Surviving together: Co-workers battle cancer
Work introduced them. Family connected them. Now Beth Rhea and Peggy Herring have another thing in common: surviving breast cancer.
In 2011 Rhea started working at Backwoods Grill and Fish Camp in Phil Campbell. Around this time Herring, who also worked at Backwoods, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I didn’t know who she was, but I knew this woman was strong. She worked all throughout her sickness,” Rhea said.
Herring was diagnosed in October 2011 after she found a knot in her breast. At this point her cancer was at stage four.
She had surgery less than two weeks later, on the day of Halloween. Surgeons removed nine lymph nodes – seven of which were malignant.
“I had the option of a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, but I wanted them all gone,” Herring said.
A mastectomy is the removal of the whole breast, whereas a lumpectomy is the removal of only a portion of the breast. At the time, Herring said her insurance would not pay for her to have both breasts removed, since only one breast had the cancer.
After Herring healed from that surgery, she started chemotherapy, which lasted for six months. “It was rough. I couldn’t eat anything. I lived off of ice chips,” she said.
She then did 28 days of radiation, and after that she was on a pill for three years – but in 2014 the cancer returned, this time in a spot on her liver and on her spine. Herring
began taking a shot every four weeks. Now she undergoes scans every three months and is doing everything she can to keep it at bay.
“The doctor has been talking about doing chemo again for a while now,” Herring said.
And while Herring has been dealing with her ongoing treatments, Rhea was also diagnosed with breast cancer. April 15 of this year, Rhea first noticed a spot of blood on her shirt.
“I knew it could be a sign of breast cancer because my grandmother had breast cancer,” Rhea said.
She said she didn’t go to the doctor immediately, and in two weeks it got worse. May 2 she had a pathology test and a mammogram.
Her doctor told her she had calcifications, an accumulation of calcium salts in body tissue. Hers were clustered together, which is often a sign of breast cancer.
Rhea’s cancer was at a stage zero in her glands. She had a double lumpectomy in June and had expanders put in, which stretch the skin for reconstructive surgery.
“I always said I would never do reconstructive surgery, but they talked me into it. They talk like it’s going to be easy, but it’s not,” Rhea said.
Rhea said she has had several problems with her reconstruction. Scar tissue developed on her left side that had to be scraped out, which made that skin too thin to use to help reconstruct the right side that had the cancer. Her left implant also ruptured at one point.
“You think it’s the end of the world when they tell you your diagnoses,” Rhea said. “Some people don’t turn out as well as we have. We’re blessed our treatments have worked.”
Even though Rhea’s grandmother had breast cancer, her doctor told her it didn’t appear to be a hereditary gene in their family. Herring’s family also has no history of breast cancer; so, they are hopeful it won’t pass on to their children and grandchildren.
“Your life is changed from that minute forward,” Rhea said.
One of Rhea’s daughters married Herring’s son, and they have a child together now. Through all of this, the families have bonded and grown closer and learned to appreciate each other and every moment they have together.