The battle against breast cancer: Women share bond, work through treatment
Katie just called … she has breast cancer too.
By Shavonne Potts
Donna Rowland and Katie Bowman have been friends for about six years. They have lots in common, including the fact that their significant others are firefighters for the same department. They both live in small communities.
The two women can laugh and talk about anything.
That bond has helped sustain them through another thing they share ó breast cancer.
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Rowland’s husband, Tim, discovered the lump in her right breast. She made an appointment for a mammogram, an X-ray image of the inner breast tissue. That test found something abnormal in her left breast. Subsequent tests, including an ultrasound, convinced doctors they needed to remove and biopsy tissue from her left breast.
Then an MRI found something irregular in her right breast.
Three days later, Rowland’s doctor called her into his office.
“He told us I had invasive ductal adenocarcinoma,” she said. The cancer started in the ducts of the breast, glandular tissue that makes breast milk.
In Rowland’s case, the carcinoma broke out of the duct and quickly began dividing and making cells.
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Telling her family was the hardest part. But they were supportive.
Rowland’s father, John Wilson, told her she could beat the cancer.
One of her sons, Sgt. John Rowland, was in California. She broke the news to him by phone.
“My youngest, Andrew, took it well,” Rowland recalled. “He said, ‘You’re mean and tough.’ ”
Her husband probably took it the hardest. He went through stages of anger and, later, what Rowland called “research mode.”
“He asked, ‘Why me?’ ” Rowland said. “I said, ‘Why not me?’ ”
Tim told his wife that if he could trade places with her, he would.
“It’s hard to see someone go through what she went through,” Tim said.
Rowland said her husband was mostly frustrated that he “couldn’t fix it.”
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She wished it were not true.
“One day I’m going to wake up and it’s all going to be a dream,” she said.
Rowland, 44, works in a hospital setting and received tremendous support from her co-workers. So did Tim, who is a Rowan County Sheriff’s deputy and volunteer firefighter.
“I’ve had so much support. You can’t describe how much,” she said.
“My doctor told us it was going to be a tough road,” she said.
And she had a decision to make.
Would she wait until the lump got bigger and undergo radiation or chemotherapy? Or would she take an extreme step and have her breast removed?
“I opted to take both” of her breasts, she said. “I didn’t want to wait.”
Her biggest fear was not losing her breasts, but her hair.
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After the surgery, the Rowlands got some good news. The cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes, bean-shaped collections of immune-system cells that fight infections.
Of the four stages of cancer ó with Stage IV being the most severe, when the cancer has spread to other organs ó Rowland’s was in Stage I.
Rowland will have constant check-ups with her oncologist and will take Tamoxifen every day for the next five years. Typically, patients who are cancer-free after five years have a low risk of the disease reoccurring.
Rowland will soon begin the process of breast reconstruction surgery.
She will have her first appointment Oct. 19 to discuss expanders, hollow sacks that are filled with saline over time to stretch the skin so it will eventually accept an implant.
Rowland said getting the implants won’t erase what happened, and it’s not meant to.
“The scars I have, I earned. But I do want to be able to put it behind me,” she said.
Now Rowland is able to give others the support her family and friends gave to her.
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She turns to Bowman for a cry or a laugh. They understand each other.
Bowman, 36, saw her doctor for a baseline mammogram, an initial test doctors use as a point of reference before the age of 40. After 40, women are highly encouraged to have a yearly mammogram.
“Something showed up that was abnormal,” Bowman said.
Doctors found fibers in Bowman’s right breast and, on Christmas Eve, sent her for more testing.
She went without boyfriend David Sells, thinking it would be nothing.
Bowman was told she had ductal cancer in situ, which means the cancer cells were confined to the duct and had not spread to other organs. Her cancer was in its early stage and confined to the layer of cells where it began, but that gave her no comfort.
“All I heard was the word cancer,” Bowman said.
The news hit her like a ton of bricks and her first thought was, “Will I die?”
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The hardest part for Bowman was telling her parents by phone.
She also had to tell her children, Madison, 16, and Tanner, 14. They took the news better than Bowman thought they would.
“You think, ‘It would never happen to me,’ ” Bowman said.
At a six-month check-up June 29, Bowman discussed with her doctors whether the fibers should be removed. By July 16, she was having surgery to remove the fibers.
A week later, she was at home recovering.
She has since been going for radiation treatment to kill cancer cells and shrink the fibers. Bowman will continue to go every day for the next six weeks.
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The radiation treatment is precise, she said.
She must lie on a table in the same position every visit while a laser passes over her body.
Bowman has been permanently inked with tattoos so that doctors will know where to line her up on the table. She has two millimeter-sized dots on her chest and one on either side of her waist.
At exactly 4:10 p.m. she goes to an X-ray room for treatment. In less than three minutes, she is done.
“It makes you tired,” she said.
One of the biggest side effects of radiation treatment, she said, is that her tongue develops a coating that alters the way food tastes.
After radiation therapy, Bowman will also take Tamoxifen every day.
Tamoxifen chemically shuts down the ovaries to prevent the release of estrogen, which feeds cancer. It essentially places patients in menopause.
Bowman has no fear of losing her hair. If she has to, she said, she’ll shave it all off.
She works at Piedmont Correctional Institution and said she couldn’t fathom having to adjust an itchy wig while talking to inmates.
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For Sells, one of the hardest things was understanding the disease.
“It was a shock,” he said.
Like Tim Rowland, he wanted to fix things for Bowman.
Unlike the Rowlands, who researched everything they could find, Sells and Bowman did not.
“We opted to not research. It was out of fear. I didn’t want to hear it,” Bowman said.
After Bowman’s diagnosis, things progressed fast for the couple.
“He’s been my rock,” Bowman said of Sells.
And, she adds, though she had strayed from her faith, “This has really brought me closer to God.”
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Bowman encourages other women to know their own bodies. If it doesn’t feel right, she said, check it out.
And if a woman believes something is not right, she said, she should pursue an answer until she is satisfied, even if that means getting a second opinion.
“Never take no for an answer,” Bowman said.
Both women said it’s also important for women to know their family history. Rowland had an aunt on her mother’s side who had breast cancer. Bowman will do genetic testing to determine if the disease runs in her family.
The two women joke and laugh because, they agree, that’s sometimes all they can do.
Rowland even jokingly goes by the nickname “boobless.”
“It’s nice to have someone to cry to,” Rowland said.
“You know if it’s a good or bad day,” Bowman said.
Bowman has more radiation to endure, but she’s positive.
“I’m not going to die from this,” she said.
“Cancer ain’t gonna kill me,” Rowland said.
That’s yet another thing they have in common.