In September of 2013, Betsy Chinn went in for her routine, yearly mammogram which is something that she never missed. This time was different, however. The next day she got a call from the doctor asking her to come back into the office.
“I was called back but I didn’t really think anything about it,” Betsy said. “I think I had been called back previously but I didn’t give it much thought. The radiologist came out to talk with me which surprised me because that’s never happened before.”
Having worked in the medical field for years now, Betsy was seeking answers right away as she spoke with her radiologist.
“I speak with doctors and medical personnel on a regular basis so I’m trying to make him tell me what he saw and he just said, ‘I’m recommending a biopsy,’” Betsy described.
Her first thought, of course, was, “So you’re telling me I have cancer?” Unfortunately, her radiologist could not tell exactly what was going on so he recommended the biopsy as the next step to determine what was happening.
Betsy wanted to schedule the biopsy right away but she needed to see a surgeon first in order to make that happen. Eventually, she contacted her OB/GYN and was able to get it scheduled. A week later, Betsy went in for the biopsy.
“I had the biopsy on a Thursday and I went all weekend knowing that I probably had cancer,” she said. “So I went in on Monday and my husband was with me, thank goodness, because the bottom totally fell out. I wanted it out of my body and so my knee-jerk reaction was, ‘Get it out!’”
After Betsy’s initial lumpectomy she ended up having some complications, infection, and, what she described as, a ‘positive tumor border.’
Having medical professionals as family, friends and colleagues, Betsy reached out to them for guidance and she ultimately ended up at the Northwestern University Lynn Sage Comprehensive Breast Center in Chicago.
“I saw Dr. Nora Hansen who is the head of the Lynn Sage Breast Center about a month later,” Betsy said. “She told me that it was my choice whether I have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. Either way, though, because of some of the complications they were going to have to do reconstruction.”
“I had been frightened, I didn’t feel well, I had this infection going on and I was in pain,” Betsy continued. “I was scared because I had a positive tumor border and I was thinking, ‘Is it somewhere else?’
“So, when I went to Northwestern, Dr. Hansen addressed all of the concerns and complications I had and she said, ‘Don’t worry. It’s your choice and we’re going to do whatever you want. We’re going to take good care of you. And kudos to you for getting your mammogram. It saved your life!’”
Because Betsy goes so regularly, the cancer was caught early on but the pathology of the tumor was “angry,” as she described it. Had she not been so adamant about scheduling and going so regularly, the aggressive nature of the cancer could have been far worse, and eventually spread to other parts of her body.
Betsy then saw Chicago-based plastic surgeon, Dr. Fine, who primarily works in breast reconstruction after cancer.
“He’s very calm, very reassuring and he has a big pink rhinestone cancer ribbon on his scrub jacket,” Betsy said. “He let us know we have lots of options and he said, ‘Let’s narrow it down and do what’s best for you and your husband.’”
Then, in November of 2013, Betsy had an eight and a half hour mastectomy and reconstructive surgery performed. Over the next year, she also had another six surgeries performed as part of the reconstruction.
“It was a lot but I felt very lucky. The reason that I chose the surgery was because I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation. I really didn’t want to have radiation so I chose the surgeries and every time that I would start feeling better I’d have another surgery. Finally, in October of 2014, I had my last surgery.”
About six months after her last surgery Betsy was still experiencing a lot of fatigue and emotion, and she still wasn’t quite herself. She attended a cancer survivor event as a vendor and decided to go and see the speaker at the event give her presentation.
“I had been through a lot,” she said. “Through that speaker, I found out that what I had been experiencing was very normal. Emotionally I had hit a wall. It takes a year to go through it and then a year to get through it, is what I was told. You put on your armor and do what you have to do to get through it, and then it kind of hits you six months or a year after.”
“When I went back up to Northwestern for my check-up they let me know that surgery was one of the hardest routes. You don’t think about it that way and I just wanted to get through it. I went to my internist here in town around the same time and it was a great day, I was feeling good. I went in and she says, ‘What’s going on with you?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about, I’m fine!’ So she starts questioning me and I had a total meltdown in her office, and she let me know that I had not yet handled my cancer.”
“People don’t like to talk about the emotional stuff but it happens. She told me, ‘You’re taking some time off of work and you’re going to face this.’ I thought, “I can’t do that!’ and she said, ‘Doctors orders!’ So, I was off for six weeks and I saw a counselor locally, and it was all really good. It was a journey.”
Now, several years later, Betsy is still cancer-free and, with the help of friends and family, has overcome the emotions that she had been carrying with her.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people about my journey,” she said. “Not everyone has the same kind of breast cancer and it’s interesting, when you go through it, people react differently. My parents and kids had a really hard time. My husband was awesome. He never left my side and he still drives me to every appointment. We do it together.”
Betsy feels comfortable sharing her experience with the people she meets and, especially during October, she stresses the importance of getting yourself checked on a regular basis.
“When it’s ‘Breast Cancer Awareness Month’ I tell everyone I know, everywhere I go to get your mammogram. It literally saved my life! That’s kind of my mantra and I have spoken with people that I don’t even know because I’m very open about how important it can be.”
“For everyone it’s different but get a second opinion. You don’t need to have that knee-jerk reaction. You have to feel comfortable with where you’re going and who’s treating you. Everyone has different support systems but there are resources out there and help available for people who might be struggling to take care of their home, their kids or anything else going on in their life.”
The importance of early detection cannot be overstated and the experience that Betsy had is truly a testament to that.
If you’re a cancer survivor or you have a friend or family member that is, please share your story and how long you have been cancer free to firstname.lastname@example.org. Simply send us your name and how long you’ve been cancer free to be added to our growing list of Survivors. We look forward to sharing some inspirational journeys with you through this series!