We’re halfway through Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I want to celebrate two personal friends who’ve defeated the disease and can proudly proclaim membership in the survivor’s club.
Figuring out whom to spotlight was tough. I know a surprisingly large number of survivors. Of my three high-school Ya-Yas, for example, two survived breast cancer, and many more sorority sisters have either vanquished the disease or continue to fight it.
Since moving to Tennessee, I’ve befriended others.
I settled on Wanda Parker and Karen Delph because their experiences couldn’t have been more dissimilar, which isn’t surprising given a disease distinguished by different types and grades. Certainly, one size doesn’t fit all. However, their stories do intersect. Neither had a family history of cancer and neither carried the cancer gene.
If it hadn’t been for a front-page article about a charity golf tournament benefitting the Blount Memorial Hospital Breast Cancer Center, I doubt I’d ever known about Wanda’s bout with invasive ductal carcinoma 11 years ago.
“I just don’t broadcast it,” she said, when we talked about her experience and the tourney her husband, Larry, and his business partner sponsor annually in her honor. “By the way, Larry’s in the room and you’re on speaker phone,” she said. “Is that okay?”
This topic must touch his heart or he wouldn’t take time to listen to our conversation. A lot men wouldn’t. As the three of us talked, it became obvious Wanda didn’t view herself as a victim. “For me, everything worked out. I see God in everything that happened,” she said.
Larry, on the other hand, got a little emotional. “It was just hard, married for as long as we have. It still is,” he said. “I still wake up in a sweat, crying. It never leaves you. When someone mentions cancer, my skin crawls. It almost took away the love of my life.”
“I think people forget the spouses,” Wanda said. “They suffer, too.”
The Pea-Sized Lump
Wanda’s journey began after she discovered a pea-sized lump that a subsequent mammogram missed. Her doctor nearly missed it, too, until she questioned him. “Don’t you feel that?” Wanda asked.
After that, events moved quickly. On January 17, 2010, a pathologist confirmed the cancer and a month later her surgeon performed a mastectomy—a date she and Larry now celebrate instead of Valentine’s Day because of its emotional significance.
On February 19, Wanda became cancer free.
Though oncologists consider her form of cancer as very fast moving, it hadn’t affected her lymph nodes. Furthermore, analyses of the two tumors ultimately found in her right breast indicted the disease wouldn’t likely recur.
“I decided I wouldn’t do chemo for a 13-percent chance of it coming back,” she said. “All I had to do was take a pill (to inhibit estrogen).” No radiation. No chemotherapy. The reconstructive surgery was a success.
“I don’t put myself in the place where some ladies go after getting a breast cancer diagnosis,” she said. “But I do know how it feels. I know about the unknowns. You just don’t know what’s fixin’ to happen.”
In Sharp Contrast: Karen’s Experience
Karen, one of my oldest childhood friends, had a decidedly different experience, not only in the type of cancer she battled, but also in what she ultimately endured.
“I don’t think I could have gotten through this without prayer and my friends,” she said as we chatted on the phone the other day. Always the optimist, she then started rattling off the benefits. “I got closer to the Lord, and I looked at the positives, like the new treatments and the improved recovery rates.”
Karen’s ordeal began in August 2017. Our gang had gathered at our place that month to watch the solar eclipse, which coincided with our annual get-together. We all knew Karen was awaiting results from the biopsy of a lump she found. We crossed our fingers.
The news couldn’t have been worse. Karen’s doctors diagnosed triple negative, a form that doesn’t have any of the receptors commonly found in breast cancer. In plain language, they couldn’t treat her cancer with hormone inhibitors, as was the case for Wanda. The only option included a lumpectomy or mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.
The Cancer Wouldn’t Leave
Karen opted for a lumpectomy and took a nine-month leave of absence. Each week, she traveled to her clinic to receive a cocktail of chemicals administered through her port, and for five weeks she received daily radiation following her chemo treatment. She lost her hair, which she hid with a biker-chick bandana, and soldiered on.
She never stopped smiling.
When she thought her cancer gone, a follow-up mammogram three years later detected another mass attached to her ribs. This was getting real, and her husband, David, began showing signs of distress. “I think he thought I was going to die, especially when the doctor told him, ‘I don’t like what I saw.’”
She had a mastectomy and another round of chemotherapy; this time, the treatment focused on prevention. And again, Karen muscled through even when the expander necessary for reconstructive surgery pierced her thin, fragile skin. Her doctors removed it, and eliminated the possibility for reconstruction.
And if that weren’t bad enough, her doctors detected a suspicious-looking mass on her thymus gland. They removed the organ just recently, and thankfully, the spot was just a cyst.
Karen, who’s also had skin cancer on her leg, bears lots of physical scars. Her attitude?
“I’m a two-time cancer survivor.”
Both Wanda and Karen have no doubt about what caused their breast cancers. “Since I didn’t have risk factors, my pathologist said it was environmental,” Wanda said. Karen couldn’t agree more. And like Wanda, she can’t remember a single adult who got the disease when she was a kid.
What in the world are we being exposed to these days?
Larry is perhaps more adamant about contributing factors. Why are cattle pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones? He asked. “Why does a chicken have a breast as big as a basketball?”
Good question, Larry. That’s why he hunts and fills the family freezer with fresh venison untainted by additives and other manmade chemicals. “It’s all in what you eat and drink,” he said. Before learning about Wanda’s cancer, I used to tease Larry about going hunting on some Sunday mornings instead of attending church.
I’ll never do that again.
Tribute to the Survivors I Know
In closing, I want to thank Wanda and Karen for sharing their stories. I also want to acknowledge the women I know who’ve battled the disease:
Theresa, Sandy, Kim, Terry, Lucretia, Kathy, Vicki, Diane, Mel, Gayle, Tionna, Flo, Jane, and Sandy. Joy and Mary Pat, unfortunately, passed away due to breast cancer or complications associated with the disease.