By Mike Wade
Approximately 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, as roughly a quarter of a million new cases are diagnosed each year.
Given those statistics, it’s highly unusual these days to find someone who hasn’t been impacted by breast cancer in some way – either directly or indirectly.
While the diagnosis of this dreaded disease often takes a severe physical toll – combined with unimaginable emotional pain – there does tend to be a phenomenon that occurs within those women who are fortunate enough to survive. Despite whatever scars or permanent side effects they may have, they discover that their inner strength knows no limits.
That strength can also have a powerful impact on others who are facing the same battle. Oleta Viar, Corelise Sherman and Teresa Quesenberry – all employees of NRVCS – are also all survivors of breast cancer. The trio now shares a bond that is undeniable. They say their friendship has helped each of them cope with their illness in a more positive and practical manner than they could have ever done on their own.
Viar, a paraprofessional with the NRVCS Program for Assertive Community Treatment (PACT) team, was diagnosed in 2008. Sherman and Quesenberry, who both work at Fairview Home in Dublin, were each diagnosed in 2015.
“Mine showed up during my regular exam,” remembers Viar. “I had the mammogram, they ran more tests, and eventually told me I had cancer.
“After I first found out, I screamed and cried for about twenty minutes,” Viar adds, “and then my mind automatically switched to, ‘Okay, so now what do I do?’ because I knew I had to deal with this thing head on.”
Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy eventually helped Viar beat the disease and she’s been cancer-free ever since. Little did she know at the time that her matter-of-fact approach to battling cancer would one day serve as a “how to guide” for her dearest childhood friend.
“She’s my sister,” Corelise Sherman says of Viar. “We’ve known each other forever. We grew up together.”
Sherman was at work one day last summer when she felt a sharp pain in her breast. She had just recently had her annual mammogram, so cancer wasn’t the first thing that came to mind. “I thought at first I was having a heart attack or a stroke or something,” she recalls. Doctors soon discovered that Sherman not only had breast cancer, but a rare form of the disease. Viar had recommended her surgeon, Dr. Jolene Henshaw, and Sherman insisted on having a mastectomy performed as soon as possible.
“Dr. Henshaw didn’t like it when I said this,” Sherman says with a chuckle, “but I kept telling her, ‘We’re not going to play around with this thing – I want you to get in there and rip it off.”
Sherman’s procedure did happen rapidly – only about a week after her diagnosis. She says she was determined from the beginning to beat cancer and move on with her life. “I prayed about it,” remembers Sherman, “and then I told God, ‘I’m not having it – I’ve lost almost my whole family to cancer and it’s not going to get me’.”
Quesenberry, a nurse, was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of cancer in October 2015 during her annual mammogram. Dr. Henshaw performed a double mastectomy on Quesenberry in November, followed by five grueling months of chemotherapy that began in December.
Despite the nausea, fatigue and other symptoms, Quesenberry was back on the job at Fairview by mid-January.
“I wanted to get back to having things seem normal as quickly as I could,” Quesenberry explains, “and the staff here have been so good to me and I love the people here. So, it was just good for me to be around them.”
Quesenberry, who still has the chest tube implanted that was used for chemotherapy, is currently going back to the doctor every eight weeks for a check-up. She struggles to hold back tears when she describes the support and care that her husband has provided during her illness.
“You really don’t know how strong you are until you go through something like this,” she adds, “but it helps you find out what’s really important in your life.”
The three women agree that having the right attitude has been the key to their status as survivors. While they have shared their fair share of tears with one another, it’s laughter you’ll most often hear when they are in the same room together.
“When you get a diagnosis like this, the first 48 hours are a nightmare,” notes Viar, “but you have to get your mental breakdown over with quickly. You have your pity party and you move on.”
“Before you jump to conclusions and get all bent out of shape, you have to pray about it,” Sherman adds, “and then you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to live?’.”
“It is a scary and horrible thing to deal with,” Quesenberry says, “but you have to believe that it’s going to be okay and that you’re going to make it, too.”
All three women indicated that they each have a significant family history of cancer. Sherman was 63 when she was diagnosed. Viar was 55 at the time of her diagnosis and Quesenberry was 54.
“The three of us are living proof that mammograms save lives,” concludes Quesenberry, “and the great thing is that despite what we’ve been through, we all get to live.”