Honoring Our Survivors
Living with cancer, again
By Faye Ellison
Our pasts have a way of sneaking up on us, but Wrens native, Virginia Garrett, believed the cancer she beat 14 years ago was behind her.
Garrett was originally diagnosed in 1996, when a lump was found during a scheduled mammogram.
“I had a routine mammogram, and they found a mass,” Garrett remembers. “They sent me to the surgeon’s office and scheduled my surgery. I had a lumpectomy and it was malignant.”
Garrett said after doctors tested the tumor, it was not an aggressive form of cancer, but she was given the choices of having a mastectomy, complete removal of the breast, or to leave the breast intact.
“I decided not to have the mastectomy,” she said. “They took the lymph nodes out. Out of the nine I had two that tested positive.”
Treatment for Garrett also included two chemotherapy treatments and 33 radiation treatments, followed by seven more chemotherapy treatments and five years taking tamoxifen, a prescription that stops a woman’s body from producing hormones.
“This was all to prevent the cancer from coming back,” Garrett explained. “Because I had two positive lymph nodes, they did more radiation than if they hadn’t been positive. They tried to get anything that was traveling around.”
After being a celebrated survivor of breast cancer, Garrett spent much of her time celebrating others who have suffered through any cancerous wrath by heading the Survivor Committee in the Jefferson County Relay for Life.
Then last year, something was not right.
“I was fine,” she said. “I thought I was cancer free.”
Garrett was checked regularly, through mammograms and even blood tests. She works at Dr. James Ford’s office in Wrens and has done so faithfully for 28 years.
Early in 2009, Garrett said her back began to hurt.
“Dr. Ford sent me in for X-rays and then it was test, after test, after test,” she said.
In February 2009, Garrett was diagnosed with mestastatic breast cancer thoracic spine.
“This is in the bone, in the spinal discs six, seven and eight,” Garrett explained. “The origin of the cancer was from my breast and it traveled and attached itself to my spine. It is the same kind of tumor I had in my breast.”
Garrett also said the cancer is in her bone, so it is not a tumor that can be seen or removed.
“The only way to see if it had gone away is to have a bone biopsy, which I had one last February, and that is how they confirmed it was cancer,” she said.
To understand that you have cancer one time, was enough for Garrett, but to hear you have it again was so much more for her to bear.
“It’s hard, to soak it all in,” she sighed. “That’s what everybody dreads, being told you have cancer and I totally did not expect this new case. This has been a little hard to grasp. You know, there is nothing you can remove, like with the breast, a tumor was removed and it was gone. With this, you can’t remove it.”
Garrett said her treatment began with just taking a pill, then in August of 2009, she began chemotherapy with another prescription drug.
“I took it three weeks in a row and the fourth week I would have off,” she said. “Also the first time I went to the oncologist last year, he started giving me Zometa, to strengthen my bones. I have been getting that once a month since then.”
In October, she suffered complications from her treatments.
“My feet went numb, and I stopped the chemotherapy. Since then I have been taking Avastin every two weeks as an IV medicine. It is not as bad as the chemo. I am not as sick. I have to go to Augusta to get it every two weeks. I don’t know how long my doctor will continue with the treatment. As long as it is working I am going to keep doing it.”
“You know anything like this kind of zaps you out,” Garrett lamented. “I do get tired, but I just keep pushing. I can’t just sit down and do nothing. I am very active in my church, but I did give up some things. I worked a lot with the American Cancer Society and was chairperson for the survivors, but I had to give it up. So far I have been able to work, so it hasn’t affected anything like that.”
Garrett credits her daughter, boss, coworkers, community, church and God with her determination to continue. She said Dr. Ford has been very helpful in letting her off to receive her treatments.
“I have a great boss and he is very lenient when I get to go for the treatments,” she laughed. “He knows that I am going to do my job, if I had to just sit at home, I would go crazy. I am a lot better off working.”
Garrett said her daughter takes her to her treatments as much as she can and goes with her to the doctor.
“She tells on me sometimes,” Garrett said. “She has handled it well. She has had a mammogram every year since I was diagnosed.”
Through prayer, a lot of prayer, Garrett said God has guided her.
“I take one day at a time,” she confirmed. “I have faith in God. He brought me through this the first time and He is doing it now too. Although this is different, He keeps me smiling.
“Your attitude is a big aspect, too. If you don’t have a good attitude, or stay negative, it is hard to get through something. I have a lot of friends and family, well actually this whole community, that supports me. They always ask about me and pray for me.”
Before cancer, Garrett said she began receiving mammograms at age 35 and had one every two years, until she turned 30 when it was then recommended once a year.
“I thoroughly believe no matter what the news media says, women should do self exams,” Garrett encouraged. “Go to your gynecologist once a year and get a mammogram once a year. A lot of times younger ladies have breast cancer. It is really important for anyone under 40 to do self exams and go to doctor for exams. People think that when women get older, they don’t need to do that anymore, the older you are the more at risk you are.”
One thing her doctor did tell Garrett was that her cancer is not curable, but it is manageable and with the support and determination she has, she has managed to stay a survivor.
Little lump, big decision
By Faye Ellison
At 46, Murdine McCall Heggs found something strange in her breast.
“I wasn’t feeling sick,” she said. “I was doing a self exam and I found a lump about as big as a pea by my nipple.”
She did not realize at the time that something so little would force a big decision-to keep her breast or have a mastectomy?
“I didn’t think too much of it, about a month later, I thought maybe I needed to have it checked,” Heggs said. “I had a biopsy and my doctor said it was cancer. He sat me up an appointment, and I told him that I wanted my whole breast removed. Since it was caught early, I didn’t have to take chemo or radiation.
“I didn’t know what to feel when he told me it was cancer. You know, it just made me numb. I didn’t even know what to think. It was a bad feeling that came over me.”
It was only 19 years ago, but since then radical changes have been made in medicine to help those suffering from breast cancer.
“I really thought that if they removed just the cancer, it might come back,” she explained of her decision. “That was just me. I just didn’t know and if it did, they would have to cut on me again. So I just felt if they removed the whole breast, I wouldn’t have to be troubled with it anymore.”
Out of 14 children in her family, there have been five with cancer.
“We had a good support system,” Heggs laughed. “We kind of raised one another. The oldest helping to raise the youngest one and we lived on the farm and made it through.”
Once Heggs was diagnosed, her sisters followed suit in getting mammograms.
“My family and friends stood by me and helped me through it, so I would encourage my family and other people to do self breast exams,” she said. “None of my sisters had one before. They all started taking mammograms after that. I joined in a program to encourage women to take mammograms and do self exams.”
Without her family and friends by her side, Heggs said she didn’t know if she could make it. The clearest voice of reason came from her husband, William B. Heggs.
“My husband, he was stronger than I was,” she remembered. “He talked to me and encouraged me and that is what made me get through it. He told me, ‘It don’t seem like you’re accepting what is going on, you just have to accept it.’ He really lifted me up.”
She also had to tell her son, Kevin Heggs, who was a teenager at the time.
“I talked to him about it and he was okay with it,” Heggs said. “He understood it pretty good.”
All these years later, Heggs said her faith and family never let her down in her time of need, which is why she encourages everyone close to her and even those who are not to get mammograms and check ups regularly.
“If you catch it early, that is the key,” she said. “I just thank the Lord that I am still alive. I give all praises to the Lord.”
Despite agency’s findings, ACS says regular
mammograms are advisable
By Carol McLeod
Last November, a government agency issued a change in guidelines for when women should have mammograms.
The group recommended women don’t need mammograms in their 40s, but should wait until age 50 and then have a mammogram every other year, rather than every year.
The group also advised against breast self-exams.
The American Cancer Society continues to advise differently.
At the ACS website, an article posted by Dawn Ward states the ACS encourages women 40 and older to have a mammogram and a clinical breast exam every year.
ACS recommends women aged 20 to 39 have a clinical breast exam once every three years and an MRI for certain women at risk, the article states.
Further, Ward stated about 207,090 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to occur in American women this year with about 40,230 deaths expected.
“While mammography is not perfect, getting a high-quality mammogram is currently the most effective way to detect cancer early because it can identify breast cancer before physical symptoms develop, when the disease is most treatable. Early-stage breast cancer typically produces no symptoms when the tumor is small and most treatable, so it is important that women follow recommended guidelines for finding breast cancer before symptoms develop. On average, mammography will detect about 80 to 90 percent of breast cancers in women without symptoms. Breast cancer survival rates are significantly higher when the cancer has not spread,” she wrote.
Melissa Cave, a family nurse practitioner in Louisville, said she is following the old guidelines.
“New information comes out and goes back and forth for about a year,” she said in an interview Tuesday, Oct. 5.
“That was just one study. So I think it’s better to start at age 40,” she said, adding women should still have annual clinical breast exams beginning at the same age.
Younger women should have the clinical exams once every three years she said.
“Women should do breast self exams,” she said. “A lot of times they’ll find them before we will.”
She said women at high risk should begin before 40.
“We haven’t switched; we’re still sticking with the old guidelines,” Cave said.
The nurse practitioner said it is preferable to have the exams and not need them to need them and not have them done.
“I would rather be safe than sorry,” she said.
She said that although the occurrence of breast cancer in men is low, it does happen. Men who have a family history of breast cancer, especially where the breast cancer is in a male family member, should discuss the issue with their doctor.
Sue Stephens, a registered technologist in the fields of radiology and mammography, is the radiology supervisor at Jefferson Hospital.
She has been working in her field 11 years, she said.
“Women need to start getting mammograms; they need to have a baseline mammogram or screening mammogram between the ages of 35 and 40,” she said.
“Beginning at 40 years of age, they need to have an annual mammogram every year. It’s real important because your breast tissue changes,” she said.
Stephens said a radiologist will compare the recent mammogram to the one taken the previous year to see if there are any changes in the woman’s breast tissue.
She said she didn’t agree with the government’s recommendations last year.
“I think for a woman’s health and for preventive reasons that they need to have a mammogram. I don’t think they need to wait until they’re 50,” she said.
Stephens said anyone younger than 35 must have a doctor’s order to have a mammogram.
“After you have your baseline you don’t have to have a doctor’s order for a screening mammogram,” she said.
“I think it’s just so very important that women certainly have a doctor or a nurse check their breasts annually for any signs of changes or anything that they would be concerned about. It’s so important for women and men to check their breasts. A woman needs to check her breast every month. Men need to check their breasts, too. If they notice anything different, they need to have it checked it out,” Stephens said.
“Women need to be very aware of any changes in their breast. If they should notice, they really should see their physicians. I would encourage all women ages 40 and up to have an annual mammogram each year. The earlier that you can find if there’s any early beginnings of cancer, the earlier you know your chances are just so much better of being a survivor. It’s really important that women have annual mammograms. I just can’t stress it enough,” Stephens said.
One local woman who has been a breast cancer survivor since 1995 said the change in guidelines by the government shocked her.
Laura Gibbons said in her opinion women should start having mammograms by age 30.
Anyone with a family history of breast cancer should begin at age 25, she said.
She said everybody should have regular self-exams.
“Everybody,” she said.
Clubs work to bring books to area children
By Carol McLeod
Three local groups have come together in an effort to improve literacy among children.
The Louisville Rotary Club, the Louisville Kiwanis Club and the Jefferson County Library System are teaming up with the Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy to distribute books to local children.
“Robin Ferst, the founder, began this foundation in 1999 and began distributing books in Morgan County,” said Patricia Edwards, the Jefferson County library system’s director.
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“I am a member of the community action team,” she said. “We call it the CAT. The community action team is made up of various community leaders in the county.”
Edwards said Ferst was inspired by a program of famed country singer, Dolly Parton. Parton has a program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Parton started the program by giving books to every preschool child in her home of Severe County, Tenn., Edwards said.
“The Ferst Foundation continues to work cooperatively with Parton’s Imagination Library to provide the books distributed to the children. Each county in Georgia can partner with the Ferst Foundation in order to provide free books to all preschool children, from birth to age 5,” she said.
“For Jefferson County, the Ferst Foundation will administer the program. Our local CAT is responsible for publicity, fund raising and registration. We are currently visiting local groups to promote this endeavor and to request donations,” Edwards said.
Edwards said there are currently about 1,200 children in Jefferson County younger than 5.
“We know that many of our children are economically disadvantaged with 33 percent living in poverty,” she said.
“There are no educational programs designed specifically for all preschool children. It has been proven that preliteracy and early learning is critical to success when a child goes to school. In comparing children from welfare families, working-class families and professional families the vocabulary gap begins at 16 months and increases rapidly through 36 months,” Edwards said.
“Children on the lower end of the vocabulary gap are already disadvantaged when they begin school. Children who have not attained sufficient reading skills by fourth grade will probably be poor readers all of their lives. Some states even determine the number of prison cells according to the lack of proficiency of fourth grade readers,” she said.
The objective for Jefferson County is to provide free books to preschoolers in order to better prepare them for school readiness, Edwards said, adding the Ferst Foundation program is just one way to achieve this goal.
“The Ferst Foundation will provide one book per month for each preschool child in the county for a cost of $36 a year per child. Improving school readiness will help ensure success in school and can have a lifelong positive impact on a child,” she said.
“It’s less costly to educate a child than to educate an adult to the level of his peers,” she said.
Anyone interested in supporting this program can call Patricia Edwards at the Louisville library at 478-625-3751. All donations will be gladly accepted. Anyone who wants to contribute may leave a check at any of the county libraries, made out to the Ferst Foundation. Please write “Jefferson County” on the check’s memo line.
A contribution of $36 will provide enough books for one child; for five children, the cost is $180; and for 10, the cost is $360, Edwards said.
“Our goal for the next year is to enroll 30 percent of the eligible children and to raise $10,000,” she said.
“This is not a one-year effort. It must be a long term, community-wide commitment. It’s a long-term initiative to produce long-term results. In order to have all of our children registered, we will need a minimum of $45,000 a year, each year,” Edwards said.