Interviews by Kay Rector, Photography by Martin G Meyers
Five local women share with BayouLife their very personal experiences with breast cancer. As breast cancer survivors, these women hope to inspire and uplift others who may be battling this disease and educate women about the importance of early detection.
Non-profit organizations, including the Susan G. Komen Organization and the American Cancer Society, are dedicated to saving lives by investing in research to prevent and cure breast cancer and improving the lives of women affected by the disease. Donations of time and financial resources can help them reach these goals. To volunteer or donate, contact Susan G. Komen of North Louisiana at 318-966-8130 or visit their website at www.komennorthlouisiana.org; and contact the Monroe chapter of the American Cancer Society at 318-398-7248 or visit their website at www.cancer.org.
When Kaye Boquet finally decided to fully retire in 2014, she assumed that she and Gene, her husband of 35 years, would spend the next few years peacefully enjoying their leisure time. They looked forward to spending time with each other, doing volunteer work and enjoying life in their hometown of Winnsboro. Boquet taught school in Franklin Parish for 32 years. After retiring from the public school system, she immediately went to work as a school counselor at Franklin Academy, where she served for 10 years. They believed the time had come for them to relax.
As sometimes happens, life did not unfold according to their plan. A routine check-up and mammogram in August of 2014, led to the discovery of a malignant tumor in Boquet’s breast, and soon they were meeting with a surgeon, discussing options. Because the tumor was small, Boquet elected and underwent a lumpectomy in September. Unfortunately though, the cancer was not confined to the tumor as they had hoped. It had spread to her lymph nodes, requiring additional surgery and chemotherapy.
Anxious and worried, Boquet remembers waking up one morning around 3 a.m., unable to sleep. She says the words of a familiar Christian hymn kept running through her mind: “God Will Take Care of You.” She suddenly felt a strong sense of peace and after that, her anxiety began to decline. “I knew then, God is taking care of this. I can’t but He can. He is going to give me the wisdom to do what I need to do,” she recalls thinking.
Knowing that she needed an oncologist, she begin doing extensive research. Boquet says she talked to at least 30 people who had had cancer, asking for their opinions and advice. She eventually narrowed her choices down to two oncologists, but could not decide between the two. Boquet’s son suggested that she consult her primary care physician and seek his advice. “My question to him was this: ‘Who would you send your mother to?’ He told me that he would choose Dr. Joseph, and explained all the reasons why,” Boquet recalls. “I said to him: ‘If he’s good enough for your mother, then he’s good enough for me.’”
Boquet says when she first met with Dr. Sanjay Joseph in West Monroe, she was in a panic. She carried a legal pad with her, with pages and pages of notes and questions. “Dr. Joseph talked to Gene and me and without even being asked, he answered every single question that we had,” says Boquet. “After that first visit, everybody in his office at Louisiana Oncology knew my name and Gene’s name, recognized us and treated us like family.”
Under the careful direction of Dr. Joseph and his staff, Boquet underwent 16 rounds of chemotherapy. It was a terribly difficult experience. After just a couple of treatments, Boquet became severely dehydrated and had to be hospitalized for 10 days, five of those in the Intensive Care Unit. She developed a bleeding ulcer, necessitating another stay in ICU. She contracted a bacterial infection known as “C. diff,” short for clostridium difficile, something Boquet describes as “a horrible, horrible intestinal infection.” Eventually, she was able to tolerate and complete the chemotherapy. Following chemotherapy, she had 34 radiation treatments.
Boquet remembers that soon after her second chemotherapy treatment, she was washing her hair when huge chunks of it began to come out in her hands. Within a few minutes, she was left with only one small patch of hair on her head. After trying to shave it herself, she ended up going to her hairdresser, who finished the job for her, leaving her completely bald. “Losing my hair didn’t really bother me too much,” Boquet says. “I didn’t want to fool with a wig, so I bought some hats and wore those. I had seen pictures of women with these cute scarves tied around their heads and I wanted to do that. But when I tried it, I could never make them work. So, I just wore hats.”
Looking back, Boquet is thankful to have had the support of her husband and son as well as so many friends during her battle with breast cancer. Boquet is an only child and both of her parents are deceased. Her son, now 32, lives several hours away in New Orleans. “Gene was really my support,” Boquet says of her husband. “He drove me to every single doctor’s appointment and all of my chemo treatments except two. He only missed those two because he had his own doctor’s appointments in Shreveport,” Boquet says. “He was there with me every step of the way.”
Boquet is a member of a group of ladies in Winnsboro who share a love of knitting and gather once a month in one another’s homes to share a meal and to knit. These women came together to help her and Gene, providing meals and offering to help with whatever they needed during her surgeries and cancer treatments.
In October of 2014, Boquet’s co-workers, former students and friends at Franklin Academy held a “Pink Out” pep rally in her honor. To help defray her medical costs, the school raised funds by selling t-shirts designed by one of the students. The shirts depict a butterfly, and the words of Proverbs 31:25, a favorite scripture: “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.”
Years before her cancer diagnosis, the butterfly had become for Boquet a symbol of hope and comfort. After her mother passed away in 2008, the family held a graveside service, during which the minister prayed for a sign from God of his presence there. Within seconds, a butterfly flew in front of his face. Butterflies appeared again at the graveside service of her mother’s only brother, this time in the cold of mid-November, when butterflies are scarce. Since that time, the butterfly has remained for her a reminder of God’s constant presence in her life. She wears a necklace with a silver butterfly as a symbol of her faith.
In October of 2015, Franklin Academy invited Boquet to return for their annual “Pink Out” Breast Cancer Awareness pep rally, this time presenting her with a crown in honor of her recovery and remission. Boquet has been in remission for two years now, and is hopeful that breast cancer is a part of her past. She and Gene are finally enjoying their retirement, and she looks with optimism to the future, secure in the knowledge that with faith in God she can handle whatever it may bring.
Boquet hopes that by sharing her experience, she can encourage other women to be proactive about their health by having regular check-ups and mammograms. “Thank goodness for mammograms,” Boquet says, emphasizing the importance of frequent screenings. “I had a normal mammogram in 2013. Where would I be if I had not had another one in 2014?”
Kelly Hudnall celebrated her fiftieth birthday in July of this year, surrounded by family and friends, delighting in the joy of the occasion. Unlike some women, Hudnall does not shy away from disclosing her age. Nor does she waste time worrying about the negative aspects of getting older. She is, in fact, thankful to be doing just that. There was a time not very long ago when Hudnall feared she might not make this mid-century milestone.
In 2008, Hudnall was recently divorced, working two jobs and caring for her two children, son Connor and daughter Hannah. While she was still reeling from the emotional turmoil of divorce, Hudnall lost her grandmother, with whom she had a very close relationship. After struggling to overcome these losses, she was finally beginning to feel optimistic again, looking forward to better days ahead. Unfortunately, her hopes for the new year were dashed early in 2009. In February, Hudnall learned that she had breast cancer. Specifically, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 invasive lobular carcinoma.
Because her mother is a breast cancer survivor, Hudnall says that she had been having regular mammograms since she was in her twenties, beginning preventative care at a much younger age than most women. In June of 2008, her routine mammogram results appeared to be normal. It was only four months later in October that Hudnall noticed a visible lump on the top of her left breast. “I didn’t think anything of it because my mammogram in June was fine,” she recalls. “It wasn’t painful, so I just assumed it was a cyst and nothing to worry about.”
By February of 2009, Hudnall says the lump remained but had not grown or changed. She visited her doctor as a precaution, just to have it checked out. A biopsy revealed the presence of an active, aggressive form of breast cancer that had already begun to spread. After discussing and weighing her treatment options, Hudnall elected to have a double mastectomy even though preliminary x-rays did not show signs of cancer in her right breast. Post-surgical pathology results, however, revealed the existence of cancer cells in that breast as well. “It was a blessing from God that I decided to have the double mastectomy,” Hudnall believes. “Otherwise, I would have gone through it all over again.” As soon as she recovered from surgery, Hudnall began chemotherapy, making frequent trips from West Monroe to MD Anderson in Houston.
Although she took a month off for surgery and recovery, Hudnall continued working during her chemotherapy. A native of West Monroe and a Northeast Louisiana University graduate, Hudnall has been an educator for almost 20 years. She teaches Kindergarten at Crosley Elementary School in West Monroe, and also works as a tutor with the After School Program at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Monroe. “I wanted to be there for my children, so I went back and finished out the school year with them,” Hudnall remembers. She spent the summer of 2009 completing her chemotherapy treatments and resting, trying to regain her strength.
As she began the new school year in August of 2009, Hudnall also began radiation treatments. “I would teach my kindergarten class, then go have radiation, and then go tutor my students at St. Paul’s,” she recalls. “People would ask me how I could do all of that. Most of all, you have to have a positive attitude. And you have to keep going. I didn’t really have a choice.” Caring for her own children, Connor and Hannah, and providing for them was a priority, regardless of her illness. “In some ways it was good for me to keep working,” Hudnall says. “There were times that I was so busy I would actually forget for a minute that I had cancer.”
Hudnall attributes her ability to persevere during difficult times to the support she receives from her family. She feels fortunate that she has always been able to rely on her parents, sister and brother-in-law for whatever she has needed throughout her battle with breast cancer. “They are my support unit,” Hudnall says. “Without them, I don’t know what I would do.” Hudnall says her students, fellow teachers and co-workers have also been extremely supportive, praying for her and being there for her when she was ill and traveling to Houston for cancer treatments. “I am very blessed to be a part of Crosley Elementary,” Hudnall says. “The people there are my second family.”
After extensive radiation treatments, Hudnall’s cancer was finally determined to be in remission. Unfortunately, this reprieve was only temporary. In September of 2014, her cancer returned with a vengeance. Hudnall recalls that swelling in her stomach was the first sign that something was amiss. Although she was eating less and less, she experienced significant weight gain and was having issues with her stomach. A CT scan and other tests led to a diagnosis of malignant ascites, an accumulation of cancerous fluid in her abdomen. She was told that cancer cells were present in her bones as well as her abdomen.
Using a tube that doctors inserted in her abdomen to drain off the excess fluid, Hudnall managed the ascites at home for six months before beginning treatment at MD Anderson. “MD Anderson saved my life,” Hudnall insists. “The people there are wonderful.” Through oral chemotherapy, she has been able to maintain her regular activities, continue working and caring for her children and live her life as normally as possible. “My cancer cells are still there, but they are dormant. The cancer is not active. I feel good now. I feel normal,” Hudnall says. She insists that although she will likely have cancer for the remainder of her life, her condition is manageable through oral medication.
With faith, friends and family, Hudnall knows that she will be okay. She and her sister, Kathy, have always been very close, and their bond has been strengthened by enduring Hudnall’s breast cancer ordeal together. “My sister is my soul. She goes to Houston with me every four months, and we make a girls’ road trip out of it, using it as our time together,” Hudnall says.
“Cancer is horrible,” admits Hudnall. “But I think if you can face it with a positive attitude it makes all the difference.” She describes losing all of her hair, and the terrible nausea and other symptoms brought on by the chemotherapy. “It has been very hard being a single parent and having cancer. You feel helpless to take care of your child and do for them while you are so sick. And it’s hard for your children to see you so sick,” she says. Even though it was extremely difficult, she pushed herself to keep life as normal as possible for herself and her children. She bought a nice wig and continued to get dressed and put on makeup, going to work each day that she could, taking her daughter to school and activities.
“I have cried myself to sleep many nights,” Hudnall admits. “But this has made me a much stronger person.” Hudnall recalls that early in her battle with breast cancer, she heard Kelly Clarkson’s song, “Stronger.” It became her motto, and she would listen to it as a reminder of her own strength. “God has His hand on me, and I am going to be okay,” Hudnall says. “I am stronger than I’ve ever been.”
Just months before her fortieth birthday, Michelle Williams visited her gynecologist for a routine annual checkup. During her examination, the doctor felt a lump in one of Williams’ breasts and recommended a mammogram. Williams had never had a mammogram, as she had no family history of breast cancer and was not yet 40, the age at which preventative screenings were usually recommended.
Her first mammogram led to a needle biopsy of the lump that was detected. Williams went alone for the biopsy, unconcerned because she remembered her mother having repeat mammograms and even biopsies due to dense breast tissue and occasional lumps, always with benign results. Unfortunately, Williams was not that lucky. The doctor gave her the unexpected news that she had breast cancer.
Within a week of her diagnosis, Williams underwent a lumpectomy. Following her surgery, the surgeon explained that he was unable to get “clear margins,” meaning that there were still cancer cells in the surrounding breast tissue. There were also concerns about the possibility of cancer in her other breast. At that point, Williams began to conduct her own investigation into treatment options.
Through her research, Williams discovered Kirklin Clinic of UAB Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, with one of the nation’s leading breast cancer treatment facilities. At that time, Williams was living in Alabama, where she had moved with her husband. She made an appointment with both an oncologist and a surgeon at Kirklin. “I asked the surgeon whether I could have a double mastectomy even if cancer was in only one breast.” Williams recalls. “He said they would do that if that’s what I wanted to do. I told him that is what I wanted to do.” Confident in her decision, Williams checked into UAB Hospital on the day before her fortieth birthday for a double mastectomy. She believes now that it was the best decision she could have made.
The surgical procedure that Williams chose involved not only complete removal of her breast tissue but also a full reconstruction of both breasts using fat from her abdomen. A relatively new procedure, it is often referred to as DIEP, an acronym for deep inferior epigastric perforators, the blood vessels which are surgically removed along with fat and transferred to the chest. Williams says she was concerned about having artificial implants and preferred this more natural method of reconstruction. The single surgery was performed by multiple surgeons over the course of 11 hours.
Five months post-surgery, Williams began chemotherapy. Chemotherapy treatment was something she discussed at length with the physicians at Kirklin before electing. The oncologists recommended it, but advised that it was precautionary and that she could decline or defer it. Ultimately she decided to proceed with a treatment plan that included six rounds of chemotherapy.
Years before she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Williams had a complete hysterectomy. Since her hysterectomy, she had been taking hormone replacement medication which curbed the unpleasant symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and night sweats. On her oncologist’s recommendation, Williams discontinued hormone replacement therapy during chemotherapy, resulting in a brutal combination of menopausal symptoms and sickening chemotherapy side effects. For weeks she struggled, contending with intense hot flashes brought on by the sudden cessation of replacement hormones coupled with severe nausea and vomiting. The chemotherapy also resulted in the loss of her hair which, while not physically painful, was emotionally difficult.
With her family and friends hundreds of miles away in Northeast Louisiana, Williams says she felt terribly alone during that time. She completed her chemotherapy and finally began to recover her strength, both physically and mentally. After battling a life-threatening illness and enduring her diagnosis, surgery, recovery and treatment with minimal support, Williams bravely decided to make some major life changes. She eventually divorced and moved back to her hometown of Monroe, near her son who was who was in high school. She landed a job at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and went back to school to earn a college degree, something she had always wanted to achieve. “I kept talking to my son about the importance of a college education,” Williams says. “And I realized then that I needed to go to college, too.” She worked full time in the Student Accounts Office at ULM while taking classes each semester, graduating just a few weeks before her son graduated from Louisiana Tech.
As she was finishing her degree at ULM, she received a job offer from Waste Management, where she had worked before moving to Alabama. “Before I moved, I had this awesome job that I loved. I liked the work I was doing, I loved the people, and it paid me a good salary,” Williams says. “I always regretted leaving there.” She was thrilled to have the opportunity return to Waste Management and resume the job that she wished she had never left. Williams is now the Industrial Account Manager at Waste Management, helping industrial plants manage their hazard and non-hazardous waste. “It is crazy the way things just fell into place for me after I came back here,” Williams says of her return to Louisiana.
Out of a sense of gratitude and a strong conviction that no woman should have to battle breast cancer alone, Williams began volunteering with area organizations whose mission is to support breast cancer patients during their treatment and recovery. She became a mentor with the American Cancer Society’s “Reach to Recovery” program. “Reach to Recovery matches up newly diagnosed cancer patients with survivors,” Williams explains. “Matches are based on age, type of cancer and type of treatment, those sorts of things. Newly diagnosed patients are given a choice to participate if they want to. If the patient agrees, then I reach out to that person and introduce myself and just talk to them and help in any way that I can.” Williams says Reach to Recovery is a great program even for patients who have a strong support system. “Interacting with someone who has been through what they’re going through is very powerful,” she says. Williams also volunteers with the local Susan G. Komen chapter, helping with registration at the Race for the Cure and participating in other events.
One thing that Williams hopes to convey to other breast cancer patients is the importance of being your own health care advocate. “It’s so important to educate yourself and to make decisions you are comfortable with,” she notes. “When I was looking at surgery and treatment options, I wanted the doctors’ expertise, opinions and recommendations, but I wanted to be the one to make the call. A lot of patients don’t realize all the options they have.” For example, Williams opted not to allow the placement of a port for chemotherapy, something she notes that a lot of patients assume they have to have. While that was a relatively small decision, it was an important one for her. Opting to undergo a double mastectomy and the particular type of surgery she elected were much more significant choices. “These are all very personal decisions, and each patient has to do what they believe is best for them.”
In retrospect, Williams is glad she made the health care decisions she made, and is surprised at how much she was able to endure, physically and emotionally. She believes that because of her breast cancer, she had the courage to start a whole new chapter of her life, one in which she is independent, strong and happier than she has ever been.
A two-time breast cancer survivor, Dr. Rixie Thompson epitomizes hope and optimism. She claims, however, that this has not always been the case. Many years ago when she was first diagnosed, she felt lost and hopeless, not knowing where to turn for help. Today, it is Thompson’s mission to insure that other women with breast cancer have the support they need to cope with their illness.
Thompson grew up in the small town of Homer, Louisiana, and attended Grambling State University, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Information Systems and later a Master’s degree in Public Administration. While an undergraduate student at Grambling, she met and married her husband, Dwight Thompson.
The couple had been married five years and had a three-year-old daughter when Thompson noticed a lump in her left breast. Unconcerned because it was not causing any pain, Thompson waited a couple of months before she visited a doctor about it. Upon examination, her gynecologist ordered a biopsy. Two days later, the doctor’s office called and asked her to come back in, suggesting she bring her husband. “I knew then it wasn’t good,” Thompson recalls. “We went in, and the doctor said those four dreadful words: ‘You have breast cancer.’”
The Thompsons met with a local surgeon recommended by her gynecologist, who insisted she undergo an immediate radical mastectomy. Without giving them any detailed information about the procedure or options for less extensive surgery, he led her to believe that her prognosis was poor. Devastated, she broke the news to her family. “I came back home and cried for two weeks,” Thompson says. “But then I began to pray. I told God that if I have to do this, I want the best doctors in the nation. Now, at the time I think I had $33.15 in my checking account, but I was convinced that I was going to hire the best doctors in the nation.” Thompson laughs now when she remembers going to the bank to take out a loan for her medical care. She told the banker that if she did not live, her husband would pay the loan back for her. “We were only 25 years old at the time,” Thompson says of her diagnosis in 1984.
They flew to MD Anderson, where they met with a patient educator to discuss her diagnosis and treatment options. “This one lady there changed my life,” Thompson says. “After she explained in detail what was going on in my body, she held up a piece of paper with a number on it. She said this is the number of women who survive breast cancer.” Thompson says she was suddenly full of relief and hope as she realized that she could survive her breast cancer diagnosis. “My tears stopped, and I made up my mind that I was going to be in that number.”
The Thompsons stayed at MD Anderson for a month while Rixie underwent a modified radical mastectomy. Surgeons removed the entire breast as well as most of the lymph nodes under her arm. Because there was cancer present in the lymph nodes, chemotherapy was recommended.
Back home in Louisiana, Thompson endured six months of chemotherapy treatment under the direction of a physician in West Monroe. “I was hospitalized after every single treatment,” Thompson recalls. She lost all of her hair after the second treatment, and by treatment No. 3, she weighed only 84 pounds, down from a normal weight of 150. “I was a wreck. I cried all of the time. I was so sick and had so many mouth sores that I couldn’t eat. I didn’t want to live at that point,” she remembers.
“My husband was amazing during all of this,” Thompson says. “He was my constant caregiver. He fed me with a spoon when I was sick from chemo. He stayed with me in the hospital for a month while I had surgery and later, after chemo, sleeping on chairs and couches in my hospital room. When we left MD Anderson after my surgery he took care of my wounds and drains. There is no way I would have made it without him.” Thompson remembers that after one of her worst bouts with chemo side effects, she heard her husband praying for her to live. She says that made her want to fight harder for him and for their daughter, Tiffany.
Thompson insists that in the midst of those first few months of chemotherapy, the hardest part of her battle with breast cancer, she really came to know God for the first time. She had always been a Christian, attending church and even teaching Sunday school, but it was during this darkest time of her life that she developed a true relationship with Him. She says that chemotherapy drew her to Christ and to a deeper prayer life.
After completing chemotherapy, Thompson returned to her job as a computer analyst at Louisiana Tech. She and her husband had their second child, a son named Chase. After 10 years, she left Louisiana Tech and began working at Grambling. Life with her husband and two children was normal and satisfying.
But in 2007, Thompson was again diagnosed with breast cancer. A routine mammogram revealed the presence of invasive ductal carcinoma in her remaining breast. This time, Thompson says, she knew exactly what to do. “Over the years since my first diagnosis, I had educated myself about breast cancer,” Thompson says. They went immediately to MD Anderson. Her cancer was declared to be Stage 0 and because it had not spread, radiation and chemotherapy were not necessary. She underwent another mastectomy, removing her remaining breast. Because of her tendency toward keloid scarring, Thompson elected not to have reconstructive surgery.
In the intervening years between her first diagnosis in 1984 and her 2007 diagnosis, Thompson had not only learned all she could about breast cancer, but had begun to educate other women about breast cancer and support those who had the disease. She became a certified mentor with the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program to mentor and encourage other women as they battle breast cancer. She participated in fundraisers and awareness campaigns such as the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Since overcoming breast cancer a second time, she has continued that work in earnest. “I don’t want other women to have to wear the bra that I’m wearing,” Thompson says.
Thompson formed a local support group for women in the Ruston and Grambling area dealing with breast cancer. The group, which has been meeting once a month for over 10 years, calls themselves “More Than Conquerors,” a Biblical reference to Romans 8:37. They are an active group that not only supports one another, but also participates together in events and fundraisers such as the Race for the Cure, the Pink Parade on GSU’s campus and the Pink Princess Gala. They invite anyone interested in joining them to attend their meetings which take place on the second Tuesday of each month at the Pizza Hut in Ruston.
Thompson is now an ordained minister and evangelist as well as a life coach. She obtained a Master’s degree in Theology and a Doctorate degree in Divinity, and founded the “Coaching in Pink Shoes” Ministry. Through this ministry, she serves as a survivorship coach, using the Word of God and her personal experiences to help women whose lives have been affected by breast cancer. Through the CIPS website, teleconferencing, Skype and social media outlets, Thompson is able to reach out to women all over the country to spread her message of hope and healing. “Because I have walked in their shoes, I am able to relate to the women I coach. I’ve been there,” says Thompson. “I coach them through the anxiety, the depression, the anger and the financial troubles, all the things that they are going through. I share with them the Word of God that got me through it.” She has also written a book, entitled Coaching In Pink Shoes, that is scheduled for publication later this year. Thompson can be reached through her website, www.coachinginpinkshoes.com, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In early September of 2016, Jo Maddox was preparing to run in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Monroe’s Forsythe Park. She and her sister had been getting together throughout the summer to run, training for the race. It was something they were doing in support of women whose lives had been effected by breast cancer. Maddox had no idea then that she would become one of those women.
With the race just a couple of weeks away, Maddox visited her gynecologist for her annual checkup. During the examination, she pointed out a change in the appearance of one of her breasts. Maddox says she had always tried to follow the recommendations of doctors and organizations like Komen who promote self-examination as a means of early detection of breast cancer. “Honestly, though, I was never really sure what I was supposed to feel or if I was doing the self-exams right,” says Maddox, a sentiment expressed by many women. This, however, was a visible change, a slight inversion of the nipple which caused her concern.
Dr. David Bryan, her gynecologist, immediately ordered a diagnostic mammogram and later a biopsy of a suspicious mass revealed by the mammogram. The news delivered to Maddox, just two days before her fiftieth birthday, was not good. She had breast cancer. Hopeful that the cancer was in an early stage and curable, she and her husband met with a local surgeon. Dr. Frank Sartor recommended that she visit MD Anderson for additional diagnostic scans, and arranged an appointment for her in Houston.
A comprehensive battery of tests at MD Anderson confirmed Dr. Bryan’s diagnosis, but with a much bleaker outlook than they had hoped. Maddox had three breast tumors of significant size as well as cancerous lymph nodes. She was shocked to learn that she had Stage 3-C breast cancer and would need extensive treatment and surgery.
Because her disease had significantly progressed, Maddox quickly began very aggressive chemotherapy. Maddox says she was able to undergo chemotherapy treatment under the direction of local oncologist Dr. Sanjay Joseph using the protocol recommended by physicians at MD Anderson. “The care and the people at MD Anderson are wonderful, but the idea of having to go back and forth to Houston for treatment was kind of overwhelming. The level of compassion that they have at Louisiana Oncology is no less than at MD Anderson.
Maddox’s chemotherapy involved 12 weeks of Taxol, a medication that interferes with the growth of cancer cells, followed by four bi-weekly treatments of Adriamycin, dubbed “Red Devil” for its strength and terribly unpleasant side effects. She was able to complete her chemotherapy in 20 weeks with no delays because of colds or other common illnesses that patients often contract. She was also fortunate that she did not develop neuropathy or other more harsh side effects typical with “Red Devil” treatment.
A Vice-President at Guaranty Bank in Monroe, Maddox continued to work throughout her chemotherapy regimen. “I would go have blood work on my lunch hour on Mondays and do my chemo on Tuesday afternoons. Thursdays were my worst days,” she recalls. “Towards the end, I would only work maybe an hour or two on Thursdays and sometimes only half the day on Fridays.” Maddox says that continuing to work was, in some ways, an act of defiance. “You feel like cancer is holding your life hostage,” she says. “I just refused to let it get me.”
Maddox is grateful for her “work family” at Guaranty Bank, who was so supportive during her struggle with breast cancer. Her customers were also very caring, checking on her and bringing her gifts and cards to remind her they were thinking of her. She recalls how kind and supportive people were during the worst of her illness. With the loss of her hair, which had always been long, her illness became more obvious. “People I didn’t even know were praying for me,” she says.
A week after she completed chemotherapy, Maddox returned to MD Anderson for an ultrasound, MRI and other tests to determine the next course of action. She and her husband met with a surgeon to discuss options. Because the surgeon did not yet have the results of her latest scans, he covered a myriad of possible surgical options, some rather drastic. “It was a terrible day,” recalls Maddox. “I was still recovering from the last Red Devil treatment the week before. I felt horrible, and the surgeries he talked about sounded awful.” Feeling dejected, they went to eat at Carrabba’s Italian Grill, a favorite nearby restaurant. While there, a friend of the restaurant owner reached out to them anonymously, expediting their seating, paying their bill and sending a beautiful hardcover book about the restaurant’s history to their table. Having lost his wife to cancer a few months before, this man they had never met recognized their distress and just wanted to make their day a little better. It was a welcome gesture of kindness that Maddox still remembers.
Heeding the advice of her doctors to stay as active as she could during treatment, Maddox tried to walk almost every day. One morning, while walking in her neighborhood, she encountered a lady on a bicycle. The lady stopped and asked Maddox if she could pray for her. “She put her hands on me, and she prayed with me,” Maddox recalls. “At the time, my daughter was in college and about to turn 21. I always had this dream that I would take her on a mother-daughter trip for her 21st birthday. Instead, I was having surgery two days before her 21st birthday, so I couldn’t even take her out to lunch. That made me so sad, and I was so worried about her.” Miraculously, this lady whom Maddox had never met assured her that her daughter was going to be okay. Maddox was astounded because she never told the lady she had a daughter. After her encounter with the lady she now refers to as an “angel,” Maddox felt peacefully confident in her prediction.
Ultimately, Maddox did not have to undergo any of the more drastic operations the surgeon at MD Anderson initially described. “The chemo essentially dissolved the tumors,” Maddox says. “The only thing left was a tumor bed where the tumor had been.” Because cancer was still in her lymph nodes, Maddox had to have radiation treatment. She says the necessity of radiation affected her decision about breast surgery. She opted for a segmental mastectomy, which involved removal of about forty percent of her breast tissue. The five and a half hour surgery also included breast reconstruction. Following surgery, MD Anderson referred her to radiation oncologist Dr. Ross Bland at Northeast Louisiana Cancer Institute, where she was able to have radiation treatment locally.
“It has been a wild year,” Maddox notes. “You go through so many emotions when this happens to you. There is definitely a mourning period when you are first diagnosed. You feel shell shocked and have a lot of anxiety. One of the emotions that you wouldn’t expect is guilt.” She recalls feeling guilt as well as sadness when she thought of how her husband and her daughter were affected by her illness. Maddox also felt guilty that her co-workers at Guaranty Bank had to compensate for her absence at work.
Maddox credits her husband, Malcolm Maddox, with keeping her strong and positive, standing by her through every step of her illness, treatment and recovery. On May 24th of this year, the couple’s nine-year wedding anniversary, Malcolm surprised her with a brand new convertible, something she has always wanted. In the card he had printed, he encouraged her to take a “victory lap” in her new convertible when she beat breast cancer. Maddox says her husband’s support, along with her faith, have helped her get through her ordeal. “God has carried me through all of this,” Maddox insists. “This will bring you closer to God than anything. There were times that I could literally feel the prayers that others were sending up for me.” Maddox strongly believes that God allowed her to survive breast cancer for a reason, and she looks forward to whatever He has in store for her.