Survivor Stories 2013:
Toni Douglas

How did you first find out you had cancer?

After my routine mammogram at age 40, I was called back to have some magnified films done of my right breast. There were some suspicious areas that the radiologist had noticed. After the magnified films were taken, the doctor reviewed the films with me, and showed me the calcifications. He said that we could watch the area and see what happens, or we could biopsy it. Only 20% come back as cancer, I was told. I chose to have the biopsy and prepared myself for the worse. If I prepared for the worst, news of clear tissue would be good news, right? When the results came back, the doctor called me and advised that there appeared to be “some pre-cancerous activity going on.”

How did you react when you heard the news?

Since I literally had prepared myself for the worse, and walked through the steps (in my mind) that I would need to take if I was diagnosed with cancer, I really felt prepared. My attitude was, Pre-cancer, cancer, whatever you want to call it–let’s get busy and take care of this so that I can move on with my life. I was amazed that I didn’t even cry. My daughter was 11 years old at the time, and I wanted to be healthy again so that I could continue to enjoy her and watch her grow and develop into a young lady. But the strangest thing was that I couldn’t say to my staff, or hardly anybody for that matter, that I had cancer. I couldn’t say the words, “I have cancer.” So I told my boss and my assistant, and I went out for surgery. I was honest with them and said, “I can’t tell them, but you can. I just can’t bring myself to say the words I have cancer.” But I was ready to fight, and even more ready to win.

What course of treatment were you prescribed?

Since my initial diagnosis indicated that my cancerous tumor was in situ (confined to the milk duct) and non-invasive, I had a lumpectomy. But when the pathology report came back indicating that the cancer was not confined to the milk duct, but was invasive and had started to spread to the breast tissue, I needed another surgery.

A week later, I had a re-excision lumpectomy of margins and a sentinel node biopsy. A re-excision lumpectomy, or simply re-excision, means surgically reopening the lumpectomy site to try to remove a larger margin of cancer-free tissue. When cancer cells are found close to the edge of the lumpectomy margin, re-excision is necessary to ensure that all the cancer is gone. Doctors refer to re-excision as “clearing the margins.”

A sentinel lymph node biopsy is a surgery that takes out lymph node tissue to look for cancer. My doctor injected a blue dye and a special tracer substance into the area around my original cancer site. The dye and tracer moved to the first lymph node (sentinel node) that drained close to the cancer site, basically making a map pattern of my lymphatic fluid. The map showed where the cancer is likely to spread and which lymph node is most likely to have cancer cells. The doctor removed two of my lymph nodes and sent them to the pathology department for immediate testing while I was on the surgery table. If one or both of the nodes were positive, she would have proceeded to remove all of my lymph nodes. But, both nodes were clear. Thank God! And the pathology report on the margins indicated clear margins. As a result, I did not have to have chemotherapy, only radiation therapy five days a week for six weeks. In addition to radiation therapy, my adjuvant therapy included five years of Tamoxifen and two years of Femara.

What most surprised you about your treatment?

What surprised me most was that I was able to keep my life relatively normal, for the most part. The radiation therapy made me very tired and my skin was badly burned, but I was able to work every day.

What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?

Be an informed patient. Ask questions so that you can understand your diagnosis, the stage of your cancer, and possible treatment options. Hold on to your faith, allow your family and friends to support you and help you. Keep a positive attitude, and remember that God is in control.

How long have you been cancer free?

I have been cancer free since January 2001. More than 12 wonderful and blessed years!

What lessons did you learn from the experience?

You have to trust God and your doctors. Cancer is not a death sentence. We are not promised tomorrow. Live life to the fullest and don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t worry, be happy.

If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?

Please practice good breast health–perform monthly breast self-exams, have an annual clinical exam by your doctor, and have an annual mammogram, if you’re of age. Know your normal. If you see or feel anything unusual, do not hesitate or be afraid to contact your doctor. Twelve years ago, a mammogram saved my life. Early detection is the key to survival.

I reside in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, and I am the mother of one adult daughter, Monique. I have worked in management in the health insurance industry for over 25 years, and I am also a part time Realtor. I lost my mother, a 29-year breast cancer survivor, to Stage IV lung cancer in 2010. I am committed to spreading awareness and saving lives here in Louisiana, especially since our state leads the nation in breast cancer mortality. I am an active volunteer with the Baton Rouge affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, serving as treasurer on the Board of Directors and chair of the Pink Ribbon Bowl. In my spare time, I enjoy travelling, reading, and spending time with my two dogs, Tai and Maddie, and my grand-dog, Bentlee.