Tag Archives: breast cancer

When Breast Cancer Comes Back, Part 1


Mary Bright, right, shares her story with Darci Strickland of WLTX News 19.

In 2015, DHEC’s Mary Bright wrote a blog post about her fight against breast cancer, the most common cancer among women. In late 2017, Mary learned that almost two years to the day that she had rung the bell as cancer-free, it had returned. She shares her latest story in a two-part blog series. Today: Part 1 of 2.

By Mary N. Bright 
Public Information Director 
DHEC’s Division of Emergency Response, Nuclear Response and Emergency Environmental Surveillance

There are four words no cancer survivor ever wants to hear: Your cancer has returned.

It’s something all cancer patients know is a possibility, but after the first fight you try to be positive that you’ve kicked it and you’ll never have to face those four life-altering words.

For me it happened in November, almost exactly two years to the day after I rang the bell signifying that I’d completed my six-month grueling expedition into chemo, surgery andMaryBright Bell radiation treatment.  As I sat down in the familiar leather seats in the infusion room, I thought about how ironic it was that two years prior I had rung my bell on the day before Thanksgiving.  Now once again, on the day before Thanksgiving, I was settling in to begin chemo all over again.

‘I was looking forward to getting it out’

It had only been five months since I had undergone a CT scan that cleared me to have my port removed.

That little titanium port had saved my veins from being blown out two years earlier, when I sat through eight torturous rounds of chemo.  The chemo that, at times, made me want to climb into a deep, dark hole and wish the world, one filled with unbearable pain and exhaustion, would go away.  While the port had been surgically placed to help save my life, I was looking forward to getting it out.  I told myself once my oncologist, Dr. Wells, gave the OK and we could take it out – that would be the signal that my life could begin to return to normal.  With a clean CT scan, and once we passed my two-year anniversary, that tiny piece of titanium could go bye-bye.MaryBright

Then, in early October, less than two months shy of my two-year anniversary, my bra began to pinch and hurt on my right side.  I was having pain spasms that were increasing in frequency and painfulness.  I swapped my normal bras for sports bras for a few days and it felt better; but only for a week or two.  Then one day, just before Halloween, the pain returned and the skin of my right breast felt “thick” to the touch.  The color was a light spotted pink like I had a mild, splotchy sunburn and, oddly, despite the previous lumpectomy, my right breast was looking fuller and sitting higher on my chest.

‘The next day, I got that call’

I had an appointment the next week for my fall follow-up so I mentioned it to my oncologist.  He immediately sent me downstairs for a mammogram.  A quick scan showed no changes in the density of the breast tissue so I went back upstairs to be re-evaluated.  At that point, I was presenting symptoms that resembled mastitis, a painful infection/inflammation of the breast tissue.  The other likely option was lymphedema; an overproduction of the lymphatic fluid from my arm that filled in the void areas in my breast after surgery.

Two rounds of antibiotics later, the color and swelling were down but not gone.  Dr. Wells wanted an MRI to ensure tiny diffused cancerous cells weren’t hiding in the voids.  So Nov. 6, about three weeks after the first symptoms, I went in for a chest/breast MRI.

The next day I got that call; Dr. Wells wanted me back in for a biopsy.

‘Yep, my cancer’s probably back.’

The MRI showed “spots of interest” on my right breast and inflamed lymph nodes on my left breast and in my lungs.  I knew that meant the cancer was probably back, but no one really wanted to confirm that guess until they had test results.  The Thursday before Veterans Day I went in and had six areas biopsied; three in the right breast and three in the left.  A member of the medical staff asked foreshadowing questions and made comments that I assumed meant they knew what they were looking at — questions like whether we had removed my port yet.  I said “No, I still have my port,” but brain said, “Yep, my cancer’s probably back.”

I was home the next day, Friday, for the state holiday when I got the results; all six samples were positive… déjà vu all over again.  That’s exactly what I had been told the first time.  Only this time my routine breast cancer had comeback with a vengeance.  Instead of forming a solid tumor it hid in voids between the layers of my breast tissue making it harder to detect.  My “routine” breast cancer, for reasons we may never know, was acting like a much more aggressive type of breast cancer known as triple negative.  Triple negative is the most aggressive, the fastest-growing and deadliest form of breast cancer.

Triple negative breast cancers make up about 10-20 percent of all breast cancers; in about 34 percent of patients cancer comes back.  On average, it reoccurs within about 2.6 years.  Mine came back just shy of two years.

‘My cancer had spread to other organs’

Just like before, everything went into fast forward again.  I had a PET Scan that Saturday to see if any other areas of my body contained cancerous cells; then a bronchoscopy the following Friday (to determine if the inflamed lymph node in my lungs was positive for cancer or just inflamed from a recent hacking cough).  The lung spot, about the size of a quarter and in my lower left lung, was cancerous.

My cancer had spread to other organs. I was diagnosed as Stage IV.

Before I could even comprehend what was going on, I was sitting down to the first portion of the first round of chemo on November 22, the day I had expected to celebrate my two-year anniversary of being cancer-free.

How had this happened?  Why had it come back?  My cancer was supposed to be curable, after all. I was reassured of that. I could be cured and, in essence, walk away with only this minor detour from my life.

What didn’t happen with me that would have helped me? There are a couple of things I can remember.

‘The sad truth of it is… there is no good answer.’ 

I remembered being told that given my age on the first diagnosis – 40 years old –chemo might push me into early menopause.  I remember thinking, “OK, one less thing to worry about.” I wasn’t planning on kids after 40. My periods did stop about six weeks into chemo, but about five months after I stopped chemo, I woke up and it was back.  I told my oncologist and he seemed


Click here for more information on the Best Chance Network.

a tad surprised but told me that occurs for some women, usually those with excess estrogen production.  He recommended I start a drug called Tamoxifen (to reduce estrogen production) and seriously consider having an Oopherectomy (removing my ovaries) within the next year, since that’s another place where estrogen is produced.  I couldn’t tolerate the drug so we tried a different one, Letrozole, which wasn’t any better.

That’s when we decided to go ahead with a full Hysterectomy and Oopherectomy.  Since we were “going in” it would be better to take out the uterus, fallopian tubes, cervix and anything else that could cause any of the “silent” feminine cancers in the future.

‘What was this new diagnosis going to mean for me?’

But was there anything else we missed?  No.  So what had happened?

The sad truth of it is… there is no good answer.  Sometimes, as my oncologist said, people with no family history and no genetic mutations simply develop cancer.  It’s an unlucky roll of the dice.

What was this new diagnosis going to mean for me?  For my future?  For my family?

From Other Blogs: Breast cancer, your medicine cabinet, Farm to School Month and more

A collection of health and environmental posts from other governmental blogs.

Tackling Breast Cancer: The Right Treatment for the Right Woman at the Right Time

“As I talked to a patient of mine about how breast cancer took her sister’s life at the age of 42, I was reminded of how challenging it is to explain how breast cancer is a different disease in every woman. The key is getting the right treatment for the right woman at the right time.” —  From the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) “The Topic Is Cancer Blog”

Preparing Your Medicine Cabinet for an Emergency: A Checklist

If you read our blog on a regular basis you can probably recite the mantra “Make a kit. Have a plan. Be informed.” in your sleep. You are probably familiar with the important items you should keep in your emergency kit – water, food, a flashlight, and a battery-powered radio. — From CDC’s “Public Health Matters Blog”

Protecting Kids from Environmental Exposure

Children’s rapid development from before they are born through early childhood makes them more vulnerable to environmental exposures. Contact the nearest Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU) to learn how to protect your child from exposure to health hazards in the environment. — From CDC’s “Your Health – Your Environment Blog”

Five Reasons Why You Should Celebrate Farm to School Month

October is a busy month for both our nation’s farms and our nation’s schools. Farmers are harvesting everything from apples to pumpkins, while schools are celebrating Farm to School Month by raising awareness of the connection with fresh, healthy food and local food producers. — From the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Blog

Don’t Let Food Poisoning Sideline Your Tailgating Party

Fall is a great time to get outdoors — the weather is mild, and there are so many great activities to choose from: picnics in the park, hiking, apple picking and every sports fan’s favorite — tailgating. But even the most devoted fan could be sidelined with foodborne illness if they’re not careful with food preparation and storage. When planning your tailgate or other outdoor activity this fall, follow these food safety tips…  —  From the USDA Blog

DHEC in the News: Flu, Clemson’s solar-powered mobile health clinic, minimizing breast cancer risks

Here’s a look at health and environmental news from around South Carolina.

You should get a flu shot now, SC health officials say; here’s where you can go

As the temperature dips in York, Lancaster and Chester counties, it’s time to get a flu vaccination, say experts with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).

According to DHEC and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vaccinations are recommended annually for everyone six months or older. Those who are older than 50, pregnant or have chronic medical conditions such as asthma or heart disease are at an increased risk of complications from influenza, according to DHEC.

Clemson’s mobile health clinic powered by the sun

The mission of Clemson University’s new mobile health clinic is to improve the health of the underserved community while providing a teaching experience for public health students.

But as “the world’s first 100-percent solar powered clinic,” it’s also tasked with improving the environment.

The specially designed 23-by-16-foot truck is outfitted with eight solar panels on the roof that charge the entire clinic, eliminating polluting exhaust fumes and noise, said health extension agent Logan McFall.

Healthy eating, exercise help women minimize breast cancer risks

In my role as a breast imaging physician, I am asked frequently what increases my patients’ breast cancer risk. … Although many factors are not in a woman’s control, adopting as healthy a lifestyle as possible is the common sense approach for women’s breast health.

Best Chance Network: Much-Needed Access to Breast, Cervical Cancer Screening

Trenessa K. Jones, DSL
Best Chance Network Director
Division of Cancer Prevention & Control

Although Breast Cancer Awareness Month is winding down, the need to continue proactive efforts to raise awareness about the disease and urge people to get screened remains.

To that end, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) Best Chance Network (BCN), along with its many partners, will continue to do what they have been doing for 26 years: educate the public on the importance of breast and cervical cancer screenings and help those who cannot afford to get screened.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), 3,820 South Carolina women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 690 will die from the disease this year.

BCN, which is administered by DHEC’s Cancer Prevention and Control Division, offers breast and cervical cancer screenings at no cost to women who have no health insurance or only have hospitalization insurance, who are between the ages of 30 and 64, and who meet certain income guidelines. The BCN program partners with more than 450 health care providers in the state to coordinate cancer screenings for these under-served women. The program also offers diagnosis and treatment, data tracking, public education and more.

Since its inception, BCN has provided more than 220,000 breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings for eligible women, assisting nearly 11,000 this past year alone.

The most recent South Carolina Central Cancer Registry data (2009-2013) indicates that more than 70 percent of women in South Carolina are diagnosed at an early stage, when the cancer is most treatable. In 2013, the South Carolina breast cancer incidence rate was 125.9 per 100,000 women ranking SC 28th out of 50 states and Washington, DC. The mortality rate was 22.4 per 100,000 women. SC ranked 21st out of 50 states and Washington, DC.

Early diagnosis is paramount: The earlier breast cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat. That is BCN’s goal: to help women in South Carolina gain an edge in their battle against cancer — and win.

Visit the DHEC website for more information on BCN.

Early Breast Cancer Detection Can Save Your Life

By Sonya Younger, DHEC Division of Cancer Prevention and Control Program

Ladies, let’s make a promise to ourselves – a promise to conduct self breast exams regularly and to get mammograms as recommended by the American Cancer Society. This simple promise can help detect breast cancer early and can make all the difference for a full recovery. #FindItFightIt

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women. In 2015, there will be an estimated 3,820 new cases of breast cancer in South Carolina, and an estimated 620 deaths from the disease. But if detected early through screening and early diagnosis, breast cancer can be treated successfully. Being informed about screening options and making healthy lifestyle choices can help you take care of your body.

Screening Options
Steady declines in breast cancer mortality among women since 1989 have been attributed to a combination of early detection and improvements in treatment. For most women, breast cancer screenings include self exams, annual clinical breast exams and mammography.

breast-cancer-iStock_000016019343_XXXLarge cropMammography can often detect breast cancer at an early stage before any symptoms are present, and this early detection is when treatment is more effective. For younger women or women with dense breasts, digital mammography or ultrasound imaging in combination with standard mammography may increase the likelihood of detecting cancer. For most women at high risk of breast cancer, annual screening using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in addition to mammography is recommended, typically starting at the age of 30. 

To know what screenings are right for you, please talk to your healthcare provider and visit the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) websites for leading guidelines. Get familiar with the known benefits, limitations, and potential harms linked to breast cancer screening and know how your breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to a health care provider right away.

Best Chance Network

Knowing that all women should have access to preventive care, DHEC’s Best Chance Network  (BCN) offers free breast and cervical cancer screenings to women who meet certain risk and income eligibility requirements. DHEC partners with the South-Atlantic Division of the American Cancer Society and more than 400 health care providers in every county of the state to coordinate cancer screenings for these underserved women.

Who May Qualify for Free Cancer Screenings? 

  • Women who live in South Carolina
  • Women 40 to 64 years old
  • Women who do not have health insurance or are underinsured (meaning your insurance only covers hospital care)
  • Women who meet income eligibility guidelines

Now in its 25th year, BCN has provided more than 155,000 eligible women with breast and cervical cancer screening and has helped diagnose more than 1,600 breast cancers and 2,500 pre-cervical and cervical cancers since 1991.The program is funded through a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


In addition to screenings, making healthy lifestyle choices can help prevent the risk of breast cancer. To reduce your risk, you can:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains regularly.
  • Stay active or increase your daily physical activity.
  • Avoid or reduce alcohol consumption.
  • And, don’t smoke.

By providing access to early detection and treatment services, more women in South Carolina can win their battle against cancer. For more information, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345, and ask about the South Carolina BCN.