Mary Kay Lucas never thought it would happen to her.
She knew of people who had it, but no one in her family.
Much to her surprise, breast cancer changed her life.
Times Observer photo
by Lydia Cottrell
Breast cancer patient Mary Kay Lucas touches her hair, which recently grew back after cancer treatment. She describes it as “fine like baby hair.”
As pink ribbons and banners draw attention to October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, survivors like Lucas are aware everyday of the importance of awareness and early detection.
In the fall of 1995, Lucas found a lump in her breast. In denial, she ignored the anomaly. But when the lump got bigger, she contacted her doctor who sent her straight to a surgeon.
Even after the diagnosis, she was still in denial.
"I said 'no' but a few minutes later it hit me," she said
She was faced with the options of removing the lump or removing the whole breast. Ultimately, she chose a lumpectomy.
"Telling everybody was really hard," she said of her diagnosis.
The lump was removed along with her lymph nodes.
Coping with breast cancer, according to Lucas, is easier by talking about it. She said even if patients don't talk about being sick, "it's still going to be there when you face it."
Lucas' cancer reoccurred. Over the past 13 years, she has gone through 14 different forms of chemotherapy. She also took part in a study for the experimental breast cancer drug Tamoxifen.
Having lost her hair three times, her husband, Jim, jokes about the shortened amount of time it takes his wife to get ready. Her hair is currently short and she has ditched her wig, for now.
As a cancer patient, the cancer treatment center became a sort of second home.
"They become family real fast," she said of Warren General Hospital's Cancer Care Center staff.
Lucas also pointed out that the common perceptions of chemotherapy are not true. She said advances in medications curb the side effects of treatment.
"You don't have to be sick," she said.
With a 13-year battle with the disease still going, Lucas has come to appreciate the time she makes for herself.
"The little things don't matter anymore," she added.
For those who have not been touched by breast cancer, she said, "Do the self-examines and if you feel anything, get your body to the doctor."
For those diagnosed with breast cancer, Lucas recommends talking about the issue. More importantly, support is key.
"You need your family and your friends," she emphasized.
According to Dr. Jennifer Birgani, a medical oncologist at the Cancer Care Center, on average, women between the ages of 35 and 40 should get their first mammogram and follow with annual screening. The annual mammogram should also be accompanied by a breast exam administered by a physician.
Birgani said MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) can be used for women who have dense breasts or an increased risk of breast cancer.
"Woman that are younger have breasts that are more dense," she said.
While MRIs can aid in the detection of abnormal lumps, it is not the standard.
Certain women are at higher risk than others for developing breast cancer. Women with breast cancer in the family have a higher risk. However, a woman with one first-degree relative with a history of breast cancer has less of a risk than a woman who is in a family with a long history of the disease.
"Most women have no risk factor for breast cancer," she said.
There are environmental variables which could put a woman at risk for developing breast cancer.
"Obesity and inactivity are associated with risk for breast cancer," she said.
Treatment for breast cancer is dependent on the stage of the disease, Birgani said.
Treatment can incorporate surgery, radiation and medical therapies such as chemotherapy and endocrine treatment.
A lumpectomy is the removal of the tumor and is often referred to as breast preservation. According to Birgani, a lumpectomy is generally followed with radiation and sometimes chemotherapy treatment.
A mastectomy is the removal of the breast.
"Treatment for breast cancer is very personalized," Birgani said because new research and medications are applied to each situation allowing the doctor and the patient to decide the best route to recovery.
Chemotherapy and endocrine treatment or hormone treatment can be used in advance staged patients as a means of controlling symptoms.
"The more treatment options you have the more you can tailor the treatment," she added.