Life After Cancer

Courage and support are just as vital to defeating cancer as chemotherapy and radiation, according to these southside women who have beaten the odds. Each shares her trials, tests and triumphs from this life-threatening disease.

By Alisa Advani  |  Photography by Josh Marshall

Going Home to Heal

Jo Ann Hurt grew up knowing she would have a battle with breast cancer. The 48-year-old teacher from Greenwood, who was diagnosed in February 2013, had received numerous warnings as a teen from her great-aunts to get mammograms without fail.

“My grandmother’s sisters both had breast cancer,” she says. “I know it sounds crazy, but I heard those words the first time, and I thought, ‘It’s going to be me.’”

Hurt has had several breast biopsies over the years, which came back benign. After her last routine mammogram, however, her doctor pulled up images to show her the difference between older, harmless calcifications and a new mass that revealed itself under the bright light.

After waiting four days for test results, she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

“I knew it was the bad kind,” says Hurt. “It was a total shock even though I was pretty sure of what I was going to hear. I thought, ‘Now the battle really begins.’”

Hurt had originally planned on getting a lumpectomy, but those plans changed.

“It turned out that the cancer was both invasive and ductal,” she explains.

In light of the pathologist’s findings, Hurt and her medical team moved forward with a double mastectomy.

Normally, oncologists prescribe Tamoxifen to suppress the production of estrogen in premenopausal women who have this type of cancer. Unfortunately, Hurt has a history of blood clots in her legs, and Tamoxifen increases the risk of major blood clots. The drug was not a viable treatment option. After exhausting every other angle, physicians recommended a radical solution.

Not only did Hurt part with both breasts, she later underwent a complete hysterectomy to prevent her body’s naturally produced estrogen from feeding any undetected microscopic disease. Blocking the hormone was of paramount importance in her case, as her tumor was estrogen-fed.

“There was a time that I struggled with losing everything that defines us as women,” she says. “There is a time after treatment that you expect things to get back to normal, but then you are hit by all of the emotions.”

Shortly after her diagnosis, Hurt moved into her mother and father’s house. Comfortable, safe and at home, she healed.

“I didn’t have to worry about anything,” she says. “It was so great to have all that time with Mom. I originally moved into my parents’ condo to make it easier on them, but it turned out to be easier for me as well.”

At Isom Elementary in Greenwood where Hurt is a teacher, co-workers and students provided emotional support and thoughtful visits to sustain their friend during her recovery. Her room at school was regularly plastered with well wishes and posters from students.

“The other teachers did something for me each day,” she recalls. “They gave me a laundry basket full of all kinds of snacks, magazines, lotions and a blanket. When I was feeling better, they would come and get me, and we would go to lunch or on a Gigi’s cupcake run.”

Faithful Pioneer

Like Jo Ann Hurt, 69-year-old Jan Miller says she knew something was wrong before her cancer diagnosis was confirmed.

“I had a regular mammogram,” she says, “So after my family doctor called and said that something had shown up, I just knew that I had cancer.”

Miller, who was treated at Community Health South, received intraoperative radiation and a lumpectomy for her breast cancer. She was one of the first to receive that type of radiation.

“I was a good candidate for this type of radiation because I had an early stage, and I was post-menopausal,” she says. “I also only had one tumor. After a lumpectomy, the machine was brought into the waiting room and placed in position. I received 28 minutes of radiation while I was still under.”

“Over the past several decades, radical surgery for early breast cancer has been replaced by less invasive, cosmetically more acceptable operations, which allow preservation of the breast, while still curing the patient’s cancer,” explains Dr. S. Chase Lottich, Miller’s practitioner.

“This approach not only eliminates the need for the traditional six weeks of outpatient treatments,” says Lottich, “but also avoids damage to the patient’s skin and surrounding tissues.”

The procedure worked, and Miller remains in remission.

With the help of a cancer counselor, prayer and support from her church and family, she gradually grew stronger, physically and spiritually, and she shares her story whenever she can so that other women faced with this same battle can feel empowered to make informed decisions.

“It’s like I’m being transformed again,” she says. “The first time (was) through baptism, but again this time through this cancer experience. I look at today as a new day for the rest of a journey.”

Younger Face Of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer used to be considered an older woman’s disease by many. Today, however, the condition affects much younger women at an increasing rate. While the exact cause of this statistical blip has not been clearly identified, scientists think that a combination of environmental and genetic factors plays a role in the trend.

Brittany Raper, a southside Indianapolis resident, was 31 when she received her second cancer diagnosis within an eight-week period. The first, stage 1A melanoma, was difficult. The second — stage two breast cancer — came with a complete, life-changing shock.

“On April 23, 2013, I was awakened by a phone call from my gynecologist telling me that I had breast cancer,” says Raper.

She discovered a lump while undressing to take a shower. As she looked in the mirror, she noticed what appeared to be a dimple on her right breast. Because it did not look or feel like anything she had ever encountered, she immediately grew concerned.

“I’ve always been concerned about my breasts because of the amount of cysts I had in them and the pain they caused,” she says. “So as soon as I jumped out of the shower, I called my doctor.”

Raper’s diagnostic mammogram showed no abnormalities, however. Her doctor kept looking and finally found the tumor with an ultrasound. They quickly scheduled a biopsy.

“Of course, my first reaction when the doctor told me the news was to cry,” she says. “But I only let myself do that for about 15 seconds. Then I sucked it up and said, ‘Now what? What’s next for me?’”

 She says there are two important things other young women facing the same ordeal need to remember. “Stay positive. Your attitude is everything,” she says. “Allow yourself to cry, but don’t stay in that negative space. Second, ask questions. Don’t just nod your head and agree to everything your doctor says.”

She emphasizes how important it is to know enough about what’s happening to challenge physicians. “It’s your body, and you need to know what they are doing to it,” she explains.

During her treatment, Raper leaned heavily on her parents for support. Both her mother and father stayed by her side throughout the chemotherapy, her mastectomy and the reconstruction. “I couldn’t have made it without them,” she says.

Raper also relied on the expertise and guidance of Sharlee Arkush, a nurse navigator at Community South.

“Sharlee was a tremendous help through the entire process,” she says. “Deciding to have a mastectomy was a very difficult decision for me. I finally sat down with her and voiced my concerns.”

Arkush’s advice sealed the deal, she says. “I chose the mastectomy and reconstruction, and I am so happy I listened to her. It was the best decision that I have ever made.”

Always the upbeat activist, Raper currently writes a blog about her experiences to help educate other women. In April, her running team, Brittany’s Beauties, participated in Race for the Cure, and she recently traveled to Yellowstone National Park for a two-week “cancer celebration.”

Changing Gears Mid-Stream

Alison Spaulding, a 53-year-old mother of three, had already undergone two separate lumpectomies for breast cancer, when she found out she was facing yet another ordeal. There was still diseased tissue left in the breast, and the second procedure — like the first — had failed to produce a clean margin.

“I just completely shut down when (my first) surgeon told me I didn’t have a clean margin for the second time,” she says, “And I was devastated when I had to struggle with deciding between a lumpectomy and a mastectomy for a third time.”

Instead of going through the same stress all over again, Spaulding asked for time and space. She also decided to get a second opinion.

“After a few days, I decided to take a step back and put some normalcy back into my life,” says Spaulding.

Within two days, three people suggested she meet with Lottich. Spaulding made an appointment. The doctor sat with her family for several hours. They discussed every possible option. “She made our heads spin,” Spaulding says, “but I left her office knowing this was my new doctor.”

With a new team of physicians, Spaulding went into the hospital for a double mastectomy with reconstruction. With this option she wouldn’t need chemotherapy, but her reconstruction process would be ongoing. She has another surgery scheduled in September.

Choosing to undergo a mastectomy was difficult for Spaulding, who is now considered cured. “Some days I certainly didn’t feel like I had control,” she says, “and I never wanted to lose a body part and all that goes along with it.”

Since her diagnosis in February, Spaulding also has grown decidedly more resolute through the support of her family and friends. Now that she is through the worst, she is determined to find a silver lining from her journey. “I feel that I need to do something to help, to make even a little impact somewhere, somehow,” she says. “I have not figured it out yet, but it is forever on my mind. If I can help even one person, then it will be worth the pain and tears and frustration that I have endured over the last five months.”