Survivor Stories: Meet Helen Adair King
“Although a cancer diagnosis is a very personal and emotional experience for each survivor, I feel very strongly that I need to share my story.”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - To help shine a light on Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, WBTV and Susan G. Komen are sharing the stories of breast cancer survivors in their own words.
Meet Helen Adair King, diagnosed in 2017.
“I found a lump in my right breast on January 31, 2017. I remember that day very clearly, even now. The lump felt strange and was not round. However, it was not painful at all.
The frustrating thing was that I remembered giving myself a self-exam over the holidays. I felt absolutely nothing then, but I was definitely feeling something now. How could a lump have developed so quickly? Coincidentally, I had my annual exam with my OB-GYN scheduled for the following week. Good timing, I guess.
Then I did exactly what you are NOT supposed to do in this situation – I consulted the internet. What percentages of lumps turn out to be breast cancer? Are cancerous lumps painful? What are the risk factors for breast cancer? I found comfort in the statistical unlikelihood that this lump was breast cancer. I was too young and had no history of breast cancer in my family. It seemed ridiculous to be worried.
Exactly one week later I saw my OB-GYN. As expected, she ordered a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. I actually knew the drill. When I was 26, my OB-GYN found a lump in my left breast. It ultimately turnout out to be a fibroadenoma – a non-cancerous tumor. I had it removed and that was the end of it. While I was completely shocked when my OB-GYN found the fibroadenoma, this time I was calm. I had found the lump myself and I knew that a mammogram was next. I also knew that I would likely have to have it surgically removed. I felt that I had an idea of what was ahead of me. This was probably just another fibroadenoma.
On February 17, I went to Charlotte Radiology for my diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. The news was not good. The radiologist told me that I would need two biopsies. She then pulled strings to get me an appointment for the following Monday. It was a Friday and that was the next business day. I felt grateful for her help and panicked at the same time. While she did not tell me that she thought that I had cancer, I will never forget what she did say. ‘I hope that I am wrong.’ Cue a very long weekend and my mom flying in to be with me.
On February 20, I went back to Charlotte Radiology for my biopsies. After an ultrasound, I was told that I would actually need four biopsies – more news that I did not want to hear. After my biopsies, the radiologist went over the images with me. However, it was all just speculation. I would have to wait for the pathology report for answers and patience is not my virtue.
On the morning of February 22, I got a call from pathology. This is another moment that I remember with absolute clarity. Two of the biopsies were clear and two were not. The first malignant area was Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS). The second area (the lump/tumor) was Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. The cancer had already spread outside of the duct. Needless to say, I was shocked. Although I knew that cancer was a possibility as I went through the diagnostic process, I don’t think that I ever truly accepted it as a plausible outcome. When I was called with the biopsy results, my mind simply could not compute the magnitude and, quite frankly, the absurdity of what I was being told. This was not supposed to happen to me. I was 36 years old, in excellent health, and had no history of breast cancer in my family. I also know now that I am BRCA negative. And yet, there I was. My world was turned upside down.
Then I had to wait for more pathology results. These results would tell me more about my specific type of breast cancer. My cancer was estrogen-receptor-negative and progesterone-receptor-negative. This meant that it was unlikely that my cancer would respond to hormone therapies. I was also HER2-positive. HER2-positive breast cancers tend to grow faster and are more likely to spread and come back compared to HER2-negative breast cancers. Both areas were also Grade 3 – fast-growing. I was going to need chemotherapy and targeted drug therapy.
Next were a battery of scans and a breast MRI. Two more potentially cancerous areas were found on the MRI. Even if only one area came back malignant, I would have to have a mastectomy. So, I was given a choice to have two additional biopsies (with the hope of only having a lumpectomy) or moving forward with a mastectomy. I chose to move forward with a double mastectomy.
An infection was also found in my lungs during my chest scan – pneumonia. One of the lymph nodes in that area did not look good either. However, my oncologist felt that the lymph node was related to the infection and not to my cancer. The decision was made to move forward with my treatment. I had a port placed in my chest on March 20 and I began chemotherapy two days later.
I went through six rounds of chemotherapy. This also included Herceptin and Perjeta to specifically target my HER2-positive cancer. Those rounds were tough and they got tougher. I lost absolutely all my hair and some days all I could do was sleep. A repeat scan at the end showed that the lymph node in my chest was okay.
My double mastectomy took place on August 16, 2017. I consider this my anniversary. The pathology report showed that my cancer was gone and I was officially declared cancer-free. I had a complete response to the chemotherapy and nothing was found in my lymph nodes. My surgeon removed seven. The one curveball was the fact that atypical cells were found in my left breast. Though non-cancerous, they would have required removal. I was extremely thankful that I had chosen a double mastectomy.
Fortunately, I was able to avoid radiation. However, I had to receive infusions of Herceptin every three weeks through my port for a year. The first six were given with my chemotherapy drugs. The total came to 18 and took my treatment to the end of March of 2018. I had my port removed that April. I actually still have it. I was allowed to keep it. That might sound weird, but I spent an entire year with it in my chest. I just could not leave it behind.
While completing my treatment with Herceptin, I also had breast expanders. These were placed during my double mastectomy. They were ultimately exchanged for implants. I have nipple tattoos as well. The tumor was just too close to my nipple for that part of my breast to be saved.
The good news is that my prognosis is great! I have healed well and I am at peace with what I have lost. I am one of the lucky ones. I know that there are women who do not have access to regular medical care and mammograms. This disease is beatable if caught early. Early detection is the key. I cannot say this enough. PLEASE CHECK YOURSELF. Be aware of changes in your breasts and follow up with your doctor if necessary. I was 36, did not have a family history of breast cancer and am BRCA negative. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security based on certain risk factors.
Although a cancer diagnosis is a very personal and emotional experience for each survivor, I feel very strongly that I need to share my story. I want to at least try to pay all of the kindness and love that I have received forward. I had a veritable army supporting me and praying for me. One of the ways for me to do that is to become a cautionary tale. Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that I could have prevented my cancer. I was also too young to begin regular screening mammograms. However, I knew that something was wrong and I acted quickly. It is my prayer that my story will encourage anyone who reads it (men can be diagnosed with breast cancer too) to CHECK THEIR BREASTS REGULARLY. YOU are your first line of defense.
I also want to normalize talking about breast cancer, specifically the physical changes. It is emotionally difficult to say goodbye to a part of your body, especially one that is so visible and often tied to being a woman. I also breastfed my twin boys for over a year. They were born just shy of 28 weeks and spent 56 days in the NICU. Before I could even hold them, I could give them my milk. Knowing that I would never be able to breastfeed again if I had more children was extremely painful. Hearing people compare any type of breast cancer surgery to a ‘boob job’ is tough. Breast reconstruction is much more than cosmetics and there should be a wider discussion about this issue.
I never thought that I would be writing about my nipple tattoos, but here I am.
Thank you for reading my story. Check yourself!”
From the foundation:
Susan G. Komen announced its signature fundraising event, Charlotte Race for the Cure®, presented by Novant Health, which raises funds and support for research, education, screening, and treatment, will take place on Saturday, October 2nd.
The 25th Anniversary Charlotte Race for the Cure is a day where we can put aside everything else in our lives and share our stories, our laughter, and our tears to raise money that saves lives while we celebrate survivors, those living with breast cancer, and honor loved ones lost.
To register for the Susan G. Komen® - 2021 25th Anniversary Race for the Cure or learn more information, please visit www.komen.org/charlotterace. The participation cost is $30 for adults and $15 for youth and everyone who takes part will receive a free t-shirt.
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