Survivors’ Stories

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Nuavia Stewart and Jamequa Davis
The Corsair

Being diagnosed with breast cancer can elicit many emotions; panic, depression and disbelief, are a few. And while no two women will have the exact same experience, the men and women sharing their stories have two things in common: They either have had breast cancer or know someone who has, and survived.
Hearing the words “you have cancer” is just the beginning of the life changing experience.  Emotions are the real challenge – happy, angry, tired, or inspired. These men and women faced this challenge with an agenda – to live, to love, and to smile again. To survive. Here are their stories:

Sandra Buck

“I had always gone to get my mammograms done at a certain women’s center (I loved them, they were fabulous.) However,in 2010 when I went for my annual mammogram and breast exam I was told that they were going to stop giving the breast exams and only offer mammograms. I said to myself this cuts out half of the exam and I didn’t think that was good women’s health so I decided that the following year I would find a new place.
The first thing they did at the new place was a breast exam and that’s when they found the lump which didn’t show up on the mammogram. I was diagnosed with Invasive Lobular Carcinoma in 2010. I know if  I had continued going to the other place, they would not have caught my cancer. A breast exam by a professional is just as important as getting a mammogram.
I took it really well. I handle things in stride. I just knew I had to take care of it and everything was going to be ok. I did have chemo; it wasn’t a pleasant thing to go through. I was lucky I only had to have four treatments.

Attitude is everything. I remember sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office and my first thought was I feel sorry for them they look so sick.

I didn’t think of myself as being like them, but I was. I never worried about recurrence, I never thought I wouldn’t survive this because it’s within my nature to survive.”

Christy Conner

“ In April of 2008 shortly before my 38th  birthday, I went to have my annual mammogram. About a week later my doctor called me and said that she had found a change in my breast exam. I wasn’t alarmed by it. I thought maybe it was calcium deposits, however she suggested that I see a surgeon.

When I went to the surgeon, she did a biopsy and MRI and compared the two; it seemed like it took so long, 24 hours turned into 48 hours and 72 hours later  I found out it was breast cancer. The doctor called me and told me that she needed me to come in to discuss treatment. At this point I still didn’t completely understand to what degree. I thought maybe I would have to have a lumpectomy where they would just cut out a portion and I move on, but my doctor explained to me that the tumor was too large of an area for the size of my breast and she told me I had to have a Mastectomy.

I think deep down I was nervous but I was surprised that I didn’t fall apart. I was blessed I didn’t have to go through chemo or radiation, however every medication they had wasn’t for women my age, and what they did have, had bad side effects. I didn’t want to go that route so I chose not to take the medication.

I continue to pray and seek after God continually. I have faith that he will take care of me. It’s one of those things if it’s to be; I will deal with it when that time comes, but for now I’m good.”

Kim Laflamme

“I was going to the doctor for my yearly checkup when Dr. Andrews found a little lump and so he scheduled for me to have a mammogram. At that time I was told that I needed to have a biopsy.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in July of 2008 I was really worried in the beginning but then after having the surgery, they said I might be able to get away with just the  radiation. However, when I went back to the doctor, they said because of the size of my tumor I would have to have chemo and radiation, which was very upsetting since I had a two-year-old son and a handicap teenage daughter who needed me.

But the chemo wasn’t that bad. I was a little sick. I had strength, I think, because I had my kids. Sure, I slept on the weekends but I stayed active as much as I could.

My goal was to be finished before spring break of March 2009. Recurrence is always in the back of my mind but I have faith that it’s not going to come back. I had a good attitude and that’s what you have to have to make it through.

For others going through this, ask for lots of prayer, talk about it and don’t let it stay bottled up. Go to people who have been through it and get comfortable with the doctor you have chosen. And if you’re not comfortable, change, because the doctor is the main person that keeps you going.”

Kathleen Stowe

“Back in July of this year I was diagnosed with malignant breast cancer. I wasn’t as unnerved as the doctor expected, and it’s because the first thing that came to my mind was that I had seen Kim Laflamme do it; survive and at the same time care for her family and keep up with her work. She immediately became my role model.

Kim went to my appointments with me. I had somebody that would remember the things that I needed to ask if I would forget. As we were leaving she would say “now we want copies of these reports” so that eventually I would have an entire portfolio of my own.

I don’t think I centered my focus on the scare and the fear that I probably should have. It was more like a plan of attack, than feeling that sense of fear and helplessness.

I never once had time to think “why me?,” however the scary thing, at least for me, is recognizing that you really live with this for the rest of your life.  Even though I am celebrating being cancer-free, I’m having to decide on care to prevent it.

I chose hormone replacement therapy and early detection played a huge part in my rapid recovery. My treatment was only half as long as Kim’s so I think it’s really important that we support this month, and create awareness.”

Andrea Walker

“When I discovered the lump under my arm I went in right away, however it was six weeks before I was actually diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

When the radiologist told me I had breast cancer, I knew it before then. When he left, it felt like the room was closing in on me.  I felt like I was in the twilight zone. I simply could not believe I had cancer.

When I had the lumpectomy, the surgeon took out 14 lymph nodes and 11 of them had cancer.

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about recurrence, however I don’t dwell on it. I am a five-year survivor, but I know with the lymph node involvement I am leading a charmed life.

My students were very empathetic. They just couldn’t have been sweeter. It really restored my faith in humanity to have the student response that I did because they knew I was miserable going through the chemo.

It’s definitely a life changing event. I am willing to take more chances, whereas before I was more cautious. Things don’t scare me like they used to. Everybody who had cancer will tell you attitude is a big thing. I would look in the mirror and literally make myself smile, to get over being so frightened and depressed. My doctor told me you need to be happy to heal.”

Christina Drain

“I went to my doctor for something totally unrelated and he sent me to a surgeon named Dr. John Tyson; he is the most incredible man. He went through a list of tests that his office scheduled for me and one of them was the mammogram. They wanted me to come back for a follow up and that’s when I found out I had breast cancer.

I wasn’t surprised when they told me, because my mother had gone through it two years earlier and both my grandmothers had breast cancer. I knew cancer ran through the family so I knew it was a matter of time before I had some type of cancer.

I had a lumpectomy and a second surgery to check my lymph nodes. My oncologist recommended a new test called the oncotype DX, which tests for the recurrance of breast cancer in some types of cancer.  My results came back for a low chance of recurrance so I didn’t have to have chemo.

I’ve been hopefully cancer free for three years, but do I feel like a survivor? I don’t know yet. I don’t know if  you ever feel like you’re totally rid of it, and that your life is back to normal.  However, what got me through was a feeling that my family has survived it. I look at my grandmother. She was an amazing woman.  She had breast cancer in her 60’s and she lived to be 103.  And both my parents who had cancer are happy and healthy now, so I have a family of survivors. Medical research has made so many strides in breast cancer. You don’t have to think of it as a death sentence anymore.”

Frances Yeo

“It wasn’t for me a matter if I was going to get cancer it was when, because my mother had cancer, and she died from over treatment of cancer, so I started getting mammograms in my 30’s. I’ve had several false biopsies over the years, however when I went in for my regular pap smear checkup, my gynecologist found a lump in my breast. I had a lumpectomy.

In 07’ we found cancer in the other breast which was not related to the first cancer. My surgeon suggest that I have a BRCA test to determine recurrence. Unfortunately, it came out positive. At this point he suggest that I have my ovaries removed, and have a double mastectomy to rid myself of tissue so there wouldn’t be a possibility of it spreading.

When I went to have the surgery to remove my ovaries, low and behold they found a quarter-inch tumor, I had no symptoms, and unfortunately there is no warning  for ovarian cancer; you just die! I decided to hold off on the mastectomy because I developed MRSA from the ovarian cancer, which was a horrible experience. However, I continued to get checkups every six months.

Then in 2008 they found cancer in both breasts, and I said ok now we can do the mastectomy. It was a stronger cancer than the one before so I chose to go with the stronger chemo. Fortunately during my research I found out about transflaps where they move your belly fat up, and I was more than ok with that! I decided not to dye my hair again, so I had a blonde wig and a red wig a brown wig, I just had fun with it. It’s all about your attitude and making every day count is what’s important.”

Marta Suarez-O’Conner

“In July of 2007, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I guess I already knew because my sister had breast cancer so I knew that I had a high risk of having it also. It wasn’t so horrible to hear that I had breast cancer. I just asked myself, ok, what do I have to do? What is my next step?
Early detection played a big part in my prognosis. I had a lumpectomy and even though I went through chemo, I didn’t have to take the treatments week after week.

Recurrence didn’t hit me until after  a year of being diagnosed. When I kept having to go to the doctors after the surgery I said to myself  “but it’s over.” It was not until then that I realized it wasn’t over, that this would be a ongoing process.

I’ve had to take responsibility for my diet. I started going to a wellness doctor that recommended herbals and vitamins. I continue to walk and recently started a workout called Zumba which is an exercise dance to Latin music.

My support was incredible.  I belong to an organization of women called Krewe du Ya Yas. We have fundraising events of our own, and we also participate in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer with the American Cancer Society.  In our own local events, the money is given out to the hospitals in the community  for women who are not able to afford mammograms.”

Sharon Adams

“In September of 2005 I was diagnosed with H.E.R. 2 positive breast cancer. My breast cancer was not detected by a mammogram since I  had very dense breast tissue. It was almost impossible to detect the tumors from just the mammogram; it was the ultrasound that detected mine.

After I was diagnosed, everything begin to move so rapidly I almost didn’t have time to think. The major shock came when I found that it had spread to an internal organ. I was very fortunate it was a very small spot on an internal organ, but it did mean more aggressive treatments. I went through infusion therapy for a longer period of time.

It was very difficult at times. I felt like it’s not worth it, I’ll just give up, I’ll just let it take over, but there was something in me that said “no you can’t do that.” There were days that I was depressed, there were days when I didn’t want to get out of bed and I had to learn that, that was ok.

I guess there’s still some stubbornness in this old woman. I didn’t go to support groups but I did have a very large support system. My first cousin’s husband George was my go to person, he was that person that I could call at 3 o’clock in the morning when my world was falling in and say “I’ve got to talk!”

He was diagnosed with breast cancer  2 1/2 years before I was, and he has now successfully completed his five years of tomoxofin. It was unusual because you don’t hear a lot of men having breast cancer.  He had a great sense of humor and was very open about it. He would say things like “ no I don’t think I’m going to do reconstruction but you know I may have to do hair transplants under my arm because it’s not growing back.”

The lesson I learned more than any was every day is worth it, you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and God is going to see you through. It’s his timeline, his chart, he’s in control.”

Keith Simmons

I was in Arkansas at the time when I got the call from my older sister that my mother had been diagnosed was brain cancer. She was in her early sixties when she passed. She never told me that she had cancer because she didn’t want me to see her suffer. It really hurt me not to be there because it was a crucial time, when I felt I could have made a difference.

Not long after my mother passed I lost my older sister to breast cancer. She didn’t tell anyone about her disease she held it inside for years. A few years later tragedy struck again and I lost one of my younger sisters to cancer who had this disease for four years before she told anybody.

It’s been a hard journey but it’s been a learning experience I’ve learned that some things in life you can’t change. You just have to deal with it, and early detection is very important. The earlier you detect it, the more chance you have of beating this disease. I wish I knew what I know now so I could have done more.

I know that men can develop breast cancer and cancer does run in my family. It’s always in the back of my mind but I feel as long as I stay healthy, eat right and do the right thing I will be ok. I can’t say I can avoid it, but so far I’ve been blessed.”

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