Survivors of cancer share their stories

The last words most women want to hear are, “You have breast cancer.”

So, this being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I interviewed three South County women who have heard those words and gone through various treatments for that disease.

Judy Guarnera, Marge Haskins and Beverly Knowles are long-term survivors, and each has a different story to tell.

Guarnera, 71, of Grover Beach, told herself she was not “going to get hysterical” if she got breast cancer. She had undergone a biopsy in the other breast due to calcifications several years earlier. But in 1999, “I went into an absolute panic when I got the call,” she said. “I was miserable.”

Guarnera’s mother had breast cancer at age 40. It spread to the spine, and she died at age 45. Guarnera has always done things to keep herself healthy, such as exercising, eating well and not smoking.

Haskins, 79, had recently lost her husband of 54 years when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. In 1957, at age 27, she had uterine cancer prompting a hysterectomy. Later, her doctor gave her hormones to counteract early menopause, caused by the hysterectomy. She took the hormones until age 70. In 2003, Haskins lost a kidney to cancer.

After the breast cancer diagnosis, Haskins was told it was fast-acting and that she should cancel a trip to Hawaii planned for the next day. She consulted with her primary physician to get a second opinion and was immediately scheduled for a lumpectomy. She was placed in “very awkward positions” for the X-ray for a stereotactic biopsy.

In spite of all this, Haskins is president of the 39 Dance Club in Morro Bay and does ballroom and line dancing there each Wednesday. And once a month, she dances at the Pismo Beach Veterans Hall.

Knowles, 83, had itchiness around a nipple, which did not respond to any lotions. The Nipomo woman had it checked after a year; doctors found class one breast cancer (the least dangerous form) in 1988.

Knowles went before a tumor board and had to sit around a table with several medical people.

“We are so sorry,” they said, scaring her immensely.

She waited three months for the surgery. Doctors removed her whole breast, although she now believes she could have had a lumpectomy.

Knowles had breast reconstruction, but was not happy with it. Eventually, she ordered a custom-made prosthesis through a catalogue for $48, which has worked well.

Sometimes, the doctors were less than sympathetic to what the women were experiencing.

Guarnera was diagnosed in Fresno and had a stereotactic biopsy there. Her doctor here said he could not read the biopsy from Fresno and would be cutting out the cancerous section. She was all prepped for surgery when he came and said he’d have to postpone.

When she expressed dismay, he said, “You’re not the only one who’s been inconvenienced by this.”

Guarnera was prepped for surgery a second time. The doctor took her out of bed and down to the X-ray room.

There he recommended removing the whole breast, a shock as she expected a lumpectomy.

It was “such an emotional roller coaster,” she recalled.

Guarnera discussed the surgery with her husband, who told her, “I’ll support whatever you decide.” With his support, she decided to get it over with and have the breast removed.

When she went back for a checkup, the doctor told her, “This looks really good.” Commented Guarnera, “I liked it better before and so did (my husband).”

Guarnera believes the doctor treated her insensitively and didn’t set her up with cancer support, such as a home health aide or a pain pump.

It was her husband who called her primary care doctor, whose nurse set up the after care and also referred her to a support group at French Hospital Medical Center.

Guarnera, Haskins and Knowles had very different experiences with their breast cancer, and each dealt with it in her own way.