Survivor shares story to help, even if one person
By BETH ALSTON
AMERICUS — Brinda Middleton knew she should have regular mammograms. She knew it. Her long-time physician, Dr. Schley Gatewood Jr., knew it also, and stayed on her to get them on a regular basis. His office would make appointments for her mammograms and she would cancel them. Gatewood even offered to drive her to the hospital to get a mammogram. She told him that mammograms hurt and he told her that having cancer hurts worse.
Middleton was well aware of her family history. She had lost an older sister and an older brother, both to breast cancer. She finally decided to go to the Verandah in Albany and called to set up an appointment with Dr. Shannon Huff. She was told she had to have a mammogram prior to seeing the doctor.
So in early November 2013, Middleton went for the mammogram and then saw her new doctor, whom she liked. Gatewood had retired.
Then came the week after Thanksgiving.
“We had had a good Thanksgiving,” she said, “with family and friends. I got a phone call at work from a radiologist who said they had found something on my mammogram, and that I needed to come in to have it checked.”
When asked how she felt at that time, Middleton said she was of course apprehensive, but thought, “Oh, well, it could be a number of other things … but I was scared, too. My husband went with me … He’s been right there with me all the time.” She received a second mammogram at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital that day and after reading it, the radiologist ordered an ultrasound. “That scared me,” she admitted. They found a mass in her right breast, 1.5 cm in size, which is considered “real early,” she said. They told her she needed to see a surgeon.
“I never felt it (the mass) until they showed it to me; then I could feel it,” she said. She found a surgeon, Dr. John Bennett. “He had such a good bedside manner,” she said. “He’s straight forward.”
Middleton said the time between “going and knowing” was very difficult for her.
She went to the Carleton Breast Center at Phoebe where her doctor did a needle biopsy of the mass. “The people there are so wonderful,” she said. On Dec. 31, 2013, she returned to see her doctor to learn the results.
“He said, ‘it’s cancer,’ and you’re never prepared for that,” she said. “I thought, ‘no, not me’. It’s like someone just pulled the rug out from under you.”
After recovering somewhat from the initial shock of the diagnosis, she said she worried about “what next”?
The surgeon gave her some options: undergo a bi-lateral mastectomy, or have just one breast removed. Before she made a decision, she had an MRI to check the other breast. He found masses there, too. When she returned to the doctor’s office, he told her they could do a biopsy. She made her decision then: go ahead with the bi-lateral mastectomy. “It’s a good thing we did because when they sent it off (to pathology), it was malignant, too. They removed the central lymph nodes out from under my right arm, and both breasts.”
Middleton said the experience showed her that if she had felt the lump through self-breast exams, she could have caught it even earlier. “When they took it out, it was stage II; that’s how fast it grows,” she said.
Middleton admitted that prior to her cancer diagnosis, she was not completely faithful in doing her monthly self-breast exams, thinking, like many women, that mammograms were enough.
“Thank God, we caught it in time,” she said. “Then I went through the reconstruction part of the surgery.” She underwent nine surgeries in two years, she said. Upon follow-up, her oncology radiologist suggested they test the margins around the lymph nodes before deciding on a course or treatment such as radiation and/or chemotherapy.
“They went back in and took 19 out, and they were all clear,” she said. She was told that if she had a less than 25 percent chance of recurrence, she would not have to undergo further treatment. She had 19 percent. “I thought ‘thank God,’” she said.
During the journey, they found that hormones had caused her breast cancer, she said. She and her twin sister both took the Bracs test which checks for hereditary tendencies. Her twin died recently of complications from diabetes. Middleton takes a drug now that blocks every hormone in her body. She agreed to be a part of a study on the drug. “In fact, they used the cancer cells they took out of me to be a part of that study, so maybe it will help somebody else.”
She spoke highly of Shawnta Speer,MD, hematology/oncology.
“When I went through this, I thought, ‘why me, why me?’ but when I thought, ‘God took me through that for a reason.’” There’s a different world out there,” she said of the people — doctors, nurses, and others — “who really care. They make you feel like family. And that’s important when you’re going through that because they make you feel like they understand and they want to help you. It’s wonderful.”
“It’s OK to cry” is what one nurse told Middleton. “That went a long way because I shed so many tears … she said I had a reason to cry because I was losing a part of my body.” Middleton said she drew strength from that nurse’s advice because she no longer felt she had to hide her tears.
Middleton said people prayed for her, so many people, some she didn’t even know. Church groups sent cards. All those things meant so much to her, she said, and encouraged her.
“So many people helped me, if I can help just one person get that mammogram, and save a life somewhere; that would be great.”
Brinda Middleton, now 64, and her husband Larry live in Andersonville. He works at Macon State Prison and she works as administrative assistant to Americus Police Chief Mark Scott. They have three daughters and two sons, and yes, the daughters get their mammograms and do their self-breast exams. The Middletons also have 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.