HUNTSVILLE – Three breast cancer survivors increase awareness by telling their stories.
Gloria Lowe, left, Wendy Shirtliff and Michelle Gardiner want women with breast cancer to know they are not alone.
Gloria Lowe battled cancer and won — twice.
“I had two cancers, totally different and unrelated,” said Lowe.
She was first diagnosed with ocular melanoma, a rare and aggressive eye cancer, at age 39.
“There is a 50 per cent survival rate because it’s so aggressive and because mine was so late in getting diagnosed – the tumour was so large – the only option they had was to remove my eye,” said Lowe.
Between her ocular melanoma diagnosis and her surgery, Lowe had two weeks to adjust to having cancer and losing her eye. Within a month she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as well.
That was only the first part of her battle. The second came at age 46. This time it was breast cancer.
“I was at the cottage in the shower and I felt a lump,” said Lowe. “It didn’t feel right, but I didn’t say anything. I went back to Calgary and went to the doctor right away and he sent me for a mammogram.”
However, when the test results came back the doctor reviewed them and told Lowe not to worry. She said he told her the lump was likely fatty tissue and calcium deposits and they would go away on their own.
“My doctor missed it,” she said.
Regardless, the doctor sent Lowe off with an ultrasound requisition for three months down the road if the lump hadn’t changed.
Lowe went for the ultrasound.
She discovered she had stage two localized but advanced invasive ductal carcinoma. Treatment included a lumpectomy, radiation and chemotherapy.
“With advancements in research, they were able to go in and remove the lump without necessarily having to take the entire breast,” she said. “I was fortunate enough that I could do that.”
Hearing she had cancer for a second time was not any easier than it was the first.
“And there was also the anxiety initially of not knowing whether it had spread,” she said. “But then I learned, no, it hadn’t spread. It was a completely brand new cancer.”
She had her surgery six months after that initial doctor’s appointment.
“I went back to him afterward and asked what had happened, how was it possible that the mammogram hadn’t detected breast cancer if I had it?” she asked.
The doctor pulled her file back out and paused.
“The file said, ‘Suspicious for breast cancer, biopsy recommended,’” recalled Lowe. The doctor had made the note himself. “He was devastated.”
She said her story was a prime example of why women need to take charge of their health care.
“Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion, don’t be afraid to go somewhere else if you have a suspicion,” she said. “You know your body better than anybody else. You know when something isn’t right inside. You have to take responsibility for yourself.”
Lowe said her health-care experiences have also taught her to get copies of medical records, tests, medication history and correspondence – anything connected with her health care.
Lowe said her life changed after her experience.
“I had an extremely busy, hectic life in the corporate world doing multiple businesses and going 100 miles an hour all the time. Stressed to the max all the time, which probably played a major role in bringing it on,” she said. “I had a complete reevaluation of my life and said I couldn’t do it anymore.”
She said her family sold everything in Calgary and moved to Muskoka to be closer to relatives.
“When you go through an experience like that it really makes you evaluate your life,” she said.
Her experience with cancer was like going through Hell and back. But one way to cope was to seek support for her mind, body and spirit, she said.
Sharing her story is one way to help others do the same.
“We want to talk about it so people do learn and aren’t as uncomfortable about it. It used to be so taboo and people didn’t talk about it, especially if it was something like breast cancer,” she said. “We need that to change. It has changed, but we definitely need more.”
Michelle Gardiner says breast cancer doesn’t care who you are or what you look like.
“I’m trying to make women realize this can happen to them, too,” said Gardiner. “Cancer doesn’t discriminate.”
Gardiner’s life changing experience with breast cancer started a year before she was diagnosed.
“I have three children and after the birth of the third I went for an after-baby checkup. I had a lump,” she said.
But she said her obstetrician-gynecologist told her not to worry about it.
“He said I was too young,” said Gardiner, who was in her 30s at the time. “And I didn’t think about it again because once your doctor says not to worry you take them seriously.”
About a year later when she was taking her daughter for her one-year vaccinations with the same doctor, Gardiner slipped a question about herself.
“He felt it and said, ‘Let’s have it checked out. I don’t want you to worry,’” she said. “Thank God.”
Her battle with breast cancer snowballed from there. She was diagnosed with stage two – advanced but localized – cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.
The diagnosis was followed by a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She had reconstructive surgery two years later.
Gardiner said she had not expected to reconstruct her breasts.
“I didn’t think I cared, actually. I thought I would go flat all my life. I had some good prosthetics,” she said. “But thank goodness I did because I actually feel whole again. I feel like me.”
The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation played a key role in her recovery through its research funding. She is confident that research saved her life.
Much of the funding supports research into cancer subcategories. Such research takes a diagnosis of breast cancer one step further and makes it more specific.
Gardiner discovered she had an aggressive subcategory of breast cancer called HER2+ that targets younger women. She also found that research had led to a drug called Herceptin that is tailored to mitigating that type of cancer.
“Money that we are raising probably saved my life,” said Gardiner. “I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m alive today.”
And she was happy to be saved because cancer is awful.
“It sucks,” said Gardiner.
And it doesn’t suck for the patient alone. She said her husband, children, parents and friends were all affected.
“When you’re diagnosed, you think, ‘Poor me.’ And then I started to look around and saw my mom was affected. And my husband, as strong as he was trying to be, he was heartbroken,” she said as tears came to her eyes. “I’m only crying because I’m so blessed to have them.”
Gardiner said the biggest part of her story was that she and her family moved to Muskoka.
“I used to live in Toronto before I was diagnosed. My husband and I both worked in downtown Toronto fulltime,” she said. “My husband quit his job, I didn’t go back to mine and we moved to our cottage.”
The move was a result of perspective changes.
“It’s not something I would have predicted. We had a good life. But I was away from my kids 12 hours a day (when working). When the call came to go back to work after everything, I just broke down,” she said. “Until all my kids were in school I wasn’t going to leave them.”
Her husband supported the decision and when the family was faced with either selling the Muskoka cottage or the Toronto house, they moved north.
Her experience has shown her the importance of women being their own advocates.
“Don’t let anyone tell you it’s nothing. I don’t care if you’re young or old,” she said. “They may have caught it a year earlier if I hadn’t listened (to the doctor) and instead gone with my gut. Don’t be afraid to ask for more.”
But most importantly, Gardiner wants people to understand that a breast cancer battle is about hope and courage.
“You can get through it. You can be OK on the other end,” she said.
Wendy Shirtliff calls her battle with breast cancer twisted.
“I had a lesion on my nipple. I had gone to my doctor, but he didn’t know what it was,” said Shirtliff.
A miscarriage, appendicitis and a thyroid lump followed the inconclusive investigation into the lesion. She later found out the four issues were not connected, but after everything she still had the lesion. Shirtliff said she was referred to several doctors in Huntsville, Barrie and Toronto before being diagnosed with breast cancer in September last year. She was in her 20s.
“For me it was Paget disease of the nipple, which is cancer, basically, on the nipple,” she said. “And 90 per cent of the time there is underlying breast cancer.”
Her biopsies, ultrasounds and mammograms started in Huntsville, but with inconclusive results she was referred to Barrie.
Biopsies – along with ultrasounds and mammograms – seem to be a recurring theme for her. A biopsy is the removal of tissue to determine the presence or severity of a disease. It often involves pinching off small pieces of flesh or other matter for examination.
She said hospital staff in Huntsville conducted punch biopsies once every week or every other week before discovering Paget disease. At this point more biopsies were conducted with inconclusive results.
When she was referred to Barrie the biopsies continued. The seven needle punches in Barrie also drew inconclusive results. The radiologist stated the breast tissue was normal, but he did not think he got a good tissue sample.
“And that’s when I started pushing to be sent to Toronto,” she said. “I was sent to Toronto in November and they found it first biopsy.”
Shirtliff got her confirmed diagnosis of breast cancer in November and had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery in January with additional surgery in July.
“At the beginning I was so secretive, I didn’t want anyone to know. I had been through so much I didn’t want people to go, “Oh, yeah, right. What else is wrong with her?’” she said with a laugh. “And it was really hard for me to accept that all this was happening and I had no control over it.”
The whole experience was an emotional whirlwind for Shirtliff. During the appointment in Toronto where she learned the doctors wanted to remove one of her breasts and there were clusters in her second breast they wanted to monitor and biopsy every six months, she asked if both could be removed at once.
In that appointment she also opted for reconstructive surgery afterward, so four hours later she met with a plastic surgeon.
“Then it was the plastic surgeon with her toolbox asking, ‘OK, do you want this boob with cleavage, this one with a tear drop…’” laughed Shirtliff. “I was like, ‘I don’t want any of them. Whatever is most like I have, I guess?’ It was bizarre. Then there was a discussion on what size I wanted to be. I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’”
The doctors caught the cancer early enough to avoid radiation and chemotherapy treatments after the mastectomy. Shirtliff said that her lymph nodes were clear, which meant radiation and chemotherapy were not necessary.
“We were happy with how early they caught it,” she said.
With a history of breast cancer in the family, Shirtliff said she was not surprised she contracted it. But she was surprised she was diagnosed so young.
“My mom had breast cancer at age 47, so for me I knew I would get it, but it was just a lot earlier than I thought. My paternal grandmother had it, too,” she said. “My mom’s mom, she died of cancer, too, but she had it everywhere and they didn’t know where it started.”
Her year and a half experience was emotionally exhausting, she said. And it wasn’t just the medical appointments and illness. The uncertainty about her condition seems to have played a part as well.
“I was worried that whatever I had was contagious. I thought I had flesh-eating disease. I was Googling, trying to self-diagnose. A lot of nasty stuff came up,” she said, warning others to avoid Internet sensationalism. “Even when my doctor told me I had Paget disease, she told me not to go home and Google it.”
Now that the worst seems to be over, Shirtliff’s smile can light up a room. And she’s working hard toward getting back to her athletic and energetic self.
“I had never been so sick or felt so weak, but after every surgery I was so motivated. Even after my double mastectomy I was out shuffling around the track.”
She said she couldn’t have made it through the ordeal without the help of family and friends.
But despite everyone’s support Shirtliff said she found it difficult to ask others for help.
“I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘Can you pick my kid up from daycare, make dinner and drive me to my doctor’s appointment?’ But that’s what you need,” she said.
Lowe, Gardiner and Shirtliff have battled cancer and are now fighting for a cure as committee members of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure happening Sept. 30 in Bracebridge. For more information visit www.runforthecure.com.