*Speakers at annual breast cancer luncheon stress early detection

Although there were three guest speakers at the 18th Annual Do You Know What the Color Pink Means? Breast Cancer Luncheon, held Friday in Fulton, Cathy Franks’ story best conveyed the emotional journey of a breast cancer victim.

A two-year survivor, the Mantachie native said she’s fortunate to be alive.

“I am only here today by the grace of God,” she told the crowd of well over 100 people, packed wall-to-wall in the First Baptist Church fellowship hall.

Franks’ story started years ago. At 29, she discovered a lump in her left breast. It was soft and sore. A visit to the doctor identified it as a small benign tumor. Nothing to worry about. But it made Franks cautious from then on. She became very aware of the possibility of developing breast cancer, and kept regular appointments with her doctor for exams.

Then came 2012, probably the worst year of Franks’ life. Her husband committed suicide, leaving her reeling. Not long after, as she was still struggling to recover emotionally, she discovered a lump in her right breast. Unlike the previous lump, this one was painless and hard.

“Inside myself, I knew it was cancer,” she said.

Despite knowing better, she didn’t go to the doctor right away.

“It was the stupidest thing,” she said. “I came up with a thousand excuses why not to get it checked out, but the main reason was I didn’t want to be a burden on my family.”

This was a driving factor. Franks didn’t want to tell her family she had cancer. She didn’t want them pitying her. She couldn’t take that, not on top of everything else.

“You don’t want them to know how bad you feel, how much you’re going through,” she said.

Franks didn’t end up going to the doctor until January. By then, the lump had gotten noticeably bigger. Worse, the cancer … and the doctor quickly confirmed that’s exactly what it was, invasive ductal carcinoma … had spread to her lymph nodes.

“It was shaped by a dumbbell,” she said. “Wide at both ends but connected by a thin strip. By this point, it was very real to me.”

Although it was only discovered in her right breast, the doctor told Franks her cancer had a good chance at appearing in the left as well. She decided to have both removed.

She laughed about the choice.

“Keep a boob, or a better prognosis for living?” she said. “The boob had to go.”

Playful as she was when describing the decision, there was nothing easy about it. She talked at length about drawing strength from her spirituality. It was the worst time in her life. There were moments when she felt so weighed down by the things that had befallen her, she didn’t know if she’d be able to keep pressing forward.

“When I was going through that part of my life, I was just trying to make it through the day … put one foot in front of the other,” she said. “But I believe that when we go through things in our lives, [God] is just trying to teach us something.”

That gave her strength to face her cancer head on. She was no longer hiding from it. When people would tell her they had heard about her “condition,” she’d set them straight.

“It’s cancer,” she’d tell them. “You can say it. It’s cancer.”

After surgery, Franks underwent chemotherapy. It wasn’t pleasant. She could feel this “poison,” as she called it, flowing beneath her skin and taste it in her mouth. It was awful, albeit necessary.

“Even though it was bad, I knew it could save my life,” she said.

Although she’s living cancer-free now, Franks said there’s a 50 percent chance the disease will return one day. Part of this, she knows, is her fault. She accepts that, but asks others to use her example as a cautionary tale.

“I want you to remember I dropped the ball,” Franks told the crowd. “You find something, you go immediately to check it out.

“Do not do what I did,” she said. “Do not wait. It may be the difference between life and death for you.”

Getting checked

The event’s other two guest speakers emphasized the importance of early detection.

Shelley Hamblin, RN, BSN and Breast Care Navigator for North Mississippi Medical Center, talked about the stats and facts surrounding breast cancer and the important role early detection plays in beating it. In 2015, there will be 300,000 new cases of breast cancer. There will be 40,000 deaths related to breast cancer.

But here’s the good news: There are currently 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. That’s a testament to how far research has come. If caught early enough, breast cancer is no longer a death sentence.

“I think that’s phenomenal,” Hamblin said. “It shows that a lot of women are beating cancer.”

The No. 1 risk factor is, naturally, being female. Although men can certainly get breast cancer, it’s far less likely. Age, race, personal and family history also factor in.

Although there are ways in which to predict the likelihood of developing breast cancer, nothing is certain. Often, women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have neither personal nor family history to indicate it was coming.

“Unfortunately, it’s often very sporadic,” Hamblin said.

Tammy Martin of Courtyards Community Living Center in Fulton, also spoke about the importance of early detection. In 2009, she discovered a lump in her breast. A lumpectomy revealed it to be a benign tumor, but had it been something worse, she would have caught it in time to stop it.

“Since then, I’ve been very diligent,” she told the crowd. “Early detection can save your life.”

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