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Breast Cancer: Debbie Van Tuyll

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Editor’s note: October is breast cancer awareness month. Stories related to breast cancer ran on Wednesdays and Sundays.

I knew as soon as I got the call-back from Brown Radiology. It was cancer.

I’m not normally superstitious – well, not much, anyway. I guess I got a few superstitions from my mother, and one of those is to be wary of things that happen in threes.

My brother had just called a couple of days before to tell me his wife was in treatment for breast cancer, and a good friend had let me know that his wife had gone out to Washington state because his daughter was also being treated for breast cancer. She was barely 40.

I didn’t panic. I’d always thought I would. My mother died of breast cancer at 68, not a lot older than I was.

Everything happened fast. I suppose because COVID had shut so much down, but I had the diagnosis and the biopsy the same day, surgery scheduled and done the following week. I have to stop and praise my surgeon, Dr. Randy Cooper. This is strictly opinion: anyone in Augusta who is diagnosed with breast cancer and who needs surgery should have Dr. Cooper do it. He offered me a lifeline, and he is probably the reason I never really panicked. Early on, he said something to me that I still hang on to today: “No one ever died from a breast cancer that had to be found by a mammogram.”

That may or may not be true, but hearing it sure made a difference. It especially made a difference after his first post-surgery call telling me he’d gotten all the cancer with good margins, and my lymph nodes were cancer free. My cancer was Stage 1, so I wouldn’t need chemotherapy, only radiation.

Unfortunately, that call was rescinded by the next one a couple of days later telling me that on a second examination, the pathologist had found cancer in one of my lymph nodes after all. Just one, but that was enough that I’d have to have chemotheraphy afterall. My cancer was Stage 2, and that meant I’d have to have chemotherapy in addition to radiation. That was probably my low point.

Next step was seeing my oncologist, Jeremy Wells. Dr. Wells was another blessing. From the beginning, he told me we weren’t doing palliative care for me; we were working for a cure.

In addition to 12 rounds of chemotherapy, both Dr. Wells and and Dr. Cooper offered the encouragement of a fairly new monoclonal antibody treatment for women with my kind of breast cancer that dramatically increased the five-year survival rate. “It’s a silver bullet,” Dr. Cooper told me.

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The treatment would last for a year, but more than 98 percent of women who have that treatment survive for five years or more if they have early stage cancer and no cancer in lymph nodes. I had early stage cancer and one lymph node with cancer, but it would still dramatically improve my chances of no recurrence.

That treatment with monoclonal antibodies was in addition to regular chemotherapy, which ended exactly a year ago this week. The monoclonal antibodies continued through this past June.

In between was radiation, which was bearable, though daily trips to the clinic for six weeks got old. The techs who administered the treatments were wonderful. They truly made the experience not awful.

I still see Dr. Wells every three months, and he still says we’re working on a cure. And it’s not just him and me. None of the breast cancer support groups were meeting because of COVID, so I put my own together, and they helped me work for a cure. I couldn’t have done without them, especially not in a pandemic. My friend Susan, who’s endured breast cancer four times, has been a fount of knowledge, experience and encouragement. My friend Vickie cooked and brought meals and fellowship when socializing was risky. I had people praying for me all the way from here in Augusta to Pakistan, and I tell you, I felt everyone of those prayers. They were essential in getting me through the process and doing well through it.

I was really lucky. I had few complications, great friends, a supportive spouse, an understanding boss and good doctors. I wouldn’t say it was fun, but I came through relatively unscathed. Others haven’t been so lucky. My sister-in-law’s cancer has moved to her liver and her lungs, and she’s undergoing more chemotherapy, and my friend’s daughter has one cancerous lymph node that can’t be removed.

I told Dr. Wells about all that on my last visit, and admitted that I felt a little guilty at having such an easy time of it while others have suffered so much more. He essentially told me that was crazy talk (though he’s much too nice to say it that way). No one who has to be treated for cancer has it “easy,” he told me. It’s just different for everyone.

I still feel a little guilty, especially when I think about my sister-in-law. I had a year of treatments. She’s well into her second. Or my friend’s daughter, who I suppose will have periodic treatments the rest of her life.

But I’m grateful, too, for my restored health and that treatments are available for those who need them.

What I learned from breast cancer

Going into it, I didn’t anticipate that having breast cancer would be a learning experience, but it was. Here are some of the more important lessons I learned.

  1. Don’t read the book they give you after your surgery. It pretty much presents the worst-case scenario, and you may not experience the worst cast. Instead, find a support group, even if you have to make one yourself and rely on those women – or men. They can get breast cancer, too.
  2. Do your best to stay positive. With so much medical knowledge and new cures and treatments coming on line seemingly daily, your chances of surviving and thriving are probably better than you think.
  3. Have a good support group and doctors you have confidence in. Those, more than anything else, will help you stay positive.
  4. I found caps are more comfortable than wigs, and you can find all sorts of great ones for any occasion. headcovers.com was one of my favorite sites. Amazon has a bunch, too, and so does Magnolia Boutique at University Hospital.
  5. You’ll likely have to buy new bras. The folks at Magnolia can help, or I ordered from online because Magnolia was closed for awhile because of COVID.
  6. It’s a process. Just accept that and know it will end. You just have to get through it.
  7. Laugh a lot. You’ll have different issues crop up, but there will be solutions. Some pleasant, some not so much. But nothing lasts forever.
  8. Accept that some days, all you’ll be able to do is sit on the couch and watch Schitt’s Creek. I can also recommend Lucifer and Hart of Dixie.
  9. Enjoy that this is the one time in your life your doctors will tell you not to lose weight.
  10. Know that treatment will end and then there’s recovery. I’m still working on recovering stamina and strength.

Debbie Van Tuyll

4 COMMENTS

  1. Prayers for you and all who have breast cancer. Your article was inspiring. I have been fortunate, so far, but have several friends who have been through this. Thank God, they are in remission.
    Thank you for sharing such an informative article.

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