TUPELO – Michelle Mauldin’s life changed Nov. 23, 2008.
What had started as a routine gynecological checkup that day ended with the discovery of a knot in her breast and a double mastectomy one week later.
Mauldin, an otherwise healthy, 36-year-old mother of two, had breast cancer – even though she has no family history of the disease and had been performing regular self breast exams for years.
“At 36 years old you aren’t even old enough to have your first mammogram yet,” said Mauldin, who is in remission now.
The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms for women starting at age 40 and clinical breast exams every three years for women in their 20s and 30s.
Mauldin said women should demand earlier and more frequent screenings. Her outspoken views and dedication to raising breast cancer awareness through events like Relay For Life recently earned Mauldin a nod from the American Cancer Society.
She was chosen from among hundreds of people to serve as Mississippi’s Hero of Hope.
“That’s where you are a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society,” Mauldin explained. “That was a big honor. I was tickled about that.”
The society notified Mauldin in October, and her name will go into a database where organizers from across the South can ask her to speak at their cancer-related events.
Her message: “Don’t miss your doctors appointments. Early detection is the best. And if you do have to go through it, life doesn’t end there because you can be a survivor.”
Mauldin attributes her own detection to a fluke: The only reason she’d visited the gynecologist that day in November 2008 was because she’d had an abnormal pap smear during her regular visit five months prior.
So the doctor scheduled a return visit earlier than usual to perform a follow-up test. It was during that appointment he discovered the knot in her right breast.
“It hadn’t been there in June,” Mauldin said. Yet when surgeons removed the mass a few months later, it’d already grown to “the size of a tennis ball.”
The medical team also found precancerous cells in Mauldin’s left breast, so they removed that, too, along with lymph nodes that showed signs of the disease.
But the worst was yet to come. Mauldin received 16 rounds of chemotherapy and 28 rounds of radiation. The treatments made her nauseated. Her hair fell out. She was often tired and afraid.
Then came the reconstruction woes. A procedure to stretch her breast tissues for implants failed and had to be redone. But infection set in after the second surgery, and everything had to be removed.
So, doctors tried a different procedure in March called a TRAM flap, which transplants fat, skin and muscles from the belly to the breast region. The results so far have been encouraging, Mauldin said.
“I’ve had 11 surgeries since I was diagnosed,” she said. “Hopefully I’m done.”
Her family and employer provided continuous support throughout the ordeal, said Mauldin, an assistant manager at the Walmart on North Gloster Street.
“They worked with me very well,” she said. “They were sympathetic to me.”
Meanwhile, her husband of 15 years kept the atmosphere light and joyful at home, cracking jokes and maintaining a normal semblance of life.
“This has brought our family closer together as a whole. Before we took everyday life for granted. It puts your priorities in order for sure. It makes you get a lot closer to God, just realize that the little things don’t matter.”
Though she is cancer free, Mauldin still takes medication to keep the disease at bay and has frequent screenings to detect a possible return.
“That’s your hope when you get through with chemo and radiation that you can get back with your life,” Mauldin said. “Your hair grows back and your morale comes back, but then you got for these pet scans and you pray it doesn’t come back.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
EMILY LE COZ / NEMS Daily Journal