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On Christmas day of 1997, Sandy Ellis stepped into the shower not knowing everything was about to change. While she had performed breast self-exams in the past, today she was simply washing when she found a lump in her breast.
In 1997, Sandy had never known anyone who had breast cancer and wasn't very familiar with it.
“There wasn’t all the awareness that there is now,” Sandy told me. “There were no fundraisers, no walks. About the time I was diagnosed, the pink ribbons were just starting to come out.”
For as little familiarity Sandy had, she wasted no time after finding that lump. The next day she called the doctor and was scheduled for a mammogram.
“They read the mammogram before I left, and asked me to stay for a sonogram. They knew ... they got everything going really fast,” she said.
In January 1998, at 37 years old, Sandy was diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer.
We all have a 12.4 percent chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer within our lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute. Fortunately, death rates from the disease have stabilized in the past decade, according to NCI. Today, the five-year survival rate for Stage I breast cancer is 100 percent.
By the end of January, Sandy had had a lumpectomy, a surgical procedure where a lump is removed from the breast, and was receiving chemotherapy. In all, Sandy would endure five rounds of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation, and a regimen of tamoxifen once a day for five years.
Sandy's boys were in 6th and 9th grades at the time of her diagnosis. She and her husband told them the facts, but kept it simple. “We told them I had cancer and that I would lose my hair.”
Each child offered support in his own way.
The older son, Jason, withdrew after hearing his mom was sick. He confided to an aunt the fear that his mother was dying. To remedy the boys' fears, Sandy took them to a chemo appointment. Her doctor explained Sandy’s treatments and assured them that their mom was going to be with them for a long time.
When Jason left for a church ski trip, she told him to be prepared that she would likely be bald when he came back home. On his return, Jason surprised Sandy by being bald himself.
When it was time to shave her head, Sandy's younger son, Kevin, helped with the clippers. Later, when he was 20 years old, Kevin got his first tattoo — a pink ribbon.
Kevin has been growing his hair out for over a year now. He and Sandy plan to donate it during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Throughout her illness, Sandy worked full-time at Home Depot, a job that required her to be on her feet eight hours a day. Co-workers stepped up to the plate, grabbing things for her, chasing people away from her phone, and keeping her phone disinfected since her immunity was low.
By scheduling her chemotherapy on Friday afternoons, Sandy had the weekend to recover. In all, she only missed one day of work for her lumpectomy and two weeks when she had an axillary dissection — a procedure that incises the axilla to identify, examine, or remove lymph nodes. Despite burns from the radiation that caused her to delay treatment a few times, Sandy worked throughout her treatment.
One shower transformed Sandy into an advocate for women facing breast cancer. Today, at 55, Sandy volunteers for the American Cancer Society. As a member of Reach to Recovery, an outreach program that helps people with cancer cope with their diagnosis, Sandy visits women in the confusing early days after diagnosis.
Sandy offers books and information on support groups, and tells her story.“Most of the women I end up visiting are my age or older,” Sandy shared. “They are happy to hear that I’m an 18-year survivor.”
While it’s important to be familiar with your breasts so that you notice changes, self breast exams are not guaranteed to help detect breast cancer and should not replace other breast exams such as a mammography.
“Finding cancers through religious self-exam is not any better than noticing or rolling over in bed or having your lover find the lump,” Dr. Susan Love, MD, MBA, and a founder of the 1990’s breast cancer advocacy movement, told The Atlantic.
However, knowledge of your breasts is critical so that you notice any changes immediately and can discuss them with your doctor.
For Sandy, the self-exams she had performed in the past made her attuned that morning in the shower to the sudden change in her breast.
Her advice to other women is, “Do that self exam. If you find a lump, react to it immediately.”
Randomized trial of breast self-examination in Shanghai: final results. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov Retrieved October 12, 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12359854
You Don't Have to Feel Your Breasts. TheAtlantic.com. Retrieved October 12, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/breast-self-exams-are-meaningless/381834/
SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Breast Cancer. seer.cancer.gov. Retrieved October 12, 2015. http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/breast.html
Breast cancer survival rates, by stage. Cancer.org. Retrieved October 12, 2015. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/breastcancer/detailedguide/breast-cancer-survival-by-stage
Dr. Susan Love. Drsusanloveresearch.org. Retrieved October 13, 2015. http://www.drsusanloveresearch.org/dr-susan-love
Reviewed October 13, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith