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Breast cancer survivor advocates for being proactive, health conscious
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Gail Barksdale found a knot under her arm in 2004 that was later diagnosed as breast cancer. She has now been cancer free for 12 years. - photo by David Barnes

Gail Barksdale seemed to have a clean bill of health. 

She followed a healthy routine doing yearly mammogram screenings and working out with a personal trainer.

Her mammogram results continued to come back normal even after she found a knot under her arm in the summer of 2004. She assumed everything was OK because she had no history of cancer in her family.

“I have always been health conscious,” Barksdale said. “I was, at the time, going for regular checkups with my gynecologist and having the mammograms. There is no history of cancer in my family, so it was not on my radar. But when you go for your mammogram, you assume everything is going to go great.”

In July, she went to the doctor for another reason and happened to mention the knot. That’s when things changed.

After making another appointment, this time having a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound, she was directed to see a surgeon.

“They did it all in one day,” Barksdale recalled. “When the surgeon wanted to see me in the Women’s Center, I knew it was not looking good.”

Barksdale was given the option of having a lumpectomy with radiation or a mastectomy.

“My little knot was very tiny so I didn’t think it would be a big deal,” Barksdale said. “The chances of it returning are a little higher if you do a lumpectomy, but I had read it was a real trauma to your body to have a mastectomy. For a moment, I couldn’t decide. It was all new. It was hitting me in the face, and I hadn’t had a lot of time to think.”

She decided on a lumpectomy, resulting in clean margins. But her post-operation visit came with bad news, Barksdale said.

“It had metastasized. There were cancer cells growing in what was sent off. There was no sure way to know if they had gotten all of the cancer,” Barksdale said. “Then I had to make a decision of whether he should go back in and take more tissue or have 

cancer treatment.”

Really, what you do with your next step is critical. As you see people living, you want to be a part of that and value it more.
Gail Barksdale

Barksdale chose the cancer treatment, adding that “when someone tells you that you have cancer, you want to take care of it right then.”

The following months she began chemotherapy and radiation.

“Everything is black and white for me; I make a decision and move forward. I think in my mind, the reason everything was OK, no matter what happens with the treatment, I felt like I was doing something for the next generation,” Barksdale said. “The next person that has breast cancer, maybe they will learn. When you go into the oncology office, you answered questions on an iPad about how you felt, what was going on, and before you start your treatment you meet with a psychologist and support team. They are very sensitive to all of your needs.”

She said there are “things in life that change you,” cancer being the turning point for her. 

“It is a real marker to view your life and see those people around you, some aren’t going to make it,” Barksdale said. “It makes you think through your life and what you want it to look like. Right now I want to be busy and a part of life. ... That was the beauty of how everything evolved.”

Barksdale, 62, stayed busy in her position as a first time advocate at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, then as the assistant director of learning support at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus.

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Gail Barksdale, a breast cancer survivor, works as assistant director of learning support at the University of North Georgia's Gainesville campus. - photo by David Barnes

“My doctor said my job was a turning point for me. It gave me hope; I was around young people full of life,” Barksdale said. “Really, what you do with your next step is critical. As you see people living, you want to be a part of that and value it more.”

Barksdale has now been cancer free for 12 years. She continues to have checkups with her oncologist and has blood work done every six months.

“If anything is wrong or not ticking right, you know they are going to jump on it. Follow-ups are critical,” she said. “You need to know your body. When it comes to breast cancer, it is important you do your own examinations. If something doesn’t feel or look right and it keeps coming to your mind, go see what it is. Don’t be afraid. You will get support as you go along.”

Barksdale said that “before big things happen you have to think about what you would do before the battle.”

Read other stories from The Times' "Pink is Stronger than You Think" coverage.

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