Enjoy the Support of Other Breast Cancer Survivors

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • When the brown-paper-wrapped package arrived, I didn’t recognize the name on the return address.  I was weak from chemo and feeling pretty sorry for myself.   Inside was a bottle of shampoo and a note from Frances Wood saying she had used this shampoo when she was on chemo and found it made her tender scalp feel better.  It took me a while to put the pieces together, but I finally realized that the gift was from a teacher at the school where I would be starting a new job in August.


    As I struggled to learn my new job teaching 7th and 8th grade English in a new city while finishing chemo and starting radiation, I learned that Frances’ gift of shampoo and encouraging note to a new colleague she had met only briefly was a typical act of kindness.  Frances provided me daily encouragement and practical help.  As I got to know her better, I learned the story of how persistence saved her life.

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    In 1989 when Frances went in for her routine mammogram, the radiation tech said, “You have a little dent next to your nipple.”  The technician called in the radiologist who dismissed the problem.  The mammogram and an ultrasound found nothing.


    Six weeks later the dent had grown worse.  “It looked like someone poking a finger in ice cream,” say Frances.  So Frances went to her internist, who wasn’t concerned.  Her films were good.  She shouldn’t worry about it.  Frances was 51, a little younger than the average breast cancer patient, but cancer runs in her family, and she didn’t want to ignore a possible symptom.


    She was convinced that something was wrong.  “It was like someone grabbing a sheet and pulling from underneath.”  So she went back to the doctor again.  He wasn’t convinced, but said that since she seemed so worried he would refer her to a surgeon for further evaluation. 


    Three weeks later, the surgeon took one look and scheduled a biopsy.  Frances says, “I remember him coming in as I was waking up and he said, ‘It is cancer.’”  It was Stage II invasive lobular carcinoma.  Her tumor had been sitting on the chest wall out of the view of mammograms and too deep to feel with a manual exam.


    In one of the coldest Decembers in Kansas City history, Frances had her mastectomy, and then she was on to CMF chemo.  “One of my worst experiences was buying a wig.  They all looked like Dolly Parton.” 


    As a second-grade teacher on chemo, Frances was careful to wash her hands, but she preferred to work and stay busy.  “I only missed one day of work while I was on chemo.  I figured that even if I was operating at only fifty percent, I was better than a substitute because I knew the children.”   She lay down on a yoga mat when the class went to recess and lunch.


    It wasn’t germy kids that almost did Frances in.  It was a lop-eared rabbit who escaped from a kindergarten room.  Frances found him chewing on a computer cord one Monday morning.  When she grabbed the rabbit, he bit her twice.  Because chemo affects the immune system, the doctor put her on strong antibiotics right away.


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    About a year after her treatment, Frances was back at the doctor with pain in her hip and ribs.  When a bone scan was inconclusive, the oncologist wanted to watch the spots and wait.  Frances didn’t intend to wait.  She called one of her former doctors in Texas, and persuaded him to schedule an MRI.  She flew to Dallas for the MRI, which fortunately didn’t find any cancer.  “It was worth every penny to get a quick answer,” she says.  “I just couldn’t wait.  I had to know.”


    By the time I met Frances, she was a nine-year survivor and a ball of energy.  In addition to her regular teaching, she coached the middle school math team, volunteered at the Bloch Cancer Center, and took care of her aging mother.  Whenever she got a chance, she visited her adult children in Texas and her extended family scattered across the United States.


    In the seven years we taught together, we had other colleagues diagnosed with cancer.  I watched Frances teach other women to be assertive, to insist on tests, to ask for second opinions, to advocate for their own health.



    Now technically retired, Frances teaches math part-time, plays with her grandchildren, and continues as a volunteer with Bloch.  “When someone has a diagnosis similar to mine, they give me her name so I can call and talk to her.”  She’s still encouraging people to be persistent


    Frances and her grandchild


Published On: October 16, 2008