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Overcoming Big Odds

By Maria-Jose Subiria

msubiria@news-daily.com

She was wearing a striped, black-and-pink shirt and had pink accessories, including a necklace, bracelet and earrings displaying the pink ribbon logo, for breast cancer awareness.

Mary Gilbert, an outgoing, 62-year-old woman, was full of life as she spoke to a receptionist at Southern Crescent Breast Specialists, P.C., in Jonesboro. Gilbert, of McDonough, said she was there for a visit, and considers herself a close friend of Dr. Davis Timbert, a founder of Southern Crescent Breast Specialists, and his wife, Susan Timbert, a registered nurse and clinical manager at the practice.

She said she has survived breast cancer for about 14 years, and is celebrating life to the fullest. Gilbert added that her journey battling the disease hasn't been easy, although she's survived.

For Gilbert, medical challenges were apart of her life long before her cancer was diagnosed.

Gilbert said she was born in Atlanta in 1948 and grew up in a community called Inman Park.

She said both her parents died of heart attacks. Her mother died at age 44 and her father at age 43, she explained. "I have a strong family history of heart problems," she said.

As age caught up with her, she said, she began menopause and her doctor put her on hormone replacement therapy in 1994, for 18 months. "When you go through menopause, the body quits producing hormones and hormones help prevent heart problems," said Gilbert, in a soft, southern accent.

She explained that, at that time, the medical profession did not know that hormone replacement therapy was a cause of breast cancer. According to the Mayo Clinic's web site, www.mayoclinic.com, hormone replacement therapy was continually used to treat menopausal symptoms and protect long-term health, until 2002, due to a large clinical trial which discovered health risks associated with the therapy, including breast cancer.

"Now they [medical professionals] are much more selective of giving women hormones when they reach menopause," said Gilbert. She said she had mammograms done annually, and in 1996, she was a month late for her mammogram appointment. Since getting her breasts examined annually was a routine for her, she said she wasn't worried about the results.

Unfortunately, however, the doctor saw something unusual on her right breast and ordered a needle biopsy, she said. She said she was called in by her doctor to hear the results, and took her husband along.

Once she arrived at her doctor's office, she was advised the results weren't ready, said Gilbert. She said she and her husband left, confused about the situation.

She said she took the day off to take care of other personal matters, including going to an Obstetrics and Gynecologist (OBGYN) appointment. Gilbert said she explained the situation concerning her breast exam to her OBGYN doctor, who called for the results.

The OBGYN was informed that the biopsy showed breast cancer, and that it was very aggressive, she said. Furthermore, Gilbert said, the OBGYN doctor was advised to inform Gilbert that she must get her affairs in order, because she had six to 12 months to live.

"I was flabbergasted," said Gilbert. "Now looking back at it, no doctor should ever say that, they don't know that."

Gilbert said she immediately called her husband and, then went to her church, to pray with her pastor, who consoled her. Her instinct, she said, advised her to get a second opinion, because she had a family to take care of -- and a life to live.

"If you don't get answers you are comfortable with, go get answers that you do feel comfortable with," added Gilbert. She said the surgeon, who gave her the second opinion, told her: "The bad news is you got a large gland, on the other hand you got the rest of your life, so let's get rid of the gland, so that you can live the rest of your life."

She said because her surgeon advised his staff to treat her cancer aggressively, she was able to survive. She had a complete mastectomy on her right breast, in June 1996.

"Because they hit me with the chemo [chemotherapy] the way they did, that's why I am still here," said Gilbert. In 1996, she said, she had chemotherapy from July to October, and she had transverse rectus abdominis muscolocutaneous (TRAM) Flap breast reconstruction surgery in 1997.

"My surgery went wrong," said Gilbert. "My abdominal rupture got infected and the breast was infected." She said she found another surgeon, who corrected the results of the previous surgery. "I was literally held together with wire," she said.

During her time battling the disease, she said, her family and friends have been "a wonderful support system" for her, but none of them has experienced the disease themselves, [and it takes someone who has experienced it to fully understand].

"Emotionally, I don't care who you are, or what type of support system you have ... it's still very, very scary," she said.

Gilbert said she experienced some low points during her journey, though she remained optimistic. She said while sleeping, she would wake up and realize the reality of the disease that was inside her. "I would say, 'Oh my God, I have cancer,' and [I] would cry about it," she said.

Gilbert, who is retired now, is an accountant by profession. She is involved in the committee for Henry County Relay For Life, and is active, through the American Cancer Society, in speaking with government officials about the need for funds for cancer research.

She is also a volunteer for "Reach to Recovery," a program of the American Cancer Society that provides a support group for breast cancer patients through one-on-one contact with breast survivors, such as herself.

"I have one to do this afternoon for a lady," said Gilbert. "I am here, if you need me."