JOPLIN, Mo. —
Chloe Peterson was in good spirits the morning before her mastectomy.
Perched in mid-October in the sunny sitting room of her house in Saginaw with two of her daughters, with great-grandson Kason watching cartoons in an adjacent room, she talked about her upcoming surgery with the calm and serenity of someone who has seen it all before.
At 78, Peterson is battling her fifth brush with cancer — a rough journey that has taken place over nearly half a century — and facing it with optimism. When asked what the anticipated recovery time from her mastectomy might be, for example, she shaved two weeks off her daughter’s assessment of six weeks without hesitation.
“She has set the bar very high for all of us in the family because she has come through with such a remarkable attitude no matter what she’s faced with,” daughter Melanie Metcalf said.
‘Pretty darn dangerous’
Peterson’s decades-long battle with cancer began in 1968, when she was 33. A diagnosis of uterine cancer landed her in surgery to remove her uterus. After three days of recovery, she was anticipating a formal hospital discharge from physicians when her doctor entered her hospital room. She was told that a biopsy conducted for her uterine cancer diagnosis also showed she had ovarian cancer.
“It was then that I woke up to the fact that cancer could be pretty darn dangerous,” she said.
The following two decades were cancer-free, but in 1993, at age 58, Peterson was playing with a grandchild who accidentally hit her chest. Doubled over with pain, she collapsed to the floor and felt her breast, where she said she could feel a mass.
A diagnosis of breast cancer was followed by a mastectomy of her left breast, along with the lymph nodes in her left arm. The surgery left her unable to use her left hand for a few months, she said. She also was sent to a round of chemotherapy and given a hormone-based prescription medicine to help keep the cancerous cells from recurring.
Her fourth diagnosis hit before she had finished recuperating from her battle with breast cancer.
“I was trying to get over that when all of a sudden, I couldn’t sleep at night. My head would hurt; my neck would hurt,” she said.
One physician dismissed her concerns, telling her that breast cancer doesn’t spread to the upper regions of the body, she said. But once she had begun sleeping upright in a chair just to keep her upper body comfortable, she sought a second opinion.
Further tests led to her being diagnosed with cancer in her head and neck in 2000 at age 65. She underwent a radical neck dissection, in which tissue on the side of her neck from her jawbone to her collarbone was removed with the purpose of removing the cancerous lymph nodes.
The cancer recurred a year later, sending her through a “really aggressive” treatment of simultaneous radiation and chemotherapy that charred her skin, dulled her hearing and required the pulling of all her teeth.
Last year, the cancer returned a third time, so she had a series of four surgeries between March and June of this year to remove cancerous tissue from her right cheek and from behind her gums as well as her entire soft palate, which is the tissue at the back of the roof of the mouth.
Because the soft palate is associated with the closure of the nasal passages during swallowing, the final surgery brought a new round of challenges to Peterson. She had a feeding tube installed to prevent the risk of food or drink going into her lungs instead of her esophagus, although she has learned that if she sips a bit of liquid and then raises her tongue, she can force the liquid to trickle down the right pipe. She also went to speech therapy to learn how to talk without the ability to form certain sounds that typically are formed when the tongue touches the soft palate.
“I’m still learning to cope with it,” she said, “but it’s getting better and easier all the time.”
But cancer still wasn’t done with Peterson. Just a few months ago, she began noticing a sharp pain in the area of her right arm and breast. She went to her primary physician, who immediately ordered a mammogram. Peterson said a mammogram 12 months ago had been clear, but this one now indicated a mass in her right breast.
“Now that shows how aggressive cancer can be,” she said. “You think that maybe breast cancer takes a long time to grow, but it didn’t take long at all.”
Peterson was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time, marking her fifth and most recent diagnosis with cancer in general. At age 78, she scheduled her second mastectomy earlier this month to remove her right breast.
‘Survival is her mindset’
So why has Peterson faced cancer five times in 45 years? She’s at a loss to explain it, noting that she has never smoked, has enjoyed only the occasional glass of wine and has tested negative for the harmful gene mutation that predisposes a woman to breast and ovarian cancers.
“I think I’ve taken pretty darn good care of myself,” she said.
That much is obvious. Despite her health struggles and her age, she remains active, occasionally baby-sitting, frequently clearing her yard of stray sticks and twigs and recently learning to maneuver a riding lawn mower, said her daughter, Kimber Cook.
“She will always be getting up and moving and doing things,” Cook said. “I think her survival is her mindset. I think as long as you say, ‘I can,’ you will.”
Talk soon shifted to a happier subject — Peterson’s family of four daughters, 13 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. Peterson said they have provided the mental and emotional support she required during her health battles when even cancer support groups didn’t quite fulfill her need.
“I think it’s family, our cohesiveness and all these wonderful grandbabies,” she said of her drive to survive.
As great-grandson Kason, 2 1/2, emerged from a back bedroom and climbed onto Peterson’s lap to cuddle, Cook smiled. It’s a sweet sight, watching her mother snuggle with one of her youngest offspring.
“When she had her first mastectomy (in 1993), she didn’t have any great-grandchildren,” Cook said. “When you think of her being here and getting to know each of them, it’s pretty special. It’s been so special that she continues to fight these fights.”
Peterson said she now lives for each day.
“You don’t realize how fragile life is until you are really challenged, and when your health is challenged like that, it makes you so appreciative,” she said.
Peterson’s mastectomy on Oct. 17 went smoothly, Cook told the Globe that afternoon. Peterson eased into recovery with the hopes of being released from the hospital within only a few days, she said.
Less than a week later, Cook called the Globe with another update that surprises nobody who knows her mother. Peterson, her daughter said, has been declared free of breast cancer after a post-mastectomy visit with her doctors, who said they caught the cancer in time to give her a successful chance of being cured.
Cook said that in addition to removing Peterson’s breast, doctors appear to have removed all cancerous cells around the perimeter of her breast and in her lymph nodes. As a result, Peterson is doing “remarkably well” and is quickly getting back into her regular routine, she said.
“She’s fine,” Cook said of her mother, laughing. “She’s blowin’ and goin’.”
Cancer outlooks improving
Approximately 13.7 million Americans with a history of cancer were alive on Jan. 1, 2012, the most recent date for which data were available, the National Cancer Institute reports. About 1.66 million new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Although survival statistics vary greatly by cancer type and the stage at diagnosis, the five-year survival rate for all cancers diagnosed between 2002 and 2008 is 68 percent, up from 49 percent in the late 1970s, according to the American Cancer Society. This reflects both progress in diagnosing certain cancers at an earlier stage and improvements in treatment, the society said.
Atman Shah, a medical oncologist with Freeman Health System, said survival rates for most cancers have improved over the past few decades in part because of new diagnostic technologies that can detect cancers earlier than ever. Improvements in the genetic profiling of certain tumor cells have also given some cancer patients individualized treatment plans that increase their chances of survival, he said.
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Chloe Peterson was in good spirits the morning before her mastectomy.
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