Two women, two different breast cancers, two different journeys to survival.
For Madison resident Monica Massey, the diagnosis came out of the blue. “I had no risk factors. I didn’t smoke and I didn’t drink. I wasn’t overweight.”
Not so for Chicago native and Jackson transplant Johnnie Flournoy, who turns 43 on Halloween. Her two sisters died of breast cancer. “It wasn’t a surprise,” she says matter-of-factly.
Massey, 52, took in stride losing her hair, in great clumps, during chemotherapy. “By the time your hair falls out, you feel so bad it’s not a priority,” she said.
“I didn’t cry when they told me I had breast cancer,” Flournoy said. “But when my hair came out, I cried.”
They’re fiercely loyal patients of Dr. Barbara Craft, a medical oncologist and associate professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “Everybody who is diagnosed has fears, but they are both very strong women who are fighters – and a little hard-headed as well,” Craft said. “But, they have the will to live.”
Here are their stories, in some ways alike, but in others, driven by philosophies unique to their circumstances.
When Massey came to work as a cardiology nurse at UMMC’s University Heart five years ago, she decided to take advantage of the Medical Center’s wellness programs. That included an annual mammogram.
The first three were normal. But in December 2012, doctors saw what they thought might be a calcification, or calcium deposits within breast tissue. “I didn’t feel a lump,” said Massey, a Union native who with husband Alan has two children, Rebecca and Jacob. “It was way back in the back of my breast.”
She lay on her side as she underwent a computerized guided needle biopsy. “It came back positive,” she said of the tissue sample. “They told me they caught it early. I said, ‘I’m ready. Let’s hit it.’ ”
She’s grateful for the family support system that carried her through a lumpectomy in February 2013. “They told me the cancer was invasive, so I had to have chemotherapy and then radiation,” Massey said. “It’s a good thing you don’t know on the front end about chemo.”
Massey was back at work in four weeks. “I needed to go back,” she said. “When I walked through the doors at my office, I wasn’t the patient. I said, ‘Don’t say the C word.’ ”
When she went to her hairdresser with a wig in hand, it was a fiasco.
“She put the wig on me, and cut it and fixed it,” Massey remembered. “My mom said it was cute. That did not look like me any more than the man in the moon. I told my mama that if she liked it, she could have it. It wasn’t my hairstyle.”
Instead, she and her staff ordered 14 bandanas in different colors, and she coordinated them with her work attire. “I felt totally comfortable with my bandanas. I never wore a wig,” she said.
Massey coped with the usual side effects of chemo: Nausea. Fatigue. Not being able to raise her head from her pillow some days. “I only missed 12 days of work during three or four months of chemo,” she said. “I look back on it and I wonder how I did it.”
But she did.
“I’m an unbelievably positive person,” Massey said. She’s learned to follow Craft’s advice about slowing down and taking care of herself. She will be on a drug for 10 years that keeps at bay hormones that feed the cancer.
She hasn’t taken a special trip or anything else to reward herself for the ordeal. What she has done is rededicate herself to good times with her loved ones. “This year, we made a family decision to do the Grove at every home game,” she said of football weekends at Ole Miss, where her kids went to school. “The tables, the tent, the whole thing.
“I don’t need to do anything exciting. Everything is exciting to me. You’ve just got to have your attitude right. There’s always someone worse off than you.”
About a decade ago, Flournoy visited the Mission First medical and dental clinic off downtown Jackson. Without having a lump in her breast or any cancer symptoms, she knew she was a prime candidate for testing.
“I told them my family history, and they sent me right here for a mammogram,” she said of the UMMC Cancer Institute at the Jackson Medical Mall.
She got the call the next day. Come see the oncologist immediately, she was told. Flournoy said she’d be there the following day.
Cancer is an old nemesis in Flournoy’s family, mostly on her mother’s side. In addition to two sisters, she’s lost her grandmother, aunt, uncle, and other relatives to various forms of the disease. Her mother also coped with brain cancer.
“They said it was in my right breast, and they were going to have to take it,” she said of that day in 2007. Then came chemo, then radiation.
And then came several recurrences of the cancer, Flournoy said, requiring more surgery. “I told Dr. Craft, ‘If it comes back again, I’m leaving and going back to Chicago.’ “
But so far, she’s cancer-free. “It has not come back because I’ve prayed. And, I wanted to show my family that I could beat this.”
Thank goodness for her large family, Flournoy said: Husband James Blackmon and their grown children, Yolanda, James, Lillie, Eugene, Ishmael, Daphne and Semaj. The kids all live in the Chicago area, but were very attentive during her recovery, Flournoy said.
“They were worried I wouldn’t make it, like my sisters,” Flournoy said. “When I had my surgery, a friend told me that they had to make some of the people in the waiting room leave because there were so many of them.”
Her hair came back, “baby thin,” Flournoy remembers. She retired from her job at UPS after a 19-year career.
Today, Flournoy said, “I feel healthy. I have not been sick.” She is passionate about bowling, and rolls the ball every Thursday with her local league. “I knock ‘um down,” she said of the pins at various metro alleys.
Like Massey, Flournoy still sees Craft. And like Massey, Flournoy has learned to take the doctor’s advice and to be vigilant about follow-up care.
“She’s an excellent doctor. She has me coming in for every test under the sun,” Flournoy said. “She’s had to slow me up.”
It’s crucial, Craft said, that breast cancer patients are intent not just in taking care of themselves, but in maintaining a fighting attitude.
“They do have to call us when they have a problem,” she said of Massey and Flournoy. “They have to stay on top of it and be very involved in their health care.
“They’re fabulous. They will do everything they can to beat this, and not let it beat them.”
Neelesh Tipnis, MD, Associate Professor, Director
Phyllis Bishop, MD, Professor
Michael Nowicki, MD, Professor
Uwe Blecker, MD, Professor
Hua Liu, PhD, Assistant Professor
Shanda Sandridge, NP
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