TIPP CITY — When Sally Minnich learned of her breast cancer diagnosis, the worst part was sharing the news with her daughter, Lynda Turner, who had been diagnosed with the same disease just a year before.
“Finding out about her, I was devastated. When I found out, I expected it. We didn’t expect it with Lynda. Plus it’s worse when it’s your daughter and it’s somebody young,” Minnich said. “The hardest part of my diagnosis was telling her.”
Minnich was diagnosed in 2016 at the age of 68, just after retiring from the St. John’s Early Childhood Program. The disease was caught early and treated quickly.
For Turner, the circumstances were very different.
In 2015, at the age of 39, she discovered two lumps under her arm while showering. She had no family history of breast cancer and didn’t think much of it at first, but decided to get it checked out.
A diagnostic mammogram came back normal, but an ultrasound showed an infection in her armpit. She took antibiotics for a month, but the lumps didn’t go away. Her doctor didn’t think they were likely to be cancerous, given her lack of family history, but Turner asked him to remove them.
“They were cancer and had spread to the lymph nodes,” she said.
Turner said she was stunned by the diagnosis, but the next day she reached out to the executive director of breast cancer patient support organization Pink Ribbon Girls, Heather Salazar, a fellow Tipp City native who Turner remembered from high school.
“I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I need to act really quickly,’” Turner recalled. Salazar gave her the name of a doctor who helped with her own treatment at Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital. “So I scheduled an appointment there.”
After surgery at the James, she was referred to a local practice for more treatment. For weeks, she waited to get an appointment.
“It was like forever. When you know you have a tumor that big, that waiting is horrible,” Minnich added. “You can’t help but think, ‘How fast is this thing growing?’”
After determinedly calling every day and reaching out again to Salazar, who also made a call on Turner’s behalf, Turner finally learned that the doctor’s office had been sent wrong files — for another woman with a similar name who was in remission.
Turner underwent chemotherapy, during which the tumor doubled in size from about 2 to 4 centimeters, and a double mastectomy. Doctors removed 19 lymph nodes, 10 of which were still positive for cancer after chemo. She then did six weeks of radiation treatment.
“I remember after your surgery and you found out that the tumor was bigger than when it started and that lymph nodes had cancer. That was probably one of the worst days,” Minnich said.
Turner agreed, saying the news made her question the treatment path she had chosen.
Radiation was also hard to endure. Because the cancer was on her left side, treatments were trickier. In order to protect her heart, she had to hold her breath for 30 seconds at a time and press a button to be able to breathe. During the first treatment, she had a panic attack.
As difficult as the treatments were for Turner, it was also a difficult time for her family. Turner and her husband Troy have three children, the oldest of whom was in fourth grade at the time.
Turner said her son, now a seventh grader, frequently writes about her cancer fight for school assignments.
“You don’t think it affects them as much as it does,” she said. “He’ll say, ‘My mom slept all the time.’ And I was like, I didn’t sleep all the time! Give me some credit.”
Minnich recalled a time, after an early chemo treatment, when Turner’s then 5-year-old daughter asked her to go to one of her soccer games.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it over there without getting sick,” Turner said. “But you want to keep normalcy for your kids.”
After Turner’s treatments were complete — chemotherapy, surgeries and radiation — she had another scan. It showed five spots on her lungs.
“I don’t know why I answered the phone,” she said. Turner took that call while at an event with her mother, who was retiring from the St. John’s preschool. “People thought I was crying because she was done with the program.”
After a week or so of waiting anxiously, Turner and her family learned the spots on her lungs were just inflammation from the radiation.
“We all breathed a sigh of relief,” Minnich said.
Turner was in the first class at her mother’s preschool and her daughter was in Minnich’s last class. Minnich had been prepared to retire when Turner was diagnosed with cancer. But Turner, who is also an educator working in the Tipp City school district, asked her to stay another year to be there for her granddaughter’s class.
Minnich retired the summer of 2016 and was diagnosed with cancer.
“I retired June 30 and went for my regular mammogram in September. And they saw something,” she said. “Fortunately, I was just able to have a lumpectomy and they took out one lymph node, to see if it had gone to my lymph nodes, and it hadn’t.”
Minnich said her cancer journey was blessedly short, with minor surgery and few negative reactions to treatment.
Still, Turner said, after everything else, she was upset by her mother’s diagnosis.
Being your own advocate
Recalling the time before Turner’s diagnosis, when doctors thought cancer was unlikely, Minnich said her daughter had to be her own advocate.
“She kept worrying about (the lumps),” Minnich said. “She said, ‘No, I just want to know that everything is OK. Take them out now.’ And I think that’s so important because it did end up being cancer.”
Turner also insisted on a hysterectomy, knowing that her particular type of cancer was estrogen positive and not wanting to continue regular injections to block estrogen production.
“I’m like, why am I sticking myself with more stuff? Thankfully, I have three kids and I don’t need it anymore,” Turner said. “It was the easiest surgery I’ve ever had.”
“She deserved that, because everything else did not go very well,” Minnich said. “She had complications with everything.”
Both Turner and Minnich stressed the importance of being proactive about your health.
“I’d really like to put in a plug for getting (a mammogram) every year,” Minnich said.
When Turner was diagnosed, she hadn’t yet had a baseline mammogram, but she paid attention to her body and pursued treatment, something she recommends for others.
Importance of support
During her treatment, Turner was thankful that her parents lived in the house behind hers and could provide support. She also received housecleaning and meal service through the Pink Ribbon Girls.
People brought meals and groceries, held prayer circles, and came over to keep her company, even on days when she was too sick to talk, she recalled. She also had a rotation of friends who drove her to chemo treatments.
“She had so many friends and family to give her support — and constant support. That meal train wasn’t just for the week after surgery, it was throughout the whole ordeal,” Minnich said.
Now when Minnich hears of somebody who’s gotten a diagnosis, she writes them a note. She gives them her number if they want to talk, “that way it’s not invasive,” she said, and the number for Pink Ribbon Girls.
“Maybe they don’t want to talk to me. And this one lady, she never did call me. I sent her cards periodically, but she was a very private person. But when she was finished, she wrote me a card and said, “Thanks for your support,’” Minnich said. “I have a little prayer I say everyday with, oh, I have about 20 people on the list. Even when they’re in remission, I still pray for them that it doesn’t return.”
Knowing the importance of support after a cancer diagnosis, Turner and Minnich always encourage other women to reach out to the Pink Ribbon Girls.
In addition to meal delivery and rides to treatment, the Pink Ribbon Girls facilitates peer support for cancer patients, Turner said. The group hosts meet-ups with other cancer patients, where they can share stories, advice and experiences with treatments, then do a fun activity together.
“You have a chance to meet people who are in the same boat,” Minnich said.
“It’s the club you never want to join, but you’re glad to have other people,” Turner added.
Reach Cecilia Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.