Sisters' Network

IUKA – One of the first lessons you learn when dealing with any serious illness: When one person is sick the family is sick.
I couldn’t write about my own breast cancer diagnosis, surgery and treatment without first telling my sister’s story, because the two stories are so closely entwined.
My sister is Elizabeth “Ann” Mitchell May of Iuka.
Our journey together began in early 2006, and since our surgeries we both have been cancer-free.
Ann asked me to accompany her to a doctor’s appointment on Monday, March 13, 2006, when she would receive the results of a breast biopsy.
She told me later she had expected the diagnosis of breast cancer, because her left breast “just didn’t feel right” and for several weeks she’d had what she described as “a deep itch” on that side.
Surgery was scheduled for Friday, four days later, and included a lumpectomy and removal of some lymph nodes, to be followed by both chemotherapy and radiation.
Serious as the situation was, though, Ann said two things about her surgeon lifted her spirits: First, he was cute, and it never hurts to have a handsome face to look at. Second, he talked with her person-to-person, explaining all that he expected to happen, listening attentively to her thoughts and concerns, and answering questions thoroughly.
Returning home, she had to tell her two adult sons what to expect. Dorian and Damien May both live with Ann, each with a mental health diagnosis, so she is their caretaker. Her responsibilities in that role might be described as a continuation of parenting young teenagers who also like to assert their adulthood. They accepted the news of the surgery and the bigger household role they would assume, but knew I’d be there as part of their support system.
The surgery went smoothly, and the following six weeks included several return trips to Tupelo for follow-up, as well as preparation for chemotherapy. Ann chose to have a port inserted to receive the chemo medicines, which was an additional minor surgical procedure.
Both of us live in Iuka, but Ann has a vision disability. It was important to me to take her to her appointments, not only out of sisterly concern but also because she could not drive back and forth to Tupelo.
Fortunately, once the chemo schedule was established, she was able to receive ongoing treatments in Corinth, as well as the radiation treatments that followed.
This is a first-person essay about my own battle with breast cancer, but in many ways my total immersion in my sister’s treatment was much more extensive than when I was receiving treatment myself.
Ann’s routine of taking steroids a couple of days before chemo; spending more than half a day in the treatment room at the hospital while the medication was administered; going to the hospital for a shot following treatment; and being too sick to get out of bed for several days after each treatment is something I never had to experience.
My biopsy and breast cancer diagnosis came in October 2006 after I had my routine annual mammogram, during the weeks between the end of Ann’s chemo and the start of her radiation.
I’ve had annual mammograms since I was in my 20s, after I had a lumpectomy and biopsy at that young age. When the doctor noted a change from the previous year, he wanted to evaluate it further.
Unlike my sister’s result, the doctor found the cancer was contained in my right breast and did not involve lymph notes, and my treatment following lumpectomy surgery was for radiation only.
I won’t say that six weeks of five-day-a-week trips to take the treatments wasn’t difficult, because it was. Or that I didn’t have to figure out every day how to be comfortable in my clothes with skin burns from the accumulation of treatments.
But I was able to work every day throughout the treatments.
And I always remembered how easy I had it compared to my sister and many other women confronted with this illness.
The comfort for both Ann and me is that we have each other.
Throughout the diagnosis and treatment process each of us learned of friends – and we’ve had several cousins – who also have fought this battle.
The most important thing I can say to anyone facing the challenge of this or any other illness is to call on your support system and network of family, friends, church family, co-workers, health professionals and others.
Don’t be shy about leaning on them, whether for spiritual support, faith and strength when yours might be weak, or the mundane day-to-day tasks of living.
More often than not, you’ll find that people may not have the right words to show they care about you, but they often appreciate a way to demonstrate it with actions.

Contact Lena Mitchell at 287-9822 or lena.mitchell@djournal.com

Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal