October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to increase awareness of the disease. While most people are aware of breast cancer, many forget to take the steps to have a plan to detect the disease in its early stages and encourage others to do the same. These Grimes residents have battled the disease and share their stories in an effort to raise awareness and inspire others who continue to fight.
Nicole Woodley was only 32 when she was doing a breast self exam and found a lump. Despite her family history of breast cancer — both grandmothers died at fairly young ages from complications from the disease — her doctor believed they were only dealing with a cyst or a benign condition.
“They were going to do an ultrasound at first, but then they decided to do a mammogram,” she says. “The radiologist wanted to see me afterwards, and he showed me the pictures and said, ‘This is not normal. You have to get a biopsy as soon as possible.’ Soon after, I was told, ‘It’s cancer, and we need to make a plan.’ ”
All of Woodley’s tests at that point showed a cancer that was contained (ductal carcinoma in situ or DCIS). A lumpectomy wasn’t an option because of the size of the lump, so Woodley scheduled a double mastectomy and reconstruction for April.
After surgery, her final pathology reports showed that she had multiple kinds of cancer, including an invasive type that had spread to at least two lymph nodes. On May 23, on her 33rd birthday, she began her chemotherapy treatment. She finished chemotherapy last October, and doctors began to assess her condition and whether future treatment would be warranted.
“They decided I had to do radiation, so I did 36 treatments that lasted about seven weeks, and I finished just before Christmas,” she says. “My final surgery for implants was Aug. 4, and that is the end of all my surgeries and treatments. It was a year-and-a-half after being diagnosed. I’m grateful for the technology and everything they’re able to do, but it’s a long time to be so tired.”
Through it all, Woodley had three young children at home to care for — Dietrich, 7, Samuel, 6, and Junia, 5. Each child handled it differently, but Woodley was insistent that they try to keep things as normal as possible for them, and they even tried to make light of a very difficult situation.
“I’m a pastor at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, and I wanted to lose my hair on my own terms. So we had a head-shaving party at church,” she says. “Fourteen other people shaved their heads with me.”
As a pastor, Woodley was used to being the one there to help others. But this time, she needed that help.
“We are young moms, and even though it does feel foreign, it is happening, and you need someone who has been there and who can relate, and I had that,” she says. “They were women who were strong in their faith and supportive. My kids were 6, 5 and 4, and the day-in and day-out stuff is intense. As soon as we asked, people came out of the woodwork. And people you never imagined would help show up and help.”
Woodley’s parents moved in for a month to help out, and her church family and others rallied around them, providing meals and logistical support. She says she can never thank them enough for what they did for her family.
“We just threw a party for everyone who helped us on Labor Day this year, and it was so cool to be able to than them because there were hundreds of people who blessed us for months and months,” she says.
Now, Woodley is cancer free. Through it all, she says her faith was an important part of the battle.
“When my deepest dread or fears started to creep in at any given stage in the journey, just the right card or treat or helper would show up at the perfect time to remind me I could keep fighting and that I was never alone,” she says. “Even in the midst of one of our greatest trials, the prevailing message I was reminded of is that God never leaves our side. He may not change the circumstance, but he sure doesn’t ever leave us alone.”
After battling infertility, Tracy Newbitt-Wright was pregnant with twin girls when she found out she had breast cancer.
“I had found a lump, and I went to my obstetrician who decided we needed to get it checked out,” she says. “On July 17, I was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer. I was 30 weeks pregnant.”
Doctors decided that Tracy should start chemotherapy immediately, and they would deliver the twins at 35 weeks. But she never made it that long — the shock of the news sent her into labor, and the girls were delivered just two days later.
The girls — named Mary Alice and Claire — did amazingly well for such tiny babies, but their mother was just starting her battle with cancer. Tracy had a bilateral mastectomy on July 31, and she immediately started chemotherapy treatments. Her husband was overwhelmed with two newborns and a sick wife, and the girls spent a lot of time with friends and family who rallied to support the young family.
“As far as my family and friends went, they all just stepped in and helped,” she says. “We had been married for 12 years before all this happened, and I had seven bridesmaids who are my best friends, and all of them pulled together and took turns taking the girls. I couldn’t take care of myself let alone the girls. Everyone just rallied, and it was amazing the help that we received.”
Now Mary Alice and Claire are rambunctious 2-year-olds who keep their parents on their toes, and Tracy is past her cancer battle. She won’t receive a “cured” diagnosis until she’s five years past treatment, but at two years out, she is doing well.
“I got up this morning at 5:30 a.m. and got the girls breakfast and ran three miles, and I feel good,” she says. “Of course, I worry day to day because I don’t get that cure diagnosis for five years, but I focus on my girls and listen to my doctors, and they tell me I’m going to be fine, and I depend on them to chase those worries away.”
Samantha Ward was only 34 years old when she found out she had breast cancer. She was diagnosed with stage 3c breast cancer, an invasive form of cancer which means it has spread beyond the breast. Ward had a double mastectomy, eight rounds of chemotherapy, 37 rounds of radiation and was given the all clear in September 2012.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of her journey. She had multiple complications, including back and leg issues, and then her doctors found evidence of cancer in the pelvic bone. Her diagnosis was increased to stage IV cancer, which describes invasive breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other organs of the body, such as the lungs, distant lymph nodes, skin, bones, liver or brain.
“Now I am basically on chemo pills for the rest of my life,” she says. “The pills are for people who are on long-term chemo, so they don’t have to go to the hospital on a weekly basis. What happened to me was I was HER2-positive, and instead of the cancer growing slowly, it explodes, and that’s where the bone cancer came into play was when those dormant cells snuck under the IV chemo and progressed and caused bone cancer.”
HER2-positive breast cancer is a breast cancer that tests positive for a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), which promotes the growth of cancer cells. In about one of every five breast cancers, the cancer cells make an excess of HER2 due to a gene mutation. This gene mutation and the elevated levels of HER2 that it causes can occur in many types of cancer — not only breast cancer. Despite her hard diagnosis, Ward says her goal is to remain as positive as she can. She has three boys, a stepson and a fiancé, and her time is spent enjoying activities with them.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I stay in a positive attitude as best as I can to not make them worry,” she says. “If I get worried, they will know something is wrong, and they will start being anxious. So I stay positive to the best of my ability, and they’re old enough now, and over the last couple years they know whether or not I need help. They have learned how to do a little bit more.”
Right now the biggest challenge for Ward is the day-to-day living with the disease, and also worrying about her finances. After being so sick for so long, she hasn’t been able to work as much as she needs to, and her treatments have been costly. Despite her worries, she is thankful for the help she’s received from family and friends, and, for now, she’s just living her life to the fullest.
“I’m just staying strong and taking it day by day,” she says.