She received the terrible news in March of 2014, but Sue Henderson Cowan believes everything happens for a reason. As a survivor, she says breast cancer strengthened her faith and brought her even closer to her friends, family and community.
Cowan, 76, of Moulton, described the day she was diagnosed. She had shown up for her regular mammogram—something she’d done every year since she was at least 45 years old, she said.
“My family doctor called me the next day to tell me something had shown up,” she said. “I’d been getting mammograms done for years, and nothing had ever shown up.”
A biopsy confirmed it was stage II, triple-negative breast cancer, which meant the cells in her tumor lacked the necessary receptors that common treatments and drugs target to effectively kill the tumor.
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, this type of breast cancer occurs in about 10 to 20 percent of those who are diagnosed, and it can be more aggressive and challenging to treat. Although the stage of breast cancer and the grade of the tumor also influence prognosis, triple-negative breast cancer is said to have higher chances of reoccurrence and is more likely to spread.
“I got a second opinion when I was first diagnosed. I think that’s a very good thing for anybody to do with any sickness,” Cowan said. “I went to Vanderbilt in Nashville and saw Dr. (Vandana) Abramson, a breast cancer expert. She set up my treatment regimen—the treatments she thought would be best for me. She was just wonderful.”
Following her diagnosis, Cowan went through four chemotherapy treatments that were performed three weeks apart. Then she took 35 radiation treatments.
“It was awful. I was so sick that week after the first treatment. The next week, I might feel a little better. The third week, I’d feel much better, but the fourth week, I’d have to go back and get another one,” she said. “It was rough, but the radiation was a piece of cake compared to the chemo.”
She recalled losing her hair during the chemotherapy treatments and was thankful she had such a loving support group—her blood relatives as well as her church family.
One Sunday after she began losing her hair—and unbeknownst to her—the ladies who attended church at Victory Baptist with Cowan had arranged to wear hats during service that day.
“That was the first Sunday I was going to go without my wig. They knew that,” Cowan smiled. “I wore a hat that day, and so did they. It was so sweet.”
She said her daughters, Cindy McIntyre and Amy Thrasher, were also incredibly supportive as they attended every doctor visit with her. This meant attending every positron emission tomography (PET) scan, every chemo treatment, and every follow-up.
The PET scans became very regular every three months, she said. Now, Cowan said she goes for the scans every six months, and her daughters are still by her side.
She said her son, Scott Henderson, and her late husband were extremely supportive as well.
“I don’t know what I would have done if not for them,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, including my doctors and my nurses.”
She said much love and support came from the community as well. As she began her journey with cancer, she met others who were facing the same illness or who had overcome it. She found that her cancer doctor, Jeremy Hon of Clearview Cancer Institute in Huntsville, came highly recommended by most.
“Since this has happened to me, I’ve grown closer to the Lord,” she added. “You’re never the same after chemo treatments. The experience never leaves you, and the fear doesn’t go away… It’s my faith pulling me through.”
Cowan strongly urges women to get tested regularly with a mammogram.
“There was never a lump on my breast,” she said. “The spot was tiny, and it showed up in a mammogram. That’s why it is so important to have them done. Don’t rely solely on self-exams.”
The National Breast Cancer Foundation recommends that women who are 40 years old and over have mammograms every one or two years. Women below the age of 40 may seek advice from their healthcare professional, especially if they are at a higher risk for cancer, and find out how often they should have the testing done.
For men or women who are going through cancer treatments, Cowan says don’t give up and stay strong.
“If you have a good support group, rely on them. Use them,” she said. “Now I don’t take anything for granted. I thank the Lord each day that I have my kids, my grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. I cherish every day I have with them.”