Having cancer in any year is a difficult proposition.
However, Cynthia Miller of Yankton had to face breast cancer alongside the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recently she discussed the journey from diagnosis to finding out she had beaten cancer with the Press & Dakotan.
Miller, 52, grew up in Yankton and moved to Nebraska 31 years ago when she met her husband, Doug. The couple has three sons and three grandchildren.
She said last year had already been quite a wild year — but then a bigger wrench was thrown into it.
“Following a mammogram, I was sent to ultrasound,” she said. “After the ultrasound, I had a biopsy which determined the diagnosis of ductal invasive breast cancer. (Last year) was a year of crazy things, but this gut punch came on Nov. 23. Then an initial consultation with my oncologist brought about a second biopsy to see if the cancer had reached the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes were positive for cancer, also.”
As with other patients finding out their diagnosis, Miller said there was a mix of strong emotions.
“(There was) a lot of uncertainty for me, but initially shock, disbelief, then asking myself, ‘What will happen now? Am I going to die?’” she said. “I had a dark few days. (I was) full of sadness, guilt, negativity and an overall feeling of helplessness.”
However, she said she resolved to fight upon hearing a glimmer of good news.
“My oncologist told me, ‘This is curable,’” she said. “At the time, I didn’t know if that was official, but I chose to believe her. The plan was to fight. My body had cancer, but my spirit did not.”
Miller said her family was extremely supportive throughout the diagnosis and treatment process.
“My husband is my greatest support and got me through the rough times,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it could have been like to go through this without him. He was by my side at every appointment and cared for me for months while I was in treatment. My sons checked in with me regularly and were there whenever I needed them.”
What followed was a rough treatment process.
“It was eight treatments of chemotherapy, administered every other week,” Miller said. “I received chemotherapy prior to surgery to shrink the tumors. Several weeks after surgery, I started radiation. This was daily for five weeks.”
She said the seemingly low numbers don’t show the full scope of going through cancer treatment.
“There was so much more to it than you can ever imagine until you’ve walked it,” she said. “It was a long haul. However, now I can look back on the experience and the memory of the fear, sadness and feeling those side effects have faded, and I have come out stronger on the other side. I reminded myself to stay positive daily, since my attitude was all I felt I had control of in this situation.”
While dealing with cancer is tough in any year, Miller faced a unique challenge. When she was diagnosed in late November, the world was deep into the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, vaccine rollouts were just around the corner from beginning, but it still only added to Miller’s stressful situation.
“While going through treatment, you are at greater risk due to a compromised immune system,” she said. “Because of the added concern of COVID-19 exposure, I kept isolated at home and only went out for doctor appointments. The highlight of the week would be to ride along with my husband for non-contact grocery pick-up.”
However, the pandemic didn’t affect her treatment schedule.
“Thankfully, there were no delays in receiving any treatments because of the extra precautions being taken at the medical facilities I was going to,” she said.
Finishing her treatments in late August, Miller was ultimately declared cancer-free — one of the terms she said she is still processing.
“(I’m) not certain I relate to the terms ‘cancer-free’ or ‘remission’ or ‘survivor,’” she said. “My last radiation treatment was as recently as Aug. 23. If asked, I would say I won this fight; I got it!”
She said there was one loss through this fight that was toughest of all.
“Given all I’ve gone through, you may find it hard to believe, the hardest part was losing my hair, probably because it’s harder to hide the loss of more than a foot of long blonde hair over hiding what you’re feeling inside from others,” she said. “My hair is growing back, a brighter white than ever. And aside from a few lingering side effects, I am doing great!”
However, Miller said she’s thankful to the team that took care of her throughout the long treatment process.
“I received nothing less than excellent care at the Avera Cancer Institute. The staff is always the definition of professional. Making sure I was all right and remained comfortable while radiation treatment progressed, I felt, was their priority. I was lucky to have this level of care without having to travel very far.”
Miller said she’s also learned a lot from the experience.
“I’ve gained a new appreciation for time, how it is spent and with whom I spend it,” she said. “I understand how the saying ‘life is too short’, ‘things happen for a reason’ or ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ came to be. The journey, as it is often referred, confirmed how blessed I am to have the family and friends I have. They’re the best.”
And she has advice for those who may have concerns about their own risk for cancer.
“Talk to your doctor and ask questions,” she said. “They are your greatest resource. Avoid reading too much online about your diagnosis and/or prognosis. Remember, your diagnosis is unique to you and the experiences of others may not be your experience.”
Follow @RobNielsenPandD on Twitter.