“I think about it every day”
Susan McArdle feels like she dodged a bullet. The 40-year-old mother of two young sons hadn't had an annual physical for five years so when her primary care physician scheduled a mammogram for her, she went reluctantly. After all, there was no history of breast cancer in her family.
That test probably saved her life.
"Instead of having it in January, I probably would have waited until December," she said. When the results of her mammogram were suspicious, she was called back for an ultrasound and then a biopsy. The doctor performing the biopsy didn't respond when McArdle joked about probably just having a cyst. "So I asked her, ‘Just tell me what the chances are of it being cancer.' She told me, "Ninety percent."
McArdle was shaken but hoped she was one of the 10 percent. She wasn't. "The tumor was already four-and-a-half inches long and it was fast growing." She had invasive ductal carcinoma, or Stage 2 breast cancer. "I didn't want to lose my hair. I didn't want to lose my breast," she said. It turned out the pain and the disruption cancer would cause in every aspect of her life was the worst of all. "I had so much support from family and friends. But it was horrible even with all that."
McArdle had a unilateral mastectomy right away at Alegent Creighton Health Lakeside Hospital, then eight five-hour chemotherapy treatments every other week at Alegent Creighton Health Immanuel Medical Center. Twenty-eight daily sessions of radiation at the Midwest Cancer Center followed. She said the staff at both did an outstanding job of explaining everything to her. "It made a huge difference. It made things totally bearable, even borderline pleasant."
Most of all, she relied on her Alegent Creighton Health Cancer Nurse Navigators Stacy Patzlaff and Erin Gittens. One of the two would go to her oncologist's visits with her, answer any questions she had and reassure her. "I probably called them 30 to 40 times," McArdle said. "About five of those times I called at obscene hours. I wanted to know about side effects and if what I was experiencing was normal. You think, ‘I'm one step away from dying. I've never been this sick.' They saved me. It was like they talked me off the ledge."
Her nurse navigators suggested the Image Recovery Center before she lost her hair. She found a wig that matched her hairstyle. Beki Rainey, a clinical cosmetologist, worked with her. "When my hair fell out, it wasn't as traumatic as it could have been. I had everything all lined up. If I didn't have her help, I would have been freaking out. I had total empathy there," McArdle said.
There were plenty of rough spots, including the day she missed the Mother's Tea with her kindergartener. She worried about her six- and eight-year-olds' reactions to her breast cancer so she read them a children's book from the American Cancer Society that explained how sick she was but that she would get better. With the help of her doctors, her nurse navigators, her clinical cosmetologist, her neighbors who brought dinners to the family and her five sisters who took turns driving or flying into Omaha to care for her—she did get better.
Last year McArdle was too busy battling her cancer to even acknowledge National Cancer Survivors' Day. This year she'll stop and reflect. "I think about it every day, especially when I see my kids. I can't believe it even happened." In May she had reconstructive surgery. She's learned an important lesson the last year-and-a-half: "You may feel like you're dying but you will live through it. You will survive."