By Mike Dunn 

Cancer in the Platte Valley

Part Two: Crossing mountains

 


Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series about Michelle McWain. She is a wife, a mother, a Carbon County School District No. 2 employee and a breast cancer survivor.

***

When Michelle McWain received the call telling her she had breast cancer, there was no time for her to feel sorry for herself. Her life was at risk, and waiting was not an option.

“The most frustrating thing was being your own advocate,” Michelle said. “You are trying to deal with the shock of being diagnosed, and in my mind, things didn’t go fast enough.”

But along her road to recovery, there was literally a mountain range in her path.

Michelle chose the Meredith and Jeannie Ray Cancer Center in Laramie for her treatment. The staff there was incredible, Michelle said, but the 100-mile drive was anything but convenient. Additionally, from June to September, Michelle would drive to Cheyenne once a week to meet with her plastic surgeon.


According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, in 2014 there will be on average 1.5 new cases of breast cancer, 1 new case of colon cancer and 1.5 new cases of lung cancer in the Platte Valley every year. Local physician Dean Bartholomew, M.D., said those numbers are standard with the national average, but still creates a problem for Platte Valley residents who are looking for treatment.

“Probably the biggest struggle is the distance,” Bartholomew said. “When you start talking about cancer treatment, that takes a lot of visits with the oncologist.”

Michelle drove to Laramie and Cheyenne numerous times throughout her fight with cancer. She would take Highway 130 across the Snowy Range to get to Laramie until October. Once the road closed for the season, Michelle was forced to take Interstate 80 to Laramie.

The road conditions on I-80 were hazardous; Michelle fought the blowing snow just to get to her treatments. The cost of gas driving to her appointments back and forth was high.

***

With the cancer she had, there was a good chance it would spread to her other breast. Her doctors at the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center gave her choices; she could have a lumpectomy, which would remove just the tumor and infected tissue in her breast; a single mastectomy, which would remove the entire breast with the cancerous cell; or a radical double mastectomy, which would remove both of her breasts.

Going through treatment once was more than enough for her.

Without deliberation from family members, she chose to undergo a double mastectomy.

“I wanted them both gone, I don’t want to have to deal with this in two years,” Michelle said.

She had the surgery, but Michelle still had another mountain to cross: chemotherapy.

***

Michelle watched as the slow drip of the chemotherapy went into her arm. The treatment took seven hours to complete. She would pass the time by reading, watching TV, visiting with staff and talking with family members who accompanied her.

According to the National Cancer Institute, chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. The treatment works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide quickly.

She was scheduled to have six treatments.

Michelle would have her treatment on Thursday and would feel well enough to work on Friday. However, once the weekend came, she would start to feel nauseous as the side effects of her treatment kicked in.

Michelle would be back to work on Monday. If nothing else, work took her mind off chemotherapy and cancer.

But everyone has a breaking point.

By the fourth chemotherapy treatment, Michelle had lost 30 pounds, the holiday season was coming up and she wanted to feel well again. She just wanted to be done.

Michelle would not have done the fifth and sixth treatment without support from others. “You’ve come this far, just a few more,” she was told by nurses and friends.

She counted down every treatment until her last “Five more chemo sessions, four more sessions … ”

It was only by the grace of God, Michelle said, that she finished the last two treatments.

***

Chemotherapy did not physically pain Michelle — the side effects just made her feel nauseous. It was uncomfortable, she said.

However, the treatment took its toll on her mentally.

Michelle never saw herself as much of a vain person. She cared about her looks, she said, but it was never her top priority.

“But the minute my hair started falling out, that was so sad,” she said.

Michelle would find her hair on the pillow after a night’s sleep. It would fall out while she was washing her hair. She would occasionally reach up to touch her head, only to come down with globs of hair stuck to her hand.

This is typical while undergoing chemotherapy. While chemotherapy kills the cancerous cells, it kills healthy cells with it. Most commonly, hair cells are the first to die off after the treatment.

Eventually, Michelle’s loss of hair became too much for her; she asked her husband to shave her head.

“When you have no hair, no eye lashes, no breasts; you just lose a part of your femininity,” she said.

Michelle never wanted to look in the mirror. She avoided all photos. It was too much to see herself like that.

But the hair does grow back. The sickness does go away. “It’s just the light at the end of the tunnel that you have to constantly push to,” she said.

 

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