Oh, the things kids ask their parents.
“Do goldfish go to heaven?” (Of course they do!)
“Why do the angels bowl so loud?” (Not sure, but it is a good cover story for thunder.)
“Does my little sister really have to go on vacation with us?” (That’s an issue we’re not even touching!)
And those are the easy ones. With two boys of their own, Kathy Reinhart and her husband, Nick, have heard plenty of questions to make them laugh, but there is one question Kathy never wanted or imagined she would hear.
“Do people die of cancer?” was the question she dreaded to hear, but one that came nonetheless.
Her son, R.J., was about 7 years old and Reinhart had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. As a new cancer patient, she was filled with questions of her own, but, as a mom, she had a quick and confident answer for her young son.
“I said, ‘Sometimes people do die from cancer, but Mommy is going to be just fine because she’s doing everything the doctor says.’ ”
Reinhart was only 37 years old — too young for a routine mammogram — but had long been diligent about monthly breast self exams.
“I started doing monthly self exams in my mid 20s,” she recalls. “I would always get lumpy before my cycle, and afterwards I would always check to make sure the lumps went away.”
Oftentimes, such changes in the breast are normal from month to month. That’s why women are urged to do monthly self exams so that they are familiar with what is normal for them. Likewise, self exams are best done at the same time of each cycle each for the purpose of an accurate comparison.
When Reinhart felt a lump that did not go away, she took action.
“I called the doctor, went in and talked to them, and they told me to wait six months and they’d look at it again,” she explains. “I asked, ‘Give me a biopsy; Give me a biopsy.’ But they said, ‘No, we don’t think you need one. Just come back in six months; we think it’s fine.’ ”
With no family history of breast cancer, Reinhart took those medical assurances to heart. She even ran the Breast Cancer Race for the Cure during that six months, confidently believing there was nothing to worry about.
But after the six months was up, the lump was still there and her medical team decided it was time to act.
“They did an ultrasound, then a biopsy, and then a mammogram,” she recalls.
She learned about two days after the biopsy that the small lump was indeed cancerous. Reinhart opted for a mastectomy, in part because, in her case, it would not require follow-up radiation, and also because she believed it would eliminate any future possibility of a recurrence in that breast.
The mastectomy was followed up with about six rounds of chemotherapy. Reconstruction of the breast was done at the same time as the mastectomy.
Reinhart seemed to be in the clear, but that changed about 18 months later.
“I had scar tissue, and I was having more reconstruction, and I felt something there,” she explains. “I asked the doctor, ‘Do you feel this?’ ”
Unbelievably, the cancer had recurred in remaining muscle tissue of the same breast. She underwent a lumpectomy about a week later, and this time she was scheduled for both chemotherapy and radiation.
To women who will walk in her shoes in the future, she urges them to make their own decisions and trust their own instincts. And she is adamant that a fear of treatment — chemotherapy or radiation — should not dictate the choice between a mastectomy or lumpectomy. To be brutally honest, had she to do it over, she would have opted for a lumpectomy along with chemotherapy and radiation the first time around.
“I was scared of radiation, but it was no big deal,” she says. “I did very well.”
Women, she says, must be vocal advocates for their own health.
“If you’re only 15 years old or if you’re 80, you still go in for a lump,” she says. “There’s lots of women too young for mammograms who wait, and they need to go in and get checked if they feel something.”
Fear sometimes comes in to play even before a diagnosis. Amy Hare and Amy Anderson are licensed radiology techs and mammographers at Boone County Hospital who seek to put women at ease for each mammogram.
“We want to make it a comfortable experience, but we also want to give you the best test so we do have to use some compression,” Anderson says.
However, the compression is only a few seconds, and the benefit can be the difference of a lifetime.
“Early detection is the best protection,” Hare notes.
They urge all women to talk to their own physicians about when to start annual mammograms. The most common age is 40, but women who are at higher risk may need to start younger. Monthly breast self exams are crucial to helping women notices changes when they occur.
For Anderson, who lost an aunt to breast cancer, the value of vigilance goes without saying.
“They did catch it early, and she went in to remission for 12 years,” Anderson recalls. “She got to see two of her children graduate from high school and have four grandchildren in that time.”
Certainly every family would wish for more time, but to a family facing cancer, every day is precious. And that’s true regardless of age.
Mary Maybee had other things on her mind when she felt that something was amiss with one of her breasts.
Whatever it was, she determined, would simply have to wait. She had no time to think about herself.
And while waiting is perhaps the last thing a woman should do when she has found a lump in her breast, not even a doctor could blame Maybee for being distracted. Her grandson, Michael (Mikey) Sandholm, was just a year-and-a-half old and had just been diagnosed with leukemia.
“I knew I had a lump in my breast, but because of Mikey, I did nothing about it,” she recalls. “We had to get him situated before I could think about myself.”
Maybee estimates that she waited about four months before visiting her own physician. At this point, there was no more time to wait. She was scheduled for surgery about two days later and underwent a mastectomy.
The cancer had also spread to lymph nodes, which were removed. Treatment continued with a full round of chemotherapy and radiation. That was in 1989. Maybee was 60 years old and would remain cancer free for the next few years.
Mikey, meanwhile, continued his own brave fight with leukemia. There were highs and lows, but he eventually lost his battle to cancer at the age of 8. Despite the tragedy of his loss, his grandparents choose to recall the best times with this brave little boy.
“He had a fun time with life,” Maybee recalls. “He was in Little League, and we were so proud of him always.”
Maybee’s cancer would return twice over the next several decades. A few years after her first bout with breast cancer, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and underwent a hysterectomy. Then, in 2004, breast cancer recurred in the remaining breast.
“I didn’t fool around with that,” Maybee says. “I knew what it was, and I went to the doctor immediately.”
With her family hard hit by the disease, Maybee became a fervent fundraiser for cancer research and chaired the local Daffodil Days campaign for several years. While she knows all too well from Mikey’s short life that not every battle will be won, she says embracing an attitude of hope is the first step.
“Your attitude means an awful lot as far, as not necessarily recovering from it, but living with it,” Maybee says. “Because you don’t know the next time it’s going to show up.”
Today, Maybee continues to cope with a small growth on the pineal gland in her brain. It was discovered about five years ago. Her doctors recommended simply monitoring it to make sure it didn’t grow. She underwent brain scans twice a year until recently, when doctors said it was safe to monitor the small growth just once a year.
Married to former Boone Mayor George Maybee for 63 years now, Maybee is still enthused with life and has nothing but optimism for the fight against cancer.
“I’ve had three cancers, and I’m still going along,” she says. “I’m doing what I want to do.”