of fear to overcome.”
Now in remission, Harris and Mason look back on their journey and agree that faith and prayer helped carry them through the tough times.
Both women encourage those newly diagnosed with cancer to talk to doctors, research their options, trust the process, find “your person” to lean on, and fight the disease.