Melissa Cole, director of the Breast Care Center in Tupelo, is shown in October 2021. Cole has worked with breast cancer patients for years, but her experiences came full circle in late 2020 when she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

TUPELO • Cancer has been a part of Breast Care Center director Melissa Cole’s entire adult life, but her years of experience came full circle last November when an abnormality was found during her routine screening mammogram.

“Having a background in oncology, of course you’re a little cancer-paranoid always,” Cole said. “However, you still never think it’s going to be you, and when it is, it’s a very surreal experience.”

Cole’s mammogram had already been delayed six months along with all nonessential medical visits during the pandemic. After additional imaging and a biopsy proved the malignancy was invasive lobular, Cole met with her surgeon, Dr. Danny Sanders, and his team to help decide her next steps.

The Amory-native spent over 15 years working in radiation oncology before joining the Breast Care Center five years ago. With her background in oncology and role as director, Cole found comfort in knowing the expertise and standard of care of her team.

Even with that, she realized that she didn’t have control of the situation. Having questions, she found, was a normal part of the process of coping with what was happening to her.

Each step along her path to recovery was an emotional roller coaster, but Cole was determined early on that she was going to try to make her journey a positive one. She found support in many different directions, from her family, friends and acquaintances to the co-workers and health care providers who treated her.

Cole said her family shed a lot of tears and shared lots of conversations over coffee. As an only child, she is close with her mom, and her husband provided wonderful support throughout.

Because of her work, Cole’s two children have also grown up around cancer. When she told her 16-year-old son Jack about her diagnosis, he had two questions: One was if she was going to die.

“My answer to him was, of course at some point I will. I certainly hope that this doesn’t take my life,” Cole said.

The other question was if her diagnosis meant his sister or he could have cancer. Knowing that family history does play a huge part in cancer, Cole proceeded with genetic testing and found she didn’t carry any genes.

“I thought it was very interesting that he had that insight enough to ask, but my children have done well through that,” Cole said. “I’ve tried to just guard them from the ugliness of it.”

In Dec. 2020, she had a double mastectomy. The process showed Cole that every case is different and how, in working with a care team, she had to have faith in her providers and be confident when making decisions that could affect her longevity.

The transition from seeing patients to being a patient gave Cole a newfound appreciation for the journey someone with cancer undertakes. Her personal experiences have only stoked her passion for the work she does, and she’s searching for new ways to help others.

“I don’t think the journey ever ends, and that’s something that I really have a different understanding of now as opposed to when I was caring for cancer patients,” Cole said.

She’s found grace is a gift that visits at unexpected times.

“I think I’m still in the middle of my story,” she said. “I got that diagnosis, and I wanted to handle it with as much grit, grace and gratitude as I could.”

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