Survivor Stories 2013:
How did you first find out you had cancer?
Two years prior to finding the mass in my right breast, I felt a marble-sized lump on the top of my right breast. I had just miscarried at three months pregnant. I was very familiar with breast cancer because I had lost my first cousin to the disease when she was 35 years old. Shortly after, my mother was then diagnosed with breast cancer. I guess you can say that it ran in our family, so I immediately went to the doctor. They did a needle biopsy and sonogram and stated it was benign. That didn’t last long because as I stated above a 2.5 cm mass was found in the same place. I went to the doctor and we all thought it was another false lump. I was given a mammogram and sonogram where the mass was located and the doctor at UMC (University Medical Center of Southern Nevada) laboratory came in the room and told me that the mass appeared worrisome to her.
How did you react when you heard the news?
I would never forget that word “worrisome.” It was CANCER. My primary care physician was shocked and so was I. I began praying to God and I began to get in survivor mode. I had so many heroes in my lift that battled this disease for years and still are living. My biggest is my mother, Mary Sowels. I saw my cousin die within six months. I had a close girlfriend die of breast cancer, and my second cousin fought the disease for 12 years. I found out the cancer had returned and she passed a way a year after my first cousin. I was scared. Then my mother told me all the things to expect and the things to do to make me comfortable during my treatment. That helped me regain my faith.
What course of treatment were you prescribed?
I had a modified radical mastectomy of my right breast. I had several lymph nodes removed and had six months of chemotherapy. I acquired several blood clots so I gave myself the lovenox shots in the stomach three times a day for two years. I was then given Tamoxifen. At the time, I was on a mood stabilizer sertraline (Zoloft). I didn’t know that sertraline can give you breast cancer and that it stopped what the Tamoxifen was supposed to be doing, which is to stop the cancer from growing. I did not find this out until the pharmacist wrote in big red letters, “Stop taking sertraline. It will kill you.” Immediately I told both my oncologist and my psychiatrist.
What most surprised you about your treatment?
It was a shock to lose a breast and not see it as you are accustomed to daily, so that was a concern. My head hurt and was sensitive to the touch from my hair falling out so I had to shave my hair before it all fell out. I knew my nails would turn black and I would feel the “Little Cold” the doctors tell you about.
I was most surprised that I had a big appetite. The biggest surprise was the operation to receive a breast reconstruction went horribly wrong. My doctor, who was the head surgeon at UMC at the time, did the reconstruction and inserted a full expander, which is placed behind the muscles of the chest wall before the permanent implant is placed. A hole appeared in the incision and the next day, I returned to the emergency room in excruciating pain. The expander fell out of my chest on the hospital bed. The ER doctor knew it was urgent and had me placed on morphine. The doctor who started the breast reconstruction came and had to do emergency surgery. It was the most pain I had ever experienced. I never received another reconstruction. I lost my breast, teeth, and hair. I had a hiatal hernia in my stomach. I looked in the mirror and was devastated one day. But like I said, stop it! God has me here for a reason.
What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
Your family may or may not know how to handle you with this disease. I had good and bad experiences with my family. You will sometimes feel sorry for yourself. But stop and think of the babies and children that are going through this and people who have it worse than you. Stop it! If your family or friends don’t understand you, there are support groups that will.
Visit a nutritionist and psychologist, take yoga, anything you can do to better yourself and be as healthy as possible during your treatment. I went into a depression, my concentration was altered some, and I acquired other ailments that came from the chemotherapy, like problems with my teeth. Trusting in God and having a good network with doctors can solve these problems. Thank God for Smiles for Survivors. When my teeth broke off at the gum from my chemotherapy treatments, I didn’t even want to smile anymore. They gave me new teeth on top and are working to restore my bottom teeth. And they teach cancer patients like me what to do, foods to avoid, etc. to have good oral health during treatment. I didn’t know that I would have problems with my teeth from chemotherapy and learned from the organization that about 40 percent of breast cancer patients will have problems. It even gets so bad that some people have to stop treatment. I am so thankful to Smiles for Survivors founder Dr. Olya Banchik and my personal Smiles for Survivors dentists Dr. Bradley Strong and Dr. Mark Degan.
How long have you been cancer free?
I have been cancer free approximately 7 ½ years now.
What lessons did you learn from the experience?
I found that so many women do not talk about their experiences, they either try to be superwomen or act as if it is doesn’t exist. The dentists and doctors give so much altruistically and people don’t know about programs that can help, what they need to expect, who they can talk to. There is still so much to learn.
If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
It’s okay to be selfish when it comes to your health. Get a good primary care doctor and be truthful about whatever there is in your life, be it physical, mental or spiritual. Know that something you think is little or insignificant has the power to save your life. Finally, just talk, pray, love, and most of all LIVE.
Lilly Gill, 52, is a breast cancer survivor and part of the Smiles for Survivors program. She’s triumphed over alcohol addiction, and stood alongside her mother, two cousins and a great aunt who were silently battling breast cancer. Gill was diagnosed with IIB breast cancer and underwent a single radical mastectomy along with chemotherapy, where she experienced hair loss, severe skin problems and tooth decay. Smiles for Survivors dental staff helped restored Gill’s oral health by preforming necessary surgery to remove broken and decaying teeth. These life-altering procedures have given Gill the ability to smile without fear. Smiles for Survivors is the first non-profit that promotes awareness of the oral health side-effects brought on by cancer treatment. SFS helps Las Vegas breast cancer survivors receive restorative dental care.