Michelle Burns shares the importance of doing breast self-exams with each woman she meets.
“I would encourage everybody to do breast self-exams. That’s how I found mine,” said the North Augusta resident, referencing a lump she found Sept. 8, 2011.
The 41-year-old was prepping for bed when she did her breast self-exam and noticed something unusual.
“It was a ball just sitting there,” she said. “I had never felt it before and I wondered what it was, so I brought it to my husband’s attention.”
He felt it and confirmed what she thought – it was a lump of some kind. The next day, she visited her doctor, who ordered a mammogram. After she got the mammogram and ultrasound, she had her first biopsy.
It came back negative. The doctor wanted to do a second biopsy. It also came back negative.
The doctor decided to do a lumpectomy to remove the mass “that we all thought was noncancerous,” she said.
She had the surgery on Sept. 28, 2011. The mass was sent to a pathologist for further testing.
On Sept. 30, she received news she wasn’t expecting.
Burns and her husband, Miguel, received a call from the doctor. The mass was cancerous. She had triple negative breast cancer and it was in stage three.
It was surprising, she said, noting that she had her annual mammogram in January of that year and had done breast self-exams monthly.
“It was a shock, but I dealt with it by trusting God,” she said. “I would have to give him the credit, the glory, and I’m thankful for God’s guidance. I told the doctor that day that I understood what she was saying and the seriousness of it. I told her that physically, I didn’t want to be bothered with this. But mentally, I told her I was OK because I am a believer and I trust that God will take care of all of this.”
Burns also had another source of inspiration. Her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer about 25 years ago.
“She’s one of my biggest inspirations because she’s a survivor,” she said.
Once Burns and her husband talked about the diagnosis and what they were facing, they talked about how they would share the information with their three daughters, Mya, Monae and Monica who are now 12, 8 and 6, respectively.
When she was diagnosed, Burns was working as a guidance counselor in the Edgefield County School District and with her background, she knew that it would be best if she didn’t try to hide the diagnosis from them, she said.
“Being a counselor, I know that talking is good therapy. I have informed them every step of the way and it has made the whole journey easier for the family,” she said. “My children don’t have those questions in their mind about ‘what is happening’ or ‘what if’. I have been open and shared with them every step of the way.”
However, they made sure the information they shared was age appropriate, she added.
“We didn’t share everything in detail. We just let them know that mommy has been diagnosed with cancer. That it’s like a cold, when you have something in your body that shouldn’t be there and you have to take medicine to make you better and get rid of it,” she said.
Less than a week after discovering she had breast cancer, Burns had surgery to remove 29 lymph nodes, four of which were cancerous.
She began 16 treatments of chemotherapy on Nov. 11, 2011 and finished them March 29. In May, she had a partial mastectomy and began radiation treatments July 23, finishing them Aug. 24.
Burns has received a lot of support from her husband and daughters, her daughters’ school, the schools she worked in, church members, neighbors, the community and other breast cancer survivors, she said.
The family’s faith in God also helped give them all strength, and she kept a diary to document her journey.
While the treatments are behind her, Burns will be followed closely by doctors for the next five years, Every three months, she will have mammograms, MRIs and PET scans, she said.
“They want to make sure there are no reoccurrences,” she said.
Her advice to others is to seek second opinions, be one’s own advocate, do research and educate oneself on the disease and options available, and make sure certain benefits and health coverage are in place if something was to happen, she said.
“The last thing you need to be worried about when you’re diagnosed with cancer is finances,” she said, noting that knowing that she had the benefits and coverage in place offered a “peace of mind” over the past year.
Now, Burns is focused on taking care of herself.
“I have to watch what I eat, exercise regularly and live an anxiety-free life, and the only way I can think to do that is to trust in God,” she said.
Burns is participating in the LIVESTRONG program at the North Augusta Family Y. LIVESTRONG is a 12-week program for cancer survivors, who are led through individualized workouts.
She also spent this past weekend in Philadelphia at the 2012 Living Beyond Breast Cancer conference and will attend a retreat in North Carolina later this month.
“I’ve been very resourceful in researching what is out there for cancer patients, what we can benefit from,” she said.
She plans to take what she learns from the conferences and share them with others in the community and fellow participants in the LIVESTRONG program.