October 22, 2012

Survivor: Cancer isn’t a death sentence

Mammographer says screening saves lives

by Amie Sites

ROYAL CENTER — October is breast cancer awareness month when pink ribbons are used not only to raise awareness but to mark survival and triumph.

Jeanne Baker is a 13-year survivor of breast cancer.

Having cancer was the worst experience of her life, she said, but she had an excellent support system through her family and co-workers at the emergency room.

Baker said that she was supposed to have a mastectomy and be back to work in four weeks. She found out the cancer had spread and ended up being off work for 11 and a half months.

Baker had four months of radiation and six months of chemotherapy.

“It wasn’t a blessed year,” Baker said. “I wasn’t going to do chemotherapy, but I did it for my two sons.”

Baker said that she found out about the breast cancer through an incentive program at the hospital. The hospital offered a bonus for employees who underwent routine screenings, and Baker, who was 50 at the time, decided to get a mammogram. That routine test turned up cancer.

“In the back of my mind I wonder if I would do it again,” Baker said.  “I was a hair dresser for many years and losing my hair was as hard or harder than having the mastectomy.”

Melinda Gordon was diagnosed with breast cancer in July and started chemotherapy in August.

She said doctors initially thought she was having a gall bladder attack but eventually discovered she had breast cancer that had spread to her liver and spine before they caught it.

“It’s definitely an experience,” Gordon said. “One thing I’ve learned is that not all breast cancers have lumps and anything abnormal that shows up on a breast can be cancer. I had never heard that before.”

Gordon receives chemotherapy every three weeks because her last scan didn’t show much improvement. She said the chemotherapy made her sick but her three children kept her going.

“It can happen at any age,” Gordon said. “I’m 31 years old, and it’s not something that just happens to older women.”

Gordon, who works at Small Parts, said that her employees are constantly helping her. She said they’re her best friends and they’ve been really good company.

Cheryl Heuer, a 5-year survivor of breast cancer for five years, said her family has had a history of breast cancer. Her sister had ovarian cancer and breast cancer, and her mother died of colon cancer.

Heuer went to routine gynecologist appointment in 2007 and through a breast exam a knot was found on her right side. They asked her to go back for mammograms and she needed surgery.

She had a biopsy done and four days after she was told she had cancer.

“I was 36 years old at the time, and it went from nothing to cancer,” Heuer said.

She had surgeries in 2007, chemotherapy and radiation in 2008 and five years of hormone therapy through next summer.

“The treatment is really hard on the body,” Heuer said. “I have a son and it’s hard on him to see his mother dealing with this. At the end of the day, it’s your life, and you need to live it best you can.”

She said cancer isn’t a death sentence. There is always hope.

“In this day and age, it doesn’t mean you are going to die, it just means your life is going to change,” Heuer said. “There’s a big sisterhood out there. Lots of women have had this and come out OK on the other side.”

Breast cancer affects one out of eight women, former mammographer Joan England Burton said. While working as a mammographer for 15 years, Burton had more than 2,200 patients a year.

“The main causes of breast cancer are being female and getting older,” Burton said. “The youngest patient I’ve had with breast cancer is 25.”

The highest risk factor is the woman who thinks she won’t get cancer because no one in her family had it, Burton said. The exam takes only minutes, Burton said, and women should be tested regularly.

“Most of my patients’ mammograms lasted 15 minutes,” Burton said. “You don’t wait until your red light comes on in your car to do something in the same way you don’t wait until you have a lump.”

Burton says she is a firm believer that mammography screening saves lives.

“We’re fortunate to live in a time when we can get mammograms,” Burton said. “Even if the patient gets terrible news, they will be better off knowing so action can be taken.”

•  Amie Sites is a reporter at the Pharos-Trubne. She can be reached at 574-732-5150 or