Some found it in the shower. Others discovered it during an annual checkup. Still others cleared the traditional diagnostic tests, but were diagnosed with breast cancer through their own perseverance because something didn’t feel right.
Camille Clark, 62, was one of those women. With no family history of cancer and February test results that revealed nothing wrong, Clark returned to the doctor because of a lump she felt.
Last week, she arrived for the first time at Payson’s breast cancer support group to share her cautionary tale. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“Don’t just trust those tests,” she said, anger tingeing her voice. Many women who attend the group have enjoyed years of health after treating their cancer. Others have recurred, and some have died.
But for the newly diagnosed, the group offers an indelible resource of support and information about disease and prevention.
“It’s a place of comfort,” said survivor Linda Brammer. “It’s a place where what I went through can be useful to someone else. If I don’t tell them, who will?”
A person’s life can irrevocably alter in just a few moments. For cancer survivors, those seconds touch off a long, difficult and life-changing journey that redefines normal.
In Clark’s case, the doctor told her to visit a surgeon for a biopsy, which she delayed, even canceling two appointments.
“I was relying on the test thinking I was in the clear,” Clark said. “I was living on that false assurance that I was OK because there was no history in my family.”
Finally, a surgeon removed the lump to biopsy it. Clark left town for a couple days and returned to four missed calls from the doctor’s office listed on caller identification.
She had cancer.
Roughly three weeks ago, Clark had a bilateral mastectomy and is awaiting test results to see if she needs further treatment.
“This is the most horrendous experience I’ve been through in my life,” she said. Since her diagnosis, Clark has completely changed her diet, eschewing sugar which some say cancer feeds on and eating mainly vegetables, nuts and grain.
The key to survival is early detection, and survivors promote the importance of monthly self-exams to women.
Payson’s breast cancer support group, which meets monthly, is affiliated with the American Cancer Society, and has support and information available to women at all stages of fighting cancer, from freshly diagnosed to post-surgery.
Payson’s group also helps women fighting cancer financially, although that work is not affiliated with ACS. The money, which survivors can use to pay for related expenses like medical bills, transportation, and wigs, comes from the rodeo’s Tough Enough To Wear Pink fund-raiser.
Group leader Aggie Hansen said the group’s main frustration is their inability to inform local women of its existence.
Doctors often cite privacy laws as an impediment toward giving the group patient information, but Hansen said the doctors simply have to ask the patient first.
Women battling cancer are unlikely to call for help, Hansen said. “They have to call you,” she said. “That’s the way it works.”
Brammer discovered the group at the library. Hansen saw Brammer, a lymphedema sufferer, among stacks of books and recognized her as a fellow survivor by her swollen arm. When women have breast cancer surgery, lymph nodes are often removed in case cancer cells have floated there. The missing nodes disrupt the lymphatic system, and the arm can swell with excess fluid.
Brammer, 68, was diagnosed five years ago with a rare type of inflammatory breast cancer.
She discovered hers in the shower because she forgot her washcloth. The area was hot.
“I just knew,” Brammer said. She endured nine weeks of chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy, and then more chemotherapy and radiation.
“I never thought I was going to die, but I always knew that was a possibility,” said Brammer, who looked at the travail as a spiritual assignment.
“I learned about suffering,” she said, “that you live through it and it’s only for a period of time.”
Ultimately, Brammer views the experience as a gift because it enriched her experience of what it means to be human and enhanced her appreciation of life. It broadened her spirituality and developed her compassion.
As much as cancer patients suffer through the latest treatment, Ilona Swensen was diagnosed in 1982 and underwent subsequent chemotherapy sessions before anti-nausea medicine.
Diagnosed at 42, Swensen said she had two phobias — needles and vomiting. Chemotherapy involved both.
Swensen couldn’t eat any food that smelled. She lived on cottage cheese, pears and celery. An elderly Mexican lady came to her with various herbs combined with peppermint for taste to help with the nausea.
“The most traumatic part was losing my hair,” Swensen said. She kept it in a baggie.
“What was I going to do?” she asked rhetorically. “Glue it back on?”
So Swensen, who says she remained optimistic throughout, bought three wigs and transformed from brunette to towhead to red-head as she pleased.
There are worse things, she says, than losing a breast. “Life is good and there is life after cancer,” she said.
For more information on the group, contact Hansen at (928) 476-4298.