Local's fight with cancer has been 'roller coaster ride'

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

CONYERS -- It wasn't any big deal, nothing she couldn't put off. At least that's what Barbara Sands thought when she neglected to get a routine mammogram for a couple of years.

But when she found a lump in her left breast, she decided she'd better get it checked out. And that's when, in March 2009 at age 47, the whirlwind in Sands' life began.

"I hadn't been for a mammogram for two or three years. Everything was fine, and I had been ordered by my doctor to go, but I just never got around to it," Sands said. "I guess if I thought it would turn out like it did, I would have gone earlier. In hindsight, it's like, what was I thinking?"

Sands scheduled her mammogram at Rockdale Medical Center thinking she would learn something about the lump she found, but was surprised when she was called back because of an irregularity in the right breast instead.

After getting over her initial shock, Sands had another mammogram and ultrasound and then met with the surgeon.

"It didn't scare me, though, because I still didn't think it was a big deal," she said.

But when her doctor personally called her after taking biopsies of both breasts, Sands was left speechless.

"She told me the left one wasn't cancerous, but I had cancer in my right breast," Sands recalled. "I couldn't even talk."

Her mind began reeling and her first thought went to her youngest daughter, who was about to graduate high school.

Sands was immediately scheduled for a lymphectomy. However, the diagnosis from that procedure was mixed. The amount of cancer cells remaining was not enough to warrant radiation, but another lymphectomy was necessary.

More cancer was found after the second lymphectomy, and that's when Sands' doctor gave her her options: She could continue to have lymphectomies to try to cut away the cancer piece by piece, or she could get radical and have a mastectomy.

"I didn't know what to do; I just wanted someone to tell me what to do," Sands said.

Ultimately, she decided to wait until after her daughter's graduation and scheduled her surgery in June 2009.

Sands said she did not require radiation after her breast was removed and she has been cancer free for about a year.

However, the effects of what cancer did to her body still linger. During the surgery, Sands said doctors removed several lymph nodes from around her arm.

"That almost hurt worse than the breast," she said. "There's a lot I can't really do anymore. I can't reach into the cabinet or grab something off my nightstand."

She also has developed lymphedema in her right arm, which means fluid cannot flow through easily so her hand often swells to painful levels. Sands is required to take a chemo pill every day for five years and gets her blood checked every three months.

"Once you have cancer, you're never really cancer free -- it just gets to a point where it is laying dormant," she said. "But at least I'm living."

Sands said the emotional side of cancer has almost been more difficult than the physical side.

"Ever since I had my breast removed, it's been a weird roller coaster ride," she said. "Some days I feel good, then I get really scared. Sometimes I feel like I can handle anything, and the next day I can't hold my head up.

"The person I was before, I don't even know who that person is anymore," Sands continued. "I process things so differently. Things I used to think were so important are no longer that important. I feel like I'm a whole different person, but that can be in a good way."

Today, Sands is working part-time with Family Initiative Residence in Conyers, which is a group home for adults with mental disabilities. She's also hoping to address her church about the importance of getting mammograms. And perhaps most importantly, her experience has prompted her daughters to take action. Sands' 30-year-old daughter recently went for her first mammogram.

Sands stresses that it is important for women to get mammograms and be proactive with their health. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is designed to stress the importance of doing just that.

"I feel like it was God's doing to get me to go back and get a mammogram," she said.