Self-exams, 'gut feeling' credited with catching Sarcoxie woman's breast cancer

Michele Garner has a new approach to life after her bout with breast cancer this year. Globe | Kaylea M. Hutson-Miller

When Michele Garner noticed a lump under her right armpit at the beginning of this year, she knew it needed to be checked without delay.

Twelve years earlier, the Sarcoxie woman watched as her mother, Fran Frailey, died from metastatic breast cancer. The disease has a long track record with women on her mother’s side of the family; Garner’s cousin and aunt also developed a form of breast cancer.

So Garner made an appointment at Freeman Women’s Center for a checkup. Initially, reports from the ultrasound indicated the lump was noncancerous.

But one person, nurse practitioner Amanda Perkins, thought differently. After reviewing Garner’s family and medical history, which had included getting cosmetic breast implants in 2009, she called Garner and asked her to come in for an MRI.

“She said, ‘Call it a gut feeling,’” Garner said.

The MRI indicated there were some suspicious spots in her breast — spots that had been hidden in the ultrasound by the breast implants. The circular biopsy came back indicating cancer, and Garner was diagnosed with stage 1 ductal carcinoma breast cancer.

It was hormone-fed, just like her mother’s.

Genetic testing revealed she did not have the BRCA genes, helping to reduce the chance that her own children will get the disease.

While the initial lump that launched her journey was later determined to be subcutaneous tissue, Garner believes her regiment of self-checking and Perkins’ “gut feeling” saved her life.

Getting treatment

With the support of her husband, Garner chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. Her decision was made knowing her mother’s cancer came back once, and her aunt’s cancer came back three times.

On March 4, she had the mastectomy and simultaneous reconstruction surgery. Her medical team included Steve Hughes, plastic surgeon; Brock Carney, general surgeon; Jennifer Hargis, nurse navigator; and Kerry Wuch, oncologist.

The team discovered the spot in Garner’s right breast was larger than anticipated. Precancerous cells were also discovered in her left breast.

Garner chose to have her breasts totally removed. She later went to Transformation Gallery in Springfield, where tattoo artist Austin Evans provides 3D nipple tattoos free of charge.

One side effect that Garner suffered was a seroma, or swelling in her neck and under her arm that required draining approximately four weeks after her initial surgery. A month after that, doctors drained yellow fluid from around her breast implant.

Fortunately, she said, the area finally healed without further complications.

Garner said her faith and family helped get her through the past year.

“I felt like my mom was there with me,” she said. “She was a tough, tough lady. By the time she died, the cancer had spread from her breast to her female organs, her back, her kidneys, her spine and liver. She was paralyzed the last two years of her life. But she was a nurse, an administrator at a hospital. She went to work every day until the last two weeks.”

Looking ahead

Garner said she feels lucky the cancer was caught early, although she knows she’s not out of the woods yet.

“I’m scared it could come back,” she said. “Because of my mom’s diagnosis, I felt like it gave me a death sentence, even though they told me it was caught early. I thought I was going to die like my mom and leave my kids.”

Knowing their family history, Garner encourages her 18-year-old daughter to do self-checks every month.

“I’ve learned the importance of checking and going with your gut instinct,” she said. “I also learned how unimportant (breasts) really were to me when you are talking about life. It helps tremendously to have a husband who couldn’t care less. He said, ‘Oh no, get rid of them!’”

Garner encourages women to become educated about their risks of cancer and family medical histories before undergoing cosmetic breast implants. She wishes she had considered the ramifications of the procedure and what it could mean later in life.

Now, Garner is focusing on another health issue. Since the surgery, she’s lost 40 pounds with the help of a trainer at Planet Fitness, and she hopes to lose at least 23 more pounds.

“I wanted to step up and get healthy,” she said.

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