Interviews by Kay Rector | Photography by Martin G Meyers
The American Cancer Society estimates that about 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime. It is predicted that in 2016, more than 300,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the U.S. According to the American Cancer Society’s predictions, more than 40,000 women will die of breast cancer in this country in 2016. These statistics are startling.
BayouLife talked to five area women whose lives have been affected by this disease. They tell their stories in the hope that others will benefit. They try to encourage others who are going through similar trials. “We have become part of a sorority that we really do not want to be in,” says breast cancer survivor Cindy Foust. These woman want to educate others about the importance of early detection. They want to make sure, to the extent that they can, that it does not happen to anyone else. Publisher’s Note: Lisa Northcott passed away five days after her interview. She wanted everyone to know her story in hope that she could save someone’s life. She died peacefully at her home surrounded by her family. We want to thank her husband, Glenn, for submitting the beautiful image of Lisa.
The Butterfly Lady
She is known as the “Butterfly Lady.” Beverly Abram, a soft-spoken, stately woman, wears a sparkling pink butterfly pin, one of many she has collected over the years. Her clients and co-workers at the Social Security Administration in Monroe, where she has worked for over 40 years, recognize her by the butterflies she always wears. She explains that the butterfly is, to her, a symbol of transformation and renewal, inspired by a favorite scripture.
“2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us that ‘if any man is in Christ, then he is a new creature. Old things have passed away, and all things have become new,’” Abram explains. During its brief life cycle, the butterfly goes through a metamorphosis and changes from a caterpillar into a beautiful new creature that is able to fly. Wearing the butterfly reminds Abram of her own spiritual transformation many years ago, and of the new creature that she has become.
Abram is a wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She is also a breast cancer survivor. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, at age sixty-four. Her cancer was discovered in its very early stages, confined to a small area in each breast. She initiated a doctor visit after noticing some unusual symptoms. A mammogram, and later a biopsy, detected a small malignant tumor. Within about two months of this diagnosis, Abram had surgery to remove that tumor. While she was still in the hospital, further tests revealed cancer in her other breast, and she immediately had a second surgery. As soon as she recovered from the operations, she began radiation treatment.
Abram underwent radiation four days a week at the Kitty Degree Cancer Center in Monroe. Thereafter, she continued to take daily medication for five years to suppress hormones that contributed to the cancer’s growth.
Before her diagnosis, Abram had never had any serious health problems. Despite the fact that her mother had breast cancer many years ago, Abram refused to go for regular checkups and mammograms. “It was ignorance, pure ignorance on my part,” she says. She recognizes that there was also some element of denial in her avoidance of medical testing. “I just didn’t want to know,” she admits. “I couldn’t deal with the bad news that I might get, so I just didn’t do it.” Thankfully, she did not ignore her symptoms when she found something unusual, and her cancer was detected in its very early stages. She realizes now how fortunate she is.
Like so many other women whose lives have been touched by breast cancer, Abram stresses the importance of early detection. “That mammogram saved my life,” Abram insists. “I tell women ‘Please, please, please have regular mammograms.’”
“When I was first diagnosed,” Abram recalls, “I was devastated. I kept asking ‘Why me?’ I remember showing up for my first radiation treatment at the cancer center, and thinking, ‘I’m not sure I can do all of this.’” Abram is so grateful for the outpouring of support that she received from friends, family and co-workers after her diagnosis and during her treatment. Without them lifting her up, emotionally and spiritually, she says that she could not have made it through her ordeal. Abram says that because others were so encouraging she was able to stay strong and positive. “My husband, too, was just fantastic,” Abram says, expressing her gratitude for how supportive he has always been.
As soon as her treatment was over, Abram began to take an active role in supporting others battling breast cancer. Abram knew Dr. Florencetta Gibson through a family connection. Dr. Gibson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Nurse Specialist and a community leader and volunteer. She works with several organizations in the Monroe community involved in breast cancer awareness. Dr. Gibson invited Abram to attend the annual “Pink Ball” sponsored by the Witness Project of Northeast Louisiana, a group dedicated to breast cancer education and awareness. At the Ball, which Abram describes as a “wonderful celebration of life,” Abram met lots of other women whose lives have been affected by breast cancer. It is an event she now looks forward to each year.
Abram became part of a support group led by Dr. Gibson, meeting with other breast cancer patients and survivors once a month to share information and experiences. Along with the other members of her group, Abram participates in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure each fall and volunteers at other events, handing out information to educate women and raise awareness about breast cancer. Her group also provides outreach to other breast cancer patients.
In her job with the Social Security Administration, she encounters other women with breast cancer. She tries to encourage them and let them know that she understands what they are going through.
Abram says that having breast cancer changed her life. It opened her eyes to how precious life is and made her re-think her priorities. “Cherish every day,” Abram reminds everyone. Although it was a terrible ordeal and there were certainly dark days, her struggle with breast cancer ended up being another positive transformation for her. She feels that she emerged from it a better person.
The Soul of a Survivor
When meeting Cindy Foust, it is difficult to reconcile the person you encounter with the hardships she has endured. Quick with a smile and a hug, she is positive, upbeat and inviting, with a knack for making others feel comfortable. She is hilariously funny, one of those rare storytellers who can make people laugh and cry at the same time.
Foust is an author, publisher and business owner. Her monthly column, “BayouKidz,” is a favorite among BayouLife readers, filled with her often self-deprecating humor and insightful child-rearing advice. She has written and published a children’s books series called “AlphaKidz.” She is a wife, mother, sister and daughter.
Cindy Foust is also a survivor. Before being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, Foust had already lived through every parent’s worst nightmare. She and her husband, Scott, lost their two year old son, Samuel, who passed away in 2003.
Of overcoming the loss of a child, Foust says “You will be different for the rest of your life. It is so hard to go on, and some days you don’t want to. You sit around praying for the rapture, because all you want to do is go to heaven and be with your child. At some point, though, you have to make up your mind that you are going to get through this.” Foust somehow learned to cope, and to help their older child, Robert Scott, who was only five years old at the time of Samuel’s death, cope with the loss of his brother. “Only through God and my faith in Him was I able to keep going. He is the one you have to lean on,” Foust insists. “Because, of course, you are mad at everyone else,” Foust quips, referring to the anger that is an integral part of the grief cycle.
Unfortunately, Foust was already intimately familiar with the grieving process. In 1989, Foust’s sister, Angel Gist, died tragically in an automobile accident. At the time of her death, Angel was a nineteen year old freshman and member of the women’s basketball team at Baylor University. When Foust and her husband were blessed with a third child after Samuel’s death, they named their daughter Angel Grace, in memory of Foust’s sister and in recognition of the spiritual grace that God provides to get her through difficulties in her life.
Foust continually uses her experience with grief and tragedy to help others navigate hardship. She writes about what she has been through, and shares her story with groups and individuals. Each one of the books in her “AlphaKidz” series is loosely based on her own life and experiences. The stories teach lessons children can apply to situations they encounter in their own lives. “Every story comes straight out of my living room,” Foust says.
Foust wrote the thirteenth book in the “AlphaKidz” series, “Melanie Mouse: It’s a Very Sad Day at Our House,” about Samuel’s death and the emotions that children experience when a loved one dies. “There just wasn’t anything out there that really resonated or made sense to help Robert Scott deal with the loss of his little brother,” Foust says. Since that book was published, Foust has received positive feedback and stories from other parents who have used her book to address grief and loss in their own families.
In April of 2011, exactly one year before her cancer diagnosis, the AlphaKidz business office flooded. That event was devastating, both financially and emotionally, for Foust. A few months later, in the summer of 2011, Foust’s father dealt with cancer and had to undergo chemotheraphy treatment at MD Anderson for lymphoma. Fortunately, he received a clean bill of health in January of 2012.
For a brief while, things seemed to be looking up. “I thought the black cloud that seems to always be looming just over my shoulder might be gone,” Foust says. In April 2012, calamity struck again.
Foust was changing clothes when she noticed spots of blood in her bra. She immediately contacted her doctor and went in for a mammogram and an ultrasound. Ultimately, she was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, a cancerous condition in which all of the cancer cells are contained within the milk ducts. Because the cancer had not yet invaded the breast tissue and both breasts were surgically removed, Foust did not have to have chemotherapy or radiation treatment. “Because I caught it so early, and had a double mastectomy, I get to live,” Foust says.
Immediately after her diagnosis, Foust consulted Dr. Michael Schwalke, a surgical oncologist in Shreveport. Before losing his own battle with cancer last year, Schwalke devoted his career to women with breast cancer. Foust says, “He was wonderful,” very caring and patient with all of her questions. Says Foust, “He told me that I am going to die one day, but it is not going to be from breast cancer.” The cure rate for the type and stage of breast cancer that Foust had is extremely high. Had she ignored her symptoms, her situation could have been much worse. “If women will act immediately, as soon as they experience their first symptom, it can mean the difference between life and death,” says Foust.
Foust had no family history of breast cancer. She did not smoke, was not overweight, and had none of the other risk factors for breast cancer. She notes that women with a family history tend to be more diligent and proactive about prevention and routine testing. But as Foust can attest, it can happen to anybody. All women have to be proactive. “You have to be an advocate for yourself. As women, we have to be aware of our bodies, especially as we get older, and be able to notice changes. If you feel or see something unusual, go get it checked out right away,” Foust advises.
Foust says that from the date she noticed the first symptom to her diagnosis was less than three weeks, and she had the double mastectomy two months later. The reconstruction process took much longer, requiring multiple trips to the doctor for procedures prior to surgery, but by May of 2013, the reconstruction was complete and Foust was fully recovered. “The pain from the surgeries was horrific, but I get to live,” Foust says.
Besides the physical pain and limitations, the emotional toll that serious illness takes on a patient is enormous. Foust explains that after a cancer diagnosis, there are so many emotions present–fear, anger, sadness. “There is a grieving process involved in having cancer, and a lot of your emotional responses are involuntary,” Foust says, remembering. “Meltdowns can come on unexpectedly.” Talking to other women with similar experiences can be helpful.
Heather Toms, another breast cancer survivor, is one of the women who reached out to Foust. Being able to talk to her, and knowing that she understood, helped in dealing with the torrent of emotions brought on by her illness. Toms had also had a double mastectomy. She endured months of chemotherapy before she could have reconstructive surgery, and then went through the whole reconstruction process. “She is my hero,” says Foust.
Foust hopes that she can use her experience to help other women. She describes having breast cancer as just one more curve that life threw her way, a “part of her quilt.”
The Shining Light
Susan Krapf was just a few weeks pregnant when she went in see to her obstetrician, afraid that she had miscarried. She and her husband were prepared to receive bad news about their baby. What they were not prepared for was breast cancer. Krapf was only 39 years old, with no family history of breast cancer. Just a year earlier, she had been assured, after a mammogram as well as an ultrasound, that a suspicious lump in her breast was not malignant.
The baby was fine, but this was not to be a normal pregnancy. Krapf was not only still pregnant, but she had breast cancer. Her formal diagnosis was infiltrating ductal carcinoma, Stage III, HERS positive, ER/PR negative. They were told that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, but that some of the diagnostic tools normally employed, such as PET scans, could not be done because of her pregnancy. For certain information, Krapf and her husband would just have to wait.
Krapf looks back now in amazement at the course of her simultaneous pregnancy and cancer treatment, still not sure how she got through it. “At thirteen weeks pregnant, I had a double mastectomy, and started chemo at fifteen weeks pregnant.” After about two weeks of chemotherapy, Krapf’s hair began to fall out. Her husband, Gary, worked on an offshore oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico and was gone for 14 days at a time. When he left for his two week shift, his wife had a full head of hair. When he returned, there was only a little fuzz. At her request, he had promised to shave her head if she asked, and she said she was ready. “He kept his promise,” Krapf smiles. “Losing my hair was as hard, for me, as losing my breasts. There is no way to cover that up, really.”
Krapf remembers that the chemotherapy during pregnancy was really difficult. Not only was I pregnant, but I had my eight year old son, Gus, to take care of. “It would wipe me out, every time, and I would have to be given a couple of units of blood. That became a pattern.” She was also extremely worried about the baby’s development.
In July of 2008, by emergency cesarean section, Krapf gave birth to her daughter, Helen, a healthy, beautiful little girl weighing 4 pounds 6 ounces. Krapf resumed chemotherapy almost immediately, and had the PET scans that had been postponed until after the pregnancy. Krapf was holding her daughter in her arms when she received the scan results. She was told that the cancer had spread to all three lobes of her liver, and at best she had a couple of years.
At her husband’s insistence, they flew to Houston to MD Anderson for a second opinion. More tests were run, but the news was the same. “I was devasted,” says Krapf. “All I could think about was my children and all that I was going to miss. There was a whole lot of crying.” At some point, Krapf says that she made up her mind to continue fighting. “I decided that God had done so much for us already. And I told my doctor that God was going to take this cancer from me, piece by piece, and put it in his pocket.”
It took a long time—years of aggressive chemotherapy—but by June of 2010 her scans were clear. The chemotherapy had worked. On her doctor’s advice, she discontinued treatment underwent reconstructive surgery in 2012. By 2013, the cancer had returned, and spread from her liver to her lungs.
In May of 2013, she traveled to Chicago to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and started new treatment there. “I felt like we were heading in right direction and that CTCA was where I was supposed to be,” she recalls. She eventually transferred to CTCA’s Atlanta location, and continued on her treatment path. In March of 2015, Krapf received the news she was hoping for. Her scans results were clear, and have remained that way for more than a year now.
Krapf stresses how important it is for women to be in control of their own healthcare and treatment options. “There are lots of doctors out there. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your doctor about what is going on with you, and don’t feel like you are being heard, then that person is not the doctor for you.” She advocates getting a second opinion, and a third or fourth if necessary. “You have to be your own advocate,” Krapf says. “Ask those uncomfortable questions, and if you don’t get the answers that you think you should be getting, ask someone else.”
Krapf has also come to realize the importance of having a support group. She says that she was very reluctant to get involved with a support group. “I always thought, I do not want to listen to a bunch of women whine and cry and talk about what ails them. I don’t need that. But I was so wrong,” Krapf says. Eight years ago, Krapf got involved with the support group at Kitty Degree Breast Center, and it has been so valuable for her. “No one else can understand certain things, like losing your hair, or the fatigue. We know what the other person feels.” The support she has found has played a huge part in her recovery.
It has been over 18 months since Krapf’s last cancer treatment. She still has cancer, but she is symptom free, for now. Her children are thriving, including her daughter, Helen, who was born in the midst of her mother’s battle with breast cancer. She is thankful every day for the time that she has been given, and hopeful for what the future will bring.
Every Minute Counts
Theirs is a love story with a bittersweet ending. Lisa and Glenn Northcott got to know each other over a romantic dinner at Genusa’s Restaurant in Monroe, where they had their first date. The next year, Glenn proposed to Lisa at that same restaurant, on a night when they knew, with more certainty than most couples, that the future might hold some very difficult times. He asked anyway, and she said “yes” anyway.
During the year that followed, they would navigate a world of doctors and hospitals, scans and testing, chemotherapy and radiation. They would also travel the world, enjoy life and take advantage of every minute they had together.
On August 5, 2015, two days before Glenn’s proposal, Lisa was told that a lump in her breast could be cancerous. She had a mammogram and an ultrasound, and was warned by the radiologist that preliminary results did not look good. Three weeks later, Lisa traveled to Ocshner Medical Center in New Orleans for a biopsy.
While waiting on the biopsy results, unsure of what Lisa’s official diagnosis would be, Glenn and Lisa flew to Las Vegas and were married. The day after they returned, Lisa’s battle with breast cancer began. The biopsy and other tests confirmed their worst fear. Lisa had Stage 4 breast cancer, with tumors in her breast, liver and lymph nodes. She was only 40 years old.
Over the course of the next year, Lisa made trips to New Orleans almost weekly, undergoing 32 rounds of chemotherapy. In addition to four different types of aggressive chemotherapy, she also had radiation treatment. Despite this rigorous treatment schedule, Lisa did not experience any serious side effects. She never suffered the severe nausea most patients have with chemotherapy, so between treatments she was able to enjoy her time with family and even travel with her husband and children.
Lisa’s mother, Marie Middlebrooks, fights back tears as she describes her daughter’s strength and courage during her year-long battle with this terrible disease. “Lisa never quit fighting,” she says. “She was so strong, and such an inspiration to others. She kept smiling, too. That was the thing that so many people commented on.”
There were some small victories along the way, but unfortunately, by mid-summer the cancer had invaded Lisa’s bones and metastasized to her brain. On August 3, 2016, almost exactly a year from the date her world was turned upside down by the cancer diagnosis, Lisa made her final trip home from New Orleans to begin hospice care. She died on August 14, 2016.
Before she passed away, Lisa shared her story with BayouLife, hoping that other women might benefit from reading about her experience. She wanted women to understand the importance of early detection. “Women should have mammograms before age 40, regardless of what doctors recommend. The norm is not really the norm anymore,” she said. “Get tested early,” Lisa stressed, “especially if you have implants.”
In 2009, Lisa underwent elective breast implant surgery. She had a mammogram before her implant procedure, even though she was only 34. That mammogram showed no signs of cancer. Based on standard medical recommendations, another mammogram would not be indicated for six more years. Only because she noticed something unusual, a lump in her breast that had not been evident before, did Lisa have the August 2015 mammogram. By then, it was too late.
Based on her experience, Lisa cautioned other women about breast implants. “If you do get breast implants, have yearly mammograms, regardless of what the doctors or insurance companies say.” Lisa felt strongly that because the lump in her breast was located behind the implant, it was harder to feel and only became palpable once it had grown. She believed that her life was cut short by a cancer that might have been eliminated if it been detected sooner.
In the time that she had between her diagnosis and death, Lisa focused on what mattered most. She said that having cancer made her understand how precious each minute of life is, and she wanted to remind others to savor each moment. Fearing that her time was short and wanting to take advantage of every minute, Lisa never passed up an opportunity to enjoy time with family and friends.
Glenn is a pilot with United Airlines, a job that allowed him to be with Lisa during her treatments and enabled them to travel extensively during this past year as Lisa felt up to it. They took her son, Dylan, on his first cruise. They traveled to Europe, Tokyo and South America. They flew with their children to Hawaii. They celebrated Christmas at home with family. They celebrated Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Above the sofa in their home hangs a painting of Lisa and Glenn and all of their children at a Mardi Gras parade just six months ago. Lisa beamed as she talked about her children, and the good times she shared with them despite the terrible ordeal of having breast cancer.
Lisa also spent as much time as she could on the beaches of the Gulf Coast, which she deemed her “happy place.” “Sitting on the beach in Pensacola one day,” Glenn says, “I commented to Lisa that every day counts. She looked at me and said, “every minute counts.’”
Lisa Northcott’s life was short, but she lived it well. She will be remembered for her strength, her positive attitude and her beautiful smile. She had unwavering faith in God, a faith that gave her strength through the bad news, a faith that she acknowledged with every good moment, a faith that she credited bringing her to her husband and a faith that helped mold her into the amazing mother that she was. She was an inspiration to others and will continue to inspire those who loved her to make every minute count.
Just Keep Swimming
Jodi Pipes was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, at the age of 38. She had never had a mammogram, and according to prevailing medical opinions, she was not old enough to require regular screenings for the disease. Yet, Pipes insists, signs of her illness had been present for years prior to her diagnosis.
Pipes is a teacher, active cheerleading coach and the mother of three beautiful girls. Right after the birth of her oldest daughter, Pipes developed a large lump under her arm, near her breast. She was told it was mastitis, a painful infection, and took prescribed antibiotics until it seemed to go away. Four years later, during the first trimester of her second pregnancy, the lump came back. She again took antibiotics, and while it got smaller, the lump was still present. When her second child was about two years old, Pipes experienced significant unexplained weight loss. She went to her doctor, and at that checkup, weighed in at only 88 pounds. Pipes also had some leaking from her breasts, despite the fact that she had not been able to nurse her baby.
At age 37, Pipes learned that she was pregnant with her third child. Immediately, she says, the lump near her underarm reappeared, and the swelling never completely went away. “It really never occurred to me that this could be a sign of cancer. I had no clue. No one seemed concerned, so I thought it was just something that happened during pregnancy,” Pipes says.
In October of 2013, when her youngest child was less than a year old, she detected an unusual knot about the size of a quarter in the lower quadrant of her breast. She says it was very painful, “like a hot knife.” In early November, she finally had her very first mammogram. The same day, doctors performed an ultrasound and then a biopsy. “Even then, I had no idea what was coming. I was clueless. I was planning to go right back to work.”
Late on the afternoon of November 14, 2013, Pipes was at home with all three of her children when the doctor’s office called with her test results. Her official diagnosis was invasive mammary carcinoma. She still remembers writing it down. She called her husband and paced outside in her backyard while they talked on the phone. She was in shock but did not shed a tear. She even went to school to teach the next day and tried not to worry.
She would later learn that her cancer was “Stage III,” having spread throughout her breasts and into her lymph nodes. On the day after her 39th birthday, Pipes underwent a double mastectomy. She traveled to MD Anderson Medical Center in Houston, where she had extensive testing and endured sixteen rounds of chemotherapy. She also had 33 rounds of radiation. “It was so hard, because the girls were in school, and I had to be away from them.” Those first treatments went well. She and her girls, ages ten, six and 18 months, and her mother spent most of the summer of 2014 in Houston, while Pipes went through intensive, aggressive treatment at MD Anderson. They returned home, and she spent the 2014-15 school year virtually pain free, teaching school, coaching her cheerleaders and taking care of her children. Her hair grew back in. Her scans were clear. She thought her ordeal was over.
Once the school year ended in May of 2015, Pipes returned to MD Anderson to have a robotic reconstruction procedure. She said this surgery involved moving a muscle from her back, and it was a very difficult surgery to go through. Although she was sore for a few weeks, she did not have any major complications. Before long, though, Pipes begin to have severe pain in her neck. “I thought it was related to the surgery, and because I was breaking the rules,” says Pipes, who was lifting her youngest child in and out of a carseat and pushing other physical limits as she went about her normal routine. By mid-August, the pain was debilitating, and it continued for months. She had additional scans and checkups at MD Anderson and they found nothing to explain her pain. She continued to teach school and coach cheer and gymnastics classes, but her pain kept getting worse. “I never cry,” Pipes says, but by the end of March 2016, I was just breaking down, because the pain was so bad.” Pipes went to a local after-hours orthopedic clinic for X-rays, and the results were frightening.
She was told that she had severe degeneration in the C-4 area of her spine. “Basically, my C-4 vertebrae was gone. My husband and I looked at each other, and we knew what it was. We headed straight to MD Anderson’s ER that night,” says Pipes. “I had been spotting back handsprings just hours before.” Their fears were, unfortunately, confirmed. Pipes had a large malignant tumor in her neck. Scans showed cancer in other areas of her spine. Her cancer has now progessed to Stage IV. She had neck surgery this spring and more radiation. Her chemotherapy is continuing. The side effects are sometimes brutal. She takes daily pills and monthly injections. She takes life day by day.
Pipes wants other women to know her story. She feels strongly that early detection would have made a difference in her prognosis. She describes herself as a “loudmouth” and is determined to let people know that this can happen to anyone, at any age. “Listen to your instincts,” she cautions. “Scream at a doctor. Lie if you have to. Do whatever you have to do to get that early mammogram, have those tests. It could save your life.”
When talking about her breast cancer, Pipes describes herself not as a survivor, but a “lifer.” Medically speaking, her cancer is incurable. Pipes is small in stature, but extremely tenacious. The tears come, though, when she talks about her children. “My biggest fear is for them. I am so afraid of disappointing them.” As a mother, she says that there is no amount of time that a doctor can give her as a prognosis that is long enough. “All I know for sure,” she says “is that I am still here.”
Early in her struggle with this illness, Jodi created a Facebook page called “Cheer for Jodi” to keep friends and family updated on her medical condition and record her experiences. A recurring theme on that page and in Pipes’ attitude as she keeps fighting for her health is “Just Keep Swimming.” She and her girls are fans of “Finding Dory.” She says she is encouraged by this motto from the movie: “When life gets you down, you know what you gotta do? Just Keep Swimming!” That is what Pipes intends to do.