‘No one fights alone’

As Breast Cancer Awareness month ends, the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports fewer women are dying from breast cancer thanks, in part, to the increased use of mammogram screening tests. According to the ACS, there has been a 40 percent decrease from 1984 through 2017 in the breast cancer mortality rate.

Despite the improved survival rate, the report predicts there will be approximately 284,200 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in 2021, with 1 in 8 women in the United States expected to be affected by the disease over the course of their lifetime. For men, the risk is notably lower – about 1 in 833 – according to ACS.

Here at home, one doesn’t have to look far to find a friend, loved one, or neighbor embroiled in the battle against breast cancer. 

This is the story of three local women who are in different phases of their fight.

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Stephanie Blankenship, two-year survivor

At just 35, Chipley resident Stephanie Blankenship was diagnosed in 2019 with Stage 3 ER/PR-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer with the cancer cells invading spaces in her lymph nodes and nerves.

Blankenship says while her official written diagnosis did not come until April 9, she instinctively knew it was coming after her March 21 mammogram and ultrasound. 

 “The radiologist could not tell me it was cancer, but she didn’t have to,” said Blankenship. “Her face did.”

Blankenship when she received the diagnosis that confirmed invasive carcinoma with two tumors, she felt somewhat relived at having her body’s enemy identified.

“I felt relief,” she said. “I don’t remember crying when I heard, ‘Unfortunately, it is cancer.’”

Blankenship said she knew she was in the fight of her life and took immediate action, not just to let those closest to her know, but also to first create memories that could outlast a worst-case scenario.

“I went to my employer and let them know. I then went to my 11-year-old daughter’s school and met with the guidance counselor, who agreed to help me tell her I had cancer. And then, I took her home, packed some luggage, and we left with my twin sister and her children for Disney World.”

Over the course of just the next three months, Blankenship would have numerous surgical procedures, including a double mastectomy, axillary node removal, lymph vessel bypass surgery, placement of tissue expanders and then their removal due to infection, and port placement ahead of her first chemotherapy treatment in July 2019. Chemo treatments continued until November, and she began radiation in December.

During the midst of her medical fight, she was forced to relocate from her home while it was reconstructed due to damaged sustained during Hurricane Michael.

Because her cancer was hormone-fed, Blankenship had a complete hysterectomy and oophorectomy and began the first of ten years in hormone-blocking medication in May 2020.

“I have to be monitored for a minimum of ten years and take medication daily to try to prevent reoccurrence,” she said. 

Blankenship had reconstructive surgery in September 2021 and says while she is no longer in active treatment, that in many ways, survivorship is harder than the cancer treatment itself.

“There is a false expectation that it’s chemo and done, but hormone-positive does not really end once you complete active treatment, unlike many other treatments,” she explained. “The long-term side effects from surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are still a struggle for me, even two years out.”

When asked what she would like to tell others who are still fighting, she said simply, “In the words of another very brave, young cancer survivor, ‘It sucks now, but it won’t suck forever.’”

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Blankenship said she was surprised at who became her support system in addition to her daughter, Abigail and other family, and her employer. “They supported me from day one and continue to do so during my continued progress to a new normal,” she said. “But during the worst times of treatment, particularly the double mastectomy and chemotherapy, I was very surprised at who my support system became. It was not who I expected.”

Blankenship said that source of support came overwhelmingly from fellow survivors or caregivers of cancer or other traumatic illnesses.

“My long-time friend from school, Kate, organized a meal train while going through her own crisis after her home was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Michael, and high school classmates donated their time to cook or drop off delivery. Bethany and Mitchell of Fresh Cut Lawns maintained my yard the entire time I was in treatment, and my best friend, Rose, went with me to nearly every oncology consult, traveling all over the Southeast as I sought multiple opinions. She drove me to nearly every chemotherapy appointment and was my voice when I could not speak up for myself.” 

Blankenship says while it was tough, the experience left her humbled by the love and care from her family.

“My twin sister Michelle, brother-in-law Daniel, and mother, Marylee, all put their lives on hold to take care of me,” she said. “But truly, the one who made me marvel, the one of whom I am most proud, is my daughter. At such a young age, Abigail watched her independent, vivacious mother transform to an individual who depended on her for help with many basic needs. In many ways, it felt like she became the mother, and I, the child. Still, this incredible teenager managed to care for me in a labor of love while still excelling in her schoolwork and hobbies. Words simply do not exist to tell her how very proud I am, how very loved she made me feel.”

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Tina May, two weeks post radiation completion 

Jackson County resident Tina May was diagnosed with Stage 3 ER-positive breast cancer in 2020 as the nation was continuing to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. She was 61 at the time.

Like Blankenship, May says she had an inkling that something wasn’t right weeks prior to her official diagnosis 

“I first got the call in late August that there was something on my mammogram,” said May. “It took me a couple weeks to get in for more imaging, so I didn’t get the official diagnosis until September. I was scared because I was told my doctor wanted ‘a certain angle.’ Then, I was told the doctor would be in to speak with me. I remember thinking that that’s never a good sign.”

May says the moment of her diagnosis became a line of demarcation in her life.

“When you get the call, you will never forget the voice on the other line, what they are saying, and how they’re saying it,” she said. “It’s your life before and after cancer, sort of how many of us have come to think of COVID, there is the time before and then there is now; your life is now broken into life before cancer and life after cancer.”

Doctors found a 9 cm tumor that spanned nearly an entire side of May’s left breast, and a double mastectomy was planned for October 2020. May’s treatment plan changed was quickly changed, however, when doctors discovered the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes during an ultrasound of her left arm.

“It was decided I needed to go to chemo first,” she said. “I managed to wait until after Christmas before we started because I wanted one last Christmas without medication. A little ways into the chemo, I had a talk with my young grandson to prepare for the changes he would see in me, to make sure he wouldn’t be scared of me when I lost my hair. He told me, ‘I could never be scared of you. You look beautiful.’ In all, I went through 22 weeks of chemo through May 7 and then finally had the mastectomy in June. Even though I was blessed with my body’s reaction to the chemo, blood transfusions, the surgery was brutal. I remember having the drainage tubes and thinking that I felt like a spider.”

On October 14, 2021, May completed a more than six-week course of daily radiation after having to temporarily suspend the treatments due to forming blisters from the radiation just four days shy of completing the cycle. In addition to the radiation blisters, she says her diabetes has also complicated her treatment.

She will see her radiologist for a follow-up in the coming weeks and then have more scans in December to determine if she is still cancer-free. If all is well at that time, she can take steps toward reconstructive surgery. 

May, who serves Holmes, Washington, and surroundings counties as advertising consultant with Neves Media Publishing, continued working through most of her treatment, albeit mostly from home as a precaution for her compromised immune system.

“I’ve lived a very sheltered life these past ten months,” she said. “My husband has handled all the grocery shopping, and my boss [Publisher Nicole Barefield] has been very supportive in ensuring I could work remotely.”

Currently, May says fatigue is one of her most persistent and lingering symptoms but that she draws on the strength offered by her husband and best friend, Doug.

“He has been so loving and accepting,” she said. “As soon as we got the diagnosis, he started doing researching. Every time we got information, he would look it up.”

“Most importantly, is the way he has and continues to love me through it all,” she adds. “There were days after my mastectomy that I couldn’t look in the mirror. As a woman, although necessary, that surgery can take an emotional toll in addition to the physical. But when I had those moments, he would say, ‘I love you. I don’t care what you have or don’t have.’ His love and support made all the difference in the world.”

May urges other woman to make sure to get their annual exams and, if diagnosed, to understand that the treatment process can often be a fluid concept.

“Sometimes, the plan deviates,” she said. “Talk to your doctor; make sure it’s something you’re comfortable with.”

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Melanie Freeman, nearly three weeks into chemotherapy

Long-time Holmes County educator Melanie Freeman is just beginning her journey, having received her diagnosis in September. Doctors told 49-year-old Freeman, who teaches Business Education at Ponce de Leon High School, that she had Stage 3 Triple Negative Invasive Ductal Carcinoma with involved lymph nodes.

She saw her gynecologist on Sept. 2 and went on Sept. 9 to the breast center for a mammogram and ultrasound, at which time her doctor advise he suspected breast cancer and order further testing to confirm and determine the extent.

Freeman says her faith remains been a key component in facing the days ahead, just as it was when other family members battled other forms of cancer.

“When I went to the doctor on Sept. 2, one of my very best and dearest friends was in surgery have a double mastectomy due to having Ductal Carcinoma,” recalled Freeman. “I was worried and scared that I was fixing to be facing this journey, too. Having gone through the cancer process with my daddy, husband, and sister-in-law, I just knew in my heart that God would see me through. God gave me a promise with my daddy 20 years ago this past June that ‘all would be well.’ After that day coming home from the hospital and praying and God spoke to my heart, I never cried another tear and could only say, ‘It’s all going to be ok!’ My God doesn’t lie, and He keeps His promises! That promise made dealing with my husband’s rectal cancer ten years later easier to deal with. I knew God could do it again, and He did.”

“Less than a year after that, my sister-in-law was diagnosed with colon cancer, and again, I relied on my faith to deal with this. Although we didn’t get the same outcome with her, and she passed away at 44, I know that God has a plan and doesn’t make mistakes. I know He will see me through this one way or another; He will heal me here on earth or He will heal me when He calls me home to live with Him. I remember thinking that day, ‘Everything is going to be ok!’ –  And praise the Lord, it will be!”

Freeman began her first course of chemotherapy on Oct. 11 and will have four chemo treatments of two drugs every two weeks with a shot the day after her infusion to boost production of her white blood cells. Next, she will have 12 treatments of one chemo drug every week for 12 weeks, followed by a double mastectomy. After that, doctors will determine whether she will need radiation.

Freeman said despite her previous experience in a support role for loved ones with cancer, she wasn’t expecting how very different the process would be for breast cancer. 

“When my daddy and husband had colon cancer, the doctor found the cancer on Friday via colonoscopy and came in and told us and said we are doing surgery on Monday,” she said. “Talk about a quick process! Breast cancer is not that way. There are so many different parts that the doctors have to know in order to tailor the treatment to what the patient needs. I’m thankful they do that, but the waiting and the unknown is very stressful and taxing on a body that is already sick.”

Freeman urges others to advocate for their own health and to not neglect their monthly self-checks or annual exams.

“Fight for yourself,” she said. “I am a very involved person in my medical care. I don’t mind being a bulldog (as my momma called me one day) to help push things along and get things done. Thankfully, everything moved pretty quickly except for medicine approval at the very end before treatment could start.”

“I have had fibrocystic breast disease for a long time with lumps and knots all over as well as hereditary lipomas. I’ve had many of them checked, and fortunately, there was never any need of concern. I last had a mammogram in 2019. I had the order for 2020, but before I could go, COVID hit, and I just never had the mammogram done. What’s really scary to me is that I wouldn’t have gone when I did if the lump and swelling had not come up in my armpit. That happening meant it had already spread from my breast to the lymph nodes in the armpit, but had it not done that, I wouldn’t have known any difference than any other lump,” she said. “Please ladies, take it from someone that didn’t do it every year: Go get checked and have a mammogram done yearly or at the first sign of anything of concern between those checkups. Believe me, I will be staying on top of my three daughters to be checked starting now!” 

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Freeman says in addition to her faith, her family is what keeps her going.

“The love I have for my family pushes me to do whatever is necessary to beat this,” she said.

Freeman says she has been touched by the outpouring of support she has received from the community.

“I am overwhelmed at the number of people that have reached out to me since I first found out,” she said. “The ladies who have been through this already [such as Anissa Locke, Amy Rushing, Rachel Norman, and Jessica Sconiers] have answered so many questions and helped put my mind at ease as much as possible. My husband’s co-workers at the Walton County Jail have also been supportive,” she added. 

Haley McMillian, one of those co-workers spearheaded an effort to find a companion for Freeman, a teacup black and white long-haired chihuahua named Oliver.

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But perhaps most touching for Freeman is the support shown from her Ponce de Leon High School family, especially students like ninth-grader Hunter Weimorts.

“As he was leaving class one day, something was said about me going to be out of work more, and he asked if I was OK,” she said. “I told him what was going on. Never in a million years would I have thought what would happen next would happen. His mom contacted me and told me that Hunter had talked to her about what I had told him and was very concerned and wanted to help any way he could. He worked with his Mimi to create a transfer to sell shirts for me. It means so much to know students feel this way about me.”

Those shirts displayed the message, “No pirate fights alone.”

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Freeman says she feels loved through the messages of support she has received. 

“It means more to me and my family than anyone will ever know, unless you have been in our shoes, “she said,” and then you will know how important it is to have family, friends, and the community rally around you so you know you are not alone in this fight.”

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