Debra Austin: Beating the Odds - A Breast Cancer Survivor's Story
As a business coach, I help entrepreneurs become more conscious of how they can create the business and life they want. Outside of work I am a wife of 27 years and the mother of two young men. I am also a member of North East Bible Church, Sisters Network Dallas (breast cancer support group), and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (an international service sorority). I volunteer at health fairs and speak often on breast health and breast cancer in my community.
My first experience with breast cancer began in October 1999, when my oldest sister, Luvenia, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Prior to that time, my family had no known history of breast cancer. Six months after diagnosis, Luvenia died, leaving behind three children. A month later, one of my younger sisters, Gwen, was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer at the age of 37. After a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, Gwen's cancer seemed to be gone, but it recurred eight months later.
In 2001, I had a mammogram that came back with some calcifications in my right breast. After much discussion with my HMO doctor, who wanted to "wait and see," despite the history with my two sisters, I was allowed to see a breast specialist and was diagnosed with Stage 0 DCIS breast cancer at the age of 41. After a lumpectomy without clear margins, I elected to undergo a bilateral mastectomy. I was advised that my chances of a recurrence would be at 2% to 4% as a result. As I had more sisters and nieces, I opted for BRCA testing and learned that I am positive for BRCA2 mutations. I thought I was done personally with breast cancer and did my best to support Gwen when her cancer recurred. She passed away in 2002 from breast cancer-related complications, leaving behind three children - two of whom were still little boys.
In 2007, I felt a small lump under my right arm. A needle biopsy revealed that the tissue was malignant. The cancer was found in a lymph node, and I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. My doctors - oncologist, breast specialist, and plastic surgeon - all coordinated so I could continue with breast implants after treatment, which included surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. I also later elected to have my ovaries removed since I am considered at high risk for ovarian cancer. In 2013, after a routine follow-up CT scan, my oncologist suspected a return of my breast cancer. After a PET scan, biopsy, and chest surgery to reach tissue that could not be reached with a normal biopsy, five "hot spots" to watch were identified, but no breast cancer was detected. I continue to be monitored regularly.
The biggest impact of my experience with breast cancer is the belief that, as patients, we ultimately have to be our own advocates - for example, pushing the primary care doctor who wanted me to "wait and see," even though I had already lost one sister to breast cancer and had another sister in treatment for her second occurrence.
The loss of my sisters made me much more aware of the motto "Carpe diem." I made it a priority to let the people I love know it and to do the things that I had planned to "get to one day." I began to think about what I wanted for my children if I did not live to see them grow through their teenage years and become young men. I also felt that God was indeed telling me something - after all, why was I still here and not my sisters?
It became my personal mission to talk with women about breast health, about how far breast cancer treatment has progressed since Luvenia's diagnosis, and the improved survival rate when breast cancer is found early and treated appropriately. I began to speak up and share my personal experience when the controversy arose that mammograms (my first occurrence) don't make a difference with breast cancer, or that self-exams (my second occurrence) don't really help.
My advocacy work began by attending the monthly meetings of Sisters Network Dallas, a local chapter of a national breast cancer support organization. I met women who had recently been diagnosed; they were "shell-shocked" and overwhelmed. I realized that I could help them by sharing not only my experience with them, but also by giving them hope and advice and listening to their stories in a way that family members and friends who had not experienced breast cancer could not. Every time I would think about withdrawing from the organization because I was too tired, another newly diagnosed woman would walk into the meeting and remind me of why the organization existed and why I needed to be there. I eventually took on the role of pink ribbon coordinator for Sisters Network Dallas. I became the go-to person in my church and my sorority for women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I became more proactive in learning about the latest advances in breast cancer. Advocacy work also allows me to help others who just need to talk with someone who understands. I am grateful that I can help someone else through what can be a very difficult journey.
I learned about the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP) from Carla Burnett, president of Sisters Network Dallas. She had previously participated and suggested that I consider being nominated. My experience with the BCRP has been wonderful. I feel privileged to sit at the table with researchers and know that I can make a difference in how breast cancer prevention and treatment will be conducted in the future. I am also grateful for the knowledge that I have gained from reading the applications and being part of the discussions. Scientists on the panel welcomed my input and that of the other consumer reviewers. They were also very gracious in explaining the science when necessary. The one thing that I would like to share is that the BCRP provides a great opportunity to truly advocate for breast cancer eradication and to further educate oneself and one's organization on the breast cancer landscape: The consumer advocate's perspective is truly valued - serving as a consumer reviewer has been a great experience.