by Whitney Crouch
Even after a battery of tests declared she had a clean bill of health, Ellijay resident Cheryl Chastain still knew something was wrong in her body.
“In May 2010, I started to not feel well … my hair was falling out and I had no energy,” she recalled. “All my tests came back great though. (The doctors) just said I was probably tired. My hormones were fine; my thyroid was fine. There were no indicators.”
Looking back, she admits tiredness was a reasonable diagnosis for a single mother of three teenage daughters in her early 40s, working full time and with no family history that would point to serious illness as the culprit.
“But I had this feeling that something was not right,” she explained.
In July 2010, Chastain had a regular mammogram and when it came back clean, she was told to come back in two years for another screening. Three weeks later, however, she found a lump that had not shown up in the test.
“My first reaction … was shock and (the thought) ‘I’m going to die’ … you have to go through other scans to see how serious it is, where else it is. It takes a couple weeks to get a clear picture … (and in the meantime) the more you research, the worse it gets,” she remembered.
When the biopsy results came back, they confirmed her fears — she had breast cancer.
“Fortunately, we caught it very early, but it was very aggressive,” she explained.
Knowing she wanted a holistic approach to treatment, she chose to seek medical care at Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s campus in Tulsa, Okla., where the facility’s integrated approach allowed her to take care of all of her appointments under one roof during a two-day period each week instead of spread throughout the week at a variety of doctors’ offices.
Chastain completed her chemotherapy treatments in March 2011 and underwent radiation the following month.
“I had clear scans in June 2011. I feel pretty proud of that,” she proclaimed.
Adopting a proactive approach
As a result of her cancer experience, Chastain encourages other people to “be very proactive in your own health care.”
“As much as (doctors) can offer with their knowledge, wisdom and expertise, they can’t know everything (about your body. I think your body tells you when something’s wrong … I can’t stress enough the importance for women to know your own body,” she stated, emphasizing the role regular self-exams played in her own health journey.
As recommended by the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc., women should perform a breast self-exam each month and should report any changes or concerns to their doctor.
In an effort to remind women to perform these routine exams and to schedule clinical breast exams and mammograms, the foundation has developed an online reminder system called an Early Detection Plan. Available on its website, http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org , it includes information about breast cancer signs, symptoms and risk factors and instructions for conducting a self-exam and issues notifications designed to help women remember to take an active role in their health. A free app, “Early Detection Plan: Breast Cancer,” is also available by way of the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s website.
Attitude and the fight against cancer
In addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, complete with nutritious meals and regular exercise, Chastain credits having a positive attitude as a vital part of her recovery process.
As she recalled, “(I was recently asked) ‘When did you know you were going to beat cancer?’ I said, ‘The day that they told me (I had it).’ I knew that whatever it took, it wasn’t something I was going to sit down on. I’m a fighter. If you go into anything thinking you will be defeated, you most likely will be. I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.”
When asked what advice she had for other people struggling to overcome illnesses, she stated, “You just have to get up every morning and go and do, even when you’re tired. Do the things you know you can do. If you give into (tiredness) on a daily basis, you lose a little bit of the fight.”
“The spiritual part of your health is very important,” she added, explaining how her cancer experience helped to strengthen her relationship with God. “Keeping faith, keeping hope and a positive attitude is important, so is not being afraid to enlist those things from other people. Avoid negative energies … when you’re overtired and stressed, that can’t do good things for your body.”
A new perspective
Although over a year has passed since she was declared cancer-free, Chastain admitted the reality of her improved health has only sunk in recently.
“It’s not ever all the way behind me, but I feel I can breathe easier,” she explained, adding she is moving on with life and became engaged this past Christmas.
While she is looking forward to the future, she knows her life will never be the same after her battle with cancer.
“One of the ways it changed me … I think I’m way more laid-back now,” she noted. “I look at things that stressed me before… and I laugh. (Cancer) gives you a different (outlook) on how to raise your children, how relationships are based … it puts everything into perspective.”
Helping a loved one
While her own cancer has entered remission, Chastain is now focused on helping her mother win her fight against a type of lymphoma cancer.
In response to a question about practical, positive ways to help a loved one who is battling cancer, she recommended, “Lend an ear. Call and ask if there’s anything you can do. Some of the best support I got was in text messages.”
She emphasized that cancer patients grow tired of answering the question, “how do you feel?”
“Instead, say things like ‘thinking of you today’ or ‘let me know if you need anything.’ You can also offer to pick up groceries or take their kids somewhere,” she urged.