BALDWYN – When Shana Cummings was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly six years ago, she didn’t have to look far for a role model of survivorship.
Her mom Terri Cummings will mark 33 years as a breast cancer survivor in December. No one wishes for breast cancer, but she was glad her only child didn’t have to make the journey alone.
“When she was diagnosed, I was happy I had breast cancer,” Terri said. “I wanted her to look at me and realize ‘I can still be here.’”
It hasn’t always been easy, but the Baldwyn women have drawn strength from each other.
“You have to believe in God and believe in yourself,” said Shana, 36 and a nurse working in nursing administration at North Mississippi Medical Center.
The experience also teaches you what’s truly important, they said.
“It’s not about your breasts,” said Terri, now 58 and retired. “It’s about your heart.”
Diagnosed at 25
In 1982, a pink ribbon was just a pink ribbon.
“I don’t think I had ever heard of breast cancer,” Terri said. “It was years before I met anyone else with breast cancer.”
Terri was 25 years old and the mother of a 3-year-old Shana. She went to the doctor after a knot on her breast appeared and didn’t go away. Because of her age, her doctor thought it was unlikely it was anything serious. To find out exactly what the problem was, they scheduled a biopsy for just before Christmas 1982 to minimize the time out of work.
“In those days, you went into the hospital for a biopsy,” Terri said.
After the biopsy, her doctor didn’t need the pathologist’s report to know it was bad news.
“My doctor was torn up about it,” Terri said.
There was lots of crying, and initially, Terri remembers being resistant to the idea of surgery. But her medical team pushed her to reconsider, and she agreed. In hindsight, the decision not to delay likely saved her life.
“It would have spread like wildfire,” she said.
They kept her in the hospital for 10 days, and she missed Christmas at home.
“Everybody else on the surgery floor (except for one other breast cancer surgery patient) got to go home for Christmas,” Terri said. The nurses hung out in her room and shared holiday treats.
She remembers Shana coming to visit her with her Christmas presents in tow.
“She had gotten her first Barbie doll,” Terri said.
Visiting her mother in the hospital with that Barbie and her horse Dallas in hand, is one of Shana’s earliest memories.
“I’ve never known my mother not being a survivor,” Shana said.
There were tough moments as Terri recovered, but she had the support of family and friends. A friend brought a book of jokes that provided sweet relief. Her faith in God was her rock.
She was followed closely by a Memphis oncologist, but avoided the need for chemotherapy. She continued to work at Lane in the human resources department until she retired in 2012.
Because of her mom’s history of breast cancer, Shana Cummings had already had two mammograms before her 30th birthday. During her annual check up in 2009, Shana remembers chatting away about Christmas shopping, when her nurse practitioner paused during the clinical breast exam.
“Have you felt that before?” Shana remembers her asking.
Shana went straight for a mammogram, and then for an MRI. She had an MRI-guided biopsy, and unlike her mom, waited for the results at home. Her mom asked her surgeon to call her first if it proved malignant.
“I didn’t want her to be alone when she got the news,” Terri said.
When Shana saw her mom at the door she knew.
“She said, ‘It’s cancer’ with tears in her eyes. ‘But look at me, I’m still here,’” Shana remembered her mother saying.
Because her tumor was caught at an early stage, Shana had a lumpectomy, but her pathology results showed her tumor was negative for estrogen, progesterone and HER2 receptors. Oncologists have targeted therapies for cancers that test positive for those receptors, greatly decreasing the odds of reoccurrence with fewer side effects.
Because both triple negative breast cancers and breast cancer in younger women tend to be aggressive, her medical team suggested more surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. She had gotten a second opinion with oncologists in Birmingham. She and her medical teams decided on a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction in March 2010 and six months of chemotherapy.
“As a nurse, I thought I knew the options,” Shana said. “It all sounded overwhelming.”
Both of the Cummings women continued working through much of Shana’s treatment, taking days off when complications set in.
Unlike her mom’s experience, there was no silence around Shana’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Friends encouraged her to get a dog to help with her healing. Her co-workers threw her a “No More Chemo” party.
“People wanted to talk about,” Shana said. “I’ve been able to share my story with so many people.”
The Cummings ladies see moments of serendipity in their journeys beyond being diagnosed the same month.
Terri didn’t immediately go to the doctor when she noticed that fateful knot in the summer of 1982. It took a co-worker’s persistent nudging to get her to go to the doctor.
The fall before Shana was diagnosed, she moved back in with her mom to save money as she was working on her master’s of nursing degree.
“It’s a Holy Spirit thing,” said Shana, who was able to complete her master’s degree after a year’s break.
“We were able to get everything settled before she was diagnosed,” Terri said.
Christmas remains a tough time for the Cummings family, especially Terri. Not only were she and Shana diagnosed around Christmas, Terri’s mom went through amputation surgery one Christmas and died during another holiday season.
“After Thanksgiving, I’m done until Valentine’s Day,” Terri said.
But they remain thankful, and work to find the humor in their breast cancer journeys.
“We joke that we only have one real boob between us,” Terri said.
“You’ve got to laugh about it,” Shana added.