For years, Georgia’s first lady, Sandra Deal, has routinely had an annual mammogram, which is an X-ray picture of the breast used to detect early signs of cancer. But in January 2018, her annual mammogram was anything but routine.
“My doctor arranged for me to see him and said they found a tumor and suspected it was malignant,” said Deal, wife of Gov. Nathan Deal for 51 years, in a clear matter-of-fact voice.
Her response was a decisive one, which sounds almost like a mantra.
“I said, ‘Let’s deal with it,’” Deal said. “I said ‘Let’s get it out and see what the situation is.”
Celebrating Courage: Pink is Stronger Than You Think, a special section in the print version of The Times marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Her doctors, based in Hall County, responded in kind. Deal underwent surgery to remove the tumor, then followed it with chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Deal said she didn’t worry about having breast cancer, because it was caught early and deemed Stage 1. That means cancer cells are evident but contained to the area where the first abnormal cells began to develop, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation website.
“If other people have gone through it and survived, then I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself,” Deal said. “Other people have had serious cancer bouts and mine was at Stage 1. And since I had it, then I had to deal with it as best I could.”
Georgia’s first lady, a mother of four with six grandchildren, handled her cancer with grace and courage. In fact, she has shared parts of her journey to help other women not feel so alone. One of the most prominent actions was when Deal posted pictures on Twitter before and after she had her head shaved.
Deal said the doctors treating her at Northeast Georgia Medical Center prepared her for hair loss because of the chemotherapy treatments. When she noticed her hair was coming out each time she touched it, the decision was a simple one.
“I was leaving hair in the kitchen and the dining room and the bedroom,” Deal said. “I felt that was very unsanitary. So, I made an appointment to get my hair cut.”
Deal explained she wanted her head shaved by a professional. And her youngest daughter, Katie Deal, ordered her mother a wig. It was on hand at the hair salon, ready for the beauticians to cut and shape.
“She trimmed it up and made it look like the way I wore my hair,” Deal said. “I’ve been wearing my wig ever since.”
Deal plans to continue wearing her wig until her hair returns to a more natural length. But she said her hair is growing in white and curly.
Along with hair loss, Deal experienced a few other side effects from chemotherapy, including rashes, shingles and lack of energy. But the hardest one was her weakened eyesight.
“About halfway through my chemo treatment, I had trouble seeing,” she said. “I couldn’t read very well. My eyes would water and wouldn’t focus.”
Deal contacted a doctor to have her eyes checked. The doctor said the chemo was affecting her vision, and she would have to wait it out. This complicated some of her favorite duties and responsibilities as Georgia’s first lady.
“I was having trouble with my hand and brain working together,” she said. “I found I had trouble writing thank you notes.”
Fortunately, Miranda Williams, special assistant to the first lady, typed her notes at that time. Deal admitted not everyone dealing with cancer and its treatments have such a luxury.
Deal also had to decrease the number of events she attended as First Lady, because of her weakened immune system. She admitted her husband, Gov. Nathan Deal, was very protective of her and her health. She said he was concerned she may contract a cold or possible the flu while reading in schools or attending functions with several people.
“I had to detour my trips to the schools, and it was real frustrating to me,” she said. “I really wanted to get to all of the schools to read to the children.”
Deal has made literacy one of her primary causes since becoming first lady. It is not surprising since Deal is a retired school teacher.
I had to detour my trips to the schools, and it was real frustrating to me. I really wanted to get to all of the schools to read to the children.Sandra Deal
“Learning to read is really important for the future of families and the state,” she said.
But Deal acknowledged by sharing her cancer from diagnosis to her final radiation treatment in May 2018, she has helped other women.
“My life is always open book,” she said. “If sharing my experience would help people go get mammogram, then I am willing to do that.”