FARMINGTON — When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, her life is forever changed. The changes cancer brings, however, are as unique as each individual woman.
Two local breast cancer survivors in different stages of life and cancer diagnoses recently shared their different journeys with The Daily Times.
Farmington resident Ellyn Diamond's cancer battle is so new it's too early to say how it will shape her life, but there's one thing Diamond is certain about: she will be a survivor.
Diamond, a mother of two small children who is still breast-feeding her 18-month-old son, was just 35 years old last October when she discovered a lump in her right breast.
"I mentioned it several times to my doctor and nurse, but because I was breast-feeding, we all thought it was a temporary tissue change caused by a clogged milk duct," she said.
By January, Diamond noticed that the lump was still there, even though she had quit nursing her son. Haunted by ominous feelings, she decided to follow up with her doctor, who ordered a digital mammogram and ultrasound.
"I can't really explain why I thought something was wrong, but one thing is that I was having really upsetting dreams that someone else was raising my kids," she said.
Although Diamond was assured that it was probably nothing, her doctor ordered a biopsy, and in February she received the news that she had breast cancer.
She was scheduled for mastectomy surgery a few weeks later.
"Those few weeks before surgery gave me time to let it all sink in; to gather my thoughts, ask questions, to get a plan together. I'm so glad they didn't rush me into surgery," she said.
Diamond was encouraged to sign up for a breast cancer class, and was put in touch with the San Juan Regional Medical Center's cancer navigator. She also met with the physical therapist who would work with her after her surgery, and even had time to take a wig and makeup class geared for cancer survivors at the Cancer Center.
"They really prepare you before surgery, and that preparation gives you such a sense of control at a time when you feel so out of control," Diamond said.
After surgery, Diamond underwent intensive physical therapy.
"It was painful, but the physical therapy is so important because adhesions can grow into the arm. The therapy teaches you how to stretch out to prevent adhesions," she said.
Because of her dedication to the physical therapy, Diamond did not develop adhesions and was able to proceed to breast reconstruction surgery.
Six weeks later, Diamond began chemotherapy. She had four rounds of treatment, three weeks apart. The chemo took place at the Cancer Center and lasted about five hours per treatment. She suffered some nausea and digestive problems as a result of the chemo, her long blonde hair fell out, and she began to experience severe body aches.
"Three or four days after each chemotherapy treatment, I would experiencing aching, with pain creeping up my neck and going around my jaw. I couldn't touch my skin, and my shoulders, back and chest hurt so badly," she said. "It felt like I'd been in a horrible car accident and I couldn't even carry my kids up the stairs."
Diamond says she received the good news that the type of cancer she had was "ER/PR Positive," which is more likely to respond to endocrine therapies. This type of cancer, Diamond says, is rare in young women, and it means that her prospects for surviving the cancer are very good. She's been told she has only a 5 percent chance of the cancer recurring, although as a precaution she will need to take the estrogen-blocking medication Tamoxifen for the next 10 years.
Although Diamond survived her cancer ordeal and is doing well, her marriage did not survive. It ended prior to her reconstructive surgery.
"At the time it was so devastating, and my parents really had to step in," she says.
In addition to her parents, Diamond says support from the community has helped her get through this devastating time. She is active in the Caliente Community Chorus, and says that as soon as she announced her diagnosis, choir members rushed in with offers to help with tasks like baby-sitting and grocery shopping. Many also signed up to deliver meals to her home.
"Looking forward to returning to Caliente gave me a goal, and having a goal heals you. I appreciated everyone's help and support so much," she said.
Diamond, who is a trained orthopedic nurse, was a stay-at-home mother prior to her diagnosis, but to support herself and her kids she says that she will need to start looking for a nursing job within the next year.
Despite the hardships 2013 brought her, Diamond is grateful to have survived the cancer and is optimistic that the future holds happier times for her and her family.
"This was the worst year of my life, but I know I will live through it. I will make it to another year," she said.
Hope is the message given by an older woman who won her battle against breast cancer two decades ago.
Gail Williams, 69, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 after finding a lump during a self-exam.
Williams underwent a single mastectomy, followed by six months of chemotherapy. Twenty-one years after her diagnosis and successful treatment, Williams, who works part-time at San Juan College, reflected on how the cancer changed the direction of her life.
"At the time I was diagnosed, I worked at the Bloomfield refinery and my whole life focus was on the job," she said.
After her surgery and treatment, Williams became intensely involved with the San Juan Medical Foundation and served as president of the group from 1999 to 2001. She also helped found a breast cancer support group that still meets on the first Saturday morning of each month at the San Juan Regional Cancer Center.
"So many studies show that those who are involved in support groups have much higher survival rates," Williams said. "These groups help the patient heal sooner and live longer lives."
Williams' main message to newer cancer patients is that a cancer diagnosis does not mean death. In fact, she says, most breast cancer patients will survive the disease, especially when the cancer is caught early.
"Most of us who are diagnosed with breast cancer will live, and that should be the focus," she said.
Williams is helping organize the foundation's annual Breast Cancer Awareness Luncheon and Style Show that will take place Oct. 23. Funds raised will go to the Cathy Lincoln Memorial Cancer Fund, which helps uninsured and underinsured women in the county obtain cancer-related diagnostic tests and treatment.
Williams said the luncheon -- along with many breast cancer fundraising events -- focuses on the unique and powerful way women deal with illness.
"Women tend to rally around each other," she said. "Men have the attitude that you just get through things and don't talk about them. I think that's why women live longer -- we have a different approach to relationships, and we realize that we need to get our friends and family involved in fighting our cancer."
Williams said she is grateful that her cancer battle helped steer her life in a more positive direction.
"Cancer is a nasty disease, and it's life-altering. But it's not all bad, because it can cause you to re-visit who you are, and can help you change your goals and your path for the better," she said.
For Williams, the cancer not only served as a catalyst to shift her focus from work to advocating for other cancer survivors, but it helped her identify what, in life, would make her happiest.
Always longing to travel but continually putting off it off because of work, Williams became a world traveler after beating cancer. Reconfiguring her life so she could work part-time, she has since visited seven continents and 50 countries, and she and her husband plan a new trip or two each year.
"My most important message is that cancer isn't the worst thing that can happen to you. In fact, a lot of good can come out of it, and you can end up with an even better life."