Join Mary Bagwell and other breast cancer survivors for a live conversation at 1 p.m. Monday at The Times Facebook page.
Mary Bagwell believes having a positive outlook will take you a long way in life. And as a Christian woman, she knows God is in control.
That sentiment as well as friends, family, doctors and nurses helped her maintain her positive attitude during her battle with breast cancer in fall 2008. However, her resolve wavered just once — the day before her first chemotherapy treatment.
“I cried all day,” the 73-year-old Gainesville woman said, pausing to gain control of her emotions. “Because I dreaded going through that.”
Her dread stemmed from seeing her youngest son, Jimmy, go through chemo as an 18-year-old. He died two years after his diagnosis on April 13, 1993.
“I was really and truly fine until that day,” she said, referring to her diagnosis and prognosis. “But I was just frightened even though I had a positive attitude.”
Luckily, a friend of hers, Donna Ray, who was battling cancer and had experienced chemo, called. A short time later, Ray’s daughter delivered a lasagna to Bagwell’s home while Ray comforted her over the phone.
The next day, Bagwell arrived at Longstreet Cancer Center in Gainesville to receive her first round of chemo after having a mastectomy in September 2008. The day was surprisingly easier than Bagwell had anticipated.
“When I went in the next morning, I was really good,” she said. “And I was really prepared. It went so much better and it has to do with nurses who were kind and upbeat. It made it easier.”
Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Bagwell’s experience is not a rare one. The American Cancer Society’s website states 246,660 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in 2016. In the same year, 40,450 women will die from breast cancer.
Since October is deemed Breast Cancer Awareness Month, The Times will publish a special section Oct. 9 dedicated to the disease. In the edition, women in the Northeast Georgia who have had or are dealing with breast cancer will share their stories along with other cancer-related articles.
As a preface to the section, here is Bagwell’s story.
Finding the cancer
In 2007, Bagwell checked into the hospital for left hip replacement surgery. Afterward, her doctor told her she had some irregular blood levels.
“He said to go have that checked out,” said Bagwell, who had a Gainesville address but was residing in Forsyth County at the time.
A few months later, she returned to her regular doctor for a checkup. Her blood results appeared normal.
A couple of months later, Bagwell had her annual mammogram, which is an X-ray of the breast that can often find or detect breast cancer early. The image showed two small lumps in her left breast. A later MRI found a third lump.
Bagwell said they were so small, she would not have detected them with a self-breast exam.
A biopsy revealed the
then-64-year-old had Stage 3 breast cancer.
“I was stunned,” Bagwell said, noting no other family members had breast cancer. “I walked around stunned.”
After the shock dissipated, Bagwell and her family jumped into action.
“We thought ‘Let’s get this treated and get it over with,’” she said.
She opted for a radical mastectomy to remove her left breast and 22 lymph nodes.
Following the procedure, Bagwell endured six months of chemotherapy with a two- to three-hour treatment once a month.
During chemo, a couple of unexpected but welcomed ideas arose from family and friends.
The first happened between her first and second treatments.
Doctors and nurses warned her that her hair would probably fall out by her second treatment. So instead of losing her locks in clumps — much like her son did — she and her family had a buzz party.
Her son, Jeff, who has a buzz cut, was asked to do the honors.
“Normally it’s fun, because I’ve done it for many other people,” Jeff Bagwell said. “This time was different, because it was for my mom. And it was emotional. We shed a few tears and we laughed.”
By shaving her head, it allowed Bagwell’s children and especially her three grandchildren to see her without hair and not be afraid.
“We had pizza and it was a party,” she said, adding she wore scarves or nothing at all through the duration of treatments.
Jeff said his mother handled the party and her whole cancer ordeal with “grace and strength.”
That attitude continued, even on her 65th birthday, when she had her second unexpected event.
Bagwell was set to undergo chemo on her birthday on Nov. 18, 2008. And while she could not delay or miss her appointment, her friends took action.
“A bunch of my friends baked cupcakes and came with me that day,” she said. “It was a fun day. We shared cupcakes with everyone having chemo.”
Recovery and reconstruction
After her chemo ended in spring 2009, Bagwell was ready to return to her life as before. However, something was different.
“I wasn’t interested in going anywhere or doing anything,” she said. “My grandchildren would be playing soccer and my husband would ask if I would want to go. And I would say ‘no.’”
This behavior was unusual for the woman who always liked being active and spending time with her family. Then nurse navigator Lisa Bridges gave her a book about life after cancer.
Bridges said the book and other resources help patients tackle feelings they have put on a shelf while going through treatment.
In it, Bagwell found her answer to her change in attitude.
“I realized I was depressed,” she said. “ I couldn’t believe I was depressed, because I was finished with chemo and I felt my life was going on. And I felt cancer-free. So I was really surprised I was depressed.”
Bridges said depression is a normal reaction for cancer survivors.
“When the dust settles from this battle ... men and women have time to think about (their feelings) and what just happened,” she said.
Bagwell’s doctors, therefore, prescribed her a mild anti-depressant. It worked.
“My energy level was up and I wanted to do more things,” she said. “It was a real awakening.”
Six months later, she was able to stop taking the medication.
In the meantime, Bagwell focused on regaining her body’s health. She started taking water aerobics classes at Frances Meadows Aquatic Center. It was there she met another breast cancer survivor. And this stranger helped Bagwell take another step in her recovery.
When Bagwell elected to have a radical mastectomy, she choose to use a prostheses breast. Little did she know what that would entail.
“It was so hot, and I already run hot,” she said. “And you had to change them every few months. And then you had to get a bathing suit prostheses.”
Two years later, Bagwell was contemplating the reconstructive route. That’s when she met the woman at the water aerobics class. The woman (whose name she could not recall) had reconstruction and had a very positive experience with it.
“She was a big influence on me having it,” Bagwell said. “She told me to do it and said she would even go with me.”
That single conversation led Bagwell to having reconstructive surgery in 2010. Both procedures — one to stretch the skin and one for the actual reconstruction — went smoothly.
Life after cancer
Now, six years later, Bagwell is living in the Cresswind at Lake Lanier community of Gainesville. She and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary this year with two cruises. She and her husband went on a cruise by themselves. The second one was a Disney cruise with her 11-member family.
But once a year, she heads to the doctor for her checkup. And despite being cancer-free for eight years, she’s still nervous.
“Even though I know God is in control, there’s that little human part of me that is nervous until they say everything is all right,” she said. “As time has gone on, it has gotten better. But I still breathe easier when they say it.”