Making a private struggle public to help others

Published 12:44 am Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ellen Mason is a private person. She has many dear friends and is close to her family, to be sure. However, she believes that there are some things that should remain one’s own. Having cancer is one of those things, but she is willing to share her message to help others.

Mason was diagnosed with cancer in June 2004, having found the lump herself, which was in a lymph node under her arm.

“I had had a mammogram in August the year before, and I’ve had one as far back as I can remember,” she said. “What I want to emphasize to women is to do your own self-exam. We have wonderful technology, but it isn’t perfect; nothing is.”

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Once her cancer was diagnosed, Mason’s doctors immediately began a plan of attack.

“We went through about two weeks of just testing and checking and then decided on a plan of action,” she said. “The hardest part is that in-between time from the time you are diagnosed until you really start your treatment. You know you’ve got this journey ahead of you, but you don’t know how you’re going to do it. But, once you get a plan, you work toward that goal. You put all your energy into doing what the doctors say, putting your shoulder to the grindstone and just going on.”

Mason underwent chemotherapy treatments to shrink the tumor, then had a double-mastectomy followed by radiation treatments and another series of chemotherapy treatments at the end.

“You go through each stage and do what you have to do,” she said.

Mason added how fortunate the city of Demopolis is to have the oncology center here in town at Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital.

“It’s so convenient,” she said. “The nurses are wonderful; the staff — everybody there — is so caring, kind and so accommodating. I had my chemo and my radiation out there. At that time, the doctors were coming down from Tuscaloosa, Dr. Hinton and Dr. Graham, mainly.

“Every time I would go to the center, there would be somebody from Livingston, Sweet Water or Eutaw. We are lucky to have it here, and they do a wonderful job.”

Mason said the technology is amazing, changing even over the five years since she’s been diagnosed.

“I went through this with my sister-in-law in 1995. Since then, it has improved so much,” she said. “And, everybody’s treatment is different. You cannot compare your treatment to anyone else’s because they may have a different cell type. It’s just amazing how intricate it is.”

Mason said she had a tremendous base of support that she credits to life in a small town.

“In a little town, no matter what church you go to, you know everybody in that church,” she said. “Not only was my church family supportive with cards, food, phone calls, and visits — the people I knew from working or friends in general, everybody was so supportive. That’s the best medicine, having a support system.

“I encourage people to rely on their friends and family. Women are so geared to taking care of everything, and usually, we’re the last on the list. There are some times when you just can’t do it all, and this is one of those times.

“It’s very humbling to have people so willing to help,” she said. “It is amazing how kind people really are.”

Mason added that her family was very supportive.

“It was, of course, a shock, because none of us had any inkling of breast cancer,” she said. “I was scheduled to go to Memphis to stay with my grandchildren while my daughter and her husband went on a trip to San Francisco. I called her and said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve got this lump, they’re looking at it, and we’ll just see.’ She immediately cancelled the trip, and she hasn’t gotten there yet!”

Mason said that a majority of those diagnosed with breast cancer have no history of it in their families.

“People who do have a family history are more mindful of check-ups.

“It is an equal opportunity disease. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live.

Mason said the first five years, a crucial step following diagnosis, will be complete this February. At the end of the first five-year period, she will stop taking some of the medications, and the long-term treatment plan begins.

“Another important thing is: once you are through with your original treatment, they don’t turn you loose,” she said. “You are back every three months for blood work and chest X-rays to make sure that nothing is coming back. You do that for five years and then you start a six-month schedule.

“It’s not easy. It’s probably the hardest thing you will ever do, but women are tough. We can do it.”

Mason describes her experience very objectively, but with the air of someone who knows that she is speaking for many others.

“The doctors never say, ‘You are never going to have cancer again,’” she said. “They say, ‘We’re going to watch.’ You really have to have a lot of faith in your doctor and do your best to keep a healthy body.

“I think that’s the irony of it: I was the one who exercised and watched what I ate. I was very diligent about being healthy. You just never know.”

Mason said the cancer technology and treatments are improving almost every day.

“That’s why cancer research is so important to support,” she said. “They are making this a better world.”

Like many others who have experienced breast cancer, Mason encourages all women to have regular check ups and to do self exams.

“The longer you wait, the worse it will be,” she said. “So, catch it early. The pain or discomfort you may have during a mammogram is nothing compared to the further treatments or pain you may have to go through. If something is there, it’s not going to go away. It’s only going to get bigger, so find it early.

Mason said that public awareness now is much more than it used to be.

“We’re detecting it more, and therefore, people are aware of it more,” she said. “Probably everybody can sit down and think of somebody they know who has had breast cancer or some kind of cancer. Long ago it was probably a death sentence, but that’s not necessarily true today. There is no reason for someone not to have a mammogram or to do a self breast exam.

“I’ve heard some one say, ‘I don’t want to know.’ Well, you’re going to know, sooner or later! So, the sooner, the better.”

Ellen Mason, like all of the people who spoke with us in these interviews, took a brave step in talking about her experience with breast cancer. She knows that, with knowledge and education, the myths can be erased and faster, more efficient treatment can be found.