Stage 3 diagnosis is no setback for Cassville woman
Survivor: ‘It can be really scary, but lots of people go through it’
Cassville resident Trina Thomas was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer Dec. 22, 2016, but it didn’t keep her down.
She faced it head-on, and she beat it.
Last October, she was due for her annual mammogram, but just hadn’t gotten around to it.
“I was busy and didn’t want to do it,” she said. “My breast started hurting with sharp pains, so I went to the doctor and there was a mass there. Within three or four days, I was in Springfield for a mammogram. I’ve had friends say cancer is painless but that’s not necessarily true. They pulled it up and showed it to me.”
Thomas had no history of breast cancer, but her mother had kidney cancer. After the diagnosis, she started chemotherapy and radiation.
“My chemo was a six-hour treatment every three weeks for eight months that started in January, and radiation was only eight minutes at a time,” she said. “I had to drive to Springfield 25 days in a row for the radiation treatments at the Hulston Cancer Center.”
She’s finished with chemo and radiation now, but will still need to take a treatment to repress the cancer because of its type.
“The kind of cancer I had, called HER-2 positive, produces a protein that makes it grow faster,” she said.
HER-2 tests positive for a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, which promotes the growth of cancer cells. In about one of every five breast cancers, the cancer cells have a gene mutation that makes an excess of the HER2 protein.
Getting the diagnosis and following through with treatment was not easy for Thomas, who takes care of her autistic son, David, 14. She tried to get help from a community service to care for him while she underwent treatment, but was not able to.
“As soon as I found out, I called community services across from Fastrip and got funding for services, but not one single person came to help because at $8 an hour, it doesn’t pay enough,” she said. “Casey’s pays $10 an hour. There are three families with autistic children in Cassville looking for help.”
Despite the setback, Thomas has still managed. Her father took her to Springfield for her first visit, and from there, she drove herself.
“When I got home, I would sleep until the school bus got home,” she said. “My sister would take off days to stay with my son when there was no school. It’s been a good thing because the experience has matured my son a lot, because I did get really sick and he was the only one with me. It’s like a horror movie when your hair falls out — clumps of hair come out at a time, so I had a friend come over and shave my head. My son’s mouth literally dropped and he made me wear a hat. You don’t just lose hair on head but over your entire body. I’d be sick on the ground throwing up, and he’d be patting my head. Radiation makes you tired, but with chemotherapy, just walking across the room is difficult.”
The Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks, which provides some financial support for women undergoing treatment for breast cancer with practical expenses like gas, car repairs, or utilities, was a big help.
“All you have to do is ask,” Thomas said. “They give you information, and everyone is just wonderful.”
Thomas is now cancer-free, and even with all she’s been through, she considers herself lucky.
“The doctor called me at home,” she said. “They do a biopsy before and after the chemo and remove where the tumor was and a quarter-of-an-inch all around that. After chemo, he told me I was cancer-free, but you have to keep getting checkups so it doesn’t come back. I was Stage 3, and it was a fast-growing cancer, so I’m very lucky because it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes. That’s why breast exams so important and which you can get free.”
With the HER-2 positive cancer she had, she elected not to remove her breast because the cancer will spread through the body if it is removed.
Thomas stressed how important it is for anyone undergoing chemo to eat, even if they don’t feel like it.
“I threw up and lost my hair with chemo, but I was overweight, and lost 45 pounds,” she said. “You meet other people going through it and if they’re too skinny, and chemo makes you lose your taste buds and get nausea so you don’t want to eat, you lose a lot of weight, and if you’re already skinny, it can kill you. Chemotherapy is a poison.”
After coming through such a storm, Thomas still has a good attitude.
“It can be really scary, but lots of people go through it,” she said.
Daily life is different now, but she is pushing on.
“I get tired easily, and I have neuropathy in my feet and hands,” she said. “It is caused by the chemo and takes up to six months to go away. I pray a lot, and little things do not bother me at all now. You’re like, ‘Oh well.’ And, I’m more grateful. But I don’t feel sorry because a lot have to go through breast cancer, a lot don’t survive, and I’m very lucky.”
She offers words of advice to help others on the same path.
“I think the most important thing is not to freak out, because it’s not going to help anyway,” she said. “They assign you a nurse you can call 24-hours a day. Everybody there is so nice. And remember to eat. That is so important, whether you want to or not, to have a high-calorie intake because chemo is so hard on your body. I saw people get skinnier and skinner [at treatment], and then they didn’t show up because they died.”
Thomas has a wig, but rarely wears it, sometimes opting for a hat instead.
“I just prefer not to wear a wi,” she said. “They’re too hot, and the only reason I wear a hat is just because of other people. Having little to no hair bothers other people more than it does me. It’s when people look that bothers me.”