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Strength in numbers

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Friends, family help area women in their breast cancer battle

COLERIDGE - Julie Stone joined a club she never wanted to be a part of.

She remembers saying those words - “I’m joining your club” - reaching out to another woman with breast cancer.

“It’s funny how there was so many people that seemed like were diagnosed around the time or came out of the woodwork … after I was. You start hearing about it more when it affects you,” Stone said. “We kind of commiserated together.”

There’s strength in numbers but, unfortunately, there’s too many affected by breast cancer and in that particular “club.”

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 280,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer are diagnosed annually with more than 50,000 of new ductal carcinoma diagnosed in the United States. About 43,000 women die each year.

As women it’s hard to reach out and ask for help but it’s crucial to do just that when facing a major medical issue, said Darlene Dowling of Randolph who also joined the breast cancer “club” involuntarily.

“When you have friends and family that ask if there is anything they can do for you, ask for help,” Dowling said. “It’s hard but they love you and want to be your strength when you are feeling weak.”

That’s just one of the lessons learned and advice shared by the women who hope sharing their story can help someone else and raise awareness as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Diagnosis Dowling completed her annual physical and mammogram in May 2019 with all of the results returning as normal.

A couple of months later - in August - she noticed a bump on her left breast. She chalked it up to possibly injuring herself when moving tree limbs and debris, thinking, “I’m sure I jammed a piece in my chest and didn’t remember it.”

A few weeks passed and the bump remained. Her doctor scheduled a 3-D mammogram right away.

“The doctor said it was a good thing I came in because they normally would have not been concerned because of the history of density in my breasts,” she said.

A biopsy was done and Dowling was told she would get the results on a certain Thursday.

“I hung around the phone all day: 1 p.m. nothing, 2 p.m. nothing, 3 p.m. then 4 p.m. then 5 p.m. I just figured he would call me back the next day,” Dowling said. “At 6:20 p.m. the phone rang and it was the doctor from Omaha. He told me they found blah, blah, blah - then the word I recognized: carcinoma. I was trying to write down what he was saying so I could relay it to Greg but my pen and brain weren’t working.”

She got off the phone, turned to her husband and said those words: breast cancer.

There were many tears for Dowling and her family. Her head was spinning.

“There were tears but more importantly was the reassurance of we’ll get through this together,” she said.

Stone found a lump in 1994 which tested benign, or non-cancerous. The lump was removed and she moved on with her life but not without some anxiety in the back of her mind as she had a family history of breast cancer.

In 2015, a routine mammogram came back as suspicious.

The doctor didn’t seem concerned, telling Stone to “keep an eye on it” and return in six months.

She repeated testing six months later at a Sioux City, Iowa, facility with the same result - what appeared to possibly be calcification, the doctor said.

Again, she was told to “keep an eye on it” and that she just had naturally dense breasts.

By December 2017, she had developed a “pretty good-sized” lump - two centimeters - when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer with minimal lymph node involvement in December 2017.

“I kicked myself. Why didn’t I insist on having an ultrasound? I was too complacent,” Stone said. “I wish I had been more proactive.

I wasn’t really faithful about selfbreast exams and it’s so easy to just trust (the doctors).”

Treatment Stone started chemotherapy a few weeks later and kept at it every two weeks for five months to shrink the tumor.

It didn’t take long for her hair to start falling out. Although she got two wigs, Stone said she didn’t like the way they felt so she got used to wearing a scarf or hat to cover her head.

After chemotherapy, she had an oncoplastic lumpectomy which combines plastic surgery techniques with a lumpectomy to give a better cosmetic outcome after the cancer is removed.

Radiation followed - 22 total treatments - five days a week.

During this time, she found herself struggling with her mental health - depression and anxiety - as her body went through massive physical changes.

“Being in it, you just go with it. I just had no joy at all. I was scared,” Stone said.

She found solace in her family, husband, Ron, and children, Holly and Jeremy. Her mother, Delores Buss of Laurel, often took her to and from treatment. Cards from friends were very meaningful, too.

Stone found even strangers at the grocery store could buoy her spirits and provide encouragement during cancer treatment.

She had her eyes open to God winks, too, and remembers a particular viewing of eagles that gave her comfort and peace.

“I just remember thinking, ‘That’s a sign that God’s with me,’” Stone said.

She also had her music. Stone plays the piano at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Coleridge every week and only missed one Sunday when she was undergoing treatment due to not feeling well.

Dowling underwent a double mastectomy - removing the mass and four lymph nodes. Now, she takes an oral chemotherapy pill which she will take for at least five years.

“I was extremely blessed, radiation or (intravenous) chemo wasn’t needed,” she said.

Dowling said she was also blessed to have an amazing care team.

“She (her doctor) talked to me like I was her sister and in laymen’s terms,” Dowling said. “No questions were off limits.”

Dowling focused on staying positive - finding the humor in everyday life even during treatment. She remembers two instances in particular in which her grandchildren provided some levity.

After breast surgery, her husband, Greg, was helping drain tubes on each side of her breast when their oldest grandson happened to catch a peek.

“I was covered up but the drain tubes were showing. He looks at me and says, ‘Cool! Grandma has grenades!’” Explaining the surgery to a young granddaughter also caused some confusion.

“The youngest asked her mom, ‘Is Granny going to get electric boobs? Mom asked her what she meant by that. So she goes on to explain, ‘You know like in the movies when someone gets their leg cut off and they get a new leg.’ Mom explains that is an artificial leg,” Dowling said. “Awhile later the granddaughter comes back and says to her mom, ‘Granny can’t get electric boobs because if she gets in the swimming pool she’ll get electrocuted.’” The granddaughter shook her body as she demonstrated being electrocuted, Dowling said with a smile.

The after-effects Breast cancer treatment has left Stone with other health issues to deal with - neuropathy, which causes nerve damage and dysfunction which resulted in numbness, tingling, weakness and pain, mainly in the hands and feet.

Every August, Stone feels apprehensive remembering the anniversary of her diagnosis and getting a mammogram.

“Every year, it’s concerning,” she said. “But all in all, I’d say I came out pretty good.”

August 2023 will be the five-year mark and when she will be considered a breast cancer survivor.

Dowling said it’s important for women - who are so busy taking care of others - to take care of themselves. Stone and Dowling both encourage women to be proactive with their health.

“Don’t put off going, especially if you have a family history. Start earlier than some do,” Stone said.

No matter your age, know your own body and trust yourself if you think something isn’t right, Dowling agreed.

“If I would have waited until May of 2020, it could have been too late,” she said.