By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
Some people trace their lineage through family stories, facial features that are passed from one generation to another, or by homes, land and heirloom furniture that has been handed down from mother to daughter or father to son.
One Cullman family traces their ancestry in a much different way — through the women in their family tree who have had breast cancer. It started, as near as records have been kept, with Minnie Mills Hughes, in Livingston, Texas. Hughes was 44 when she was diagnosed. She died a year later, on Feb. 20, 1960.
Her daughter, Edna Hughes Dendy, was 57 when she succumbed to breast cancer, six years after being diagnosed. She was only 20 when her own mother died. She lost her battle with cancer Feb. 2, 1997.
Dendy’s daughter, Cheryl Dye, of Cullman, was 42 at the time she discovered a lump in her breast April 16, 2002. “With all the family history, it was sort of like I was just waiting for the shoe to drop,” said Dye. Cheryl’s tumor was determined to be 2 centimeters at the time it was biopsied. She still had one of her four children at home.
“I made the appointment and they did a mammogram and the biopsy in the doctor’s office,” she recalled. “But I knew the results before they even came in to tell me.”
She didn’t have any insurance, so the diagnosis was doubly horrifying.
“I just thought that there was no sense in going to the doctor since I had no coverage — I thought I had no where to turn.”
But then her husband thought to call the Cullman County Health Department, and things changed for the better. “He talked to someone who got me on a program through the health department,” she explained. It was a huge help to the family, both mentally, as well as physically.
Cheryl’s mind was a whirlwind of thoughts about the things she had heard about her mother’s and grandmother’s treatments. “My grandmother went to M.D. Anderson in Texas for experimental treatments, but my own mother said ‘Never again!’ and didn’t go that route.” Edna, Cheryl’s mother, chose to have chemotherapy and radiation treatments in her own hometown of Humble, Texas. Cheryl’s frame of mind was that she had been handed a death sentence. “I felt as though it was only a matter of time,” she said stoically.
Her own treatments included a mastectomy, which included the removal of 21 lymph nodes (2 positive for cancer), eight rounds of chemotherapy, and 43 radiation treatments, over the course of a year. She was very sick during that period. She took Tomoxifen for four years, which had some rough side effects, like hair loss and early menopause.
Two years later, Cheryl opted for reconstructive surgery. “It got better after that,” she explained. “At least I didn’t think about it every single time I took a bath or changed clothes.”
She drove herself to Birmingham in the pouring rain to attend a Look Good, Feel Better class. “You don’t feel like yourself when you are going through all this,” she said. “I wanted to go to that class so bad, just to get some of my self-confidence back.”
Now, 10 years out from her original diagnosis, she is living proof that breast cancer is not necessarily a death sentence the way it was in her great-grandmother’s day. She will be on Femara for the remainder of this year, but she is otherwise finished with treatments.
“The longer out you go from that original diagnosis, the more hope you have,” she said. Three weeks ago, her oncologist, Dr. Vince Karolewics gave her some wonderful news. “He said that the chances of it returning were 1 percent,” she smiled. “I left there that day feeling pretty good.”
During Cheryl’s recovery, she had another shock. Her heredity of cancer reared its ugly head once more — her daughter, Chasity Barnett, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It was bad enough that I was dealing with it, but to find out that my 31-year-old daughter had it was devastating,” she said. Chasity’s tumor was discovered in 2009. “It was about the size of a grape,” said Chasity. At her age, mammograms are not required or suggested. But when she found that little grape-shaped nodule, Chasity “pitched a fit” for one. “My primary doctor did a breast exam and later that day I had a mammogram and an ultra-sound at St. Vincent’s Hospital,” said Chasity.
She could see the photos on the machine screen as they were taken. “I could see the mass, it just looked different from the other tissue,” she said. Two days later she met with an oncologist/surgeon, who did a biopsy in her office. Chasity let them know that she would wait all day long for her results if necessary. She sat there alone, waiting…
“I don’t remember the drive home,” she said softly. “The hardest part was being around my mom.”
“It was really hard to hold it together,” said her mother, Cheryl.
Cheryl’s cancer was determined to be estrogen positive, while Chasity’s was diagnosed as triple negative for estrogen. “The way the doctor’s explained it to us was that these tumors were like a Volkswagen and a Ferrari, mine was slow-growing, while Chasity’s was very fast growing,” described Cheryl.
Chasity had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery the same day. She was in a lot of pain, and on high doses of medicines, with tubes running out of her body. “But the doctor said that mine was contained, that she took out one lymph node just as insurance, and it was negative for cancer,” she said.
She underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, one every three weeks, using a drug called “Avastin.”
She returned to work the day after chemo, with a pretty shaved head and a wonderful attitude. She makes it a point to have a mammogram every year now. “I’m confident that they got rid of it, I had a wonderful surgeon,” she said.
Today, both women are strong, positive survivors. “What got me through this was my relationship with God,” said Cheryl.
“I had kids to raise,” said Chasity. “And I could see my mother right in front of me, and that she is alive and well, that she had beat it.”
Cheryl now enters 5K runs, and works out. “I’ve had so many friends who encouraged me, and I’ve leaned on God. I’m going to live like I’m dying,” she said determinedly. “I take every day as a gift.” Chasity now makes it a point to exercise.
Cheryl was 54 years young last week. “Every birthday that rolls around and I’m still here. I say, ‘Yes! I’ve made it another year!” she laughed.
“I feel the same,” added Chasity. “I sometimes get a little depressed, thinking about the future of my children, but I have a lot of motivation.”
Chasity feels that women with a history of breast cancer in their family should be allowed to get mammograms earlier than the age of 40. “My younger sister can’t even get a mammogram, even with all this cancer in her immediate family. That’s just wrong.”