Kathy Mughmaw loved what she did.
As a psychiatric nurse, Mughmaw had gotten into teaching at Ivy Tech’s Lafayette campus, lecturing for two classes each week and teaching four clinicals. She was involved in initiatives in Lafayette, where she spent much of her time, and in Logansport, where she lived, addressing mental health and homelessness.
And that’s what had to be put on hold for several months after Mughmaw was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Mughmaw, now 57, noticed a symptom of breast cancer last May and scheduled a mammogram the next morning. As a nurse, she says she’s likely more aware of how cancer manifests itself and of the importance of regular mammograms, and had had fairly regular checks for breast cancer.
But the cancer she was diagnosed with was not “the kind of cancer that most women get,” said Mughmaw — she didn’t even feel a lump, the most common sign of breast cancer.
But two tumors smaller than pencil erasers showed up on scans. They were HER2-positive breast cancer.
HER2-positive breast cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a cancer that tests positive for a protein that promotes the growth of cancer cells. They tend to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer, and less responsive to hormone treatments used on other breast cancers. In about one of every five breast cancers, the cancerous cells make extra HER2 protein, like in Mughmaw’s.
And that type “can be more deadly if it’s not caught,” said Mughmaw.
The cancer found in Mughmaw was early stage, however. She decided to have it treated aggressively, scheduling a mastectomy for Aug. 18, 2012, and pursuing chemotherapy after the surgery.
“Quite frankly, I wanted it gone,” she said.
Mughmaw was the first in her circle of family and friends to develop breast cancer, she said. However, her mother-in-law had died of a quickly progressing ovarian cancer when her two daughters, Mariah and Sierra, were in grade school.
In fact, Mughmaw’s diagnosis frightened them more than it did her.
“When she first told me it scared me,” recalled Sierra Mughmaw, now 18, “because I didn’t know what that means. Was she going to die?”
Mariah Mughmaw’s thoughts had flown back to fourth grade, when she was watching her grandmother suffer from cancer, she said. But her mother’s confidence encouraged her.
“The c-word is a scary word,” she added, “but I knew she’d pull through it. She doesn’t let anything faze her.”
For Kathy Mughmaw, the diagnosis was an opportunity to find a purpose for her ordeal.
“It’s shocking, it’s scary, but I never thought I was going to die,” she said.
Some of the most traumatic parts had nothing to do with the surgery, in fact. Her worst day, she said, was when her hair started to fall out.
Mughmaw knew it was coming. In the three months between her diagnosis and the beginning of chemotherapy treatments in the wake of the surgery, she gradually had her hair cut shorter. Before that, it had once reached to her waist.
As she lost hair, she started wearing ball caps that she’d bought for the purpose. Friends and family began giving her hats as gifts. She estimates she had at least 25 ball caps, maybe up to 40.
“It kind of got to be a running joke with friends, students I was teaching,” Mughmaw said.
She wore those hats or some kerchiefs for several months while she underwent chemotherapy treatments in Lafayette. Friends or family would always accompany her to the treatments, which sometimes lasted eight hours. She was surprised to find she had more energy afterward than she had expected.
“It does make you tired. That was the worst side effect I had, exhaustion,” recalled Mughmaw. She had to cut back on her teaching schedule and other activities, she said, but sometimes she’d still have enough energy to go out for dinner with whoever had accompanied her to chemotherapy.
“I won’t say it was easy, but it wasn’t as horrid as I thought,” she added.
She was also surrounded by supportive friends, she said. They brought food for her, her husband Thann, and her two daughters for at least a month after her August surgery. They told her they were praying for her, and offered their help in other ways. “Sometimes they wanted to drive me even if I didn’t want to be driven,” Kathy Mughmaw said, chuckling.
But “even if people couldn’t be there, they were praying for me ... it’s just comforting to know people care,” she added.
Kathy Mughmaw concluded her post-operative treatments late this summer. She’s returned to teaching and picked up a part-time job at a Lafayette psychiatric facility. Her hair is growing back. She stopped wearing ball caps about six weeks ago.
She urged women to pay attention to small changes in their breasts, which could be signs of cancer. The American Cancer Society says swelling; skin irritation or dimpling; breast or nipple pain; nipple retraction; redness, scaliness or thickening of skin; and nipple discharge other than breast milk could all indicate an issue.
“Don’t just rely on self-breast exam,” said Kathy Mughmaw, “because mine wouldn’t have been picked up until it was well advanced.”
She also said women who are diagnosed with breast cancer “can overcome it.”
It’s similar to the saying on her favorite ball cap: “Fear not, God has a plan.”
“That’s kind of my philosophy about life in general,” she said.
Sarah Einselen is news editor at the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-732-5151. Twitter: @PharosSME
Other signs of breast cancer The American Cancer Society says a new lump or mass is the most common symptom of breast cancer, but other possible signs include: • Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no distinct lump is felt) • Skin irritation or dimpling • Breast or nipple pain • Nipple retraction (turning inward) • Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)