Family history tells the Story: Deb's breast cancer journey
American author Darynda Jones wrote: “Insanity does NOT run in my family. It strolls through, takes its time, and gets to know everyone personally.”
Debra Ewing can say the same thing about cancer. Over time, her immediate and extended family have become intimately acquainted with cancer, in many forms. Unfortunately, breast cancer makes frequent return visits to the family; Deb’s mother and older sister both battled the disease.
“My mom had advanced emphysema, so her breast cancer was found really late. Too late. My sister was 17 years older than me. She’s the one who warned me to stay on top of my health and keep getting my check-ups. But since she and my mom were both heavy smokers—and I’m not—I hoped I’d be okay,” Deb said.
Given her family’s cancer history and her sister’s warnings, Deb has purposely paid close attention to her health and how she feels as she’s aged. She listens to her body. So, when her body began sending signals that something was “off,” she made an appointment for a mammogram and a full physical with blood panels.
“I just didn’t feel well. I was too tired all the time. Fortunately, I got in to see a doctor very quickly. In California, it took a long time to get an appointment and to get tests,” said Deb, who moved to Idaho from California in 2020. “The doctors here are great. They take a lot of time with their patients. I’m grateful that my doctor listened to me and got me in quickly.”
Deb’s mammogram found abnormal calcium deposits in her left breast, and the subsequent blood work showed very high levels of calcium. Though we all need calcium, too much can indicate that something is seriously wrong. In Deb’s case, further tests revealed that her parathyroid was malfunctioning and surgery was needed.
As for the calcium deposits, they are fairly common and show up frequently on routine mammograms, especially in women over age 50. However, breast calcifications are too small to be felt during a manual breast exam, and there are no symptoms to indicate their presence. There is also no way to prevent calcium deposits from forming. This means that a mammogram is an essential part of a woman’s annual physical.
Most of the time, when found, breast calcifications are harmless and no treatment is needed. Nevertheless, as Deb explained, “calcium deposits can lead to tumors when they cluster and form groups of misshapen masses.” If the calcifications become too large, they can break through the milk ducts and spread into surrounding tissue as cancer.
Deb needed a second mammogram with 3D imaging to give her doctor a better look at the abnormal deposits.
“It’s amazing that with the 3D imaging you can actually see what the deposits look like. I could see exactly what they were talking about. There have been so many advances in technology since my mom and sister had cancer!
“My cancer was grade three (meaning that it was trying to grow and expand), but it was at stage zero. They called it DCIS – cancer in the ducts, which was not invasive. I was so lucky! It had not broken through the wall of the milk ducts.
“It was a blessing that I was here instead of in California when I got my diagnosis. Doctors there just don’t have time for their patients, and it takes so long to get treated. Here, it’s so different! Dr. Lemon, my breast cancer surgeon, saw me on his lunch break, so did Dr. Miller, my radiation oncologist. I went from diagnosis to treatment within one month. That never would have happened in California. God made it possible for me to come to Idaho, so I could be here to get the right treatment.
“I ended up having a ‘tag-team’ surgery. Dr. Lemon did minimally invasive, targeted surgery to remove the cancerous breast tissue; and while I was still under anesthesia, Dr. Hanks removed two nodules from my parathyroid.”
After surgery, Deb needed a short course of radiation therapy at the Idaho Cancer Center at EIRMC, supervised by Dr. Daniel Miller.
“The staff at the center is awesome! Jamie, the nurse navigator, was my ‘go-between.’ She arranged everything, knew everyone. She’s so amazing!” Deb gushed. “When you have cancer, finding good people is essential. Making those connections with the doctors and nurses who treat you makes a big difference. And you have to, HAVE TO, have a positive attitude because your body responds better to the treatment, and it helps you to focus.”
Along with her positive attitude, Deb also relied on the love and support of her family and friends to get through her radiation treatments.
“My daughter and granddaughters, my son-in-law’s family, they are local and just took me into their fold. They were there for me. Lots of friends in California cheered me on. I posted my status on social media all through the process. Friends sent lots of positive messages and called me. It helped to keep my spirits up. I got lots of messages saying, ‘You can do it, have faith, keep fighting.’”
At 69 years old, with surgery and radiation behind her, Deb has a new desire to live well. She realizes that long life is not a guarantee, and cancer can come back for another visit at any time.
“I really do want to get out and live a little more, work less. That’s what I’ve done all my life - work. Now it’s time for me to take a vacation, go camping with my family, let my clients know that I’m ‘off the grid.’ I’m going to start doing that more—spending more time with family and friends. Even though I was only stage zero and they think they got it all, you just don’t know. It can always come back. So, enjoy life now because it can be taken any time. My heart, my soul and spirit tell me how blessed I am.”
Photo courtesy of Post Register.