Over the last two decades breast cancer mortality rates have been steadily decreasing. Advances in treatment, earlier detection through screening and increased awareness has certainly played a key role in survivorship. More than 2.5 million women in this country have survived breast cancer, among them, these Space Coast women whose battle against the disease has made them stronger and determined to help others facing similar circumstances.
“I was 19 when I had my first surgical biopsy” says Anna Rowell. In October of 2008 Anna underwent a bilateral mastectomy following the discovery of cancer. “I was triple negative, never tested positive for estrogen and progesterone, my cancer was found with an ultrasound and it never showed up in my mammograms.”
Since being operated on for her stage three cancer Anna has undergone eight additional procedures including reconstruction. “My mother has three sisters who died from breast cancer. I never quit monitoring my situation. It was me-all me-staying in charge of my health care. Every six months I had a mammogram and ultrasound even though sometimes I was discouraged from doing so.”
Today Anna volunteers as a Breast Friend. “When I was going through chemotherapy I had wonderful support, my husband took care of me every step of the way, and he’s my hero. My mother came and stayed with me and when she had to go home my sisters were here, I had wonderful support. But there was no one who had gone through what I was going through. That’s why I want to help other chemo patients, share my experiences with them and show that I’m living proof your hair and eyelashes will grow back. You’ll make it out of those chemo trenches and smile again.”
Three years ago, following particularly hectic weekend, Pat discovered a lump in her left breast. “We’d had a garage sale and I was doing a lot of lifting so I thought I had pulled a muscle.” A visit to her doctor led to immediate appointments for a mammogram, ultrasound and visit to a surgeon. “So I guess he suspected right away. The night I found the lump I knew in the back of my mind the news probably wasn’t going to be good.”
Pat’s diagnosis of stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma resulted in two lumpectomies, four months of chemotherapy and 35 radiation treatments. “You know, I was never scared really. I just told the doctors to do what they had to. My husband, three daughters and lots of friends were extremely supportive-they still are.”
A friend who had been battling cancer for ten years put Pat in touch with the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program, which has led to her involvement with the organization. “They really helped me and I told myself when I got through this that I would do something to give back.” Today she is active in Relay For Life and volunteers to help others facing a diagnosis of breast cancer.
“Attitude plays such and important role. You need to do the research and educate yourself to know what options are available to you, but you need to know cancer is not the death sentence it used to be and you will get through this. Even though I was triple negative I decided I was going to be one of those success stories.”
During her cancer treatment Pat developed lymphedema and has been undergoing therapy to alleviate those symptoms. “You know it’s funny, but doing all that lifting for the garage sale may have cause the lump to come to the surface so I could feel it-so maybe that garage sale helped save my life.”
As someone who has “walked the walk” Janie Colllins volunteers with Breast Friends because “I can’t tell you how many times I sat in that chemo room by myself waiting to undergo therapy and I’ll be dammed if I let anyone else go through that alone.”
Diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma three years ago, Janie’s doctors originally thought the small pea sized lump in her breast was a clogged milk duct since she had just given birth to daughter Ayla. “I went from shock to survival mode,” says Janie who opted to undergo a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery at the same time followed by six months of chemotherapy.
“Today I get calls from newly diagnosed people and I try and stay positive. Everyone’s chemo experience is different but I tell them they will get through this. Take it day-by-day, step-by-step. There were times when I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore, but when it comes down to it that’s not an option. When all is said and done it’s such a short period of your life. Live every day as strong as you can be. The day you lay down and want to stay in bed forever is the day you give up, so get up and live.”
As a result of her experience Janie is studying to become a diagnostic medical stenographer working with ultrasound, CAT Scans and MRI’s focusing on cancers. ‘I am so grateful for everything I have: my health, two healthy children, and a man who loves me. Cancer grabs you-but you fight it and stay strong. Your state of mind plays a big role in your recovery.”
When Maureen was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly a decade ago she opted for a lumpectomy and sentinel node excision, which, at the time was an innovative treatment. As part of a daring new clinical trial she opted to keep all her nodes even though the sentinel node was positive (in 2010 results of the trial indicated no difference in survival rates between those keeping or losing their lymph nodes, “a hopeful breakthrough in treatment.”)
Following surgery, chemotherapy and radiation Maureen returned to work teaching media in the Brevard School system and conducting breast cancer classes for members of the Brevard Federation of Teachers. However “cancer or the chemo treatments created memory problems for me, resulting in my early retirement”.
Following the death of her husband and brother (from cancer) Maureen began working with the Central Brevard Breast Cancer Support Group. “Most of us get involved in the battle by utilizing the skills from our previous life. I was a facilitator/long range planner at KSC for 8 years and that’s what I do now-act as facilitator for the support group.” The group meets twice a month to review their history, progress and concerns.
“Cancer is our lesson in mortality, in understanding and love of self, and in truly and finally embracing life and living in the moment. Cancer taught me not to fear, but to seek new challengers. I have driven the roads of Ireland while practically bald, taken my son to Europe, taken road trips to see the seasons change and I started sailing. Sailing is my new career, challenging my memory and my courage to defy and dance with Mother Nature again and again. Maybe that’s what we’re doing as we survive cancer.”