Dallas Sage gave birth to a beautiful baby girl in February.
Afterward, the young mother noticed something wasn’t right. One of her breasts felt hot and had red blotchy areas on it. The redness turned into raised welts that itched.
Then, Sage found a mass she thought may be a clogged milk duct. Sage told her obstetrician/gynecologist about the symptoms at a follow-up appointment six weeks after giving birth.
Her doctor first treated her for mastitis, an infection in the breast tissue. But after two rounds of prescribed antibiotics, the symptoms didn’t subside.
Sage was referred to a surgeon for a possible clogged milk duct. The surgeon said he didn’t think it was a tumor. He was wrong.
During the procedure June 16, the surgeon discovered the 28-year-old woman had Inflammatory Breast Cancer, a rare and aggressive type.
DISCOVERY AND DIAGNOSIS
Sage said she thought the worst when she heard the news.
“My initial thoughts were: How did this happen?” she said. “I’m fairly young for this to happen, because usually this doesn’t show up until your 40s or 50s. You don’t even get a mammogram until then, so I had no idea.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, IBC is very rare. IBC accounts for only 1 percent to 5 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed in the United States.
It is called “inflammatory” because the breast often looks swollen and red, or inflamed.
Although Sage’s IBC presented as a tumor, that isn’t always the case. It’s a very aggressive disease in which cancer cells block lymph vessels in the skin of the breast. It can spread rapidly, often in a matter of weeks or months.
“All cancer is bad cancer,” said Chad Sage, Dallas’ husband. “But when you get a rare type that’s very aggressive and can grow fast, time is of the essence. That’s when it hit us that she could be fighting for her life real quick and not over a long period of time.”
After the diagnosis on a Thursday, Dallas’ family and friends rallied around her. Chad’s uncle sprung into action, calling a doctor he knew — Dr. Ernest Hawk is the vice president of the division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences, at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
The next day, Dallas scheduled an appointment with Hawk for the following Monday. On Saturday, the three Sages piled into their car and drove for two days to Texas.
PROGNOSIS and TREATMENT
Upon arrival, Hawk met with the Sages. After 12 hours of tests, results showed the cancer had spread to Dallas’ liver and lymph nodes on both sides. And it was in her blood.
“We assumed that it probably had spread,” Dallas said. “I mean, we were hopeful that it didn’t.”
But it was not the news the Sages wanted to hear.
“They say IBC starts at Stage 3,” Dallas said. “So I was hopeful it was Stage 3 at least. It was stage 4.”
Stage 4 is the last stage of cancer and deemed incurable, Chad said. Therefore, doctors said surgery was not possible at the time.
But they did devise an aggressive treatment plan for Dallas since she is young and healthy.
“(The doctors) wanted to get it out of my liver, because that’s what’s deeming me incurable right now because it did metastasize,” Dallas said. “So they’re hoping to stop it spreading and get it out of those other organs.”
The first step in her treatment involved an aggressive chemotherapy in Texas, which then was continued in Gainesville. The second step involved another treatment therapy, which is more specific to IBC and started in September.
Now, Dallas travels to Texas every six weeks for scans to see if the treatments are working. In Texas, Dallas works with Dr. Mariana Chavez Mac Gregor. In Gainesville, Dr. Andre Kallab at Northeast Georgia Diagnostic Clinic oversees her treatment.
FIGHTING FOR HER FAMILY
Dallas said the cancer and treatments have made her tired, but going through everything has been surprisingly manageable.
“Coming home to (my daughter) is the best thing,” she said, describing her daughter, Madelyn, as the best medicine.
She also said her daughter is one of the reasons she is fighting so hard.
“Obviously, I want to be here as long as I can for her and I’m not just fighting for my life for myself, it’s for her mainly,” she said. “She keeps me going along with my husband. I mean they’re my rocks in all of this.”
Dallas also believes Madelyn saved her life, explaining she would not have realized something was wrong without her.
“I found this after having her,” she said. “I could have gone on with my life and not have known, but I found out early because I had her.”
And Dallas certainly does not take each day or her family for granted.
“I just want to keep living my life the best that I can for them and for myself,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to miss out on anything because of this.”
Therefore, she does not focus on being sick.
“I don’t think that I could go through each day thinking that,” Dallas said. “So I just try to count my blessings and think of the positives and just live life as I would.”
Since the diagnosis, the Sages have received an outpouring of support from the community as well as their friends and family. Many people have dropped off meals, offered child care and lawn care and prayed over her.
The West Hall High School community, where Chad is a teacher and baseball coach, has gone above and beyond to show their support.
“It’s just been insane how much West Hall has done to make her comfortable and everything else,” he said.
Dallas threw out a first pitch at one of West Hall’s baseball games and the staff all wore pink shirts in her honor.
Dallas’ employer Full Media has also been supportive. She has continued working at the internet marketing and web development company throughout her treatment.
But it is her husband who has been her major source of support. The couple have known each other for 12 years since they were juniors at Chestatee High School. They married three years ago.
Dallas said he helps her stay positive and makes treatment decisions.
“When my mind does go into the negative, I’ll always just ask, ‘Am I going to be OK?’ and he promises that I am,” she said.
Overall, Dallas tries to find the silver lining.
“I like to think that God has a plan for me and I’m just going to see it through,” she said.
One thing she hopes to see through is educating other women about IBC. In fact, Chad urges women not to take mastitis lightly. He said if symptoms don’t improve after a round of antibiotics, women should not be afraid of getting a biopsy sooner rather than later.
His wife agrees.
“I would love to help someone else not go through what I have, and maybe that’s my calling. Maybe that’s what my plan is ... to prevent someone else from getting as far as I did and just spread the word about it.”