COVINGTON -- Apryl McCullough was 37 and two weeks away from her wedding day when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She believes it was a miracle that led to that diagnosis, and a second that saw her through a mastectomy without requiring chemotherapy or radiation, and still another that has kept her cancer free for nearly two years.
"God definitely had his hands in it the whole time," she said.
In fall 2009, McCullough found a knot in her breast while showering. Her doctor attributed it to fatty tissue and told her to come back if she noticed a change. She didn't.
But one day, driving down U.S. Highway 278, McCullough got the curious idea that she should take out a life insurance policy. She'd never had that notion before, and she still can't say exactly what prompted it, but she pulled her car into an insurance agency and asked to set up a policy. That act is what may have saved her life.
The policy required a breast examination, but McCullough told the agent she'd just had one a few months before. So, she authorized the doctor's office to send her medical records to the insurance company. Shortly after, she received a call from an insurance agency employee notifying her that her paperwork indicated she had a cyst or tumor in her breast and should return to the doctor for follow up. Both McCullough and her mother, who went to that first appointment with her, insist the doctor never mentioned the possibility of a cyst or tumor.
Testing revealed McCullough had DCIS, or ductal carcinoma in situ, the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer. The cancer starts inside the milk ducts and is considered non-invasive because it hasn't spread beyond the milk duct to surrounding tissue.
McCullough had a mastectomy to remove her right breast. Recovery was painful but because the cancer had not spread, she was spared the ordeal of chemotherapy and radiation. She has since had four reconstructive surgeries.
For McCullough, faith and family and friends were her life rafts. Her sister, Christy Walker, organized what she called "45 Days of Encouragement." For 45 days, loved ones reached out to McCullough daily, sending balloons, flowers, food, even coloring books, to cheer her. She received more than 200 get well cards.
"The blessings were just pouring out and still yet they are pouring out. You question why, but why not? It makes you look at things differently," she said.
A 10-year volunteer with Relay for Life, McCullough had seen countless women battling cancer, but she never thought she'd be one of them, especially because the disease is not in her family history.
"It never crossed my mind that could be me with cancer. I never put myself in their shoes," she said. But now she knows, "Cancer does not discriminate."
The most important thing for women to keep in mind is that early detection is key, she said. McCullough has heard women remark they've had a knot for months or years. It's always better to be safe than sorry and be checked as soon as you notice something different, she said.
"Don't be stubborn. If you feel it or see it, or even if you don't, go every year and be checked," she said.
McCullough is a proponent of yearly mammograms for all women, regardless of age. She's seen too many women with cancer under age 40, the recommended age to start getting mammograms.
"Nobody is going to take care of you but you ... It's very, very important to take responsibility for your health and have it done," she said.
From Oct. 1 through Nov. 30, Newton Medical Center will offer mammograms for $125, a discount of more than 65 percent. Regular price is $365. Patients will also receive a free canvas bag. For more information, call 770-385-7800.
McCullough had no insurance when she was diagnosed but received financial assistance through Women's Health Medicaid, a program that aids uninsured women with breast or cervical cancer who do not qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. More information can be obtained from the local health department or from the Georgia Cancer Control Section by email at email@example.com or by telephone at 404-657-6611.