Each woman who develops breast cancer has something in common with all other women who develop breast cancer.
Each woman who beats cancer shares the title of survivor.
The journey between might be shared, but the experience is very personal to each woman, from diagnosis to cancer-free.
Three Greene County women — Judy Larson, Marg Mumma and Kristi Hurley — share their very personal journeys as Breast Cancer Awareness Month begins.
Judy Larson feels pretty good at 75
Judy Larson, 75, of rural Jefferson, found out about her breast cancer in 2009 following her yearly mammogram.
“I just went in for my mammogram without thinking anything of it,” she says. “Then they called me back and wanted to do a second mammogram because they had seen something suspicious.”
Her second mammogram showed the same thing. The next move was to do a biopsy.
The results of the biopsy confirmed cancer, which had not spread beyond the breast tissue. Larson, with the support of her husband, Dennis Kemble, decided to have a mastectomy, a removal of her affected breast.
One reason she wanted to go ahead with the mastectomy was so she wouldn’t have to delay. The other choice was a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy. It would be a long process. Larson and Kemble had been planning a trip to Alaska, and she had every intention of going.
“I had surgery right here in Jefferson,” she says. “And then we went on the trip.”
A few months after her first surgery, she went back for reconstructive surgery.
She chose to have a specific type of reconstructive surgery where a portion of the stomach is moved to the chest. It was a 14-hour surgery.
The result was a very realistic breast reconstruction, but the recovery was anything but easy. A few weeks after she came home from surgery she developed three blood clots, one in each lung and one in her leg.
“I really blame myself for that,” Larson says. “They told me to be sure to move around when I got home, and I didn’t.”
She was in the hospital for a week and went home with drains. It took some time, but eventually she got better and back on her feet. For the last year, she has been feeling very good.
Larson doesn’t often dwell on what she went through.
“I tend to put the past behind me, but I occasionally I wonder, ‘When will it come back?’ ” she says. “We caught it so early. I honestly felt no fear while I was going through all this. I just figured God was going to take care of me.”
And, she says, the experience has changed her view of life, of each day.
“You are here, and you notice everything. I’m also more forgiving, not as critical of people,” she says.
Mumma wasn’t surprised at her diagnosis
Marg Mumma sat in her living room with a thick maroon binder on her lap. It was filled with medical documents and reports. The label on the spine reads “Marg Mumma’s Breast Cancer.”
“My husband kept track of everything about my breast cancer from the very beginning — every report and correspondence. He went to every appointment with me,” she says.
She had her regular mammogram on Dec. 27, 2011. She was called back in for a compression mammogram — one that shows more detail — on Jan. 5.
“I’m a relatively new survivor,” Mumma says. “My treatment was not that bad, mostly because they caught the cancer very early.”
A biopsy was next. It came back positive for breast cancer.
Mumma wasn’t particularly surprised.
“I knew it wasn’t a matter of if, but when,” she says.
Her mother and maternal aunt had both developed breast cancer when they were older, and her sister was diagnosed at 39.
An MRI followed, revealing a lump in her right breast as well. The doctor did two biopsies, one on each breast. The lump in her right breast came back negative, but the other was cancerous.
Mumma decided to go with a lumpectomy. Later she was told that the lumpectomy had removed all the cancer. However, her oncologist wanted her to undergo radiation. She decided to wait a week so she and her husband could go on their Hawaii trip, and so she could be treated in Jefferson with a new radiology machine.
The machine, called a TrueBeam, is used to deliver radiation to localized affected areas of the body. It also allowed her radiation to be done over a shorter period of time.
Now she’s feeling pretty good.
“I want to urge every woman to get her mammogram,” Mumma says. “It makes a lot of difference.”
A difficult journey
Kristi Hurley’s journey has been long and difficult, yet throughout she worked hard to move forward and be her own medical advocate. She also kept her focus on raising money she hopes will one day be used for a family hospice room at Greene County Medical Center.
Hurley, who works at the hospital as a nurse, received her diagnosis in 2004 when she was 54.
As a nurse, she has always told patients to do what the doctors tell them — be compliant and follow instructions and advice.
That changed after she met with the doctor after her biopsy.
“He told me that my biopsy was negative,” she says. “I asked to see the pathology report and after reading it, I realized it was not negative. What was found was considered pre-cancerous and in need of watching.”
It was at that point that she began to take charge of her own medical future. She did a lot of research and decided to seek medical attention in Nebraska.
The doctor there did a number of studies on Hurley and recommended aggressive monitoring of both breasts. That decision was based on findings from the biopsy, mammogram, MRI and the strong family incidence of breast cancer on both sides of her family.
She was also tested for BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, which are breast cancer genes. Not only do the BRCA genes significantly raise the chance of developing breast cancer, they are also related to higher risk for ovarian cancer.
Her tests came back inconclusive.
The monitoring continued. In October of 2006, she was doing a breast self-exam and found a mass under her scar from the biopsy.
This time the biopsy showed cancer.
Her decision — with the assistance of her husband, Bob, oncologist and medical information — was to have a double mastectomy.
Shortly after her mastectomy, Hurley had major reconstructive surgery, which included implanting breast tissue expanders. She soon developed an infection that would not go away. Eventually she had the expander tissue removed. She also had an immunology workup done and discovered she has a deficiency in what is called the “natural killer cell,” which lowers her ability to fight infection.
The infection eventually cleared, and Hurley chose not to have any further reconstruction.
Although she is doing well, Hurley is closely monitored.
Her experience has taught her to take nothing for granted.
“I appreciate each new day,” she says. “I have drawn from my experience to become an advocate.”
Risk factors and diligence
“Twenty-five percent of breast cancers are diagnosed before age 50,” says gynecologist David Jaskey, who works at Greene County Medical Center. “There are a number of factors that play into breast cancer risk.”
Those risk factors include alcohol use, smoking, lack of physical activity and obesity.
“There are also certain things that are protective,” he notes. Those include whether a woman has breast fed her baby, oral contraceptives, which lower risk by 80 percent, limiting the duration and dose of post-menopausal hormone therapy and limiting exposure to radiation.
There are other cancer-related discussions women should have with their health care provider as well, Jaskey says.
The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are carried by about one in 1,000 people. These people have elevated incidents of ovarian and breast cancer — a lifetime 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer.
Jaskey explains that the average life expectancy in the U.S. for women is 80. A woman who has a BRCA 1 or 2 gene has a life expectancy of 58. If she has her breasts removed, her life expectancy rises to 79.
If a woman (or a man) tests positive, there are a number of options. When a woman is younger, it means higher vigilance and earlier mammograms.
Chemical prevention is one way, such as taking oral contraceptive pills to lower the risk.
Jaskey notes that while women have been taught to do breast self-exams, the mantra now is breast awareness. One in five breast masses discovered in breast self-exams is malignant.
“You know better than anybody else how your breasts normally feel,” he says. “If there is a change, whether it is a lump, dimpling, discharge or discolored skin, then you need to see a doctor right away.”
The digital mammography machines are getting good and can pick up a growing malignancy about 10 years before it is big enough to be felt during a self-examination. That early detection makes treatment easier, cheaper and more successful, he says.
“If you find things late, there are more hoops to jump through in terms of treatment and the treatment is not as successful,” he says.