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The Drive To Survive: The Stories of Five Women Striving to Cope With Breast Cancer

Written by  Susan E. Dubuque

Whether you are a man or a woman, an adult or a child, old or young, you have been touched by breast cancer. It may be your mother, aunt, sister or friend who has suffered, or perhaps you have been personally affected. Among the more than 3 million women in the U.S. who have breast cancer, many serve as inspirations to us all.

There are women who demonstrate grace and dignity in the face of a life-threatening illness, there are those who transform a devastating medical condition into a positive, life-altering opportunity, and there are even those who selflessly extend a hand to others rather than focusing on their personal circumstances.

This article is a tribute to five of these amazing women. It is our hope that their stories will offer insight and inspiration to even more women who are facing the challenges of breast cancer now or must face them in the future.

Lutheria’s story

Lutheria Smith spent several months teaching her adult Sunday school class a series of lessons on faith, courage and trust. Little did she realize that these lessons were really for her.

When Lutheria went in for her routine mammogram in April 2016, she had no clue what the findings would show. “My mother is a 14-year breast cancer survivor,” she says, “so I am vigilant about checking my breasts every month and having regular mammograms.” Thanks to a careful comparison of her current and prior studies, her radiologist discovered a tumor in the back quadrant of one of Lutheria’s breasts.

Lutheria had a double mastectomy, performed by surgeon Roxanne Davenport, MD. Dr. Davenport and Lutheria’s oncologist, Suzan R. Merten, MD, determined that Lutheria would not benefit from chemotherapy. This was based on an Oncotype DX test, a genomic test that analyzed a sample of her tumor to determine how the cancer would respond to treatment. However, Lutheria will take Tamoxifen for five to 10 years in order to reduce the risk of her cancer recurring. In August 2016, she underwent reconstructive surgery with Kurtis Moyer, MD.

“From the moment I was diagnosed with cancer, I never thought I was going to die,” says Lutheria. “I believe that God has a plan or a purpose for everything that He allows to happen, and I knew my faith would get me through.”

Lutheria’s family provided tremendous support during this process. “My husband James and son Jamie (age 15) were a constant source of encouragement and hope,” says Lutheria. “And my daughter Bradley (age 18) gave me a playlist of contemporary Christian songs. There was one song in particular that I liked, about going through a storm. I would listen to the music when I commuted to work or whenever I was feeling a little down.”

“My neighbors, friends, extended family and church family were all incredibly helpful,” Lutheria adds. “They would stop by, send cards and notes, and keep me in their prayers. A neighbor gave me a beautiful clay cross that I kept with me the day of my surgery, and my friends created an online website to coordinate meals. For weeks following my surgery, dinners were delivered to our home.” Lutheria’s work colleagues participated in her recovery as well, generously donating time to her family through a vacation sharing program.

In order to reach out to her support network, furthermore, Lutheria set up a CaringBridge, an online journal that she used to provide updates and share her feelings and experiences about her cancer. “I posted notes at least once a week,” she says, “and my friends would reply with words of support and encouragement.”

Lutheria draws on her strong faith in many ways. “Every day, I try to remember all the things I have to be grateful for and look to the future, thinking of all the things I have to look forward to,” she says. She does remind us, however, that we need to be careful what we ask for. “When you pray for something, it may not come in the form you expected. I wanted to work less and spend more time with my daughter the summer before she left for college, but spending that time with her while I was recovering from breast surgery wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

Lifted up by her faith and all of those who love her, Lutheria can now state unequivocally, “I am not defined by my cancer. In fact, I don’t have cancer. I am a cancer survivor.”

Breanna’s story

There is nothing funny about breast cancer, but humor proved to be one of Breanna Hall’s greatest sources of strength as she dealt with her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Breanna never gave breast cancer a thought. After all, at age 38, she was too young to worry about such things. Breast cancer only affects older women, right? In June 2015, however, she was in for an unpleasant surprise. “I was putting on my bathing suit top when I noticed an indentation in my breast,” says Breanna. Fortunately, she was aware and mindful of breast health since her gynecologist, Abby Smith, MD, recommends baseline mammograms for all of her patients over age 35. Breanna had it checked out immediately, and her test results revealed a 4-cm. breast tumor.

“I had a wonderful team of physicians caring for me,” says Breanna. “I decided to have chemotherapy first and then surgery.” William Fintel, MD, administered six rounds of chemotherapy before her surgery, Robert Williams, MD, performed a bilateral (double) mastectomy in December 2016, and Barton Thomas, MD, completed her reconstructive surgery in March 2016.

“Losing my breasts was the toughest point in my whole ordeal. A part of me was gone, and I felt so exposed, but they’re just breasts. And look, I got new ones, and they are really perky,” says Breanna. It is that sense of humor and ability to find something positive in even the most devastating situation that helped Breanna throughout her breast cancer journey.

“I felt I had to be strong and upbeat for everyone around me,” says Breanna, “especially my son Kyle (age 15). He was hit particularly hard by my illness.” Breanna discovered that a little humor also goes a long way in making others feel more comfortable. “People don’t know what to say to you when you have cancer. They may feel like they are walking on egg shells, but if you lighten the mood a little, it will put them at ease. They will realize you haven’t changed. You’re still you.”

Even though Breanna was able to smile and make jokes, she still dealt with the full range of emotions that accompanied her cancer. “I allowed myself to have a good cry once in a while, just let it all out,” Breanna recalls. “Then I would pick myself up and move on.”

Breanna not only has a positive attitude, she also wants to spread her good cheer. “I was in chemo one day and noticed another patient crying. I felt such an urge to go over and comfort her,” says Breanna. “That experience made me realize that perhaps this was exactly what I was supposed to do: reach out to support other women who are coping with breast cancer.”
After finishing her treatment, Breanna completed training to become a breast cancer educator for Susan G. Komen Blue Ridge. She is now able to volunteer at health fairs and festivals, sharing information and resources on breast cancer. Recently, she expanded her participation to include fundraising for cancer research and support services.

“The thought of my breast cancer reoccurring is scary, but a fellow survivor told me, ‘One day, you will wake up and cancer will not be the first thing on your mind.’ And she was right. It’s important to stay active and stay positive,” advises Breanna. There is one thing that Breanna is particularly positive about. “December 9 will mark my one year of being cancer free. That will be a great day!”

Tracie’s story

In August 2014, Tracie Duncan trained hard and completed the Draper Mile. Later that month, she found herself in a race for her life — against breast cancer.

When a routine mammogram showed something suspicious, Tracie was a little alarmed. When the radiologist asked if she could come back for a biopsy the very next day, Tracie suspected that something was wrong. A few days later, when she received a phone call telling her that the results were cancer, though, Tracie was shocked. “It was surreal. I was driving home from work right after I got that call, and a Tim McGraw song came on the radio — ‘Live Like You Were Dying.’ I lost it,” recalls Tracie.

The following Monday, Tracie and her family met with her surgeon, Jolene B. Henshaw, MD. After considering all of the treatment options, Tracie elected to have a lumpectomy followed by radiation treatment.

In her position as a licensed physical therapy assistant for LewisGale Hospital Montgomery, Tracie has made a career of helping others get in motion, and she clearly practices what she preaches. “Throughout my treatment, I just kept going. I had 40 radiation therapy sessions and only missed one day of work,” says Tracie. “Every time I met with my radiation oncologist, Dr. [Karanita] Ojomo, she would ask me if I was feeling tired or fatigued, which is common with radiation therapy. I just decided I wasn’t going to get tired. I had way too much to do.” Tracie stayed focused on the future, always keeping a new goal in sight. “I had my last radiation treatment on November 24, and three days later, on Thanksgiving Day, I completed the Drumstick Dash 5K with my husband, Don, my mother, and my niece. Even my dog Daisy got into the act.”

It didn’t stop there. In April 2015, Tracie and her mother walked the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. “When we crossed the finish line, I cried,” says Tracie. “After hearing all the statistics of women who have died from breast cancer, I realized I had so much to be grateful for. I am beating the odds.” Tracie has made the Susan G. Komen event a family affair, repeating the race in 2016 with a number of her family members.

There is hardly a sport that Tracie hasn’t used to celebrate her survivorship. At a Radford University women’s basketball game, Tracie and other breast cancer survivors were honored at a half-time ceremony. Also, Tracie was asked to throw out the first pitch at Pink in the Park, a special breast cancer event sponsored by the Pulaski Yankees. Tracie admits that she ‘throws like a girl.’ “My first pitch ended up behind me, and when they gave me second chance, I almost hit the umpire,” says Tracie. “The team loved it. They all high-fived me.”

In additional to her athletic activities, Tracie relied upon her deep faith in God and her family and friends to get her through the dark times. “My husband, parents, step-parents, sister, niece and all my friends — so many people have been there for me,” she recalls.

“When you are diagnosed with cancer, your life as you know it will never be the same,” says Tracie, “but that doesn’t mean it can’t be better.” With an eye to the future, Tracie is now looking forward to next year’s Susan F. Komen race. “Only this time, I am going to run it.” There is little doubt that Tracie will achieve that goal and many more.

Tonia’s story

Everyone knows that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but to Tonia Hackett, that month has a deeply personal meaning. On September 30, 2008, she was told that she had simple breast cancer. One month later, her prognosis took a dramatic turn for the worse.

“I have no family history of breast cancer,” says Tonia, “and I didn’t notice any lumps in my breasts.” However, a routine mammogram followed by a biopsy showed that Tonia had breast cancer. “Initially, I was told that I had stage II breast cancer, and I opted to have a bilateral mastectomy to be safe. Then my doctor ordered additional tests and the whole picture changed. My breast cancer was actually stage IV and had metastasized to my liver.”

Tonia’s medical team offered chemotherapy, but did not recommend surgery to remove the cancer. “My cancer was advanced, so my surgeon suggested that I go to Duke for a second opinion,” says Tonia. “Here, I found hope. My treatment included a mastectomy, surgery to remove the cancer from my liver, chemotherapy and radiation. They attacked my cancer with every weapon available.” Two years later, Tonia had reconstructive surgery.

After that, Tonia had scans every three months, and she was cancer-free until one checkup in 2012, when her doctor discovered a scattering of lesions on her liver. Tonia’s cancer was back. Rather than panicking or sliding into depression, though, Tonia went into maintenance mode. “I take oral chemotherapy every day,” says Tonia, ‘and I manage my cancer as a chronic condition, just like a person with diabetes takes insulin.”

Tonia refuses to let her cancer define her life. “I can’t spend my life worrying about what might happen. One day, cancer might get me. If not, then old age will get me, but I prefer to focus on living,” she says. “Attitude is a choice, and I chose to be positive. I have so much to be grateful for. My faith, my family and my friends were all there to see me through the tough times, and now I want to pay it forward.”

As a volunteer for Susan G. Komen, Tonia has had many opportunities to reach out and help other women who are coping with breast cancer. “The first time I participated in the Race for the Cure, I was overwhelmed,” she recalls. “It was a sea of pink. I was with all these women who share this experience with me. It’s a wonderful cult, a real sense of community.”

Tonia is confident that a cure for breast cancer is on the horizon. “Research is making strides every day,” declares Tonia. “In fact, cancer no longer means an automatic death sentence. It’s a disease to be controlled and managed.” Tonia is living proof of this.

Jennifer’s story

When Jennifer McDonald was diagnosed with cancer, she wanted to shout out, “Hey God, are you up there?” Over time, though, she has discovered a sense of inner peace, strength and joy.

In 2011, Jennifer learned that she had inherited BRCA2, a gene mutation that greatly increases her chances of developing breast cancer. She took assertive action and chose to have a prophylactic (preventative) double mastectomy, assuming that it would eliminate her risk. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

“Two years later, I was stunned to discover a lump in my breast that turned out to be cancer. I felt angry and frustrated,” says Jennifer. “I had already made an incredible sacrifice to avoid this very thing.”

In her typical style, however, Jennifer went into action. She had a lumpectomy performed by surgeon Dr. Roxanne Davenport. Furthermore, after consulting with her oncologist, Dr. William Fintel, she opted to complete four rounds of chemotherapy followed by Tamoxifen to reduce her cancer’s chance of recurrence.

Throughout her ordeal, Jennifer drew strength from many sources, starting with her family — her husband Michael, her son Dylan (age 12), and her daughter Allie (age 10). She also discovered a support group called Young Cancer Chicks of Southwest Virginia. Most of all, however, she tapped into an inner reserve of strength. “I’m kind of obsessed with fitness — running, doing triathlons and being conscious of my nutrition,” says Jennifer, “but now I’ve added yoga and meditation to give me a sense of peace, clarity and focus.”

Jennifer directs her energy and positive attitude toward helping others. “Since my diagnosis, I decided to change careers, and I’m now a personal trainer and Pilates instructor,” she reveals. “I have two friends and several of my fitness clients who are coping with cancer. I hope I can give them support based on what I’ve learned through my own experience.”

“Really, surviving cancer takes more than medical treatment,” she adds. “It takes physical, emotional and spiritual strength.” Jennifer is obviously the embodiment of all three of these as she prepares to take on her next challenge: completing another Half Ironman.