It’s been five years since Lexington resident Marletta McDermott was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she’s still beating very, very heavy odds.
In early 2011, Marletta was experiencing pain on her left side in her chest and arm. Her pain became so severe that she could not drive, go to work, or even dress herself.
“The pain wouldn’t go away, no matter what medicine I took,” she said. “So I made an appointment for a mammogram to make sure it wasn’t breast-related.”
She had a biopsy, and test results showed she had calcification built up in her breast. She was instructed to return in six months. During that time, she learned that consuming caffeine made her pain worse, so she stopped drinking soda and eating chocolate, which made her pain manageable.
When she returned to the doctor in April 2012 and had another mammogram, the news was worse. The calcification in her left breast had turned into cancer; ductal carcinoma in situ, specifically. Marletta was 39.
“I was scared and crying. As far as breast cancer, everything runs through your head. ‘What stage is it?’ ‘Has it spread?’ ‘Do I have only months to live?’ Everyone puts death with cancer, and no one knows how bad it is or what the outcome is going to be (at first),” she said.
Marletta had her second mammogram, an MRI and biopsy on that Monday, was diagnosed on Tuesday, saw a general surgeon on Wednesday and, on the following Monday, was seeing a plastic surgeon concerning reconstructive surgery. In less than ten days following her diagnoses, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction at Baptist Health Lexington.
Prior to her diagnosis, Marletta was having regular mammograms because of her family history.
“They caught it in time, so I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation. The cancer was in a milk duct where you form breastmilk, so it was still intact in the (duct). If I had waited to make a decision on what I wanted to do, or if it broke out, it would have spread quickly,” she said.
And it was because of that family history she chose to have her right breast removed as well. Her older sister was 28 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had her right breast removed. Fifteen years later, her sister’s cancer returned in her left breast.
“They didn’t expect it because of her age, and they didn’t have the information and technology they have now,” Marletta said.
Her mother was battling breast cancer for the second time when she passed away, but it was Alzheimer’s disease that ultimately took her life.
Marletta has two sisters who are breast cancer survivors. She also has an aunt currently fighting the disease, and another aunt who lived about six months after her diagnosis.
Last year, Marletta’s older sister went in for a regular checkup and was tested for the BRCA II gene, for which she tested positive.
“Her doctor advised her to tell all of her sisters that we need to get checked to see if we carried the gene,” she said.
Marletta also tested positive for the BRCA II gene. Out of five girls, she and her older sister are the only two who tested positive. One of her older sister’s daughters also carries the gene.
With this knowledge, Marletta keeps her health in check by watching her diet and exercising often. She struggles with lymphedema in her left arm since her surgery and underwent a hysterectomy in 2013.
She is part of a breast cancer survivors group and attends annual cruises, where she meets fellow survivors from all over the world.
“I got to meet survivors from Grand Cayman (when we traveled to) that island. They had a ceremony for us. It’s good to be able to live, love and laugh. That’s basically what I do. Take chances and just enjoy life,”
She also helps with the Susan G. Komen Foundation to spread awareness and is part of Colors of Promise.
“Women of color have a higher risk of fatality. There’s a 41 percent to 42 percent fatality rate. (We help) people get tested, people who need places after their surgery, and get with other organizations to assist them if they do have cancer,” she said.
Marletta also looks at life a little differently, even though she deals with internal struggles post-surgery.
“I take a lot more risks and chances. You only live once. With cancer, you never know if it’s coming back,” she said. “The hard part was losing a part of me I could never get back. I’ve experienced that, but I want to express that it’s important to live your life instead of letting cancer take over your life. If you have the opportunity to live, get the awareness out. If you have any pain, or if there’s anything wrong, get it checked.”