A Woman’s View: A survivor’s story

As many of you may already be aware, October is national Breast Cancer Awareness month. Almost everywhere you venture, the pink ribbon (and related items) can be seen being sold, proudly worn or displayed. Many businesses are taking time to contribute and recognize various breast cancer foundations during this month. Fundraisers, walks for the cure and banquets are being held throughout the nation and the NEast.

Chances are, many of you know someone who has had or still has breast cancer, and the number of victims of this tireless disease keeps growing. With new advancements and a better understanding, life expectancy has increased and made it possible for more women (and men) to live with and recover from breast cancer. We still have a long way to go in the ultimate cure, so help do your best to contribute this October in whatever way you can to ensure the survival of women everywhere battling this disease.

I have noticed that many times when you inform a person that someone you know now has cancer they seem to always reply with ,“I know someone who had cancer and died.” While the outlook of cancer may be grim at times, in honor of this month’s “Think Pink” for survival, I have a wonderful story of a courageous survivor who has inspired many with her continued acts of heroic fighting – my mother, Catherine “Kitty” Ward of Southampton. Her story is truly amazing in that she has successfully fought her cancer for 20 years and still maintains her life to the best quality possible, making her a true survivor.

In 1990 when she was only 42 years old, my mother discovered a lump in her chest, which no mammograms or doctors had noticed. In the years that followed, she always advised people: “Early detection is the best protection,” which aided in saving many women who sought her counsel when troubled or faced with a decision. Upon a visit to the doctor and a biopsy confirmation, a mastectomy of her left breast was needed in order to successfully remove all the cancer.

Not being one to ever take the easy road, Kitty complied with little hesitation. “If it doesn’t belong there and it can save a life, take it out,” she said. “If I have to lose my breast, take it. At least I won’t lose my life.” It is not easy for any person to sacrifice a body part – especially when you are a woman and asked to give up a piece of your female anatomy, but Kitty’s will for survival surpassed any vain worries about body image. The operation kept her in the hospital for more than a week to recuperate; in the 1990s there were fewer medical advances that enabled people to leave the hospital early. Happily, the operation appeared to be a success despite its long-lasting scars.

It wasn’t until the winter of 2002, just about 12 years later, that she again discovered a lump on the same side as her mastectomy had been. Her fears were confirmed that the cancer had returned and she was to undergo another operation, on her birthday, to attempt to remove as much of the cancer as possible. Had she consented to having any form of reconstructive surgery of her breast after she lost it 12 years prior, the returning cancer would have gone undetected for much longer, lowering her survival chances.

“I always tell women, yes it is hard to lose a breast, very hard in fact, but you never know what may happen and vanity is not worth dying for,” she said. Unfortunately, the cancer this time had wrapped itself around the nerves in her left arm and rather than have her lose the total usage of that arm, the doctors decided to leave 15 percent of the cancer and remove the rest.

Once she finished another long recovery time, Kitty began radiation treatments and then chemotherapy. “It was one of the hardest things to do, to lay there and let them pump poison into my body and slowly feeling the life being drained out of me or watch my hair fall out piece by piece,” she said. “But in the end, the fight for life is more important and, in time, it is nice to know you have time.”

After several chemo treatments, Kitty’s test counts came down and she was placed on oral chemotherapy for another five years, which was less harsh, until the summer of 2005. A routine CAT scan uncovered cancer in her ovaries and uterus. An operation was scheduled and when it was finished she had lost her gall bladder, uterus, both ovaries and her appendix.

“I am slowly losing all my parts,” she said. “It is hard to feel like a woman when you lose so many of your feminine body parts.” Again, the recuperation time was long and tiring, but she struggled through in the hopes that this time she had rid herself of the cancer for good. She was placed on different oral chemo drugs in order to kill any chance of potential cancer growth that may have still been festering.

It wasn’t until the spring of 2008 that Kitty started to worry again. She began having trouble breathing and noticed it was difficult to complete her usual exercise routines. Another CAT scan was completed and showed significant fluid in the lining of her left lung (again the same side as the mastectomy) that was slowly pressing against the delicate tissue of the lungs.

She had to undergo an outpatient procedure in which doctors placed a long needle in through her back and sucked out all the fluid they could in order to give her lungs room to breathe (done while unconscious) in order to remove the fluid. The fluid was tested and sure enough, it contained very small cancer tumors about the size of a grain of salt. Kitty underwent eight of these procedures before the final one, in which the doctor injected a sticky fluid to help seal the lung to the lining and prevent the fluid from being excreted from the cancer tumors.

Almost 20 years after her first bout with cancer, Kitty found herself having to decide if she wanted to go on chemotherapy again and aggressively fight down the cancer she had battled, or attempt oral chemo, which is less harsh but not as effective. Not wanting to lose her hair and feel drained of energy again, she opted for the less harsh treatment for a month.

“I think I was more or less in denial,” she said. “I finally realized, ‘what am I doing?’ I have children and grandchildren, and I have always fought this head on, so after a month I chose the aggressive treatment.”

Beginning her treatments in the spring of 2009 she continued them with a headstrong attitude despite her growing concern. She concluded her aggressive chemo treatments in the summer only to find that after six weeks of not being on the aggressive chemo, her cancer counts significantly jumped back up to a high marker. She was then informed she would have to be on intravenous chemotherapy for life. As it is always a good idea to seek a second opinion, Kitty sought other guidance and confirmed her oncologists’ conclusions that at this time she was currently on the best treatment plan possible.

“It is hard to know that every third week I will feel bad, but I have two good weeks also. I still have to wear a wig all the time because my hair is sparse, and as a woman, it just feels embarrassing without it. There have been so many advancements in the field, who knows where I will be next year. The point is I have the choice, I have years, God willing,” she said. “I would encourage any woman to fight as hard as she can and never give up, because you never know what’s right around the corner. Who would have thought years ago this would be possible for me to come this far and the quality of life is still pretty good. It is an uphill climb, but at least you’re still climbing. Never give up!”

Kitty is no longer able to maintain a full-time position of employment, but she is able to work part-time and is still able to do many of the things she enjoys. Chemotherapy may have some very harsh side effects, but they are not nearly as bad nowadays as they use to be, and with any hope they will continue to advance with the more funds raised to support research.

Many women would have been tempted to give up after so many battles but Kitty’s will to survive fought past any thought of surrender, making her not only a hero, but also an inspiration to others.

“Happiness is not dreaming about the things you don’t have or can’t change, but rather it is acceptance and taking small joys in the things you do have everyday,” Kitty said.

My mother has listened to many stories and helped many women with her encouragement, her optimistic attitude and cheerful determination. “It is ok to cry every now and then,” she said. “I will say to myself, ‘it is OK to feel upset today, but tomorrow I will be stronger.’”

I hope her remarkable story will help inspire others to keep up their fights and raise awareness of the need for a cure. Please try your best to do your part in helping raise breast cancer awareness and research funding. No woman should be struck down in the dawn of life – Susan G. Komen.

Write in and let us know all the women in your life you would dub a hero as I have Kitty.

A Woman’s View is a column about women’s issues written by Donna Ward. The column appears every other Thursday on NEastPhilly.com. See others here. Read other NEastPhilly columns here.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal