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Local hairdresser finds cancer through self-exam

Breast cancer survivor, Elaine Henderson, is flanked by Merita Bell and Peggy VanMeter of Southern Regional Health System. Henderson said the pair, and nurse Daryl Stull, helped make her chemotherapy treatments almost bearable.

Breast cancer survivor, Elaine Henderson, is flanked by Merita Bell and Peggy VanMeter of Southern Regional Health System. Henderson said the pair, and nurse Daryl Stull, helped make her chemotherapy treatments almost bearable.

For Elaine Henderson, the journey of a lifetime began with a single lump.

"I'd check my breasts here and there, but not regularly," she said. "When I checked myself in the shower in March, I found a lump. It was large and fast-growing."

For some people, such life-changing events are experienced in slow motion. For Henderson, 61, the weeks and months after her discovery breezed by like seeds off a dandelion in the spring.

"I immediately went for a biopsy and sonogram," she said. "The doctor called that night to tell me I had cancer. Everything after that became a whirlwind, and I thank God I didn't have time to think about things."

Luckily for Henderson, she had a husband, doctors and a staff of nurses to do most of the thinking for her. She has been married to Larry Henderson for 44 years. They have two grown children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild, not to mention extended relatives, and circle of friends. The couple lives in Stockbridge.

Debbie Roddenberry, associate director of diagnostic imaging at Southern Regional Health System, said it is quite common for women to discover breast lumps themselves.

“That’s why it is important women know the feel and look of their breasts to determine what is normal for them,” she said. “Monthly breast exams are extremely important. They help to establish a base line for women to know when something is not normal within their breasts.”

Since women typically have a mammogram yearly, the monthly self-exams can make the difference between diagnosing cancer early, and taking a chance that it has spread beyond the breast.

“Routine monthly breast exams can, and do, play a key role in the early detection of breast cancer,” said Roddenberry. “It is a simple process. It should be performed seven to 10 days after the start of a woman’s menstrual cycle or around the same time each month for women who no longer have a menstrual cycle.”

Announcing her own diagnosis to family, and friends, was one hurdle Henderson was just not ready to clear.

"I think I had prepared myself for the news, but I told my husband I couldn't be the one to tell everyone," she said, choking back tears. "He called every single person who needed to know and I just went to bed."

Soon after the diagnosis, Henderson underwent a mastectomy to remove her right breast. No lymph nodes were affected, which meant the cancer was likely confined to the breast tissue. Doctors also implanted a port in her left chest as the pathway for chemotherapy. She opted against reconstructive surgery.

"I am comfortable where I am wearing a prosthetic," she said. "And my husband certainly is. I wouldn't be able to just have one breast done without the other. I couldn't have one high, and perky, while the other one is, well, 61. And I just don't want to put my body through any more than it already has."

Two to three weeks after the surgery, Henderson began chemotherapy. The cancer-fighting treatment is known for its nasty side effects and Henderson's experience lived up to the hype.

"I had a horrible reaction," she said. "During the first three sessions, everything tasted like metal. Even when I'd get my taste buds back in between sessions, I could bite into something I thought I wanted so badly and it would taste horrible and turn into mush in my mouth."

Henderson got her treatments at Southern Regional Health System, in Riverdale. The close quarters of the chemotherapy clinic and lengthy treatment sessions put Henderson on intimate terms with the nurses taking care of her. Merita Bell, Peggy VanMeter and Daryl Stull formed a dynamic trio that impacted not only Henderson’s fight against cancer but her struggle to remain positive.

“They were just incredible,” said Henderson. “They are just the best and have a great mental attitude. It was a wonderful atmosphere.”

The trio come highly recommended. Last year, the mother of a patient being treated for large ball lymphoma wrote the White House to express her gratitude for the three nurses who stood by her son. President Obama sent each of the three a notecard commending them for their dedication to the community.

While the nurses kept Henderson’s spirits up, the chemotherapy weakened her body. Henderson said she felt like a wet rag most of the time. A hairstylist by profession, she also came face to face with her own scalp.

"So early on, I lost my hair," she said. "It came out so fast, it's amazing. Everyone who knew me thought I'd take it hard because of being a hairdresser, but it wasn't that bad for me. When it got thin enough, I got a pair of clippers and had my granddaughter, who just graduated from beauty school, shave the rest."

But the worse was yet to come. Halfway through the sessions, doctors changed the chemicals they were using to fight the cancer cells. Henderson said her body's reaction was almost enough to make her give up on that fight.

"I think the low point was between the fifth and sixth treatment," she said. "I had already gone through so much I just did not know if I could push through any more. I am just a strong person, but everyone has their breaking point and I dreaded the chemo so bad."

The second half of treatment caused her hands and feet to redden, swell and break out in blisters. Chemotherapy compromises the immune system, making a patient more susceptible to infection, so every burst blister was cause for concern. Walking was so painful, Henderson's husband rolled her into the bathroom using an office desk chair.

She took a hard look at how she persevered to get to the sixth and final treatment and decided to not let cancer win.

"I was determined to not let one cancer cell remain in my body," said Henderson.

Her treatments ended in September. As Breast Cancer Awareness Month started Oct. 1, she was cancer-free, but she also knows her journey has not ended. An oncologist will keep tabs on her monthly at first. The visits will decrease as Henderson continues to show no signs of cancer.

Out of the whirlwind, Henderson has time to reflect on her experience, appreciate the massive support she got and gain perspective. She revisits that day in the shower and is plagued by "what if?"

"What if I had not found it? What if I put off getting seen by the doctor?" she said. "Would I be here to spend the rest of my life with my kids and grandkids? I have a long distance friend I talk to mostly on Facebook who has been through this. When I hit a low and post it, I know I will get a response from her. I know she's been there and come through. There are so few I can say that about."

Another friend reminded her that having breast cancer gives women a connection that other women can't know if they have not gone through it themselves.

"I can't believe how this has changed my perspective on life," said Henderson. "My daughter got upset once about a relative who she didn't think was showing enough concern for my situation. I told her to not worry about people like that, we have to worry about the ones who care."

She praised her husband, who lived "in sickness and in health" with her every day of her illness and treatment. She marveled at the compassion and care shown her by nurses at Southern Regional Medical Center and Spivey Station. She is grateful to be alive and is looking forward to going back to work styling hair at an assisted living facility, after the first of the year.

Despite the pain and suffering, agony and worry, Henderson said she wouldn't change a thing. She also plans to join a support group and share what she's learned with other women hit with breast cancer.

"People tell me that I lost almost a year of my life to cancer," she said. "Big deal, one year. At least I will be here to live out the rest of it. You can't look at what was taken away from you. And I don't know that I would pass up going through it again, because it changes your thinking on so many levels."