By AMANDA BEAM
Esterlena Berry understands all too well that breast cancer always has a chance of coming back. Two years after her initial 2006 diagnosis and subsequent lumpectomy, the doctors discovered the disease had spread to her other previously unaffected breast.
To Berry, this wasn’t a huge surprise. A test had predicted this aggressive type of cancer had an 89 percent chance of reoccurring. But what shocked the Jeffersonville resident were the different location and the swiftness in which it had returned.
“The reoccurrence came back sooner than we expected it to, but we always knew there was a prognosis that I would reoccur,” she said. “But this was actually a different breast. I wasn’t prepared for that.”
Following a double mastectomy in 2008, Berry doesn’t sit around and wait for the disease to reappear. Quickly approaching the five-year mark of being cancer free, the 60-year-old faces each new day with a bold self-assurance that she will be around for decades to come.
“I don’t live my life waiting on cancer to come back,” she said. “Cancer may not ever come back, so I don’t worry about it.”
At the beginning of her journey, cancer arrived somewhat unexpectedly for Berry. A routine mammogram — a scan she believes if she hadn’t had she might not be around today — uncovered a fast-growing tumor. This save has made her an advocate for proactive practice. She also encourages women to do regular breast self-exams and to truly know their bodies as well.
“As far as my health, the best advice I received was to take care of me,” she said. “I’m my own advocate. I know my body better than anyone else. And that has proven to be true on more than one occasion.”
During treatment for the malignancy, Berry methodically kept a journal that detailed her experiences. Dealing with cancer can be just as difficult on the mind as it is on the body. With so many doctor appointments and other pressing concerns weighing on a patient, forgetfulness may be a problem.
Journaling, Berry said, allows cancer survivors to record entries that, if they feel are significant, can be discussed with a physician.
In addition, never be afraid to discuss issues with doctors, she warned. Communication between the patient and their network of specialists is one of the keys to a successful treatment plan. All the different types of doctors must also be willing to discuss things with each other so that an effective effort can be coordinated.
Berry found this particularly important when undergoing radiation treatments, something she said was one of the worst aspects of cancer. Although not seen in every patient, the therapy caused second-degree burns on Berry.
Skin soon flaked off, and eventually the wounds would cause scar tissue that still hurts half-a-decade later. During treatments, the intensity of the burns increased until, at her final round of radiation, the doctors questioned if they should go on.
Berry said yes. She understood she might not return again to finish the course. The pain was too great. But she knew it could save her life and so the final dosage was administered despite the soreness.
“I’ll do whatever I can to be on this earth,” she said. “The treatment itself, making the decision of the double mastectomy, that was hard. Hard for the fact you were changing your body. But I knew if I wanted to live and still be here for my child, my grandchildren, then that made it an easy decision.”
A strong support network of family, friends and co-workers also helped Berry in her battle. Neighbors aided her with shots. Others drove her to appointments. All the while, she never took time off from her job at Ivy Tech Community College in Sellersburg.
Chemotherapy was scheduled for Thursdays, so the roughest effects of the treatment would be felt on Saturdays. By Monday, she was ready for another week. Work became a therapy in itself for the Army veteran, a practice she is glad she didn’t give up.
“Some people say, ‘Why do people with cancer work?’ It’s our therapy,” she said. “My thing was if I can get up and get to work then I know that I’m winning the battle, because cancer’s a battle.”
Even more important in getting Berry through the tough times was her reliance on a higher power. Upon receiving her diagnosis by phone at work, the lifelong Christian immediately went to the restroom, fell to her knees and “gave it to God.”
Her faith at times, she admits, was tested. But, in the end, she credits God with imparting wisdom and knowledge to her doctors and, most of all, to giving her strength to carry on.
“It was difficult, but like I say, God doesn’t put more on us than what we can handle. I really believe that,” she said. “You just get up and go every day.”