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Surviving and thriving with a breast cancer diagnosis

By Maggie Brown | October 6, 2017 | Health Conditions

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It only takes a few minutes of being around E.D. Reese (“Reese”) to know that she’s a nurse.

You can just tell by the way she truly cares and wants to help every person she meets. And if you’re someone who’s been recently diagnosed with breast cancer, you better believe that she’s got your back.

Because you see, she’s been there herself.

It was September 2004. She’d been at her new job at Blue Cross NC for about a year. She was preparing to take a long overdue trip to the beach with her mom. Life was going well – everything was normal until it wasn’t.

“I checked my mailbox and there was a letter from my gynecologist saying my mammogram had some ‘areas of concern.’ I went back for more testing thinking surely they have me mixed up with someone else,” she says.

After more testing and a biopsy, Reese met with a surgical oncologist who told her she had DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) cancer in the milk ducts of one of her breasts. 

“After the word ‘cancer,’ I did not hear anything else. I could see his mouth moving, but I could not even comprehend what he was saying. Even after all of my years in nursing, I could not ask questions, I could not even speak.”

Tough Decisions 

After regrouping and considering her options – whether to “watch and see” if the DCIS turned into a more invasive cancer, or to have it surgically removed – Reese decided to have a mastectomy. “I did not want to take a passive approach, I told them to just take it off.”

While she firmly believes she made the right choice, it wasn’t an easy one, and she battled depression afterward. “My breast did not define me. But it was a part of me. It was a very emotional time, that period between my mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.”

Fortunately, Reese had the support of her family, friends, and church. And most importantly, her mother, who recently passed away at the age of 99.

“When you have cancer, your family is affected, too. It’s not all about you. I’d always been a career person. I was independent. But there comes a time when you have to ask for help, you have to depend on others. And my mom was right there with me, the entire way.”

A ‘New Normal’ 

After Reese recovered and came back to her job as a case management nurse at Blue Cross NC, “I got to the point where I started to accept what had happened to me, and I thought about how I could use my experience to help someone else.”

 So she started by bringing educational materials to her staff meetings. “It was a model of three breasts, and what type of irregularities you should feel for. I’d have people from other departments asking me if I could share it with their employees.”

She became involved with Susan G. Komen and the American Cancer Association, and her primary care doctor would give her telephone number out to patients who’d recently been diagnosed with cancer. “People would call me and we’d talk through things over the phone.”

She would bring a basket full of educational materials on breast cancer (and diabetes) to her family reunions. “You should see my garage,” she laughs. “It is loaded with stuff.”

Through a friend at church, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer the year prior to Reese and who was also a nurse, she became involved with the Sisters Network.

The Sisters Network, with branches throughout the country, is committed to increasing local and national attention to the devastating impact that breast cancer has in the African American community.

Finding support and strength in fellow survivors 

“This network has meant everything to me,” she says. “I have bonded with other women that I can relate to and that I’m able to share information with. It has been tremendously helpful to be able to network and be in an environment where you are sharing information all the time.”

Reese is passionate about increasing awareness of breast cancer in the African American community. “In our history, we have not really been upfront in talking about cancer, or depression for that matter. But we have to be able to share this information so we can save lives. We have to stop the silence and speak directly about cancer.” 

She’s been gearing up for the Sisters Network Triangle chapter’s Gift for Life Block Walk, where she and other volunteers will go door-to-door to distribute breast cancer educational materials and spread awareness.

Reese has made lasting friendships through her outreach. “If you know someone that needs help, whether they’re black, white, or Latino, we’re all women – it doesn’t matter what color you are – it’s an instant bond.”

From taking family members’ blood pressure to talking strangers through the intensely personal and difficult choices brought by cancer, she’s always learning, always teaching. Reese says what she most loves most about nursing is “the community outreach, educating and empowering people about health care.”

 “You can’t-do everything,” she admits. “But it’s not a choice for me to not share information that could help someone – it’s just what I do.” Since graduating from North Carolina Central University’s nursing school, she’s been helping others, one way or another. 

She’s been breast cancer-free for more than 10 years. She still gets an annual mammogram and encourages all women to “check their breasts monthly, get mammograms according to guidelines, and if you see or feel something different, please say something about it.”

“I have been blessed,” she says, “and as long as I’m here on this earth I will continue to educate and empower others.”