Originally Published: October 5, 2015 12:42 a.m.
Marybeth Cleland, 45, is a nurse, a wife, and a mother of two children. In February of this year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately, she caught it early, took immediate and aggressive action, and now, only about five months after a surgical procedure to remove the at-risk tissue, she has a 98 percent chance of survival.
The way she found out was quite amazing.
In September, Cleland had major abdominal surgery to remove her ovaries because of ovarian tumors. The tumors turned out benign, but the procedure caused her to reach her medical insurance deductible, so her gynecologist suggested she might as well get a breast MRI and ultrasound before the year was up.
Ultrasounds and MRI's are becoming more common for breast cancer screening, especially for women like Cleland who have dense breast tissue-which increases the risk of breast cancer and makes it more difficult to spot potential cancerous lumps and lesions-but are not recommended as a replacement for mammography, according to the American Cancer Society.
Neither test showed anything, but Cleland wasn't quite satisfied. She felt unsettled and relates it to her strong religious faith.
"I literally felt like the Holy Spirit was saying 'you need to get your mammogram done; you need to go, you need to go'," Cleland said.
She was hesitant, but she went ahead and did it.
The mammogram showed that she had pleomorphic micro-calcifications, which can be the early and only sign of breast cancer, according to the Indian Journal of Radiology and Imaging. Pleomorphic micro-calcifications can only be seen in mammograms-ultrasounds and MRI's cannot pick it up-and show up in the X-rays as shiny, glasslike particles.
Cleland's physician conducted a biopsy and the results indicated that she had two types of cancer.
One was a stage zero ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a common type of non-invasive breast cancer. The other was invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), the most common type of breast cancer.
The IDC had broken out of the milk ducts and gone into the surrounding breast tissue, posing a much higher risk of spreading to lymph nodes and possibly other areas of the body, according to breastcancer.org.
When this happens, a woman has options, the most aggressive of which is a double mastectomy-removal of both breasts. After significant thought, this is what Cleland opted to do because of her relatively young age and family.
A double mastectomy had the highest chance of success for her specific case and prevented her from having to go through radiation or any sort of chemotherapy, which she purposely wanted to avoid.
"I thought [the chemotherapy] was way more of a carcinogen for my body," Cleland said. "I just went with 'let's get this over with,' because my daughter's engaged and will eventually have children; I want to be a grandma; and I don't want to be fighting breast cancer five years down the road because I decided to only go with a lumpectomy (the removal of a lump from a breast)."
However, the decision wasn't made easily.
"It was the most difficult decision of my life," Cleland said.
Within a year, Cleland lost both her ovaries and her breasts, two major parts of the female anatomy.
"Honestly, I did struggle a little bit with the idea that I'd lost some of my womanhood," Cleland said. "I did feel like less of a woman. But then I realized, that's not what makes me. What makes me is my faith, family and my heart. That's what makes a person who they are, not their parts."
To deal with all of the emotional stress, Cleland's primary coping mechanism was prayer.
This was a valuable tool for her daughter Rachel as well, who's in college and feels that the family was perhaps more concerned for Cleland's wellbeing than Cleland was for herself.
"It was definitely more emotional for us," Rachel said. "Mom was in a very good frame of mind. I feel like it's a lot harder for those around you going through it than it is for the person."
"That's how I feel too," Cleland said. "It was easier for me to go through this than it was for them."
Cleland said the biggest lesson she learned from the whole experience is simple: get your mammogram and don't avoid the doctor when something doesn't seem quite right.
"Anyone can say 'oh that won't happen to me', and that's what I thought," Cleland said.
For Rachel, the lesson was to have patience.
"You have to maintain patience for goodness to come out of something," Rachel said.
Cleland is still undergoing breast reconstruction, but can nearly see the light at the end of the tunnel and is looking forward to returning to the workforce after taking this last year to overcome her back-to-back battles.
"I'm so excited to get back into nursing and just be an advocate for my patients," Cleland said. "This is a new chapter for me."
Follow Max Efrein on Twitter @mefrein. Reach him at 928-445-3333 ext. 1105, or 928-642-7864.