Breast cancer survivors find positive side

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Pam Anderson has seen a change in what it means to be a breast cancer survivor in the 12 years since she became one.

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Yvonne Harrop has her waist measured by research associate, Douglas Bentley at MCG Family Practice Clinic in Augusta.  Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Yvonne Harrop has her waist measured by research associate, Douglas Bentley at MCG Family Practice Clinic in Augusta.

When she went through it, she didn't know anyone else who had breast cancer. That changed after Mrs. Anderson at University Hospital Breast Health Center and others began getting active in the community, and women who survived breast cancer became more visible and more vocal overall. Now, the experiences and the attitudes of breast cancer survivors are much different.

"Some of it can turn into a positive. Just the whole ordeal, most women take it and turn it into something good by helping other people or sharing their stories," Mrs. Anderson said.

Support groups such as Pink Magnolias help them connect and turn things around.

"Women, once they go through it, they're like, 'By God, I'm going to help somebody else. Or I'm going to make a difference in the community or in perceptions, or I'm going to raise money for breast cancer,' " Mrs. Anderson said.

Each woman is different, but age, family and certainly attitude seem to shape how a breast cancer survivor sees herself and her future. Meet four women who know what it is like to face breast cancer and survive.

Bonnie McCauley

54-year-old Martinez resident

She doesn't put a positive spin on her breast cancer, but her illness made her realize even more how precious life is.

"I believe it has defined my life in a positive way," Bonnie McCauley said, now nearly 17 years later.

"Every year became more important to me," Mrs. McCauley said. "And therefore I felt like I stepped up to the plate on everything that I did, even more than I would have before. I think you get so that you take life for granted. There's not a year that goes by that I'm not thankful that I had breast cancer."

At the beginning, she admits, there were doubts.

"Would I survive? Would I see my children graduate from high school?" Mrs. McCauley said. "But all of those milestones became even more important to me, even more significant, because I had made those milestones."

It was a battle for her right from the beginning after she found a lump in her right breast in 1992, in particular because she was 37 years old and mammograms were not routinely given to women younger than 40. She ended up insisting on it and eventually was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer.

"At the point that I was diagnosed with the cancer, my goal was to raise my children to adulthood and see them graduate from high school," she said. She has three children, the youngest of whom was 4 years old at the time her cancer was diagnosed.

"I thought that that was my job, to raise my children," which she now has done, Mrs. McCauley said.

But she wasn't done yet with the cancer. About a decade after her first surgery, she went back to have the other breast removed when it appeared from testing that she might be in danger of a recurrence. That was followed by reconstruction and another review of life.

"At that point, at 10 years, it did redefine me again," Mrs. McCauley said. "I think in my role as a survivor, there's certainly more joy in my life in my 40s and my 50s because of the lesson and the gift I have been given."

It leads her to be "a strong advocate" for mammograms. And it led her to seek her real estate license.

"I don't believe I would have had the courage to go back to school in my 50s, to do what I am doing now," Mrs. McCauley said.

Cancer had something to teach and that was to "be more aggressive in my living," she said. "The lesson was there and fortunately I grabbed it and took it and ran with it."

Leslie Stringfield

40-year-old Aiken resident

It might sound like a contradictory statement, but it makes perfect sense to her: "It's been a rough year but one of the best years as well. I am truly, truly blessed."

About a year ago, Leslie Stringfield had never even had a mammogram when she found a very small lump in her right breast during a self-exam. Thinking it had been caught it early, she was surprised when all 15 lymph nodes came back positive for cancer and imaging found four small tumors throughout the breast, making it a stage III breast cancer, she said.

"It's overwhelming," Mrs. Stringfield said. "You feel a little bit out of control."

After a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, she suddenly found herself relying on family and friends for help, something she thinks women have a hard time accepting.

"But when you are diagnosed with something like this, it pretty much forces you to allow other people to help you," Mrs. Stringfield said. "I was so fortunate in the help that I received from my church, and my family, and my friends. It was an amazing support network that I have. And I feel very blessed that I got to experience that, and then in turn, want to do that for someone else."

As usual, it wasn't her condition that she was really worried about. It was 12-year-old Logan, 9-year-old Livee and 5-year-old Luke.

"One of my biggest concerns was, because my children are young and small, I was very concerned about how this was going to affect them," Mrs. Stringfield said. "I didn't want them to have a sick mom. I didn't want them to be consumed with that."

In fact, part of how she regained control was getting back to routines, taking the kids to gymnastics or soccer practice, and now getting involved in the Relay for Life cancer fundraiser. After completing radiation in June, she already considers herself a survivor and would like to help newly diagnosed women the way other women helped her. Her future she takes day to day.

"I am an absolute believer that my life is in the Lord's hands," Mrs. Stringfield said. "And when it is my time to go, it will be my time to go. I feel like I'm going to win this battle. My life is different today than it was before. I have a new sense of what I would call normal. But that's OK. Change is sometimes very hard, but it makes us stronger. And I am thankful to have walked this journey. And I'm going to keep on walking it every day the Lord allows me."

Mary Frances Dunn

62-year-old Augusta resident

Having gone through breast cancer once seven years before, Mary Frances Dunn said she felt as if she had been run over when it returned about eight years ago.

"At that point, I was just blown out of the water, because my doctor had told me before I would never have any more problems with it," Mrs. Dunn said. In fact, the two had joked about it after the first cancer, with the doctor telling her, "A big Mack truck probably will run over you before this will happen to you again," she said. "He was right about that. It felt like a big Mack truck when it hit me. But I just survived the big Mack truck."

After that, she decided she was through with long-term views and minor problems.

"We take life for granted, you know," Mrs. Dunn said. "And the little things I used to worry about, I don't worry about them anymore. I just enjoy myself. I'm retired, and I do what I want to do. And I enjoy life."

She retired after 32 years at Medical College of Georgia, the past 17 as a receptionist for the OB/Gyn clinic, and she harkens back to the example of one patient who was slowly dying from ovarian cancer.

"When she came to the clinic, she looked so pretty every visit," Mrs. Dunn said. "You would never have thought anything was wrong with her, just to look at her. She lasted a long time. I felt that one day, if something like that happened to me, I want to be just like her. I want to go down gracefully. I don't want to just roll over and play dead."

She leads by example when she counsels a lot of newly diagnosed breast cancer patients -- she has already talked with seven or eight this year. Mrs. Dunn wants them to say, when they look at her, that if she can do it, so can they.

"A lot of them feel like this is the end of it. And a lot of them have children," she said. "I know when we hear the word cancer, we think it is a death sentence. But medicine has come so far from where it was."

She tries to be there for them from their first visit.

"I really try to go and encourage them and tell them, 'Don't give up. Come on, we're going to fight this. We're going to walk through this together,' " she said.

And she takes in the families, too.

"And I tell them they can call me any time, day or night," Mrs. Dunn said. "It doesn't get too late. I mean it when I say that. That's my heart."

Yvonne Harrop

79-year-old Augusta resident

It's not the kind of thing you wish for on your 75th birthday, but that was when she got her diagnosis of breast cancer.

"That was my birthday present," Yvonne Harrop said, laughing. "But everything worked out fine."

It is something she repeats often: She is fine, everything worked out well, now four years later. Ms. Harrop had a mammogram a few weeks before her diagnosis and it revealed a small 2-centimeter stage 1 tumor in her left breast. She got a lumpectomy and radiation, but doctors decided she could forgo the chemotherapy, in part because she has a blood disorder and in part because of her age.

"Neither one of them urged me to have the chemo," Ms. Harrop said. "And I thought, 'I don't want to do that anyway.' "

In fact, she insists that cancer hasn't really changed her much.

"I lost a lot of my hair before I was ever diagnosed, just from old age," Ms. Harrop said." So I wear a wig anyway. I was wearing a wig before and I'm still wearing one. I don't think there's been any problem at all."

It's easy for her to pinpoint why.

"I think a lot of it has to do with one's faith," she said. "I certainly had a lot of prayers, from all over the country, and friends from all over the world have prayed for me. That's a big part of it. I'm confident. I think that's the biggest part of it."

Another is she immediately began going to survivor groups and has really enjoyed the camaraderie she found there.

"Everybody's very optimistic, and I am too," Ms. Harrop said.

She can also draw inspiration from a friend in Tennessee who has shown great courage despite her breast cancer metastasizing into the bone.

"It really has been very hard for her, but she's not ready to give up," Ms. Harrop said.

Above all, she is an optimist who looks at cancer as something she took on, took care of, and moved on from. She has counseled at least one other woman who was newly diagnosed.

"She hugs me every time I see her," Ms. Harrop said, laughing. "She's doing well."

And so is Ms. Harrop.

"I'm probably one of the older survivors, at least in the groups that I go to," she said. "So I think I'm fine."


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