She had seen cancer before.
Marilynn Atkinson, 76, went with her sister Myrna Quattrocchi to most of her chemotherapy treatments and was in the room when she died of lung cancer in 2009.
The experience scared her but also prepared her three years later for catching her breast cancer before it got to Stage 1.
“I can’t say that it was a shock because I knew what I was doing. I would even think, ‘Does cancer do this and this?’” she said.
Diagnosis: Cancer of the milk duct
Treatment: Partial right breast removal and radiation. She will have a mammogram every six months for three years and take a daily hormone pill that blocks estrogen for at least five years
What cancer taught me: The least little thing, no matter what it is, I’m going to have it checked out. I should’ve had (my breast) checked even sooner.
How cancer changed me: I’m more cautious health-wise.
What I would tell someone diagnosed with cancer: You need to find a doctor that you feel comfortable with and will explain everything to you.
Atkinson realized she might have cancer when the drops of fluid and blood that came from her nipple and spotted her nightgown every now and then for six months weren’t going away. Her June 2012 mammogram was normal, and the technician told her she might have injured herself and caused the bleeding.
But Atkinson, of Franklin, knew something was wrong because the bleeding didn’t stop.
She sought out breast specialist Dr. Chace Lottich at Community Breast Care in Greenwood. By the time she saw Lottich in November, her right breast’s milk duct had changed enough for cancer to show up in a mammogram and an ultrasound. She had cancer in her milk duct.
“I was petrified because I had flashbacks of what (Myrna) was going through. I was always sort of afraid of cancer, anyway, seeing people who had it, knowing people who had it. That was one thing I never wanted to find out about myself,” she said.
Her sister’s illness lasted about six years and was painful for the whole family because they watched Quattrocchi weaken over time, Atkinson said.
She didn’t want her three daughters to see her get sick.
When her girls learned of their mother’s diagnosis, they also thought of their aunt. They were worried that their mom was scared and would suffer, daughter Pam Cissell said.
“I am very, very close to my girls. They’re not only my kids. They’re my best friends. I didn’t want them to see that happen to their mom,” she said. “The first thing that I thought of was, ‘My family’s going to have to go through this again.’”
Atkinson caught her cancer before it reached Stage 1, so her treatments were all outpatient.
In October 2012, Lottich removed the milk duct from Atkinson’s right breast. A follow-up appointment revealed not all the cancer was gone, so she had to have a second surgery to remove more of the breast in January 2013.
Starting that afternoon, radiation became a 1:30 p.m. appointment every afternoon for six weeks.
But she pushed herself to maintain her typical daily routines. She still got up at 4:30 a.m. to wash her laundry and drink a cup of coffee. She was able to drive herself to and from radiation every day.
“I’m a trooper. My girls said that,” she said.
The radiation mainly fatigued her and gave her some sunburn-like symptoms on her chest, she said. She carefully followed the radiologists’ instructions, rubbing her skin with a cream three times per day starting about a week before her first treatment to ease the skin drying and burning pain radiation can cause.
Until the final week, radiation felt like a light sunburn. During the last week, it felt like a severe sunburn, but Tylenol helped, she said.
Her final day of radiation was March 11. When she finished her last treatment, she was greeted by her daughters, who had sneaked balloons, cupcakes and flowers into the waiting room.
“I faced it because of them,” Atkinson said.