Editor’s Note: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Every survivor has a story. This is one of those stories.
The date is easy for Stacey Slaven to remember: April 30, her son’s eighth birthday. That’s the day she found out with near certainty that she had breast cancer.
Slaven hadn’t intended to find out on her son’s birthday that she had breast cancer — not even after finding a lump during a self-exam; not even after being referred by Mountain People’s Health Council to Knoxville Comprehensive Breast Center. But what began as a quick trip to Knoxville for a mammogram turned into a day-long whirlwind of activities that ended with a biopsy and a doctor’s warning that the results she would await the following day would likely not be good.
That following day — May 1, 2018 — brought the dreaded confirmation. By the time she got the call, Slaven already had myriad appointments set up for her, including initial consultations with her oncologist and physician. And so began a journey that included four months of chemotherapy and seven weeks of daily radiation before she was declared to be in remission, a journey that continues even today as she participates in a drug study to guard against the possibility that cancer will return.
‘Something is definitely wrong’
Slaven, an elementary school teacher, was faithful to do self-exams, and had been ever since she had an aunt who was diagnosed with breast cancer. Still, when you’re 39, cancer isn’t something you think about. Even when she discovered a lump that hadn’t been there just two weeks earlier and scheduled an appointment with her family physician, she wasn’t too worried.
So, on April 30, after dropping her son off at school on his birthday, she and her husband, Greg, and mother, Winnie Selvidge, headed to KCBC, expecting a quick in-and-out.
“We were talking about where we were going to eat, where we were going to have breakfast,” Slaven said. “A mammogram takes 5-to-10 minutes. I was thinking, we’ll be done around nine, we’ll hum-haw around Knoxville for a while, and then we’ll go home. But, no.”
A mammogram turned into an ultrasound. Even then, Slaven wasn’t overly concerned. She had done her research, and she knew many women who had mammograms followed up with ultrasounds. But as the doctor was conducting the ultrasound, she asked if Slaven had family with her. That’s when she knew that something was amiss.
“The ultrasound took like 45 minutes,” she said. “They kept checking on one side. I was thinking, what in the world is taking so long? That’s when she told me that there was definitely something wrong.”
At around 2:30 p.m. that day, more than six hours after she had walked into KCBC, Slaven left with the knowledge that she had a 2.6 cm mass in her breast, and an MRI had revealed additional tumors in her lymph nodes. A biopsy had been performed. It was all that could be done that day; all that was left was to await results from the laboratory the next day. But the news, her doctor warned, wasn’t good.
“She basically told me then that it was cancer but to pray for the best,” Slaven said. “I told her it was my son’s birthday and I didn’t want to taint his day with bad news. She told me she couldn’t tell me that. That’s when I knew that it was bad.”
Things had been such a whirlwind that Slaven hadn’t had time to stop and think — hadn’t had time to absorb the enormity of what she had learned that day. But when she got home and sat down in a quiet house, without the hustle and bustle of medical teams, the chit-chat with family to keep her distracted, it sank in.
“The floodgates opened,” she said. “I had a full-on meltdown.”
Slaven went to work the next day. Hiding from the world might have seemed the easy thing to do. Her husband urged her to stay home; take a personal day. “I can’t just sit here at this house and cry all day,” she said.
So she went to school, where there was no time for tears — not with a room-full of third graders hanging on her every emotion. But all day the dreaded call was on the back of her mind. At 4:45 p.m. it came. With her husband and mom on speaker phone with her, Slaven heard the word no one wants to hear: cancer.
It was Stage 3, triple-negative breast cancer. Triple-negative is the term oncologists use to refer to breast cancers that are, in a nutshell and for specific reasons, more aggressive and harder to treat. A full work-up of tests followed. “I had CT scans, bone scans, you name it, I had it that week,” Slaven said. Because it was considered an aggressive and fast-growing cancer, she was scheduled almost immediately for her first chemotherapy treatment. It was Adriamycin — nicknamed “Red Devil” because of its nasty side effects. It’s one of the most powerful chemo drugs ever invented. And she was scheduled for every-other-week treatments beginning exactly two weeks after that day she walked into KCBC for what she’d hoped would be a routine mammogram.
The roughest part
There are a lot of hard days when you’re battling cancer. For Slaven, one of the roughest was breaking the news to her 8-year-old son. She had hoped to wait, at least until she had finished all of her tests and consultations and knew exactly what she was dealing with. But word began to leak out. Other kids in the family knew.
“I couldn’t have a kid at school coming and telling him, ‘Hey, I heard your mom’s gonna die because she has breast cancer,’” she said.
So she and her husband asked Jericho to come out onto the porch after school. They gently broke the news that momma was sick; that she had cancer. He was, of course, scared.
“I think it’s because they hear that when people have cancer, they die,” Slaven said. “That’s the first thing kids associate with cancer.”
Jericho seemed to take the news well, and went back inside. But then he came back to the door, opened it slightly, stuck his face into the opening and said, quietly: “What if you die?”
“That was the roughest part,” Slaven said. “He didn’t understand. And in my mind, I’m thinking, if I die, he’s still little. Maddie (her older daughter, who has graduated high school) is old enough to take care of herself, but he isn’t.”
Chemo doesn’t affect everyone the same. Some can handle treatments with relatively little sickness. Others aren’t as fortunate.
As luck would have it, Slaven was one of the latter.
“It was terrible,” she said. “I was sick for seven or eight days after each treatment. I had bad nausea, bad nosebleeds, I couldn’t wear contacts because my eyes were dry. It was miserable.”
Through it all, Slaven continued to work.
“I would just put a garbage can next to the desk on the bad days and say, ‘Guys, this is not going to be a good day,’” she said.
“She wouldn’t stay home,” a coworker said. “Whenever someone said, ‘Stacey, we’ll donate you days, Stacey, go home,’ she just wouldn’t.”
But the chemo treatments were followed by radiation — which required daily trips to Knoxville. She started the school year with more than 30 sick days accumulated, but eventually ran through them all. Susan Goss, her school’s librarian, donated 10 of her own sick days. Bill Hall, Scott County’s director of schools, approved 20 days from a bank of system-wide sick days that are reserved for extenuating circumstances, like sickness.
Just after Christmas in 2018, Slaven completed her last treatment. She had a lumpectomy, and the margins came back clear. Finally, in January, she was declared to be in remission.
Still, her battle isn’t over. “I’ll never be cancer-free; I’m just in remission,” she said. Because the kind of cancer she had carries an eight percent chance of recurrence, she is tested regularly. She is also taking a drug as part of a study group to see if it reduces the chances of recurrence. That comes with more nasty side effects, and is taken in addition to the myriad medications she’s already required to take thanks to the toll treatment has taken on her body.
And cancer remains the omnipresent concern, even if it’s tucked away in the back of the mind.
“It’s something you think about every day,” she said. “Every ache, every pain, you worry. You think, is this the start of something else? Is this the day I find out something else is going on?”
But Slaven is determined that if the day comes when there’s another bridge to cross, she’ll cross it. In the meantime, she’s healthy — working, being a wife, raising her son … living life.
“I don’t want to have to fight that fight again,” she said. “But if that time comes, I will. I’ll fight it.”
If Slaven has a message for other women, it’s very similar to what scores of other breast cancer survivors offer: Check yourself. Be faithful to do it regularly.
“Make sure you buckle down, make sure you do those monthly exams for yourself,” she said. “Do it the first of the month, do it whenever, but have a schedule. I had just done a self-exam two weeks before this and never felt a thing. But when I felt it, I knew something wasn’t right. And when you find something, you have to make sure to get it looked at.
“They’re trying to push back the age for recommended mammograms to 50,” she added. “Absolutely not. It should stay at 40. I actually think they should move it back to 30. I was 39 when I was diagnosed. And my doctor said that if I hadn’t found it when I did that I would’ve died.”
Slaven said battling cancer has given her a new perspective.
“You always hear about it but you always think, it’s not gonna happen to me,” she said. “You hear how terrible it is for somebody else and you feel bad for them. But you don’t realize what it’s like until you’re there. Then you think, I should’ve been more compassionate for them; I should’ve been there for them.”
For women who are just beginning their battle with breast cancer, Slaven said the message is that there’s hope — even on the darkest days.
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “It may seem exhausting and it may seem scary, but there is light there. When it seems like you’re never going to get there, I promise you will. Some days are better than others, but you just have to keep trucking. You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.”
Now that she’s stepped into the light at the end of her own tunnel, Slaven is determined to make the road easier for other people who are waging the battle that she fought. She credits her family, friends and coworkers for forming a support group that wouldn’t let her down, but she worries about others who don’t have that same support.
“My momma never left my side,” she said. “She went to every doctor’s appointment with me. During every chemo we’d sit there and joke and laugh. She would never let me see her cry; she waited until she got home to cry. Greg was very supportive. During my meltdowns, he’d sit right there with me while I cried, and sometimes he’d cry, too. That was heartbreaking, and I knew he was by my side the whole time.”
Now she’s ready to give back. Slaven is organizing a support group. She envisions a group that meets monthly, and that is for anyone affected by cancer.
“There’s so much more than just breast cancer and some of it is a lot worse than breast cancer,” she said. “I just want to be able to help anybody who has questions, who needs help with anything, and maybe just needs to see that there’s hope from someone who has lived it.”
As part of that effort, she envisions a cancer run, maybe similar to the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life, but one where all the proceeds stay in Scott County. She points out the program through the Scott County Mayor’s Office that utilizes “cancer vans” that patients can drive to their treatments.
“A lot of people don’t realize those are available,” she said. “My radiation was every day for seven weeks. That was $900 to $1,000 in gas that I wouldn’t have been able to pay. So I want to keep the money in Scott County to where we can donate it to the mayor’s office and maybe get a better vehicle, maybe pay for gas and maintenance, just whatever is needed. And there are some people who don’t have a driver to get to their treatments.
“There’s a huge population of cancer patients in Scott County,” she added. “It’s ridiculous to have that amount here and have limited resources for a lot of people. In our situation, if it hadn’t been for people taking up money at school and things like that, there’s no way we’d have made it. I can’t imagine how some people make it.”
While she’s formulating those plans, Slaven has one last piece of advice for others who are battling cancer: Ask for help. And accept it when it’s offered.
“I struggled big time with the emotional toll it takes,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for help. Everybody kept telling me to ask for help and I wouldn’t. When I admitted I was ready to ask for help, that was a turning point for me. I had just been too prideful to take it. ν