Advances in medicine have turned what was once considered a “death sentence” into a survivable disease.
The key, oncology specialists say, is early diagnosis.
“In past years, screening wasn’t as big of a part of this as it is now,” said Janice King, nurse at Onslow Oncology – New Hanover Regional Medical Center. “Now there are guidelines to determine when mammograms should start, when (gynecologist) visits should start, prostate exams should start; but not to say that when you’re younger, before those screening ages that they give start, you still need to be checking yourself, especially breast cancer patients, especially women.”
According to The American Cancer Society, death rates from cancer have been dropping since 1989 — something believed to be attributable to early diagnosis from screening and increased awareness. Death rates from breast cancer in women younger than 50 have seen even larger decreases — which King attributes to advances in screening processes.
As of Sept. 13, 2016, there were 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. Among them is two-time breast cancer survivor, Gloria Baker Goodwin.
“Janice said I was the worst patient. I was not compliant,” Goodwin said, laughing alongside her nurse, friend and colleague. After her initial diagnosis in 1980, she became a patient advocate at Onslow Oncology – NHRMC.
One patient at the office asked if she was given placebo drugs, Goodwin recalled, adding that the patient couldn’t believe she was actually going through chemotherapy because she was constantly moving. She was also never seen without makeup on.
“Janice can tell you, you’re never going to ever see me without makeup ... I’ll be dead if you ever walk in here not seeing my face made up,” Goodwin said. “So I think it’s important to give that image that you can look good (during treatment) and people will say, ‘Well you don’t look like you had cancer.’ And I say, ‘Well what does that mean? What am I supposed to look like?’
“Cancer isn’t a death sentence.”
“Especially nowadays,” King interjects.
Goodwin is animated as she recalls her journey. But in that journey, she’s seen some of her darkest days.
One day after her diagnosis, the survivor remembered King sitting with her on a weeknight, administering four bouts of medication through an IV. Because King lived in Morehead City, Goodwin said, she probably didn’t get home that night until midnight. But Goodwin is grateful, and King doesn’t look like she minds.
When she became a patient advocate at the same office she received her treatment, it was important to her that she shared her journey and her will to live with other patients.
“I think my faith carried me through this and my family and my friends; and I think if I can just let them know that through the storm, there’s a rainbow. And no matter what it might look like, no matter what man might say, we serve an awesome God and ... whatever doubts you might have of living or surviving this disease, you can beat it because I’m living proof,” she said.
After the first diagnosis, Goodwin had a lumpectomy, where doctors removed only the tumor from her breast. No chemotherapy or radiation was required afterward. In Goodwin’s second diagnosis, she had a 13 centimeter tumor growing from her body, which required chemotherapy to reduce the size of the mass and a mastectomy once it had shrunk. She also had 22 lymphnodes removed because of the tumor’s size.
“I’m not going to tell you it was easy,” Goodwin said. “I went through bouts of depression, crying spells, weight loss, hair loss, sores, mouth sores, but through it all ... (the staff) came up with a plan to make this journey of mine not so difficult.”
Despite the cancer’s eradication from her body, it’s still left a lasting mark — emotionally and physically.
As a result of the removal of lympnodes from beneath Goodwin’s arm, she wears a compression sleeve to prevent swelling and edema, a collection of excess watery fluid, from starting in her arm.
“Not everybody chooses to wear their compression garments until they need them,” King said.
Goodwin also suffers from neuropathy, or numbness, in her fingertips and toes.
But she doesn’t let that stop her.
“You have to tell this disease, ‘You know, you may have left me this way, but I’m alive, I ain’t eatin’ dirt,’” Goodwin said.
Be a self-advocate
“Don’t put off going to the doctor because you’re afraid it may be cancer,” King advises. “Prevention starts with yourself.”
That’s why she says screenings and self-breast exams are so important — because it could save a life.
“Women need to do self-breast exams from the time they start their menstrual cycles,” the nurse said. “If they feel any abnormalities, they need to get it checked out right away. Don’t ever — because you need to be your own patient advocate — don’t ever let a doctor say, ‘Oh it’s nothing.’”
King recommends women do a monthly self-breast exam and they should get testing from medical professionals as well.
“The rates of survival have changed over the years because of early detection, not to say that everybody is caught early, but a good percentage is caught early now, and those rates of survival have increased,” she said, adding that screening has come a long way. “People are living longer due to more targeted therapies, so they are living longer because they’re caught earlier, because they’re treated earlier, because we have more targeted therapies that also help.”
Although early detection has played a huge part in decreasing death rates from breast cancer, other factors have always played a part in survival, like a patient’s support system.
“People who have a strong support system fare better through chemo,” King said. “Unfortunately, we do have patients who don’t have very much of a support system; but we get them through it just as well. It’s just not as easy as when you don’t have a support system.”
Goodwin can attest to what a difference having a support system can make in a battle with cancer. She had her daughter, son-in-law, and now 4-year-old granddaughter on her side.
“You also have to have a will to live,” she said. “There is a stigma about cancer. We have to know that people think that when you get this disease you’re going to die.”
Having beat cancer twice now, Goodwin has advice for those undergoing treatment and those who may suspect something may not be right.
“If they’re dealing with a thought of maybe or it could be or might be (breast cancer), that they get it checked out. A mastectomy, a mammogram is important,” she said.
And for those who are diagnosed with the disease, she recommends keeping a journal of that journey.
“(Because) when you look back, it’s with the storm that you went through that you have a rainbow at the end of the day,” she said, beginning to tear up. “And I’m blessed.”
For more information about breast cancer and early screening, visit NationalBreastCancer.org.