PRESCOTT — For Brenda Stephan, the month of October carries with it a subtle reminder of not only her own bout with breast cancer five years ago, but a continuing fight to survive a disease fixated on reoccurring with malice, without warning or mercy.
In October 2011 during a routine mammogram, doctors noticed a small mass on Stephan’s left breast. A nodule had formed, but in an effort to be sure, doctors requested a second mammogram to confirm.
“At first, it was not emotional, but when they re-mammogrammed me because they saw something, because [the mass] wasn’t on the one I had the year before … They started calling it breast cancer right away before I even had a biopsy,” Stephan recalled.
Doctors did the biopsy, removing a pea-sized tumor that was luckily isolated in one small area, but because it was estrogen-receptive, Stephan needed a lumpectomy.
Facing the holidays and stain tests revealing no other cancer, doctors agreed to wait to perform surgery. Stephan, 65, said she wasn’t frightened at first, but instead chose to “go through the paces.”
“After the biopsy, and I knew I was facing the lumpectomy, I kind of just forgot about it over the holidays,” Stephan said. “Our whole family was here for Christmas. I put it aside, went on and had a great time.”
On Jan. 6, 2012, Stephan had the lumpectomy and after, doctors recommended radiation. She also began to take an Aromatase Inhibitor, helping remove estrogen from the body and hopefully preventing other tumor growth.
But four days after the surgery, Stephan developed a hematoma in her breast. At first, doctors assumed her body would absorb the clot, but Stephan wasn’t that lucky.
“Something broke loose in there. It kept getting bigger, and bigger, until finally they had to remove it,” Stephan said.
For a second time in three weeks, Stephan braved another surgery. When doctors removed the hematoma, it was the size of a large tomato.
“It camped out in there and left a big hole after they removed everything,” Stephan said. “I had to be on a wound V.A.C. for four weeks, and I missed the window to do the radiation.”
V.A.C., or vacuum assisted closure, is the latest advancement in wound-closure therapy, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable, Stephan said.
“[It] was terrible! It was making noise. Fortunately, it was winter, so I had a coat or jacket on. I put it on over my shoulder, then put my coat on over the top of it,” said Stephan, who can laugh about it now. “But then it made these noises and everything, and people were like, ‘What was that?’ I did not do a lot of socializing.”
In four weeks time, Stephan healed, but the doctors were still pushing radiation. She was not on board and wanted a second opinion.
“I went online and did a lot of research, talked to everyone I knew that had ever dealt with breast cancer and started to form my own opinion on how I was going to approach this treatment,” Stephan said.
Dr. Nina J. Karlin, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, agreed with Stephan and skipped the radiation treatment.
“I’m a firm believer in things happen for a reason. That hematoma happened for a reason, because I wasn’t on board for this radiation. I didn’t want to do it. They kept telling me, ‘There’s no cancer’ in the tissue they took out,” she said.
Although she continues to be breast-cancer free, the Aromatase Inhibitor treatment side effects were nearly unbearable, causing joint and muscle pain, along with making her go through menopause a second time.
“It was not fun,” said Stephan, who was also recently diagnosed with osteoporosis, likely another side effect to the drug.
Stephan continues to deal with other cancers, recently having a melanoma removed from her nose, and colon polyps that were pre-cancerous, but her last colonoscopy revealed nothing abnormal.
“That was good news,” Stephan said.
The Piqua, Ohio native hopes the Mayo Clinic will conduct a study on her in the future, especially since she spent her childhood growing up within a mile of a nuclear power plant facility.
“Honestly I wonder some times if that’s why I’ve had three different types of cancer,” Stephan said. “There was no breast cancer in my family.”
For now, however, Stephan preaches early detection as something that can save a woman’s life.
“Get your mammogram every year. Make sure you go to the same place, because they do look over your last mammograms,” Stephan said. “If you have any breast cancer in your family, definitely.”
Today, Stephan, the wife of Larry Stephan, dean of students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, spends her days entertaining alumni house guests and cooking dinner for them.
She’ll also bake a few dozen cookies for the annual Cross Town Battle Against Breast Cancer, a fundraiser featuring the volleyball teams at Embry-Riddle and Yavapai College.
Stephan hopes to pass on her journal, a 5-inch thick three-ring binder filled with test results, notes and research, to her 45-year-old daughter Alisha.
“I journaled a lot of the feelings I was having during the hematoma. I read back over it every once in awhile to bring me back to reality,” Stephan said. “It was real important for me to have something to pass on to [my daughter] on what I went through, and the testing and everything.”
In a way, she was giving herself therapy.
“It was definitely therapy. As soon as I would get back from a doctor appointment, I would start writing,” Stephan said. “It was what I needed to do at the time.”