The first time Pat Madray lost her hair during chemotherapy to treat breast cancer, she wore hats and scarves and talked about it with everyone. The second time she lost her hair due to chemotherapy six years later, it was hats and scarves and wigs. The third time, it was wigs all of the time and even close neighbors didn’t know.
“I just didn’t invite everybody into that,” Madray said. “I had my inner circle of support and love and encouragement.”
During Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, there is a lot of focus on the remarkable five-year survival rate of 98 percent if the cancer has not spread and therefore there is a great emphasis on screening and early detection. But many cases do not end well, even when things seem at first to be going that way. In fact, almost 40,000 women will die from breast cancer this year, the American Cancer Society estimates. Others, like Madray, face an ongoing battle.
She was just 33 when she felt a lump on her breast in January 1997. Because she was still nursing her 1-year-old daughter, Megan, she thought it might be related to that. Her surgeon did a needle biopsy and it was negative so Madray was advised to monitor it.
“I’m just not a let’s-watch-it kind of girl,” she said. “I went back and I said I just want to go ahead and have it taken out.”
She knew the news was not good when she went back to the office to get the results and the surgeon asked, “Did someone come with you?”
It was breast cancer. Madray would need a mastectomy and they talked about what would come next.
“I said, ‘Can I die from this?’” Madray asked. “And her response to me was, ‘Well, I hope not.’”
She went that night to a prayer service and shared the news.
“I stood in the church and I said, ‘I’ve just been told I have breast cancer’” Madray said. “‘I’m not afraid to die. But I have a five-year marriage and a 1- and a 2-year-old. And I’m just not ready to leave them yet.’
“I look back at that now and say I lied right there in the church because of course you’re scared to die,” she adds, laughing. “Nobody says, ‘Oh yeah, this is going to be a piece of cake.’ That’s how I handled it the first time, just very logical, methodical, trust in medicine.”
Not that it went smoothly. The day after she had her first chemotherapy treatment, her husband, Rich, broke his ankle and was sidelined for eight weeks. Then the kids came down with chicken pox. Madray had just started her business, Autumn Care Adult Day Center, and she brought her clients in, which she considers family, and shared the news with them as well. And she worked throughout her treatment.
“All of life’s normal continued to happen and we just did it,” Madray said.
Everything seemed fine until 2003 when she had a pain in her chest that she thought was a muscle strain. It wasn’t. The cancer had returned in her sternum and in a rib that was fractured.
“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just didn’t really expect it to come back’” Madray said. “And it was a reality that was going to take a little more than just trusting medicine at this point.”
She ignored advice that she not get treatment and focus instead on pain relief. Instead, she and her husband flew to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to get a treatment protocol. She also went to her pastor and said, “You know, I just believe I am going to be healed. I think it’s going to be OK.”
Her pastor formed a special faith study group with another couple facing cancer and another dealing with tragedy and that core group has helped, Madray said.
“We just all needed a different level of promise of healing and hope and faith,” she said. She also decided, “this wasn’t something that I was going to involve everybody in,” Madray said. “I will be selective as to who would walk that walk with me. It was going to be people who were strong in their faith, that would pray believing with me and for me as I was believing for health.
“And those that really weren’t prone to just panic,” she adds laughing.
Throughout what at times is a difficult story to tell, breaking down when she talks about a friend recently put on hospice, Madray finds a way to inject humor into what otherwise would be a grim scenario.
In 2009, it became apparent that the cancer was back and she went through chemotherapy again and again lost her hair. She was working in the garage when a neighbor girl saw her and ran home to tell her mother, “Do you know Miss Pat is bald? Do you know she doesn’t have hair?
“So her mom calls and says, ‘Okay what’s going on? Are you going through something again?’” Madray said. She knows the statistics are not in her favor. Breast cancer survivors face an overall 18 percent risk of recurrence and while statistics on survival after it comes back are difficult to come by, the five-year survival rate for a breast cancer that has spread regionally is 84 percent and to a distant organ is 24 percent, according to cancer society statistics. Madray doesn’t dwell on that.
“I’m not in denial,” she said. “I know the realities of my diagnosis and the potential but I just don’t go to that worse-case-scenario place. I don’t allow myself to go there. And you know what? It has served me well.”
Now she tries to “live every day to its best and its fullest,” Madray said.