By Jennifer M. Aguilar
Janet Davis wasn’t feeling nervous five years ago when she went in for a routine mammogram. Why would she? She had been doing the same thing, without event or cause for concern, for years. In fact, even when the doctor’s office began calling her, she managed to stay calm and unafraid. That is, until she received a letter in the mail, tangible evidence that something very well might have changed.
“I received a registered letter from them telling me I needed to come back in for another test. This had me worried, but I went in as soon as I could for the repeat test,” she said. “On a Friday afternoon in September I received a call from their doctor telling me I had a nodule in my left breast and that it was cancer. A Friday afternoon phone call – wow. Nobody to talk to, nobody to get advice from until next week,” Davis said. “I was devastated.”
Davis’ husband, Charles, was with her when she got the dreaded call. “My husband was next to me as I was on the phone. He also went into denial. He was like, ‘they have to be wrong, this can’t be happening,’” she said.
Understandably, she experienced a range of emotions in those early days of diagnosis. “I was scared, I was devastated, I wanted to cry but couldn’t. It hit like a ton of bricks, it was the last thing I expected,” she said.
Fortunately, when the initial shock wore off, Davis found that her friends and family were there to support her with warmth, kindness, love and prayers, she said.
During the ordeal she found herself thankful for the medical team surrounding her as well. “I was blessed with a great team of doctors. They came up with their plan and explained it and were very confident in their expectations. They explained the surgery, the radiation and the chemo treatments very thoroughly and how my body would react to all phases of the treatment. I was assigned a nurse navigator who assisted me through the initial phases and was there for me at every turn – a true angel,” Davis said.
Though the days and weeks of treatment could feel grueling, Davis said she was struck by how much easier it was to go through it all knowing there was a whole community of support surrounding her. “I remember that it was long and time consuming, but watching the others around me being treated made me feel much better as we all shared in the healing process,” she said.
She underwent radiation and frequent chemotherapy infusions, which made her nauseous and exhausted. They also caused her to lose her hair, and unfortunately her job, as well. “I had to retire from my job due to the treatments making me weak and emotional,” she said.
Fortunately, the treatments proved worth it and she was pronounced cancer-free. “I felt blessed beyond belief!” she said, of hearing the news.
Davis recently celebrated her 5th anniversary of completing treatment. Yet, she said she still holds tightly the lessons the journey taught her. “I focus on what is most important in life and I am more loving and caring than I ever was,” she said.
For other women facing a possible breast cancer diagnosis she also offered this hope. First, she said, “Get your breasts checked regularly… early detection greatly increases your chance of a cure…” For those undergoing cancer treatment, now, she said, “Listen to your doctors, create a loving support team and you will get through it.”
Like Davis, Sharon Richardson never missed a mammogram. So when she went in for a test in spring of 2015, she was neither worried much less prepared, for how her life would soon change.
Many know Richardson as an outgoing and bubbly personality, a talented and passionate church pianist, and a proud wife, mom and grandmother. But when the doctor’s office called her in for a follow-up appointment, they soon clad her with another title, one she never expected to wear, that of someone with breast cancer.
Richardson said she was able to remain relatively calm at first because of how surreal it all seemed. But also, she said, “I was so calm because I knew God would carry me through whatever I was heading into, as these circumstances were no surprise to Him.”
It wasn’t until she picked up her grandson, Pine, who was just 5-months-old at the time, that the gravity of the diagnosis really sunk in. “When I got home from the radiologist appointment I remember picking up my grandson (my precious, only grandchild) and holding him close as it really hit me that I might not see him grow up and that he might not remember me,’ she said. “There was, however, still a great sadness, yet a great peace that, with God’s grace and my wonderful family’s support, we would move forward and take things one step at a time.”
Richardson insisted that her husband not take off work for the follow-up appointment as she thought the first mammogram had surely shown a false result. Thankfully, Richardson’s oldest daughter Sally insisted on going with her mom to the follow-up appointment. “Her steady, strong, loving spirit was a great comfort when we learned that there really was a great likelihood of cancer,” she said.
Richardson’s sister-in-law, Michelle, was by her side when she went back for a follow-up biopsy, and her husband Steve and Sally accompanied her to the surgeon appointment for the official diagnosis of breast cancer.
“Friday, June 5, 2015 (which happened to be my son’s birthday) I received the biopsy results confirming that I did have a malignancy in my right breast.”
From that point, Richardson shared the news with the rest of her immediate family and closest friends. “After my husband and kids learned of my diagnosis, I immediately called my parents, then other relatives, as well as my lifelong best friend, Susan,” she said. Then, not one to be shy, Richardson publicly shared the news on social media.
“After all my family and closest friends were informed, I shared on Facebook in order to get the word out to everyone at once, in order to ask for prayers for the journey. All were extremely supportive and loving, promising continual prayers and offers of anything I could possibly need throughout my journey, from meals to trips to medical appointments, etc.” she said.
“They all delivered on these promises. What a great network of loving support I had/have. I could not have been more blessed in that area,” she said.
Doctors initially thought that a lumpectomy would be enough to rid Richardson’s body of the cancer but they soon discovered that the cancer was more widespread than they’d thought. “After further MRI’s, I learned that there were two other suspicious lesions and decided that a double mastectomy would be the best choice for me. After the bilateral mastectomy and lymph node removal, pathology results showed that the cancer had indeed spread to the lymph nodes and that chemo would be required. I was very disappointed to learn that I would need chemo, but again, I knew God would give me the strength to get through it,” she said.
Richardson continued to boldly share her story through social media during this time, posting updates for her many friends and prayer warriors.
Besides learning to accept the outpouring of help from her family and friends she said she looked to the Bible for both comfort and strength at that time. Corinthians 12:9-10 became particularly meaningful to her during her journey to recovery as those verses talk about God’s strength being made perfect in our weakness.
Though Richardson is quick to admit the many challenging aspects of treatment, she also expressed gratitude for the blessings to be found even through the struggles.
“The difficult side effects of chemo were by far the most challenging physically. But I learned that if I could just hang in there for 5-7 days after each treatment, I would at least begin to feel better, even if I was still bald and still had an immune system too weak to allow me to go out in public except for about one out of every three weeks,” she said.
The most emotionally challenging issue, said Richardson, was not being able to pick up her grandson for several weeks after the bilateral mastectomy. “But, I was always encouraged to be able to at least hold him in my lap when my weak immune system would allow it,” she said.
“Being bald, losing my breasts didn’t really upset me that much. I knew my hair would eventually grow back, and I was blessed with good insurance to cover reconstruction. Feeling really rough was way more upsetting to me than my temporary change in physical appearance,” Richardson said.
When her hair began falling out she proudly shared photos from her trip to the family barber who helped shave her head, proving the chemo could take her hair but not her characteristic good humor and positive attitude.
After several months of treatment, Richardson learned that her November 17 chemo treatment would be her last. One month later she was placed on a 10-year prescription that is supposed to help keep the cancer from recurring.
“At that time I was told that I would need to keep coming back every three months for a while but that my bloodwork all looked good and has not shown any indication of a recurrence so far,” Richardson said.
It’s now been almost two years since she’s been declared cancer free. At the time, the removal of the chemo port was particularly joyful for her.
“That symbolized to me that I was really moving on from the breast cancer chapter of my life,” she said.
Still, she takes with her the things learned during the trials, and is quick to use her struggles to offer hope to those in similar circumstances.
“It is not a death sentence… Hang in there! What seems to be lasting forever right now will be over before you know it. If you have lost all your hair, know that it will very likely all be grown out and back to normal in less than 18 months.”
Richardson also said she came out of her cancer journey even more exuberant about living life to the fullest.
“It has made more aware of how quickly our lives can change in an instant. So, I feel much more urgency not to put off any life goals. If there is a trip or experience I’ve been putting off, we try to live out those dreams as much as our limited finances will allow. More importantly, I am more acutely aware of my need to make things right between me and any I may have offended in any way, and to say any words of encouragement that come to mind for others while I still have the opportunity to show my love and appreciation for them. We truly are not promised tomorrow, on this earth, at least. So, I just want to make the most of any opportunities God gives me,” she said.
Like Davis, Richardson was also quick to encourage other women to go in for regular mammograms and tests. “You should not rely on self-exams alone, but should also ALWAYS get those annual mammograms!” Richardson said.