Self Exams Save Lives

Breast cancer survivors encourage others to be vigilant

By Craig Reed

Denisa Bradley, left, with her sister, Deanne, and dog, Oliver.
Photo courtesy of Denisa Bradley

Christy McCaslin and Denisa Bradley have advice for both friends and strangers: Do not forget to do self-examinations and don’t forget to have annual mammograms.

The two women are breast cancer survivors who know what it is like to deal with advanced stages of the disease. They don’t wish it on anybody.

Their advice is to catch the disease as early as possible, and the best way to do that is with self-exams and regular mammograms.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month—an annual international health campaign established in 1985 by major breast cancer charities. The purpose is to increase awareness of the disease and to raise funds for research into its cause, prevention, diagnosis,
treatment, and cure. Educating people about the importance of early screening and testing is stressed.

“I’m a true believer in early detection,” says Denisa, 56. “What I went through, you wouldn’t want to go through. A lot of people out there are in denial about this, but testing is definitely there for a reason. You should have a mammogram every year. I won’t skip one.”

Christy, 46, says she has a few friends who have never had a mammogram because they’re scared of the possible positive results.

“I think they’re insane,” she says. “This month does remind me to encourage my friends to be tested. Don’t put it off. Your health is too important. Don’t use the excuse of being too busy taking care of your family or work to get an annual exam and mammogram done.”

Christy has a group of friends who regularly have mammograms. They text and congratulate each other after clean results are received.

“Every month is breast cancer awareness month in our house,” she says. “It’s now a part of our family history, a part of our daily life, so we’re very vigilant about it.”

Christy says it was a “huge shock” and Denisa says it was “devastating” to receive the phone calls from their doctor offices informing them of the positive results for breast cancer.

Denisa had her annual mammogram in May 2008 and received a clean report. But a few months later, she suspected a problem from a self-examination. Subsequent testing resulted in a cancer diagnosis in December. In January, she had a mastectomy on her left side.

“They didn’t give me options at all,” Denisa says. “The cancer was in the lymph nodes. They said the breast would have to be removed to get it all.”

Christy McCaslin with her children, Kellan, and Alex.
Christy McCaslin with her children, Kellan, and Alex.
Photo courtesy of Christy McCaslin

A month after surgery, Denisa went through six sessions of chemotherapy followed by six weeks of radiation. She decided to have reconstruction on her left side, but was hit with more bad news during that process. Additional testing came up positive for ovarian cancer, as well as cancer in her right breast.

Denisa had a hysterectomy and right breast removal surgeries on the same day. Eventually, she completed reconstructions of both

“Going through all that was traumatic,” says Denisa, a 34-year employee of Lane Electric Cooperative. “I went back to work way too fast. I was sore and didn’t feel very good, but it was audit and end-of-the-year payroll time so I needed to be at work.”

Christy’s diagnosis of breast cancer was made following a mammogram in January 2016. One of her first thoughts was of her father, Douglas Vincent, who died at age 61 from bile duct cancer.

“My immediate thought was ‘is this what is going to kill me?’” she recalls.

Christy had a mammogram eight months earlier and the results were negative, so the positive test was shocking. She had a lumpectomy in February 2016, followed by five months of intense chemotherapy and nine months of less aggressive chemo. During that treatment, she had another lumpectomy in October.

“Once I got the diagnosis and spoke to my gynecologist about the success of treatment, I felt confident my fate wouldn’t be the same as my dad’s,” Christy says. “My surgeon was very encouraging. He made me feel pretty good about the process.”

Both women lost their hair during treatments. Denisa says a wig was “a lifesaver” for her. Christy says losing her hair wasn’t as much of an issue as she thought it would be and she “enjoyed the thick almost blond and curly hair that initially grew back in.”

Both Christy and Denisa say they were grateful for the support, care, and help they received from their respective husbands, Jason and Kevin, and their extended families. Plenty of meals were provided, and there was help with the young children in each house.

To support continuing cancer research, both women have participated in fundraising events such as Relay For Life and Race For The Cure. Christy is especially proud of completing a three- day, 60-mile walk for the Susan B. Komen Foundation in November 2018.

“It was a really meaningful, great experience,” she says. “My team raised about $6,000.”

Denisa also became involved with a Young Ladies Cancer Group whose members provide support for others going through cancer treatments.

“I’ve worked through it, but it’s not easy,” Denisa says. “It is just best to be tested. Don’t wait.”