My JourneyA healthy woman’s optimistic outlook on life and, yes, cancerBillie Chappell’s story as told to Zandra Wolfgram
in honor of the 25th anniversary of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October) we introduce you to a private woman who found hope by being open with others, a strong woman who gained even more power through knowledge and a grateful woman who admitted she lives more deliberately, perhaps because she was diagnosed with a disease that will strike one in every eight women. Meet Billie Chappell, a four-year cancer survivor from Fort Walton Beach, sharing her cancer journey for the first time.
My story starts in the summer of 2007. I was 52 and had detected a lump about the size of a lima bean from a self-exam, and was promptly in denial for three or four months. Maybe because I found a lump before, but it was from drinking too much caffeine, so I thought it would go away.
A healthy woman’s optimistic outlook on life and, yes, cancer Billie Chappell’s story as told to Zandra Wolfgram. Photo by Scott Holstein
I volunteered to collect door prizes for a leadership symposium at the Northwest Florida State College. So I went to Angel Williamson Imaging Center for a door prize. Ironically, they ended up doing my biopsy, which showed it was malignant. My husband was there when we heard the news. Because of the size of the lump, my breast cancer was determined to be “stage II.” There are four stages.
All of us know we’re going to die, we just don’t know when. When you have cancer you realize it could happen now.
I was what is called a “triple negative receptor,” which means they don’t know what triggered my cancer. So they wanted to give me the strongest and worst chemicals for chemotherapy. You could say they did an atomic bomb attack versus little piles of dynamite.
I am the first person in my family to have breast cancer, and I was healthy. Other than a multi-vitamin, I had never taken any medication. Cancer can happen to any of us.
When you’re told you have cancer your world stops, and you realize you’re going to die. You think, “Oh my God, it’s happening to me. Everything I’ve read about that happens to other people is going to be a part of my life, and I’m going to die.”
The doctor who gave us the results of the biopsy said, “You know, breast cancer is not a death sentence. It is curable, there is treatment, so don’t look at it that way.” Well, that’s easy for a doctor to say, isn’t it?
Everyone has a path to take. You can go to the left and be negative or go to the right and be positive. My upbringing raised me to be optimistic, so I tried to take that path through this process.
The day I got my results, I had a commitment to attend a fundraising gathering, which was at a woman’s house on the patio. After getting the news, I thought about not going, but something inside me said, “You need to go.” I was very emotional, so I didn’t go back to work, but my boss was at the event and expected me, so I went. I’m a pretty private person, so I wasn’t going to tell anyone. You think you can handle it on your own.
I am a strong woman who has never really asked anyone for any help, but as soon as I walked into the room of 60 women, I saw a dear friend. So, I just walked up to her and said, “I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer and you are the first person to know.” After I said those words it was a release. I felt a sense of sisterhood. I felt she could relate to the fear, anxiety and all of the emotions I was feeling at that time. Once I got it out, I thought, “I can hold on to this.” But then I sat with my boss and told her, “I’ve got the news, it’s not good, I’m going to get a glass of wine and have a seat.”
I was with a group of amazing women. And, fortunately for me, one of them who had gone through cancer gave me immediate hope when she said, “You can get through this.” I didn’t even know this woman, but I connected with her.
When you express it, it becomes more and more real. You realize cancer is in other people’s lives as well. Being a private person, I struggled with what to do, but ultimately, the decision to share my news was a positive one, because it opened communication with women and support groups that really helped me. I could not have made it through everything on my own.
I was diagnosed Oct. 23, 2007. I had a lumpectomy Nov. 23. My chemotherapy treatments began in January of 2008 and continued to the end of May. Then in June, I started daily radiation treatments five days a week.
I continue to help with my services with American Cancer Society in Making Strides with Breast Cancer, because when my hair fell out and I was as bald as a cue ball, I was able to go to a “look-good, feel-good” service provided by the American Cancer Society, where you are able to become beautiful again. That service made such an impression on me I decided I wanted to give back.
You start this journey and become very open to the fact that you can die at any point, and your life becomes very finite. You realize your attitude; your trust in God, and in fellow women, men and family is what guides you and continues to give you strength. There is strength in numbers in anything. And it’s the same with cancer.
There is also power in knowledge. I always carried a notebook to record my thoughts and make notes. The more information I had, the less scared and fearful I felt.
I continued to work fulltime, help my 90-year-old father, and be a wife and mother. The maintenance of a “normal” work schedule and lifestyle was very stabilizing. It gave me purpose. We women are so strong. We just don’t know it until we’re challenged.
You are the same person you always were, but you take every day more seriously. You have more appreciation for everything, and you try to pack in more life than you ever did before. You simply live your life every day
Did you know?
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death in women behind lung cancer
Right now there are about 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States
Sources: American Cancer Society and Breastcancer.org
Know the Symptoms
It is important to get any breast changes checked promptly by a doctor. According to the American Cancer Society, any of the following changes in the breast can be a symptom of breast cancer:
Skin irritation or dimpling
Breast or nipple pain
Redness, scaliness or thickening of the nipple or breast skin
Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
A lump in the underarm area
Is It Worth
A risk factor is anything that increases your chances of developing breast cancer.
Many are beyond our control, while others, if reduced or eliminated, may mitigate our level of risk. We know there are risk factors you can control, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, eating right, maintaining a healthy weight, using oral contraception and reducing stress. But research indicates there are emerging risks to be aware of:
Low Vitamin D Levels — Women with low levels of vitamin D have a higher risk of breast cancer.
Light Exposure at Night — Women who work at night — factory workers, doctors, nurses and police officers, for example — have a higher risk of breast cancer compared to women who work during the day.
Exposure to Chemicals in Cosmetics — Some of the chemicals in cosmetics may contribute to the development of cancer.
Exposure to Chemicals in Food — Pesticides, antibiotics and hormones used on crops and livestock may cause an increase in breast cancer risk.
Exposure to Chemicals for Lawns and Gardens — Certain exposure levels to some of the chemicals in lawn and garden products may cause cancer.
Exposure to Chemicals in Plastic — Some of the chemicals in plastic products, such as bisphenol A (BPA), may cause cancer in people.
Exposure to Chemicals in Sunscreen — Certain exposure levels to some of the chemicals in some sunscreen products may cause cancer in people.
Exposure to Chemicals When Food Is Grilled/Prepared — Women who ate a lot of grilled, barbecued and smoked meats and very few fruits and vegetables had a higher risk of breast cancer compared to women who didn’t.