MERIDIAN — A survivor through the evolvement of breast cancer treatment
By Betty Conell
In spring 1974, I found a lump in my left breast and went to have it checked out within a few days.
I was 32 years old, had been widowed at the age of 29, and remarried to a fellow in the Air Force. We were living in the very small town of Crescent City, Calif., and I had three sons, ages 9, 8 and 4, and a stepson, age 11.
I went to a family doctor who reminded me of “Marcus Welby,” a popular television doctor at the time. After he tried to puncture the lump with no success, he set up a biopsy for the next week. Back then, it was regular procedure to sign a consent form that gave permission to perform a radical mastectomy if the doctor found cancer. I signed and when I woke up bandaged from neck to waist, I was pretty sure that was what happened.
Because I had to have radiation therapy due to “cancer beyond the site of surgery,” I would have had to go to Medford, Ore., for six weeks, and that was impossible because we didn’t have anyone to take care of our four boys. My husband put in for a transfer and we got one to Panama City, Fla., where I had six weeks of radiation at Bay County Hospital and they had just installed a linear accelerator. That was perfect, since treatments were scheduled at noon and my husband could come home and watch the boys on his lunch hour.
Treatment went well – my only problem was bad burns on my chest, which healed in a short time.
At that time, there wasn’t much in the way of prostheses and I ordered one from Sears Roebuck and stitched a “pocket” to my bra and it worked pretty well. I even did the same for the top of a two-piece swim suit and you could hardly tell the difference. Being a beach bum at heart, the boys and I spent many hours enjoying the beautiful beaches there.
After three years in Panama City, we transferred to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, and what do you know? There was a Major Medical Center there with all kinds of specialists! One day I accompanied my husband to an appointment with a plastic surgeon and somehow the fact that I had had a mastectomy came up. There were two doctors in that department and they both wanted to try a new procedure on which they were working. Since I had scarring on my chest, the skin would have to be replaced with some from my side and the scarred skin discarded. I agreed to do it and after four different surgeries, I had two new silicone breasts (they replaced the right breast so the two would “match.”)
The best part of my story is yet to come! Because I was advised to avoid getting pregnant due to the hormonal changes that would cause, I was fitted with an IUD. It gave me so much trouble that I asked to have it removed and asked the doctor to give me some statistics on the effect post-mastectomy pregnancy would have on my body and if there would be any harm to the baby in case I happened to get pregnant. When he got back to me, he said he couldn’t find much data since I was so young when I was diagnosed and had surgery. I took my chances and in 1979, I became pregnant. By that time I had moved back to Meridian. Two different doctors advised me to abort the baby, but I could not do that. I did have aminocentesis to check on Downs Syndrome since I was then 37 years old.
The tests came back normal and a bonus was that it gave a report that told the sex of the baby. Needless to say, when I was called at work and was told “girl,” you could have heard me shouting all over the office. I always knew God would someday give me a little girl. That little girl is my daughter, Leslie, who has given me my only two grandchildren – two beautiful granddaughters, Holly, 3, and Marilyn, 21 months.
I feel I am truly blessed to have been given 39 years since I was diagnosed with cancer. My sons are all in their 40s now and if I had not survived, I would have never seen them grow up and they would have lost their mother as well as their father. The added blessing of having my daughter is just icing on the cake.
All this is to say that having had breast cancer and survived has made me appreciate every day of those 39 years. I thank God that he blessed me then and is still blessing me now. I’m looking forward to the 40-year mark next year – and many more after that.