Breast cancer survivors find life has new meaning

Suellen Mourfield of Augusta called her mother in California soon after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2004.


"I called her and I said, 'OK, are you sitting down? I have something to tell you,' " Mourfield said. "And she said, 'I have something to tell you, too. Are you sitting down?' "

Her mother, Maryellen Maynard, 79, also had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and unfortunately it had already spread to her brain and lungs. In a year, she would be dead.

While breast cancer advocates tout the success of early detection and treatment that has led to remarkable rates of survival, the truth is that breast cancer can strike in unusual ways and result in life-changing outcomes.

Mourfield, 59, had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation therapy that left her immune system too weak to risk a flight to see her mother in Sacramento. But they talked on the phone "at least once a week," she said.

Her sister complained to her, "She won't talk to me about it, but she'll call and talk to you," Mourfield said.

The last four months of her life Maynard was on palliative care, and she died Sept. 5, 2005. But it wasn't over for Mourfield. The next year her father, Bill, was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he survived less than a year.

"There were a couple of years there when .... you just rely on your faith and do what you can do," Mourfield said. "It was terrible."

It taught her a valuable lesson about life, however.

"I just kind of do my own thing and enjoy myself, really enjoy myself," she said.

She has volunteered at the Jernigan Cancer Center at University Hospital, where she once worked as a systems analyst, to talk with cancer patients.

"I can just talk to them because I had cancer and both of my parents died from cancer," Mourfield said. "It's just easy for me to talk to people, and it's easy for me to say, 'This disease really sucks.' "

Five years' survival is supposed to mean a reduced risk of recurrence, but she has seen patients that were surprised when cancer returned several years later.

MAYE ALICE TARVER, 79, knows all about that. After an initial bout with breast cancer in 1970, it appeared again in 2009, nearly 40 years later.

Her first bout came after she discovered a lump in her left breast and went to see her doctor. He ordered an immediate biopsy, which came back as cancer. She thinks it might also have spread to a lymph node.

"It's been a long time ago, but they did have to remove the left breast and the lymph nodes," Tarver said.

She didn't get chemotherapy or radiation. She was referred to radiologist Stephen Brown, who rechecked her and said she didn't need it.

Fast-forward to July 2009. Doctors were worried about a small mass in her right breast that they saw on her annual mammogram. Cancer again.

"I was pretty upset about it," she said.

She opted again for mastectomy and was again told she would not need chemotherapy or radiation.

"It was just a tiny spot and by them doing the mastectomy they removed everything," Tarver said.

She is rechecked every three months. Her left arm stays swollen; and she tries not to use it too much, but you would never know she had any problems if you didn't ask.

"I have been doing fine," Tarver said.

CHRISTINA DEZUTTER thought that a year after she completed her treatment for cancer at age 27.

Then Christina Lowry, she was featured in an October 2007 story in The Augusta Chronicle on breast cancer survivors. She laughed a lot during the interview.

"To be honest with you, if I didn't make it a joke, if I didn't make a joke every opportunity that I got about it, I don't know how well my overall spirit or outcome would have been," she said by phone from her new home in Maryland.

She is still funny, but she sounds different now at age 30.

"I think I've got a better grasp of who I am," Dezutter said.

Back then, she had given up a job as a customer relations manager for one of the largest developers in the country and was toying with the idea of selling her home and opening a restaurant.

"I was always the girl chasing money and wanting the bigger, better job, and now I just want to be happy," Dezutter said.

She is a full-time student pursuing a degree in art education, her true love.

"I'll never be rich being an art teacher, but I'll be happy," Dezutter said.

Actually, there is another true love -- her husband, Sgt. Daniel Dezutter. She met him in November 2007, and they were married seven weeks later. Normally an "analytical girl," she went the opposite way.

"I just kind of leaped at it," Dezutter said. "I knew he was the one."

She is still on medication, so she can't have kids as her friends have, and as she expected to do by now. That's not stopping her, however.

"Actually, it's funny that you called today because my husband and I just called an adoption agency today," Dezutter said, laughing.

Part of her new confidence comes from having a better understanding of what she went through, of reading all of her medical records, and knowing hers was caught early, something she encourages others to do.

"Not only humor but knowledge definitely played a big role in my recovery, just in me getting back to my normal life," Dezutter said.

She laughs at that phrase: normal life.

"Not exactly sure about the definition of normal," she said. "But yeah, I'm there."

Support groups

- Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics Breast Cancer Support Group, every second Thursday, 5:30-7 p.m. Call (706) 721-4109.

- Journey of Hope cancer support group, Barney's Pharmacy, 2604 Peach Orchard Road, every third Monday at 6 p.m. Call (706) 798-5645.

- Cancer Survivors Support Group, 6 p.m. every second Thursday, Augusta Oncology Associates, 3696 Wheeler Road. Call (706) 651-2283.



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