Finding out your mother or your sister has breast cancer can be
devastating. Now imagine that they both receive that diagnosis—on the
very same day.
“It was surreal,” said Margee Herring of that January day in 2003. “My mother called me with the news of both her cancer, and my sister, Karen’s. It was simply stunning. All of a sudden, breast cancer was a very real part of my family. The statistics had landed at home.”
Both her mother and sister had radical mastectomies of their affected breasts. Karen required additional treatment – chemotherapy and radiation – but their mother did not. With treatments and healing completed, life resumed and the cancer became a part of the family’s history.
But another blow was yet to be delivered – an ironic five years later, the point at which cancer survivors are said to have “beaten cancer.”
“My sister’s cancer returned one month after a clean scan,” recalled Margee. “It came back as inflammatory breast cancer, the most aggressive kind, and it had already metastasized.” That was January, 2008. For the rest of that year and the first part of 2009, Margee lived in two places: at home in Wilmington and in Washington, DC, where she cared for her sister.
Incredibly, upon returning home from an extended stretch with Karen, she discovered her own lump. “It was a cruel kind of affront. Looking back, I think my husband and I were in a mild state of shock.” Within a week or so, doctors determined her lump was a benign cyst – no need even for a biopsy.
“But the doctors sat me down and said that my own breast health—having very dense fibrocystic breasts— combined with my family history suggested I needed a prophylactic double mastectomy,” she explained. Margee cautioned that this isn’t the solution for women who simply want to avoid breast cancer. However for someone like her, given her family history and personal tendencies, she was advised that it was a wise choice.
“Perhaps given the context of my sister’s prognosis, it was an easier decision,” she admitted. “There was an element of feeling a bit smug, as if I could outsmart the cancer by getting there first.”
Reconstruction following mastectomy is the standard of care, so together with her supportive, loving family and friends, Margee prepared herself for not one, but two, major surgeries. In September of 2008, Greg Bebb. M.D. performed the double mastectomy. For the reconstruction procedure, Margee chose Wilmington Plastic Surgery whose surgeons are recognized leaders in this type of operation.
“There’s no doubt that confidence in my surgeons and in my post-operative appearance eased my apprehension,” said Margee. Of Charles Kays, M.D., who performed the reconstruction, Margee said, “Everyone sings Dr. Kays’ praises for his breast work and now I’m an enthusiastic part of that choir.
“Dr. Kays and the entire Wilmington Plastic Surgery staff, especially Julie, just made me feel genuinely taken care of physically and emotionally,” Margee continued. “There’s a sincerity in their care that is truly bolstering.”
Margee is now completely recovered and looks back on her own surgery as a mere footnote to her year. Following her recovery, she went right back to caring for her sister, who succumbed to her disease and died in mid-March.
“Karen’s battle and ultimate death is a reminder that we need to be proactive with breast cancer on all fronts,” said Margee. “We need to educate all women on the importance of monthly self-examinations, advocate regular mammograms, and support aggressive research for new treatments in hopes of a cure. I really hope my teenaged daughter and her generation will have far more and better options than surgery to avoid breast cancer in the future.”