Every year, the entire month of October is dedicated to breast cancer awareness, but once November comes, the pink accessories that flood the media disappear.
For those who are dealing with breast cancer, the fight doesn’t end because the calendar changes.
Every day, across the Northern Neck, families wake up and instead of going off to work or school, they gather their strength and prepare for battle.
And although they come from different age, social and race groups, they are all waging the same war: the fight against breast cancer.
In the United States, except for skin cancers, breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer among women, with over 270,000 new cases last year in women and over 2,000 in men.
According to the Center for Disease Control, Virginia has a higher incidence of breast cancer diagnosis than nearly 60 percent of the country.
And, of the counties in the commonwealth, those of the Northern Neck are considered to be some of the most at risk due to social and economic factors, according to a 2011 Komen for the Cure study.
Breast cancer is also the leading cause of cancer-related death in women ages 20-59.
With one of every eight women, and one in 40 men, diagnosed with breast cancer in their lives, early detection may be the only difference between life and death.
And this week, three women who waged war on breast cancer and won, sat down to share their stories in hopes to promote mammography and breast cancer awareness.
As Kilmarnock’s Town Clerk, Cindy Balderson has a busy and often hectic schedule.
But with a history of fibroid cysts, one thing the Farnham resident and mother of three beautiful daughters, April, Brittany and Christina, has always made time for are her regularly scheduled mammograms.
But this spring, instead of the usual “all clear” call from her doctor’s office, Balderson received the worst news possible.
“On April 19, I went for my normal mammogram and nine times out of 10 they take me back for an ultrasound to make sure the cysts haven’t changed,” Balderson said, adding that suddenly the diagnosticians diverged from their expected routine.
“They started looking at one spot and they were taking all these pictures. Then the doctor came in and said that something had changed and that I needed a biopsy,” she said, adding that at first she was not worried because the chances of a serious illness were slim.
“You only have only a certain percent that something will come back wrong,” Balderson said. “Well, I was one of those percentages.”
On April 27, Balderson had a biopsy performed and just a week later the results were in.
She had breast cancer.
“No matter what [the doctor] said, I only heard cancer. It was, to me at that moment, a death sentence,” Balderson said. “You think of that word and you don’t know how big or small it is, you just know that you have cancer. It is such a scary word.”
Balderson said that after hearing the news, she fell apart.
“I knew of two people that had breast cancer and while I was in his office crying I called one of them,” Balderson said. “She told me that it was going to be okay.”
Alone and in tears, she fled her doctor’s office and sat in her car at a local Food Lion parking lot trying to decide whether to head back to the office or go home.
“I was just sitting there, taking it all in, when I happened to see a friend, a recently retired coworker who is also a cancer survivor,” Balderson said adding that sometimes God works in mysterious ways.
“She provided much needed comfort and it was a gift,” she said. “I was able to go back to work because I knew that if I went home, I was going to fall apart.”
Clinging to her doctor’s assurances that the cancer had been caught early, Balderson began to agonize over the prospect of chemotherapy, nausea and hair loss.
“It was such a silly thing to worry about because I thought I was going to die,” she said in hindsight.
“I had a lumpectomy on May 17 and made out fine,” Balderson said. “I was told that they got it all.”
She was diagnosed with DCIS, Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, which is breast cancer in the lining of the milk ducts that has not yet invaded nearby tissues but could have progressed to invasive cancer if left untreated.
Doctors assured Balderson that the cancer had not spread and would only require radiation
“I made out very well. I was very lucky,” she said.
Instead of a 30-day treatment, Balderson opted for the more aggressive MammoSite 5-Day Targeted Radiation Therapy, which includes direct-line tubes and wires to the affected area that deliver radiation, burning the cancer from the inside out.
“I had radiation twice a day for five weekdays and when I finished my radiation I returned to work and was healing fine,” Balderson explained. “But a couple of weeks later I got a rash on my breast that proceeded to blister, peel and itch and I was having trouble finding any information or connecting with anyone who could walk me through the process” she said.
Balderson was also informed that her tumor was hormone-receptor-positive and was advised to begin taking Tamoxifen, which blocks all hormones but also comes with possible major side-effects including the risk of blood clots, stroke and uterine cancer.
At the advice of her physicians, Balderson began taking the medicine, which she said has come at a price, causing hot flashes, mood swings and joint pain.
Although Balderson later found out that the reactions to her treatments were not unusual, her inability to get the reassurances she needed while scared and helpless spurred her to start a Facebook page dedicated to those on the Northern Neck dealing with breast cancer.
“That I couldn’t find out any information, whether to do the 30-day or the five-day treatment, or the experiences of other women going through what I was is what made me start that page,” Balderson said. “I think it can really allow more sharing and a place for people to talk about their situation and information about treatments.”
She added that her bout with breast cancer had left an indelible mark on her life that can be hard for others to understand.
“It messes with our hormones, [the doctors] poke and prod, we have to make major life decisions and then all of a sudden you are thrown back into the real world and it is a bit of an adjustment,” she said. “You know [the cancer] has been treated but you are forever wondering if or when it will reappear.”
Balderson said that during her recent six-month post-cancer mammogram she was terrified to hear the results and would probably remain so at future visits for quite some time.
However, through the help of her close friend Jim, her family, the congregation of her church, the Rappahannock Church of Christ, and its pastor Walker Gaulding, she has decided to not only to persevere, but become an advocate for early detection of breast cancer.
“So often you put things off, but now it is different because I don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” she said. “You might not say I love you every day, but when people like that surround you, you know you have to fight. When you want to give up, they are the ones that keep you in the battle.”
She now wears some reminder of her ordeal every day, whether it be a pink shirt, a breast cancer awareness bracelet and necklace, or even a pin.
“Don’t think you’re too young. Don’t think it has to run in your family. It can hit you at any age,” Balderson said. “And wear your pink ribbon or pink shirt because someone might see you and say “Aha! I have to get that mammogram.’ That’s why I always wear something that might catch someone’s eye and make them think about their health.”
Balderson is currently trying to organize a support group for those on the Northern Neck and surrounding counties who are dealing with or have survived breast cancer, including caregivers and family members, who can stand together at awareness rallies, lobby for change and also simply know that they are not alone in their fight.
“This scar, I see it every day. I am sure it will fade and I don’t know when or if there will be another one,” Balderson said. “So get your mammogram, don’t put it off for a day. I put mine off for three months and now I think it could have been a lot worse had I put it off any longer. Your job is still going to be there. Sometimes people lose focus on what is important but your health has to come first. Early detection saved my life.”
For more information on Balderson’s cause, visit her Facebook site at www.facebook.com/northernneckbreastcancer.
At 22 years old, Gretchen Gable was in the blush of her youth.
Enjoying good music, good times with close friends and family and weighing the many opportunities on her horizon, Gable and her infectious smile was a staple of the local community.
And then, in a moment, her life collapsed.
“It was November of 2003 when I found a lump on my right breast,” said Gable, a 1998 Rappahannock High School graduate.
Taking time off from her classes at Rappahannock Community College, Gable was a waitress at the time and had no health insurance.
Thinking it was a cyst, she cut caffeine from her diet, but months later the lump persisted.
Now, 10 years later, the Callao resident who works at People’s Community Bank in Montross said that she wishes she had sought a diagnosis earlier.
“I was just so busy and so young that breast cancer didn’t occur to me,” she said, adding that in April of 2004, after visiting a local free health clinic, she was referred to MCV Hospital where she underwent a barrage of tests.
“I remember this nurse coming out and the look in her face. She said it was malignant,” Gable said. “I asked if that was the good kind and her eyes filled with tears and she simply said ‘no.’”
Tests had just revealed a potentially deadly 2.5-centimeter lump in Gable’s right breast.
Gable said that at the time all she could do was sit silently, screaming “cancer” over and over in her head.
“I was numb. My mom and I just sat there all afternoon asking questions,” Gable said. “When you are diagnosed, life just stops and all of a sudden it goes from going out and living life to treatments and doctor visits.”
She added that despite her young age, the help of her family and friends gave her the strength to fight.
“My motto through the whole thing was to grin and bear it because this too shall pass,” Gable said. “I came through it a better person, I would like to think. It made me appreciate life more.”
Gable said that only through that support was she able to make one of the toughest decisions in her life.
“In June 2004 I had a double mastectomy,” Gable said, adding that her surgeon initially tried to talk her out of the procedure but that she was concerned about the cancer coming back at some unknown date in the future.
“It was my decision,” Gable said. “I didn’t want to go through this again. It is one decision I have never regretted.”
Gable added that cancer robbed her at an early age of not only growing into her own body, but has removed the possibility of breastfeeding any children she might have.
“That July I started chemotherapy, finishing in September,” Gable said. “I had treatments every three weeks and right before the second treatment, my hair started to fall out.”
Prior to the treatments, Gable said that she enjoyed her long blonde locks. Cutting her hair was part of her own process in taking control of her illness.
“I knew it was going to fall out, but it still hurt the first time I ran my hand through my hair and all those strands were falling out. You could see the shine from my scalp,” Gable said. “So I took matters into my own hands and shaved it. It was kind of empowering, like I have got this thing.”
But for the next few months, Gable was often too ill to worry about her looks.
“I would have treatments on a Monday, Tuesday would be fine, but on Wednesday the medication would make even my bones hurt,” she said. “By Thursday I felt like I had the flu. I was laid out and by the time I felt 100 percent better it was time for another treatment.”
Gable added that although she had a wig, she never wore it, instead opting to sport a purple bandana.
“That New Years Eve I went without it for the first time and even though I had just the littlest bit of hair, I was rocking it,” Gable said smiling at the memory. “And my friends stuck by me, they didn’t look at me like I was different or a leper, because sometimes I felt like that. They were absolutely important in making me feel normal and going out.”
Gable noted that her mother, who was her “doc buddy” taking her to every visit, helped her navigate her illness.
“She had just taken early retirement and it was probably harder for her seeing me go through that than it was for me, because she is my mom,” Gable said. “I love her.”
She added that in recognition of her fight and the need to raise breast cancer awareness, she, her mother and father each got matching pink ribbon tattoos on their feet.
She added that even though she is now nearly 10 years cancer-free, she still remains vigilant and routinely gets check-ups and cancer screenings.
She also is proactive in empowering other young women to get tested and trust their doctors.
“If you think you have a lump don’t just say it is nothing, get it checked out,” Gable said, adding that in her opinion one of the most important factors in recovery is attitude.
“If you go into it as ‘Oh woe is me!’ you might as well be in the grave,” Gable said. “But if you go into it thinking you can beat this, you can. You have to stay positive.”
It was the fall of 1990 and Brenda Pemberton was holding a miracle in her hands.
After numerous heartbreaks and several years, she and her husband Bob finally had the one thing they had been trying for, a beautiful and healthy baby girl.
But lurking just behind their joy was a hidden invader.
“My daughter Lowery was a newborn and having just had a baby I was more aware of changes in my body,” Brenda said. “I had some pain in my breast and a nurse friend thought I might have a clogged milk duct. I put a warm compress on and it helped, but when I went for my check-up two months after the delivery I asked if I could have a mammogram.”
After the test being rescheduled twice, Brenda arrived for her appointment at the end of November.
“It was a Friday afternoon and I remember the nurse asking me why I was so happy,” she said, adding that the clinician said that most women don’t look forward to the exam.
“I said that I have a job I love, the baby I have always waited for, a wonderful husband and my life is so good,” said the long-time educator and current vice-chairman of the Richmond County School Board.
“The next day we had a family portrait done, but that night I had a dream there was a malignancy,” Brenda said. “On Monday afternoon my doctor called and I already knew.”
Her nightmare had become a reality.
On Dec. 13, she had a biopsy, the first of many. It was malignant.
“The surgeon walked in and we could tell by his expression,” she said. “I just burst into tears.”
Brenda was just 41 at the time, the same age that her paternal grandmother passed away after battling the same deadly condition.
“Bobby said ‘Why? This isn’t fair!’ and that I was a good person,” Brenda said quietly, adding that the doctor told them “unfortunately most of his patients were really nice people.”
With a newborn to care for, Brenda was given two options, a lumpectomy with radiation or a mastectomy.
“I was just falling into a pit that had no bottom,” she said. “I was looking at my baby girl and thinking I wasn’t going to see her grow up. I felt so alone, even though I was surrounded with support from the church and friends and family.”
Brenda added that although she felt isolated in her pain, the strength and love displayed by her husband and friends on her behalf inspired her to fight and tap an inner core of steel that she was unaware she had.
“It was humbling,” she said. “I have tremendous respect for the families and the caregivers of victims because they have to shoulder an enormous burden and weight and they stay positive.”
After a second medical opinion, Brenda decided to do undergo a mastectomy.
“I chose reconstruction and the doctor came in and said afterwards that my real malignancy was not what showed in the mammogram, but that I had about an inch long ‘In Situ’ cancer that had stayed in the milk duct,” she said, adding that had her initial visits not been postponed, the cancer could have been caught earlier.
“I was told that because there was soreness it was a good sign because cancer rarely causes pain, but obviously mine was different,” Brenda said. “I was also told that if I had opted for a lumpectomy they would have had to do a mastectomy anyway because of the type and size of the cancer.”
Brenda luckily did not have to go through painful chemotherapy and was released on Christmas Day.
“The good Lord was with me the whole time sending me signs of His presence,” she said. “I have always known that every day was precious, but that was a stark reality check and I try to reach out to others along the way because that is the only way that I can make sense or reason about what happened to me.”
She added that although she has been cancer-free for over 20 years, the illness had a huge impact on her daily life, including the way she raised her daughter.
“I didn’t want her to have to depend on me in the event that I wouldn’t be there for her,” Brenda said. “I wanted Lowery to be strong, care about other people and she is amazing. She is a true gift in my life”
She added that at the time, a double mastectomy was not offered to her, which she now believes should be an option available to all women who find themselves in that unenviable situation.
“Had I been given the option I would have done a double because since then I have probably had to have six biopsies and now every year I get an MRI,” she said, thankful that the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes, a common occurrence with breast cancer that often results in mortality.
Since her battle, Brenda has become an outspoken advocate for early detection, urging everyone to be vigilant about self-exams.
She added that it was important to note that women aren’t the only ones who get breast cancer.
“Men do as well and are equally deserving of awareness, respect and support,” Brenda said. “Don’t pay attention to the guidelines. Please don’t be more afraid of what it could be and let that fear prevent you from seeking the help you need. If it is a malignancy, it will not go away. If it is not, you need your peace of mind.”
She also said that once diagnosed, coping with the illness by “sharing your fears” was crucial to empowerment.
“Having a trusted loved one, whether it is a spouse, brother, sister, parent, friend, church member or neighbor… that person that you that you can lean on and open up to is so important,” Brenda said. “Give those fears a name so they don’t have the power to hurt, because when you talk it through, those fears lose their hold over you.”
She added that while it is easy to play the blame game, the most important thing about breast cancer is to own it, understand it and overcome it by opening up to help and spiritual guidance from the community.
“We refer to ourselves as sisters, and in some situations sisters and brothers. It is not the way you want to be family, but there is a connection and an understanding,” she said. “You meet each other on a different plane than day-to-day life. You don’t need to speak the words; you instantly know what they have been through. We all think we are invincible and then reality changes you. But you can overcome. We all can, especially by helping others.”
This month, several local health clinics are offering free mammography and breast exams. Gable, Pemberton and Balderson urge every woman to make an appointment and get checked.
For more information on breast cancer visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation at www.nationalbreastcancer.org or the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation at http://ww5.komen.org.