By Adrianna Pitrelli | Daily Journal
When two sisters were diagnosed with breast cancer, they already knew what the disease could look like after supporting their mother through her own cancer battle.
It started 15 years ago. During her yearly mammogram, the doctor told Marcia Aikman she had three different spots on her breasts they wanted to cut open immediately.
“But I was in denial, something like that would never happen to me, I thought,” Aikman said.
Aikman’s sister, Earlene Cougill, was diagnosed with breast cancer years later and just like Aikman, couldn’t believe it happened to her.
“When I thought about our other family members who also had breast cancer, I wondered if there might be a genetic connection somehow,” Cougill said. “At the time it didn’t cross my mind that I, or other relatives, might yet also develop breast cancer.”
After seeing their mother and niece fight breast cancer and then fighting it themselves, the sisters decided to get a genetic test done to see if they carried the genetic marker that makes a person more prone to cancer.
“Both of us had genetic counseling and it showed neither of us carried the cancer gene, so we were relieved that we had not passed on a cancer gene to our children,” Cougill said.
Years prior, their mother and niece also tested negative for the genetic marker.
Following Aikman’s initial diagnosis, she refused to let doctors operate because they wouldn’t outline why it was necessary to do so. For six months, she traveled to different doctors and each told her the same thing — she needed a biopsy — but they didn’t say why, and they didn’t show her proof.
She left each appointment disappointed and in denial.
“I just took a deep breath each time and realized crying was fine if I needed to,” Aikman said.
“But I knew I also needed to keep acting on it and I couldn’t just do nothing — I had to move forward.”
“I observe the world in a different way. Now I think about how tomorrow is another day, so I don’t want to drown in my sorrows. The more I observe the world around me, the more I try to be happy. You are responsible for your own happiness.”
Then, she finally received the response she had been hoping for. Aikman, 65, who now lives in Franklin, lived in Florida at the time and made an appointment at Cape Coral Hospital.
“If you’re not comfortable with what you’re being told, go somewhere else, you’ll find the right person who will help you,” Aikman said.
And that’s when Aikman found her person. After the technician, Kimberly Trignano, gave her the same news every other technician throughout the six months had, she explained in detail why it was important for Aikman to have a biopsy.
“I treat all my patients with care and a listening ear,” Trignano said. “She had an abnormal mammogram and as I would with any patient, I showed her the X-rays and explained what was going to happen.”
Trignano’s willingness to go above and beyond for patients helped Aikman finally take the steps to fight her cancer. To this day, Aikman is good friends and stays in contact with Trignano — who Aikman calls “Triggy.”
“She was the first person who cared and the first person who gave me the answers I needed to hear,” Aikman said. “She explained to me in detail what she saw. She is my life saver.”
After having a biopsy, Aikman was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.
Since most of her family lived out of state, she went to some appointments and treatments alone, but often times her neighbor took her.
“My neighbor was like my rock during this,” she said. “He was my very best friend.”
Aikman didn’t call her family right away for support. In fact, she waited to tell them until after her treatment was over.
“There wasn’t anything they could physically do to help me and I didn’t want them to worry,” Aikman said. “But I told them afterward because they needed to be aware, they needed to look after themselves and they needed to get their monthly mammogram.”
She did not have to go through chemotherapy, but had a lumpectomy with radiation for six weeks before being told she was cancer-free, one of the most relieving moments of her life, she said.
“I started crying good tears because it was finally over,” Aikman said. “And afterward, I did everything I was supposed to do, like continue to go to check-ups.”
But nearly 14 years later, in May 2016, Aikman received news she didn’t expect to hear again in her lifetime.
“I was at my yearly mammogram and I knew there was a problem because they wanted to do more photos,” Aikman said.
“I learned that life is too short and that you always have to move on. I’ve been through a lot and I really found out how short life is because of my experiences.”
Aikman was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time, but once again, didn’t need chemotherapy. She was cleared within the year. But just months later, she received even more bad news.
“My sister, who is nine years older than me, was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Aikman said.
“She was going through her annual check-up, just like me, and they noticed it.”
Cougill, of Indianapolis, was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through radiation for a month following surgery. Like Aikman, Cougill didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy.
“Marcia was very supportive,” Cougill said. “It definitely helped that Marcia understood what I was going through.”
Two cancer diagnoses could have easily been a financial strain for Aikman, and just one diagnosis could have caused financial distress for Cougill, too.
The average cost of treatment for breast cancer is more than $23,000 for initial treatment and about $2,200 for continuing treatment, according to data from the National Cancer Institute.
Prior to Aikman’s first battle with breast cancer, she got an insurance policy that specifically covered cancer treatment, should she need it. That added coverage allowed her to not have to pay anything out of pocket for her treatment. She also had Medicare coverage during her second diagnosis, which once again left her not having to pay a dime.
Cougill and Aikman grew up nine years apart with two siblings in between. But breast cancer brought them closer.
“I guess we’ve seen each other at our best and our worst,” Cougill said. “We’ve shared laughter and tears. But through the heartaches and rough times, God has blessed us with a loving family that has offered encouragement, support and strength to deal with whatever lies ahead.”
Aikman continuously provided words of encouragement and advice to her throughout her battle with breast cancer, Cougill said.
“Life is too short to dwell,” Aikman said. “You have to move on because life moves on. Don’t drown in your sorrows because tomorrow is another day.”
She can’t emphasize enough how important yearly mammograms are, regardless of your age.
“Please get your mammograms,” Aikman said. “Even if you feel like you can’t afford it, the doctor will work with you. Can you afford to die?”
Diagnosed: 2002 and 2016
Type of cancer: Stage 3 breast cancer
Treatment: Typically includes surgery and radiation therapy, followed by chemotherapy or other drug therapies.
What cancer taught me: “I observe the world in a different way. Now I think about how tomorrow is another day, so I don’t want to drown in my sorrows. The more I observe the world around me, the more I try to be happy. You are responsible for your own happiness.”
How cancer changed me: “I learned that life is too short and that you always have to move on. I’ve been through a lot and I really found out how short life is because of my experiences.”
What I would tell someone: “Take a deep breath. Crying is fine. But just make sure to act on it. Don’t just do nothing and always make sure to continue pushing forward. If you’re not comfortable with what you’re being told, go somewhere else, but don’t be stubborn.”