Survivors share story of friendship and faith
Approximately one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Women of all walks of life can be affected by this baleful disease.
With odds like that, the community of women who have experience with the frightening world of cancer is vast and continues to grow.
Yet, out of countless stories of trials and tribulations, there are unbreakable bonds of friendship that form as a result.
With this week signifying the start of Breast Cancer Awareness month, two local women decided to step forward to tell their somewhat interconnected stories and ultimately have the chance to share an important message for all women.
Claire Wallace and Courtney Kesler were both diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2017, Wallace with infiltrating lobular carcinoma and Kesler with ductal carcinoma in situ. However, the women didn’t know about each other’s situation until later.
Wallace, a former teacher for the Hart County Charter System, said she’ll never forget where she was when she found out. While in her greenhouse watering plants, she got the call from the cancer navigator at the hospital with the results of her biopsy.
“I thought this could be good or this could be bad,” she said. “She tells me over the phone those words, ‘You have cancer.’”
After Wallace settled down from the initial shock, the cancer navigator asked her to grab a pen and paper.
“She said to write down these words, ‘Your cancer is favorable.’” Wallace said. “She said to underline the word favorable, meaning early stage and small.”
As the administrative secretary for Hartwell First Baptist Church, Kesler was in her office when she got the call and was asked to write down a similar phrase. Her cancer was stage zero, while Wallace’s was stage 1A.
Kesler said she was very emotional and had trouble speaking about the diagnosis for the first few weeks. She even had to email her siblings the news of her diagnosis because she couldn’t bring herself to talk about it out loud.
To Kesler’s surprise, the result of the word getting out was a small army of women who came forth to support her.
“I just had so many women come out of the woodwork who had been there, done that,” Kesler said. “They were just so supportive. It was great for them to come up and say, ‘I went through it and look, I’m fine.’ The support, positivity and hugs, it was really great.”
One of those women adding to Kesler’s support system was Wallace.
Kesler explained how The Hartwell Sun’s editor emeritus connected the women who were going through similar circumstances.
“Wassie Vickery, who is Claire’s aunt and a long family friend of mine got us together,” she said.
“She invited us both to come to her house and just talk with her and meet each other. It was just so nice, very comfortable.”
Through that meeting, a tumultuous moment in life turned into a friendship and both women realized breast cancer is not something that has to be fought alone.
Wallace and Kesler ended up bouncing ideas and questions off of each other throughout their journey and, though their cancers were different, both ended up having lumpectomies in November 2017, followed by radiation therapy.
Far from a walk in the park, the treatment proved challenging at times. Yet, Kesler had something very important to look forward to.
“Radiation fatigue is a real thing. It’s exhausting,” Kesler said.
“When I had finished radiation, I had a little time to recover. Then, we (she and husband Jim) hit the road to New Orleans, Louisiana for the birth of my granddaughter in February. She was born on Valentines Day. That was a gift.”
Though there were many less than desirable moments along the way relating to breast cancer, both women confirmed the worst part of the entire process was the waiting.
“I had a lot of things that held me up that weren’t by choice,” Wallace said. “That drove me crazy.”
Kesler was quick to affirm her friend’s statement.
“That was the worst part,” she said. “Really, waiting for news, it is brutal.”
Kesler admits she almost declined the interview because her cancer was considered minor. Then she remembered how important it is to get the word out, even if it saves just one life.
“It’s just so prevalent, I’m not even sensitive about talking about breast cancer anymore,” Kesler said. “I don’t care where it is, it’s cancer.”
Wallace admitted she almost didn’t even get screened last year.
“I had been reading some articles on the internet, in magazines, about some people starting to say you can skip a year, that going every single year was overkill,” Wallace said. “So I said, ‘Well, why am I going every year? I’ve never been called back.’ Then something, I guess it was the good Lord, just said, ‘Your insurance will pay for this. Go.’ So, I went and that’s the mammogram that showed the tumor.”
The American Cancer Society recommends women at average risk between the ages of 40 and 44 have the option to start screening with a mammogram every year. The ACS also recommends women 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year, and women 55 and older can switch to a mammogram every other year or can choose to continue yearly testing.
Wallace and Kesler said choosing the yearly mammograms regardless of age could make all the difference in outcome.
For women at higher risk, particularly those with a family history, regular screening should begin at age 30.
Wallace stressed that, even if you don’t have insurance, there are agencies and organizations out there willing to help.
“Don’t listen to all the propaganda. Like me, I heard ‘Skip a year,’” Wallace said. “Don’t skip a year, especially if you are 50 or older. Don’t skip a year. There’s no reason for it.”
In addition, Wallace also recommended women request 3D scans, because, otherwise, her cancer wouldn’t have been detected as early as it was.
Both women have been cancer free since their lumpectomies and subsequent treatment.
Through it all, faith, family, friends, kind medical staff and even a book called “Peace in the Face of Cancer” by Lynn Eib helped Wallace and Kesler find the strength they needed.
Above anything else, their message for other women is clear.
“Get your screening mammograms. That’s what saved us,” Kesler said. “Get screened. Had we not caught it early, there’s no telling how it would have turned out.”