Tammy Blaede, Marcia Munger and Karen Webb all have two things in common.
They were diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, they are cancer-free.
In Iowa, there will be an estimated 2,350 new cases of female breast cancer in 2014 and 400 deaths among females from the disease, according to statistics from the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health.
“Incidence rates nationwide and in Iowa have been decreasing steadily since the year 2000, due in part to the reduction in the use of hormone replacement therapy after a study suggested connections between hormone replacement and the incidence of one particular form of breast cancer,” says Roger Dahl, executive director of the Iowa affiliate of the Susan G. Komen organization.
Five-year relative survival rates for women in Iowa were nearly 100 percent for early stage diagnoses and 77 percent for late stage disease, according to data from the U of I’s College of Public Health last year, Dahl says. That’s thanks mainly to early detection and improved treatments.
Blaede, Munger and Webb share their breast cancer journeys.
Taking on cancer, then Mount Kilimanjaro
There was a time in Tammy Blaede’s life she thought she’d never get to see her four kids get married or hold her first grandchild.
There was a time when breast cancer threatened to take all that away from her.
In 2004, a mammogram found a 2-centimeter mass in her right breast. The type, she read online, had a high chance of being cancerous. A needle biopsy came back inconclusive. A stereotactic biopsy, done with the help of mammograms, confirmed she had cancer.
The visit with her surgeon gave her hope, as he told her it was one of the most easily treatable cancers. Blaede chose to have a lumpectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation, which her doctor said was medically as effective as a mastectomy in the type of cancer she had.
One of the two chemo drugs, nicknamed the “red devil,” caused bad headaches and sores in her mouth and esophagus. Chemotherapy made her hypersensitive to smell, left a funny taste in her mouth and made her hair fall out. The radiation treatments weren’t nearly as bad, but caused some skin burns at the radiation site.
Humor and her family’s strong faith helped them through.
“I knew whatever happened, I’d be OK, and my family would be OK,” says Blaede, 52.
Fast forward to January 2012. This time, Blaede faced a different type of challenge.
She decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with her radiation oncologist, Dr. Richard Deming, and his group, “Above + Beyond Cancer.” Their team, which included caregivers and survivors, took seven days to scale some 19,300 feet to the summit. “Dr. Deming likened climbing the mountain to fighting cancer,” says Blaede. “But you’re going to eventually reach the top. In his words, it would be one step at a time, a million more times.”
It was a massive undertaking for Blaede, who wasn’t in shape and had never done anything like it. But she decided to do so in memory of her brother who died of brain cancer in 1993.
“I was determined to climb to the top because it’s something he would have done, and I wanted to fly that flag for him myself at the top,” she says.
Blaede nearly gave up on the day they were to climb Barranco Wall, a steep trek that requires using hands and feet. Deming convinced her to go. She made it to the top and, later, the summit.
“Had I not battled cancer and gotten through it, I wouldn’t have been able to make it,” she says.
The experience changed her.
“It gave me, definitely, a new confidence, not in my ability, but my determination,” she says. “It wasn’t ability that got me up there. It was determination and the help of others that got me up the mountain.”
It’s also given her a platform to educate others about cancer prevention and early detection.
“That’s the bottom line: Do everything we can to eradicate this disease and make people aware of the things they can do to prevent it,” Blaede says.
An early diagnosis
It was so very small.
But there the breast cancer was, showing up on Karen Webb’s annual mammogram in September 2011.
Webb wouldn’t have caught it doing her self-exams. Her doctors couldn’t feel it.
Another mammogram was done to get a more in-depth picture. When the results came back inconclusive, a needle biopsy followed. It came back positive for cancer cells.
Initially, she felt panic, Webb says, and questions raced through her head.
“But they explained it to me immediately that day that to be diagnosed, it was the best possible scenario,” says Webb, 56.
Webb had a total hysterectomy at 35 because she was suffering from endometriosis. She had been taking hormone replacement therapy since then, which she says doctors believe likely caused the cancer.
The cancer in her right breast was in stage 0, and referred to as “in situ,” meaning it was contained in the milk ducts, she says. The cancerous cells were removed and she underwent MammoSite radiation, when radiation is delivered through a catheter placed in the breast.
This type of radiation doesn’t cause the burns on the skin that some people experience with external radiation, Webb explains.
Webb also took tamoxifen, an estrogen “blocker,” for 2.5 years to reduce the risk of the cancer returning. But she stopped taking the drug because of the “very nasty” hot flashes she was experiencing.
In the past, Webb had liked her birthdays less as she got older.
“But I have a different attitude now,” she says. “My philosophy is embrace every birthday you get.”
Webb urges others make their annual physical and exams a priority.
“I totally am a believer in taking control of your own health because if you wait, who knows; they may miss you,” she says. “I think you just need to be on top of your own health and looking out for yourself.”
“I was too mean and ugly for cancer to get me.”
Marcia Munger had just completed the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in October 2006. She happened to be scratching her left armpit when she felt something.
“It was hard,” Munger recalls. “It was just like a knot there.”
Nothing showed up on a mammogram because the lump was in a spot too far back for the machine to reach, she says. An ultrasound eventually showed the tumor.
A lumpectomy was performed with the test results showing that it was invasive cancer. Munger was 49.
She cried when she heard the news. Then, she was immediately ready to do whatever she had to.
“I’m an overaggressor,” she says. “I wanted to do everything possible because I didn’t want it to come back.”
The cancer, almost to stage 3, hadn’t quite penetrated the lymph nodes, Munger says. She got opinions from two doctors regarding treatment, and decided to have four treatments of chemotherapy and 44 radiation treatments.
She was pretty sick after the first round of chemo, Munger remembers, but things got better after finding the right nausea medicine. She continued to work as a realtor with Keller Williams.
“I think the biggest challenge was not freaking clients out,” she says. The chemo was making her hair fall out, and she would sometimes be showing homes to people when the wind would blow so hard it would take the hair right off her head.
The chemotherapy also put her into menopause, with intense symptoms. Still, Munger kept up with her volunteer work with several groups while undergoing treatment.
“I’m an athlete; I’m very competitive,” she says. “Cancer wasn’t going to win. I always made the statement that I was too mean and ugly for cancer to get me.”
Her husband did research on the right foods to eat. Her diet consisted of lots of fruits, vegetables and foods high in antioxidants, and she cut the sugar and processed foods. She continued to exercise.
“Strong attitude, great support and changing your lifestyle will contribute to beating it,” she says.
She’s been cancer-free for almost seven years. Her experience has taught her to be less judgmental and appreciate life a little more.
Munger encourages people to diligently do breast self-exams and mammograms. The latter had previously found two benign tumors that were removed from her right breast.
“Know your body and get in early,” she says. “It’s not going to go away. Don’t be afraid.”