By Carolyn Bahm
Sandra Jones is a former teacher and retired Walgreens pharmacist with merry eyes, a sunny attitude and a quick smile, and she’s equally quick to dab away tears when she talks about the kindness of people who helped her through breast cancer.
She was diagnosed in 1991 at a routine check of her breast fibroids (a noncancerous condition that produces benign lumps). She’d had that condition for years and wasn’t worried about it.
It was a busy period at work, and her daughter had just gotten engaged. The family was in a whirl of wedding plans, and life was busy in general. Then Jones found out her doctor was retiring, and she wanted to tell him goodbye. So she went in for her annual mammogram, expecting to get another reassuring “nothing to worry about” checkup.
Instead, her doctor called to say the mammogram showed a suspicious lump in her right breast. He set up a biopsy for two days later. He then called her on Friday so she didn’t worry about the results all weekend. He had set up a surgery consultation for her at 8 a.m. Monday morning.
“I knew then I was in trouble,” Jones said.
The surgeon told her, “I’m just going to give it to you the way it is. You’ve got cancer, and we’re gonna have to do something about it right now.”
All her work responsibilities and her daughter’s wedding plans whirled through her mind. Cancer? She didn’t have time for that. But cancer doesn’t wait.
Her cancer was at stage 2B because of its size when she was diagnosed, but it had not spread.
Jones at first opted for a lumpectomy followed by radiation. But she was appalled at the callousness of the radiologist who told her, “Taking a breast off is like taking your big toe off. You just get used to it.”
She decided she couldn’t deal with him, and she changed her mind. She chose to have a mastectomy to completely remove one breast and some of her lymph nodes.
She was touched by the people who supported her. A friend’s sister was a nurse who swapped shifts with another nurse to be a familiar face for Jones in the operating room.
Other volunteers, former breast cancer patients themselves, also made her recovery easier.
Jones explained, “They have this wonderful group that comes to your hospital room and brings you a new little training bra, a new little false boob, and it’s just a little piece of cotton, but it makes you look right in your clothes. And that’s important. And the things that I thought were so unimportant, they were important. They were. I just got to go home looking like me, which is amazing.”
The support lifted her spirits, and she needed that.
“You wake up and you’re suddenly — you’re flat-chested — and you don’t look right. You don’t walk right, because you’ve got so much weight on one side and your gait changes.”
What followed was a seemingly endless series of doctor’s visits, physical healing from the surgery, and then chemotherapy.
At the University of Tennessee, she took part in a study that gave her Adriamycin, a potent chemo drug nicknamed the Red Devil, the Red Death or the Red Killer because of its color and the rough side effects.
“It’s a tough one,” she said. “But in your mind, you think, ‘If it’s really that awful, it’s got to be good.’”
The chemotherapy “knocks your butt on the floor,” Jones said. She rated the mastectomy’s pain at a 3-4 but said chemo ranked about a 12. The nausea was overwhelming. She would throw up immediately afterward and again on the way home, and it kept her on the bathroom floor for about three days.
“You dread it, you hate it, your mouth gets sore,” she said. “It gets to the point – the only thing I could have going down me was lukewarm water. It couldn’t be cold. It couldn’t be hot. It couldn’t be acidic like a Coke. You just didn’t want anything in your throat at all. And you were burning from your throat to your rectum. You are so sore.”
She was ready to just give up. Then she heard of a new anti-nausea drug, Zofran. In the U.S., it was only available to people in a clinical study, and they had to receive it intravenously. But UT’s protocol said Jones wasn’t sick enough.
A nursing friend contacted a doctor she knew in Canada, where Zofran was available in pill form. He agreed to mail the medicine to her doctor’s office after a consultation with Jones’ doctor.
“It was totally life changing,” Jones said. “… And all these little warriors that I had were making all this fall into place.”
The help kept on coming, too. A year and a half after her surgery and chemo, Jones got a call from a woman whose daughter was friends with Jones’ daughter. The woman had survived breast cancer and had gotten reconstruction. Jones was refusing to even consider the cosmetic procedure. The woman offered to show her what it looked like.
“So this complete stranger comes to my house and goes ‘Whoop!’” Jones laughed and made a gesture of pulling a shirt over her head. “Okay! And I thought, well, that’s just not so bad. And she said, ‘I’m telling you. For all that you’ve been through, this is nothing.’’’
Jones had the surgery. Now when she hugs someone, it’s not a soft piece of cotton on one side of her chest, and it’s not the expensive prosthesis her insurance company purchased. Jones ended up giving that prosthesis to one of her customers who couldn’t afford one of her own.
Jones later joined the support group that visited her in the hospital and learned from their advice and their refusal to give up on themselves. Some were going through a second round of cancer. One had daughters who developed breast cancer, and the mother felt guilt for possibly passing on the gene for it. Others had husbands who walked out on them. Some were staying in their marriages just because they needed his health insurance.
The message they shared was, “We got this, and it’s gonna be okay. And it’s gonna be okay no matter what.”
“I think that’s what breast cancer taught me, is ‘Get up and live. Whatever little thing it is, just enjoy,” Jones said.
Today, five years after retirement, Jones feels grateful to be alive and appreciates the scientists and research subjects who help to improve cancer treatments. She also really relishes the joys of life and the kindnesses of others who helped when she was at her lowest.
She’s always been a “people” person – the kind of pharmacist who got invited to a couple’s 50th wedding anniversary after serving three generations of their family. When she was battling breast cancer, she was touched by the friends, family and acquaintances who generously gave back to her.
One friend’s Sunday School class of 12-year-olds came and pulled weeds in her garden. A chemo nurse complimented her wig. Friends helped her clean her house. Her mother paid for Jones’ bucket-list trip to Europe after chemo.
A male neighbor was nearby when she noticed her own hair was falling out from chemo. He sat with her in her yard and helped her pull out the loose tufts. They left them in the garden, where birds could use them for nest building, he said. Jones added, “He just did everything I needed to hear that was funny.”
Another male friend from fourth grade was dining at home with Jones and her husband when she said she had to take her hot wig off. The friend kissed the top of her bald head and assured her it was fine – and at least hers would grow back, unlike his. The gentle humor was just what she needed.
“You have your warriors, and you need to let them be your warriors,” she said.
No one wants breast cancer, but patients have to learn that the disease doesn’t define them and they are not victims, she said. And patients aren’t just women. Men can get the disease too.
Her advice to people today is to speak up about their own health needs and monitor their health themselves. “Every woman, child, from puberty on needs to be taught to examine her own breasts, because you know your own breasts better than anybody else.”