Bainbridge breast cancer survivors tell their stories, share advice

Published 4:47 pm Thursday, October 10, 2013

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From left, Cathy Holt, Pam Burch and Shelby Phillips are breast cancer survivors. These three women are just several among many in Bainbridge and Decatur County but are sharing their stories of faith and hope and giving advice for those facing the disease now.

Every woman in Bainbridge has been affected by Breast Cancer whether they were diagnosed with it or not. Here are stories of three women who fought and survived the disease, growing stronger in their faith and becoming closer with their families. There is a general consensus among survivors that they would have rather not gone through the ordeal — but are now stronger because of it and breast cancer is something that will forever be a part of their lives.

Cathy Holt
Cathy Holt realized she had an odd lump in her left breast one day when she was taking care of her mother who was dying at the time. After her mother had passed days later in 2011, she went to the doctor for an exam. What they found would change her life, but lead her to help others and be a support system for women around the world.
Today Holt is cancer free, but said there isn’t a day that goes by that she doesn’t think about her breast cancer journey.
“I received the most shocking and unexpected news ever,” Holt said, talking about April 23, 2011 when the doctors delivered the results of her needle biopsy. She had a very aggressive form of stage 2 breast cancer, but later found out it was stage 3. Several weeks later she went under for surgery on May 11 and had a double mastectomy.
“I had three lumps in my left breast that were cancerous,” Holt said. “Multiple lymph nodes were removed from under my left arm and one of those was cancerous. After a difficult recovery I ended up needing 7 pints of blood.”
She stayed for a whole week in the hospital recovering. For Holt recovery was difficult. She was not able to have reconstruction done at the time of the mastectomy. Doctors needed access to her chest wall, they told her. Staying home and dealing with the drains in both sides of her body and pain was rough, Holt said.
“I did not want to look at myself. I also decided not to wear a prosthesis,” Holt said, and added her husband was there through it all — taking her to all appointments. He took her to 22 chemotherapy treatments and 35 reaction treatments. She lost all of her hair.
“I cut it off short before it fell out then my husband buzzed it off for me,” she said.
But her journey continued even after healing. After discovering she had the Brca2 positive cancer gene, she had her ovaries removed. When doctors went in and only found one — this too was emotional for Holt.
“I have had a difficult time dealing with some of this, but I have met a lot of amazing friends along the way,” said Holt who now shares in a support system online where she is close with women all over the U.S., Germany and Denmark.
“We’ve all become very attached to one another,” Holt said. “We keep each other lifted up when one is feeling down. We call ourselves the pinksistas.”
Holt will be on tamoxifen for the next five years. She sees three doctors every three months and learned several weeks ago her hematologist has put her on a six-month visit timetable. “That was a big deal for me,” she added.
“My goal now is to stay healthy for my family and to educate others about this disease. Awareness is the key. I talk about my journey to anyone that wants to listen,” Holt said. “It’s been an emotional journey. One I would have rather not taken. But it was meant to be.”

Pam Burch
Pam Burch was 42 and healthy until she found a benign tumor in her right breast. Even though that was a total relief to have the tumor removed and be cancer free, it wasn’t but several months later when another cancerous tumor was found in her other side. The cancer was spreading and quickly but after extensive treatments Burch is cancer free today with her church family as her greatest support.
“I went to go get a mammogram done and they found another tumor in the left breast,” Burch said, about the second time doctors found a tumor — the first one was benign. “I had dense tissue so they said that is why they couldn’t see it nine months prior when I had the other tumor removed.”
With her dense tissue she had to go through a series of tests at the hospital with MRIs and other procedures. Doctors told Burch after an ultrasound she had a cancerous tumor, several additional ones.
Burch knew she had to have a mastectomy but wondered if she could reduce her cancer risk even more.
“I asked the doctor in Thomasville if it would be foolish to just get both breasts removed and he said it sounded like a good idea,” Burch said.
Two breasts removed, doctors then found she had cancer in her lymph nodes.
And she said when doctors find out you have it in your lymph nodes they, “really want to hit you hard with everything they can.”
And so at age 42 Burch did chemotherapy and radiation. She lost her hair and described seeing herself without breasts and hair as, “just strange.”
Though food tasted awful and she was sick, her family and church family became her support and help.
“My kids were in the eighth grade,” Burch remembers of her twin boy and girl, saying the kids didn’t totally react at first. She remembers her daughter asking her if she was going to die.
“My husband was in disbelief,” Burch said. “He couldn’t fix this and you know men always want to fix things.
“I had a lot of support from my church, First United Methodist. Meals and cards came constantly, phone calls and visits — it was just constant and was wonderful. People in the church would bring the meals and would branch out into people from other churches and other places. I was overwhelmed that the community came together and supported me.”
She said it is hard to imagine having gone through breast cancer without having had that church network.
Burch later had reconstructive surgery thanks to a plastic surgeon in Atlanta that used her own tissue to recreate what she lost in her breast cancer battle.
As for women out there that haven’t gotten a mammogram, Burch says her eyes get really big when she hears someone admit that.
“I tell those women they are crazy for not doing anything,” Burch said. “That it is better to know as soon as possible, because then you have more chances of dealing with it in a minor way and a simpler way and saving your life.”

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Shelby Phillips
Shelby Phillips was 47 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in her left breast. Phillips has a story that is unique — no sob stories here, partly because of her great attitude but also because she caught her cancer early.
Since her diagnosis she has had breast cancer in the other breast as well, had a double mastectomy but never had to receive chemotherapy or radiation — something she said should be celebrated.
Not all stories are as happy as hers, but she said it is because she caught it early.
“I was getting out of the shower and my towel slipped and as it did, my thumb brushed against my left breast,” Phillips said. “And I felt something. I felt a lump.”
She went to work and told her coworkers, who immediately pushed her to the doctor. The doctor wanted to see her in his office within 30 minutes of the phone call.
“Within two weeks of that doctors visit I had my left breast removed,” Phillips said. “It was early enough that my lymph nodes were clear.”
No chemo, no radiation — just the drug tamoxifen for five years.
Phillips said she was shocked at first with her diagnosis — her husband and children were too.
“But once that set in, it was like my faith kicked in and it was almost like I had this calmness and this peace that came over me,” Phillips said. “And I said ‘Lord whatever is going to be, its gong to be’ and I was fine.”
She said there some times at the beginning where her family was emotional out of shock of the discovery, but once her breast was removed and her lymph nodes came back clear, everything seemed like it was fine.
She even went back to work the week following her mastectomy.
“Having it taken off was a piece of cake,” Phillips explained, which is rare because most women claim the mastectomy to be the most difficult part of the process. “I just wanted the cancer off of my body.”
You want to live, she said about battling cancer, when your faith kicks in you start to think about all of these things that you normally wouldn’t have thought about.
“Like You want to see your kids graduate, you want to see them get married, you want to see your grandkids, so you just put yourself around positive people and laughter is the best medicine,” she said.
But then in 2011 the same thing happened again. In her regular mammogram, doctors discovered a tumor in her other breast.
It was the same story as the first round of cancer she went through — no chemo, no radiation just a mastectomy.
With two breasts removed, Phillips said she was ready to ditch the prosthesis and start reconstruction.
“I stood in the mirror and thought, ‘is that really me,’” Phillips said. “But then I realized there are so many other women who have it worse.”
For Phillips reconstruction, the insertion of expanders under muscle tissue was the most painful and difficult part of her cancer journey, but today she is happily reconstructed and cancer free.
Advice for women going through cancer: “stay positive,” Phillips said. “Just keep positive thoughts when you are going through something like that. You can’t be with anyone negative. Put your faith in the Lord.”