‘You have cancer’

Darnell Whited works outside, as she is able, as therapy. -Cheryl Helton

Darnell Whited works outside, as she is able, as therapy. -Cheryl Helton

Three words, “You have cancer.” Thirteen letters from the alphabet form the words. Across Blount County, many folks have heard this statement. We believe we understand the impact it has on those who receive these words. Until it happens to you though, you don’t understand.

Being born in Blount County, I feel honored to share this journey with other individuals who may face the same situation. In sharing, I asked myself, “What would a reader want to know about my personal journey?”

Some would want to know the sequence of events, from discovery to recovery, with details. Others people would want to know how to help individuals diagnosed with breast cancer, but they simply don’t know what to do. For the individual dealing with cancer, they may want to know how others handle the total recovery.

Because writing is important to me, from the beginning, a longtime friend told me to document my story with pictures and words. My thoughts at the time were, “Why would I ever want to remember this?” and “Why remember the pain and grief it caused my friends and family?” These were not questions, but statements of anger. Why remember what was?

Darnell Whited awakens from a double mastectomy at St. Vincent’s Downtown. -photo courtesy Darnell Whited

Darnell Whited awakens from a double mastectomy at St. Vincent’s Downtown. -photo courtesy Darnell Whited

Journaling is part of my life; so privately, I began writing as many words as I could. I was in denial this was happening to me. Photographs were taken for only me to see, if someday I wanted to remember. I wrote my thoughts to document my journey. This is my personal story.

As a retired educator with a few college degrees, my confidence in handling most matters was high. My family had faced two major health tragedies – my father’s death from Alzheimer’s and my brother’s death from complications related to schizophrenia. My mother, Martha Grigsby, would turn 97 in June of 2020. Mom and I had settled in to a secure and comfortable life style.

A long-time believer in pro-active health care, I always got my flu shot, had my yearly physical, and my yearly mammogram. At 74, I considered myself extremely healthy.

It was February 2020 when I had my annual mammogram. The following week I received a phone call to reschedule the mammogram and have an ultrasound. This had happened before over the years, so there was no reason to worry. It would be the same thing.

The tests were completed. The following week there was another phone call that informed me the spots appeared to be abnormal. I had options. Wait six months and retest, or schedule with a surgeon.

Down through the years, I have said to my son, “If the small voice inside you speaks, you better listen.” Maybe I have a guardian angel, but thoughts of “Don’t wait. There are no options” kept coming back to me.

It was during this same time the coronavirus shut down many places, and civil unrest filled our state.

When the first call was made to Birmingham Breast Care, no appointment could be scheduled. They were not taking new patients and most of the staff “worked from home.” I could only leave a message with details. Time progressed, and by May, an appointment was scheduled with Dr. Susan Winchester.

That day all my records from St. Vincent’s Blount were reviewed, and five biopsies were taken. My journey with cancer had begun. My life as I knew it began to change.

Before leaving the office, chilling words were spoken by Dr. Winchester. “We’ll get you through this.” Mentally, I questioned, “What is ‘this going to be’?” With her experience, she already knew what I had.

On May 19, the biopsies confirmed my fear. I was told, “You have cancer.” I couldn’t speak or question. A staff member had to phone my son who was waiting in the parking deck. She explained the test results.

An MRI had to be completed before we could go further. On June 2, it confirmed the type of my cancer was invasive lobular carcinomas. It was stage two. The words, “We got it in time,” were spoken. “In time” was about all I heard.

Invasive lobular carcinoma begins in the milk-producing glands of the breast. To be invasive, the cancer cells have gone out of those glands. From that point, the cancer cells can spread to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body. Mayo Clinic states it’s not clear what causes it. Older age women are more likely to have it. The use of hormone replacement therapy increases the risk for this cancer. This type of cancer is the second most common type of invasive breast cancer.

As the journey continued, my idea of who I was began to change without me realizing it. I had been a very outspoken, articulate person with great self-confidence. These things began to slip away. My dependence on my son, Bart Rainey, began to increase.

I didn’t want to know about cancer or talk about cancer. I simply wanted it out of my body. With the help of my son, Dr. Winchester, her staff, and my cardiologist, Dr. David MacLean, I was cleared for immediate surgery on June 8. I only had to pass the coronavirus test, and I did!

The longest, loneliest walk of my life was the morning of June 8. It was down the hallway of St. Vincent’s Hospital in downtown Birmingham where I would put on my surgical gown. I had never experienced an anxiety attack, but that’s what probably happened.

I did, however, have the presence of mind to tell myself, “You cannot back out,” and “Only you can do this.” I was allowed to see my son briefly before they gave me that wonderful shot. I told him I loved him and would see him on the other side.

Upon waking up, over and over, I probably asked my son 10 times, “Am I okay?” He would smile, tell me each time I was fine, and I would drift off back to sleep.

I would finally be awake enough to know my lymph nodes were clear and both breasts had been removed. We learned removing what appeared to be the healthy right breast had been the correct decision. Abnormal cells had begun to form in the right breast at a cellular level. The surgery was past. I documented my survival with a photograph for friends and family.

What about recovery? I am one of the fortunate women. There was no radiation or chemotherapy. On July 16, my oncologist at Birmingham Oncology told me, “I consider you cancer free.” I asked Dr. Bondly, “Would you say that again?” She smiled and repeated the statement.

Afterward, calmly and peacefully, I walked down another hallway to the parking deck to tell my son the news. During the days and nights from March until July 16, I never cried. This day, I took off my mask, sprayed my hands with sanitizer, sat down in the car, and cried uncontrollably in the parking deck of the Bruno Cancer Center.

Imagine my son’s fear as I could only sob and say, “I’m cancer free.” His reaction was, “Mother, why are you crying?” A mountain of stress was gone.

What did I learn from this journey to pass on to someone else? First, I refer to the five stages of grief that one experiences when a loved one dies – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

For me, a double mastectomy was a state of grief. I would go through all the stages, not in any order, sometimes repeat a stage, and struggle forward.

Denial for me was not being able to talk about cancer or even research the topic. I couldn’t face it.

“Anger” was the question “Why would this happen to me at 74?” I thank Sharon Cook, one of the strongest women I know, who wrote in an article, “Why not me?” My anger involved many talks with the creator. I talked and hoped up above there was listening going on.

As days passed, I was angry at the little white pill, Exemestane (Aromasin). I would take it for at least five years. But, anger at a pill is not logical.

Bargaining was a simple stage. Each day life slowly returned to a new normal. I could garden a few minutes, walk my hiking trail, hug my big dog, and thank friends. At this stage, I realized I might not be a religious person, but I was a very spiritual person.

I walked outside a lot and talked to the blue sky often saying, “I don’t know why you gave me this.” “It’s mine.” “I’m not going to let this stop me from living.” “I’ll do something with it.” “But, what can I do?” I raked a lot of fallen leaves and talked a lot more.

Depression is different for each patient. Fortunately, mine was limited. I hate to shower because I face the scars. I hate my clothes because nothing fits. I fear being out in public, because “Will people notice?” Medication is complicated and unpredictable. My arms never stop hurting. A day came when I used a friend’s saying, “Suck it up and move on.” I am not the only one, nor will I be the last woman to question, “Why me?”

The last of the stages of grief is acceptance. Only time will answer that, for it is ongoing.

A mastectomy is a very personal battle with two recoveries – the surgery and the emotional recovery. Both are painful, but the most difficult for me has been the emotional recovery and dealing with my self-image.

Our culture places a high value on the perfect body. Women face this cultural “problem” when dealing with breast cancer. Research will one day do more to help with the emotional recovery.

If cancer survivors are interviewed, almost everyone will speak highly of the love and support they received from friends and family. There will be many to thank. Pat Lyles, Casey White, and Beverly Ellis have been my strong women supporters.

Almost miraculously, prior to my diagnosis, a longtime childhood friend came out of my past and back into my life via email. It had been more than 60 years. He learned of my situation and wanted to be supportive. Having strong male supporters, like him, my son, and a former classmate, helped give me energy and confidence to fight my way through this time.

Turning 75 with drain tubes hanging out of my bandages, I knew I had to have a positive plan for the small things and big projects for later. Elimination of stress was key to the plan, and that included negative people.

I don’t watch TV because I can’t fix the world. The news only adds stressors. I’ll finish my second book. I look for happiness. It may be through a butterfly, a bird, a frog, a flower, or a smile from a stranger.

Exercise, exercise, and more exercise, no matter how much it hurts. Walk outside. Photograph the world we live in. I put on my make-up every day. It just helps me feel better about myself. Don’t dwell on “the loss.”

I read about focusing on the present. I found a great quote, “If you want to be happy, do not dwell in the past. Do not worry about the future, focus on living fully in the present.”

In ending, believe it or not, I feel fortunate. My physical recovery is amazing. I still have bad days, but don’t we all. It’s a positive attitude that saves me, and not looking back. Positive special friendships keep me smiling. I find courage in small things, like when my son says, “Mom, you’re going to be fine.”

Will my cancer come back? Maybe, maybe not. The percentages are in my favor. I’ll take that white pill. I’ll visit the Cancer Center and be thankful that I am one of the fortunate ones. There is a reason this happened to me. I don’t have to know or understand the reason. Living in the present is all we have.