October is breast cancer awareness month and I have decided to share my breast cancer experience with the community.

My name is Cathy Clark and I am a nurse practitioner at Mt Jefferson Family Medicine and have worked in this role for over 10 years. The story begins with: “I used to wake up happy every morning.”

Sadly, this did not dawn on me until I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Every morning since diagnosis I think: “Oh no, I have breast cancer.” However, I am feeling better about my diagnosis and am gradually accepting the fact that I have cancer. Ironically self-breast exams and clinical breast exams would have not found my mass until it had grown larger and luckily my screening mammogram did.

Women present with breast masses to clinics nationwide daily, but most of these are benign. The chances that a malignancy will be found on mammograms is small according to specialists, and of those biopsied only 2 percent are malignant (BreastCancer.org). Screening practices begin at age 40 and should begin sooner if a family member has had breast cancer before the age of 40. As we grow older, our risk of breast cancer increases and annual mammograms are recommended.

Since my diagnosis I have been faced with multiple decisions that I would have to make. I have not been prepared for the fatigue, pain and loneliness of this disease. The support from everyone has been uplifting, but it is the loneliness inside that no one can always help me with. Each of us that have cancer must go to a place in our head that lets us either escape or wonder what could be. Will I die or live? Should I have had a mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy? How much risk are my sisters, daughter and granddaughter really going to have? Am I one of the small percentages of women who do not benefit from the current treatment recommendations? Has my family thought of all of this and will not discuss it with me? The questions are endless.

Once I was diagnosed, I realized there was a process each woman of breast cancer must endure. First is the screening mammogram, then a second mammogram (diagnostic, with extra views) and an ultrasound. A biopsy will follow and will be sent off to the pathology department. The biopsy results make take up to a week to be reported back to the surgeon or radiologist that obtained the results. Once the results are back, you find out if you are either safe with benign results or you hear the dreaded words, “I am sorry, it is malignant, where do you wish to go?”

Once you decide on the surgeon an appointment is made and based on the results he or she will help decide the next process. In my case a genealogist and oncologist were then brought on board to determine what treatment options are available once I had my lumpectomy.

My tumor was triple positive with HER2 neu +, ER+, PR+ cells. There are so many different types of breast cancer and each are treated differently. Luckily, my cancer was treatable and very small in size as I had caught it early. I have had to have Taxol (which made me very tired and my hair fell out), Herceptin (a biologic, and take until July), and will have to have several days of radiation therapy. Other types of breast cancer are the ones that are passed along family lines, BRCA I and BRCA II, triple negative, ER+ or PR+ (can have both), inflammatory breast cancer (Paget’s) or a type that is undifferentiated, invasive or non-invasive, ductal, or lobular. The survivability rate of breast cancer is determined by type and stage that is found. Currently, women who have Stage 0 breast cancer can expect a 100 percent rate of survival, while someone with Stage IV is at 22 percent, per the American Cancer Society.

Luckily, our local hospital has established an oncology center and I did not have to drive very far for chemotherapy. The new oncologist is very knowledgeable and kind. I have been in the medical community for years and we are very fortunate to have Dr. James Boyd providing excellent care to our families and friends. The staff at the oncology center has also been wonderful, Melissa, Robin, Alice, Pat and Sandra have made my experience much more comfortable and soothing. I learned a long time ago once you leave home the closeness that you have with your friends and family just goes out the window. Smaller may not be fancier, but it sure is much better. We have also started a Breast Cancer Support group for those that who have had breast cancer in the past or are currently having treatment for this disease. They meet on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, and to find out more information you may call Sara Houser at (336) 846-0703.

Signs and symptoms of breast cancer are vague, easily ignored and can progress until it is difficult to treat. Mammograms are the most effective measure of finding small masses. Performing your own exams monthly and getting a clinical breast exam are also important screening techniques. Symptoms of concern may include: a new knot, red itchy area only on one breast, a nipple that is turned differently or that stays flat (retracted) while the other looks normal, pain in the breast or nipple, swollen lymph nodes beneath one armpit.

Please do not ignore concerns you may have as it can save your life or someone to close to you. Ashe Memorial Hospital is offering a Women’s Health Event on Oct. 30 and screening labs with free mammograms will be offered from 4 until 8 p.m. on that day. The service is offered to the women in our community and you must call (336) 846-0405 or (336) 846-0820 to sign up to take advantage of this opportunity.

Cathy Clark


Tom Mayer is the executive editor of Mountain Times Publications, a group of five news newspapers, six websites and one monthly periodical in the High Country of North Carolina.

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