By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
In February 2009, Mary Weaver of Culllman had a good job at Ruby Tuesdays. She had just moved out into an apartment with two friends and her daughter, Emma. Her life was just beginning to be what she had dreamed of when, in moments, it turned on a dime.
What with the move and working on her feet all the time, she had lost some weight. “I think it was the weight coming off that made me notice the lump in my breast when I bent over to the side one day,” said Mary. “It was almost the size of a golf ball,” she recalled. “I showed it to my mom and she made an appointment for me.”
“I’d always taught both my daughters to do self-exams early in life,” said Mary’s mother, Lou Weaver. “When I saw this one, I told her that it needed to be checked right away.”
Although Mary’s father had died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 29, and since Mary was only 24, and there was no history of breast cancer in her family, she had never had a mammogram. That was about to change.
Within a week of discovering the lump, Mary was sitting in the office of her family physician. He was almost certain that, because of her age and medical history that this was a fibroid cyst, but he wanted to make sure, so he sent her to a surgeon. The surgeon was 99 percent sure that the family physician’s diagnosis of fibro was correct, but wanted to follow-up in three months to see if it had changed.
Just after those three months had expired, before she could get back for her checkup, Mary was shaving under her arm when she noticed a small nodule, about the size of an M &M. Again, she showed it to her mother, who ran her finger across it with a sinking heart. “This isn’t good,” she said.
She was right. It had spread into Mary’s lymph nodes. “Fibroids don’t spread,” she thought. So once again she was once again on the phone making an appointment for her daughter. Within three days she was in the doctor’s office and on Monday of the following week, she was in surgery for a lumpectomy.
“He didn’t even have to send it off to be analyzed,” said Lou. “He knew.”
The surgeon came out to let Lou know that it was a Stage II (of a Stage IV) cancer. In shock herself, she knew that she had to break the news to her beautiful daughter when she woke up — those were the hardest words she had ever had to say to anyone in her life.
How do you tell a vibrant 24-year-old mother that she has cancer?
“I just told her that it was malignant and we both cried, hugged, then cried some more,” recalled Lou. “Then I said, ‘Okay, we’ll cry today and tomorrow, then we’ll smile and get on with this’.”
And so they did.
Because the doctors had explained that hers was a very aggressive form of cancer, Mary opted to have a mastectomy, and was encouraged to start chemotherapy right after surgery.
She also opted not to have any reconstructive procedure done for the time being. “I might change my mind about that later,” she said thoughtfully. “But for now, I’m just proud that I made it through this, and I have a lot of confidence that it is gone.”
Although Mary confesses that there were days when she wanted to have a pity party and cry “Why me?”, she could recall that her nurses (who she says were awesome) had told her that a positive attitude was everything in this situation.
“I could have been depressed, but I just would not let myself go there,” she said emphatically. “I could see how that attitude could suck you right under.”
Instead, Mary donned her new wig, put on her false eyelashes, make-up and pretty clothes and faced the world determindly.
She found the Look Good, Feel Better Program to be very helpful in boosting her self-confidence.
She endured first the lumpectomy, then chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and finally radiation treatments. That was two-and-a-half years ago, and she is now taking Tamoxifen, and will remain on this cancer drug until she hits the five year mark.
After facing the biggest challenge of her young life, she pursued her goals, which included graduating from Wallace State Community College. Mary is now enrolled in the Clinical Psychology Program at UAB.
Has this experience changed her life? “Sure it has,” she exclaimed. “They say you really never fully understand something until you’ve lived through it, and now I know how true that is. Every time I see one of these pink ribbons, a thousand thoughts go through my mind of women who are going through this. I probably never gave it a thought before.”
“God’s grace and mercy got us though this,” said her mother. “When we heard the diagnosis, I cried out to God for a miracle, and here she is, you can see the miracle in her eyes.”
Lou said that through it all, Mary never complained, but instead kept standing, kept fighting, and kept going.
“I give credit first to God, for my healing, then to my doctors, Dr. William Smith, Dr. John Nacilla, and Dr. Vince Karolewics, who saved my life,” said Mary, the conviction in her voice unmistakable.
“I want to be an advocate for early detection,” said Mary. “I think that girls my age should be able to have mammograms if their family history indicates a chance for breast cancer. In rare cases, like mine, you never want to believe that it can be cancer, but if you think there is something there, you should have an exam. Any abnormality should be checked — don’t just blow it off. If you aren’t completely satisfied with the diagnosis, ask for more testing, or for another opinion. It’s your life.”
According to the online site Women's Health, most breast cancer (65-70 percent) occurs in women over 50 years of age. Only 1 in 2500 women develop breast cancer by age 30 and only 1 in 200 women develop it by age 40. Younger women who develop breast cancer are more likely to have genetic risk factors. It is almost as if there are two different types of breast cancer, that occurring rarely, but before menopause and that occurring more commonly, but after menopause.