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Conquering Challenges…Sharing Survival

by Beverly Helton
Fall 2009

BeverlyHeltonI was well-acquainted with my breasts; after all, I had fibrocystic breasts, had 4 lumpectomy surgeries, yearly mammograms starting in my 20's, more needle aspirations than I want to remember, numerous ultrasounds, and I performed self breast exams. I found the lump/mass myself–and knew it was different. Before March 13, 2008, I was a very healthy person. That quickly changed as Dr. Debra Chiarella, radiologist, so caringly told me that the core biopsies and MRI confirmed breast cancer in my left breast.
I selected a medical team: a breast surgeon, Dr. Pam Strickland; a plastic surgeon, Dr. Michael Bentley; an oncologist, Dr. Stephen Davidson. Deciding to have a bi-lateral mastectomy rather than a lumpectomy was an easy decision for me, as was the decision to have both a left and right side sentinel node biopsy, even with the risk of lymphadema. I chose to have the breast reconstruction procedure using tissue expanders and later silicone implants rather than the tram flap procedure. My surgery date was April 28, 2008. The final pathology report showed that my cancer had spread to a lymph node, thus requiring another surgery, and an additional one to insert the port for chemotherapy treatment.

My first trip to the Montgomery Cancer Center was, to say the least, uncomfortable—dressed in my black business suit, 3" heels, and with my long-brown hair and Blackberry in hand, I looked around and felt very out of place! I wasn't sick. I felt just fine! That "just fine" feeling quickly came to an end on April 28th with surgery and a confirmed diagnosis of Stage III breast cancer, estrogen positive. Following the 3 surgeries, my chemo treatment began in June and ended in September. The aggravation of the hair loss and how "sick" it made me feel each time I looked at myself in the mirror, paved the way for my decision to shave my head. I felt a burden had been lifted.

During chemo, I had the opportunity to become friends with another breast cancer patient—we went through the process together—learning from each other and supporting each other. I attended a Women of Hope meeting following my first chemo treatment and felt like an outsider but was quickly befriended and supported by WOH members.

I expected my last day of treatment to be such a happy occasion—to have this part of the process behind me—but it was actually awkward. I wasn't the same Beverly I was just a few months ago. I was leaving a very structured environment of appointments and treatment regime. Now what was I supposed to do? How did I begin to get back into my life that had been so abruptly interrupted by breast cancer? It slowly happened with the continued support of family and friends, but it was not without incident or struggles.

I finished treatment in September and received the good news that my PET scan did not show any signs of cancer. I was diagnosed with osteopenia. I was scheduled to begin my tissue expander expansions again at the end of October. But my trials were not over...what I thought was a fever blister on my lip turned out to be shingles on my face. As I was recovering from the shingles, I realized that I could not blink my right eye in a normal manner, nor hold the right side of my lips tightly together, nor raise my right eyebrow—I was diagnosed with Bell's palsy.

As I was beginning to slowly gain strength following the end of my treatment, I realized my body was really weak. It had been many months since I had ridden my road bike. I needed to do something to make me "feel" better about my body and to help accelerate my healing process—both mentally and physically. I learned of and still participate in a walking and Pilates program for breast cancer patients and survivors offered by Metro Fitness/CoreVibes Studio and I participated in SunRay Yoga classes for breast cancer patients. Exercise continues to make a difference in my recovery.

I consider myself a strong, independent woman, but I knew I could not go through Breast Cancer alone and I thank God I didn't have to do so. I am so blessed to have a loving and supportive family! I believe that faith in God and prayer makes a difference and provided me with the necessary inner strength. My experiences during the past 16 months have been life-changing and life-saving, and my positive experiences far outweigh the negative ones. In many ways I'm still recovering. Each time I have the opportunity to share my story, it's another step forward in my recovery and breast cancer challenge, and I proudly say, "I'm a Breast Cancer survivor!"