For the KNE's special fall section on health
By Nick Tabor, New Era Senior Staff Writer
Karen Wheeler can’t remember what scheduling conflict made her postpone her annual doctor’s visit in March 2008 — though it seemed important at the time.
The next slot her doctor, Elizabeth Toms, had open was at the end of June. When it came around, Wheeler told Toms about a lump she’d noticed on her breast just before she’d postponed the office visit.
A mammogram showed she had cancer. Toms told Wheeler to get a lymph node biopsy.
A surgeon said he could operate the following month, but Toms wouldn’t have it. She insisted on surgery the following week, and the surgeon found space in his schedule, Wheeler said.
She and her husband, Darrell Wheeler, a retired accountant, remember going to Jennie Stuart Medical Center for the operation. After he put Karen Wheeleer under and removed the cancerous cells, the doctor also removed her primary lymph nodes — beneath her armpit, directly connected to her breast — and sent them to the lab.
An hour later, he told Darrell Wheeler these too had tested positive for cancer. He stripped the other lymph nodes in her arm and prescribed almost a year’s worth of chemo therapy and radiation.
Had Karen gone to the doctor immediately when she felt the lump — had she not rescheduled — the cancer would not have spread beyond her breast, he told her.
Half the surgery and all the chemo and radiation would likely have been unnecessary, Darrell Wheeler said Monday. As it was, she was lucky it didn’t spread from the primary lymph nodes throughout her body, the doctor said.
Hindsight is all too sharp.
“It’s one of those things you think, ‘Ignore it and it will go away,’ Karen Wheeler said. “But it doesn’t.”
Lymph nodes are filters for foreign particles, associated with the immune system. A doctor’s explanation helped Karen Wheeler form her own mental picture.
“I just envision these little Pac-Men going around and sucking up the fluid,” she said.
The longer she waited, the more regions of her body the cancer might have reached, she said.
The operation left her torso purple from the armpit to the stomach.
Soon the chemotherapy started: three- or four-hour increments in the hospital chair, every other week, inverting her senses of smell and taste so everything nauseated her. It weakened her body and made her eyebrows and hair fall out.
After Christmas in 2008, she received radiation treatment five days a week for 14 weeks.
“It blisters your skin like a bad sunburn,” Darrell Wheeler said. “She was tired. No energy.”
Darrell used Internet resources to educate himself on cancer and bought a cancer-patient cookbook to learn his way around the kitchen. Until then, he didn’t even know where to find the knives, he said.
They pulled through. Karen Wheeler hears that if the cancer doesn’t come back within five years, she’ll be totally in the clear. She’s almost there.
She meets routinely with a support group for survivors. It feels like God gave them each different experiences so they could help each other prepare for changes.
But she still wishes she’d spared herself some of this trouble by getting a mammogram sooner.
“I know every advertisement you see is ‘early detection, early detection, early detection,’” she said. “And that is so true."