By LaTika Lee
Waking up before the sun rose was the beginning to a normal workday for substance abuse counselor Damita Perry in 2007. The 37 year-old had to report to work at 4:45 a.m, on a typical morning, but after a routine visit to the doctor’s office one day in December, her life would never be the same.
“I just wanted to breathe. I had a very bad cold, so I went to get checked out, thinking that I would come back with an inhaler and an antibiotic,” remembered Perry, “but I didn’t report back to work until nine months later.”
While being examined in the emergency room, Perry had a chest X-ray and was told she had pneumonia. A few hours later, one after another, doctors came into her room with great concern. She was told that they just needed to run another scan to confirm what they were seeing before giving her a diagnosis. Their next words were heard in slow motion: we think there is a lump in your breast. She was immediately admitted to the hospital and never went home.
Six months before, with no family history of breast cancer and no detection of a lump during a clinical breast exam, Perry had no reason to suspect breast cancer.
“I had spoken with my physician and mentioned that the size of my breast had increased, but she said it was not unusual to have two different sizes,” said Perry. However, in less than four weeks, she was diagnosed with Stage Two breast cancer in her right breast. “They told me that the lump was so small, and located so far against my chest wall, that I would not have been able to feel it for another year. So, the pneumonia saved my life.”
Damita was devastated, but not down.
Breast cancer is one of the leading health crises for women in the United States. It is the second most common cancer in women, after skin cancer. A report commissioned by the National Women’s Health Resource Center, the nation’s leading independent health source for women, found that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. A man’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000. Currently, there is no known cure for breast cancer, and experts say early diagnosis is critical to survival.
The National Cancer Institute stresses the importance of getting a high-quality mammogram and having a clinical breast exam on a regular basis are the most effective ways to detect breast cancer early. The institute recommends women age 40 and older receive annual mammogram screenings to provide early detection.
“Insurance companies don’t pay for the exam unless you have a history of breast cancer in your family, but I think women should get a mammogram earlier. I have met survivors who are as “young” as 25 years old,” Perry cautioned.
Early warning signs of breast cancer may involve the discovery of a new lump or a change in the breast tissue or skin, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. But, Perry, who is African-American, also had other risk factors. At the time, she did not exercise regularly and was 80 pounds over recommended weight guidelines.
“I am the only person – on both sides of my family – to ever be diagnosed with breast cancer,” Perry revealed, “I’m also the first person in the family who ever survived, after receiving a cancer diagnosis.”
Patients diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer have a primary cancer that may involve removing of the axillary lymph nodes, depending on its size. It is curable with current treatment consisting of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormonal therapy. After breast cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the breast or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out whether the cancer has spread is called staging. It is important to know the “stage” in order to treat the disease. Consequently, Perry had to undergo several tests and procedures. Based on those results, it was discovered that her tumor was two centimeters long – about the size of a raisin. She had a biopsy, chest x-rays and a CT scan.
“After surgery, my doctor explained that a lumpectomy had to be performed to remove the lymph nodes,” Perry pointed out.
Since cancer can spread in the body through tissue, the lymph system, or the blood, doctors thought it was imperative to aggressively treat her. Perry started treatment late that winter. She endured weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Her fingernails turned blue and she was constantly nauseous.
But, knowing one of the inevitable side effects of the powerful medications would be losing her hair, Perry cut her long, twisted locks in order to feel in control of her prognosis. It was that day that she acknowledged that she actually had cancer. She said it is important to listen to your body and stay positive.
“I let the Spirit feed me. By the grace of God, I had my loving mother who took me to mostly all of my appointments and my children who were pillars of strength,” she said. “I also had wonderful oncologists who explained the process to me and supportive friends and church family,” she said gratefully.
Perry had the emotional support from Mt. Gilead Full Gospel International Ministry’s “Just Support Ministry”.
“They were a blessing to me. They were there when I needed someone,” she said, “since then, I have joined the ministry and have prayed with members, compiled resources where survivors can find financial information, and explained the emotions & physical changes to family and friends to shed light on how it feels and what a patient might be going through.”
Perry still has ups and downs, but is thankful for a second chance at life. She lost 50 pounds, exercises on a regular basis and continues to eat healthy.
“I was left with “chemoBrain”, which is recognized as short-term memory loss (due to the strong treatments).” She explained that doctors said it could last up to five years, but she had experienced it for six. That fact alone is remarkable considering she has maintained a 3.7 grade point average while pursuing a master’s degree.
Perry says a diagnosis of cancer can be lonely. It is a challenge once your body fails you and you’re constantly going in for checkups and everyone around is asking you, “How do you feel?”. She said that people are scared due to the fact that they think you are going to die.
Because of the stigmas of breast cancer, in underserved communities, survivors are often left with a feeling of isolation. A critical resource which provides education and support for survivors and raises awareness about breast cancer is the Sisters Network. There are four survivor-run chapters located in Virginia that provide breast cancer survivors a supportive environment to express their fears, concerns, and experiences.
Today, Perry, 44, is a Lincoln University graduate student studying Human Services with a concentration in Counseling. She will graduate in 2014 and continues to exude a positive outlook on her journey.