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49-year cancer survivor was preparing for worst after diagnosis


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White River Township resident Carol Flanigan received then-new radiation therapy for breast cancer nearly 50 years ago.
PHOTO BY SCOTT ROBERSON
White River Township resident Carol Flanigan received then-new radiation therapy for breast cancer nearly 50 years ago. PHOTO BY SCOTT ROBERSON


The third-grade teacher had a natural, easy way with kids and seemed to a Center Grove area resident like she’d make a good mother.

After White River Township resident Carol Flanigan found a lump in her breast, she started reviewing in her mind every woman she knew. She kept coming back to her son’s teacher and thought she would be the best candidate to raise her kids, based on the kind way she treated them in school.

Flanigan had just gone through breast cancer and had a mastectomy three years earlier and thought the disease was back.

Her life was over, she thought. She would die this time.

Carol Flanigan

Age

77

Residence

White River Township

Diagnosed

February 1963

Type of cancer

Breast cancer

Treatment

Chemotherapy, radium, mastectomy and hysterectomy

What cancer taught me

It taught me I need to be thankful for every day. I wasn’t able to do that every day, but it was the goal.

How cancer changed me

I don’t know. I was married with children but very young. I don’t know where I would have been had that not occurred.

What I would tell someone diagnosed with cancer

Think positively. Do whatever the doctors tell you. If they said to do it, I did.

Flanigan felt her kids needed a surrogate mother and her husband should have a replacement wife, but she didn’t ask them how they felt about it.

The idea gave her reassurance that everything would be OK if she died. Flanigan just wanted to leave everything in order in her Lawrenceburg home in southeastern Indiana and thought a replacement mom would be the best way to guarantee her kids normalcy.

“It was a mental thing,” she said. “It made no sense, but I just wanted to put everything in order for when I was gone, to take care of everything.”

The lump she found turned out to be a benign cyst. But the experience shows the fear of a return of cancer and the grip it can have on a patient who has survived the disease.

Flanigan managed to overcome breast cancer with a primitive 1960s treatment that involved lying on a cot in a broom closet with radium on her chest. She’s now a 49-year survivor.

“I said to God just let me raise my children,” she said. “He heard me and everything turned out OK.”

In the early 1960s, Flanigan was a 27-year-old mother who went to the doctor to check out a lump in her breast that she thought was a clogged milk duct.

She found it two or three years earlier but hadn’t thought much about it, until it started to hurt. She went in to have it removed and, when she woke up, found they had removed the entire breast.

Over the next few weeks, Flanigan received an early form of radiation therapy at a Cincinnati doctor’s office. She visited the office every weekday, and they put her in broom closet, stuck a chunk of radium on her chest and told her to lie there for four hours.

“That’s just what you did then to stop the cancer from returning,” she said. “It was very primitive.”

She then underwent chemotherapy and cut her hair off after chunks started to come out.

“I tried so very hard to maintain normality,” she said. “I was determined that it was going to be OK, that I would be OK to raise these children.”

Flanigan did not talk to her children about what she was suffering because she wanted everything to be normal. She just told them mommy didn’t feel well.

She also hid it from her friends. Flanigan went to a bridge game a night after she got out of the hospital just to show everyone and herself that cancer didn’t have a big impact on her life.

“She decided she was going to be as normal as possible because she had young children in her house,” said Andrea Millspaugh, who often played bridge and went on vacations with the Flanigans. “They were young but old enough to know it was a serious illness and not something like a bad cold.”

Flanigan never acted distraught in front of her kids because she didn’t want to get them worried, Millspaugh said. She showed that cancer did not rule her life by going about a usual routine of grocery shopping and bowling with her bowling team.

“She’s always been wonderful and cared so much about other people,” Millspaugh said. “She put her family first in her mind, and that helped her through the roughest parts. She didn’t feel sorry for herself and tried to protect her kids by pushing away that ugly old cancer that was eating on her. Her family and children took first place for her.”

Flanigan said she often was in a lot of pain, such as when she was lying bandaged in the hospital after her mastectomy. Doctors told her it would hurt so bad that she wouldn’t be able to comb her hair or lift her children.

The thought of never holding her children again motivated her. She pushed through the pain and was able to raise her arm as part of her physical therapy.

Effects have lingered, even 40 years later. She regained enough strength to play golf but wasn’t able to plug extension cords into electrical outlets.

But she’s been able to lead a good life after moving to the Center Grove area to be closer to her adult children, who took jobs in Indianapolis. She regularly visits with her grandchildren and plays card games with them.

She’s been active in her church, in the Herron Ridge homeowners association board of directors and with a bridge group at the senior center.

“On your tombstone, they put the day of your birth and the day of your death,” she said. “In between there’s a dash. Your life is what you do with that dash.”

She said she’s tried to be thankful for every day she’s been granted since then. She hasn’t found gratitude to be possible every day, but she still tries.

“I was upset,” she said. “But I made the determination I would not just sit around and say, ‘Woe is me.’ You can’t just wallow in misery all your life.”

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