Second in a series
FLORENCE, S.C. — For Tamatha Barbeau, the road to recovery was a quick one, but it was one that she will never forget.
Barbeau, an Effingham resident, said she had an appointment set up with the McLeod Mobile Mammography Unit in early July, but the unit had to cancel its final screenings of the summer. Initially, she thought that she would just wait for the next screenings to come around in the spring of 2019.
That’s when she got a call from her mother.
Barbeau was on the other end of a line from her crying mother explaining that her aunt had a suspicious mammogram and that the hospital had scheduled her for a biopsy.
“My grandmother died of ovarian cancer in her 50s,” Barbeau said. “So, I’m thinking family history. I better go ahead and find a way to make this mammogram happen even if I can’t do the mobile mammography unit.”
So Barbeau called Carolinas Hospital System and set up an appointment for mid-July. A week after the appointment, she received a call.
“They said that they saw something suspicious,” Barbeau said. “Alarm bells are going off in my head, because that never happens. It never happened before. So, I went back and did a more in-depth mammogram. About 30 minutes after that, the technician came out and said they had found microcalcifications and wanted to do a biopsy.”
Barbeau said she went home and talked to her husband, Greg Pryor, and they were sure that this was going to be one of the more frequent cases of benign spots.
“About 80 percent of the cases with those are benign, meaning harmless,” Barbeau said. “At the time the biopsy was done, I got to meet a nurse navigator at Carolinas. She introduced herself and said that this was her specialization.”
Barbeau said that nurse navigator would become her “superhero” a couple of days later on Aug. 16 when she met with her general practitioner to find out what the results of the biopsy were.
“It’s cancer,” Barbeau’s practitioner told her as he walked in.
“That’s exactly how he said it,” Barbeau said. “It’s not at all what I expected to happen, and I pretty much immediately had a breakdown. It was just a huge shock. When you get news like this, the whole world comes to a standstill, and your mind drifts to the worst case scenario. But I focused in and listened to what he had to say.”
Her doctor told her that it was in Stage Zero and that they had caught it in the best time. He said it hadn’t spread yet and that the screenings did exactly what they were supposed to. He recommended an oncologist and a surgeon for her as well.
“I didn’t know what to do next, so I called the nurse navigator,” Barbeau said. “I told her what the diagnosis was, and she immediately told us to go to the main desk; she would come get me. She took us back to her office, I know she could tell I was really shaken, and the first thing she said was: 'You’re not going to die of this, you’re going to get past this. You’re at Stage Zero. That’s the curable stage.'
“I describe it as if I was on a cliff,” Barbeau said. “I was on this cliff looking down, and I was so anxious, so shocked and just felt like I could fall off at any time. She sat there with me for about an hour or more telling me about the next steps. She really brought me down off that cliff.”
Barbeau had an appointment set up with the oncologist on Aug. 17. That night, she called her aunt — who had also been diagnosed with Stage One breast cancer — to discuss family history. Barbeau said she traced cancer through her family tree. Her aunt also told her that she had been tested positive for a mutation in the BRCA gene mutation.
The BRCA gene is a gene that finds tumors in the body and stops them from becoming cancerous. With a mutation, however, it cannot do its job effectively and greatly increases one’s risk for cancer.
Barbeau gave this information to her oncologist and was tested for the gene mutation to determine which road to take.
“Basically, if the test comes back negative, that’s the best scenario,” Barbeau said. “I would get a lumpectomy, meaning they’ll cut out the cancerous spots and then I’d follow up with radiation treatment and go on with my life. Scenario two — if I have the mutation and have cancer — they recommend a bilateral mastectomy, or removal of both breasts.
“This is because if you’ve already formed cancer and you have this gene mutation, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ you’ll form cancer again.”
Approximately 2½ weeks later, Barbeau found out that she tested positive for the gene mutation, meaning she would have to undergo a bilateral mastectomy. Her mother decided to get tested after finding out about the family history of gene mutation and found out that she, too, had the mutation.
“It’s the hardest thing to do as a daughter to tell your mother that you’ve got cancer, especially after she just found out that her sister has cancer,” Barbeau said. “She got the test and found out that she had that mutation as well. Luckily, she does not have any cancer at this time.”
Barbeau met with her surgeon the Tuesday before Hurricane Florence came through the Carolinas. She ultimately decided to set up her surgery for the following Tuesday, Sept. 18. During the storm, Barbeau said she lost power and that a tornado warning was in her area.
“As the hurricane’s coming through, everyone is talking about their fears, and I’m thinking I also have these fears on top of that,” Barbeau said. “I was like, how much more stress can there be?”
That following Tuesday, the day finally came for Barbeau to have the surgery. She said the procedure went well and she was even able to get up and order pizza with her friends in the hospital room that night following the surgery.
“They have this whole breast cancer surgery down to a fine art,” Barbeau said. “I was expecting all these restrictions, but when I woke up, other than some tingling and burning, I was pretty good. It was very minimal pain, and I was discharged the next day. I stayed home for three weeks until I was able to go back to work.”
Barbeau is now back at work as a professor at Francis Marion University. She said she is thankful for the support shown to her by her family, friends, students, doctors and nurses. She also said that her aunt has undergone successful surgery and is finishing radiation treatments.
“They removed both breasts," Barbeau said. "On the breast they had found the one cluster during the screening, they found two others that would have progressed to cancer. I am very grateful, because this could have been a very different story. If I had put off my mammogram until the spring like I had initially thought about doing, who knows what would have happened?
“I never felt a lump. I didn’t have any pain. There were no signs. If one good thing can come out of this, I hope people will realize the importance of going for regular screenings. Regular screening mammograms saves lives.
“There’s everything to celebrate when you’re a survivor.”