October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, on average, 75 Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer every day.
It is estimated that in 2020, 27,400 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, representing 25 per cent of all new cancer cases in women in 2020. About one in eight Canadian women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime.
Melinda Howard is a Cranbrook resident who has fought the battle against breast cancer twice. She told her story to the Townsman to help raise awareness.
Howard was first diagnosed in 2005 with Ductal Carcinoma in-Situ (DCIS), which is considered a non-invasive or pre-invasive breast cancer. She was 41 at the time. After many tests, including an inconclusive ultrasound, a small tumour was eventually found through a mammogram.
When the tumour was found, Howard was sent to Nelson for a special kind of biopsy to determine treatment.
“Now, every time I hear a stapler it reminds me of that biopsy test,” Howard recalled. “Once the results were back, which turned out to be positive, I had surgery here in Cranbrook.”
She said the entire process was unpleasant. After some healing, she was then sent to Kamloops for a lymph node biopsy consultation. She said it was tough because she was sent to an unfamiliar place and her husband couldn’t be with her to help and support her.
“Two weeks after the consultation I had to go back to Kamloops for the procedure. I had my best friend come along as my husband was working,” she explained. “I had a horrendous experience at that hospital. Thank goodness the surgery took place during the day.”
Howard says she had to stay in a motel and she couldn’t sleep because she was in so much pain.
“After that I was so happy to come home and rest in my own bed. My surgeon in Cranbrook wanted me to start radiation, which would have to take place in Kelowna. We went off of advice from the consultation with the radiologist and it was recommended that I don’t do it. He said that the cancer was small, removed, and that radiation can only be done once in the area. After thinking it over for the night, I agreed not to proceed.
Although the cancer was removed, Howard still had to get regular check-ups in the form of mammograms.
For three years she had mammograms every three months, then every six months, and then it was reduced to once a year. She also had regular check-ups with her family doctor and frequent blood sampling.
“In 2010 I was getting ready for my five year cancer free day when I noticed a lump appear on the outside of my breast, on the same side,” Howard said. “Scared as hell, I made a doctor’s appointment. My family doctor looked it over and because it was painful she sent me for an emergency mammogram. That day changed my life forever.”
She says that doctors ended up finding two lumps, one of which was almost in the exact same spot as the first.
“I was so upset,” she said. “The tests had to be sent away to be read professionally but we all knew.”
She had to undergo several more tests, including an MRI. Howard says it took a long time to get the tests done and finally receive the results. Once all of the test results were in, she got the news formally.
Howard isn’t the first person in her family to get breast cancer; her grandmother died of breast cancer and it skipped a generation.
Howard consulted with her doctor and ended up getting her grandmother’s medical records. After seeing them, she made the difficult decision to get a double mastectomy. She also had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation which meant loosing her hair.
“All of this was happening while our daughter was getting ready to graduate high school,” Howard said. “I was also getting ready to be a grandma to a little girl. I would do my chemo treatments and visit her once she was born. I think she is the reason I made it through those tough times.”
Radiation meant travelling back to Kelowna for surgery. She was there for six weeks in hopes of receiving reconstruction surgery.
“I stayed in the Cancer lodge at the hospital and became friends with so many wonderful people. Unfortunately, many of them have passed away. It was hard to be away from family and friends but they sure treat you great there. I ended up with a local girl as my roommate and we had so much fun.”
The not-so-fun part came as Howard recovered from radiation, a very painful procedure.
“By the time I got home I was so tired and sore. Most people don’t understand radiation – it burns you from the inside out,” Howard explained.
After radiation was complete, Howard was scheduled for a consultation to start the process of reconstruction, which involves multiple surgeries. With advice from her doctor however, she ended up not going through with it because she knew that the scar tissue would be painful to live with every day.
“My oncologist wanted me to reconsider my plans because every time they go back in it creates more scar tissue,” she said. “I thought long and hard about those words. I phoned and cancelled my consultation and have never looked back.”
In 2015, Howard was told that her cancer was in remission.
“No such thing as cancer free for me,” she said. “To this day I still tire easily, but I am so grateful to be here to see my second grandchild, a boy, grow up. I also got to see our daughter get married to a wonderful man.”
Another positive aspect for Howard was that she didn’t have to travel for all of her procedures.
“Cranbrook has some great surgeons and our little oncology department is fantastic. I truly hope one day they can move off of the third floor of the hospital to a better, larger facility. We desperately need this to happen,” she said. “Things have greatly improved in our community care from my first cancer treatment.”
Howard also wanted to thank Kootenay Columbia Medical Equipment, a resource she says many people don’t know about.
“They provided me with and fit me for my mastectomy bras. It’s a privilege to have them here in town,” she said.
Although the local branch of the Canadian Cancer Society closed a few years ago, their resources are still available online. They can help with things like travel expenses and wigs. Howard said they were a great resource for her.
All in all, Howard says anyone going through cancer treatment, whether you’re the patient or a loved one, that it’s important to try and have a positive outlook.
“My take away from this journey is to stay positive,” she said. “Trust me, I have had many days of crying but I beat cancer. It never beat me. Read and talk to people about what they felt and experienced. You are not alone.”
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