‘The road I had to take’
Ruth Primrose cancer-free for more than a year
Ruth Primrose, breast cancer survivor had her last surgery in November 2017, and she has been healing ever since.
“I’m feeling so much better,” Primrose said. “I still have physical limitations, but the last year I’ve been able to be more physically active.”
Primrose had started getting mammograms from the time she was 40 years old, as her mother and sister both had breast cancer.
“In 2015, I had my mammogram at the first of the year like always, everything was fine,” Primrose said. “Then I went back in January 2016, they found a lump on my right breast. The technician felt the lump and let me feel it as well.”
They scheduled Primrose to have a breast ultra-sound that same day, after the ultra-sound the doctor told her they would call her in a couple of days. A few days later the doctor called her and asked her to come back in for a biopsy, which was sent to her primary doctor.
“A few days later, I got the call,” Primrose said. “It was, in fact, stage 3 breast cancer.
“When I heard the diagnosis, the only thing I could think was that I wanted to get it out of my body.”
However, Primrose said there were many steps she would have to take to get to that point.
“I had my first surgery in April 2016 — a double mastectomy,” Primrose said. “I made that choice, after speaking with my doctor and weighing out all the factors. I knew they were going to have to take my right breast and decided this would be the best option for me.”
Following the first surgery, Primrose had to heal for about 6 weeks. She said she then started chemotherapy in June 2016.
“When you first go to the oncologist, they go through your treatment plan with you,” Primrose said. “Due to being stage 3 — which meant it had traveled to my lymph nodes as well — I had to do chemo every other week. I went for a total of five months.”
Primrose said she had to miss a couple of sessions during the five months because her white blood cell count wasn’t where it should be, so she couldn’t receive the chemo.
“Because my white blood cell count was so low, at one point, I got shingles,” Primrose said.
Primrose said after the five months of chemo, she had to have radiation that same year.
“I did my chemotherapy, and when I was done, they let me heal for about 30 days, then I started radiation in November 2016,” Primrose said. “I went every day for six weeks to get radiation at the Landmark Cancer Center in Rogers, Ark.”
Primrose said some people will go back to work, but she took a full year leave of absence due to the side effects.
“There were days I couldn’t even get out of bed,” Primrose said. “My chemotherapy was aggressive, because I was stage 3 and it had spread to my lymph nodes, and they wanted to kill any cancer cells that could have been left after my surgery.”
Primrose said she had chemo on Wednesdays, and generally would feel good on Wednesdays, but after the chemo, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays were bad days for her. It takes a couple of days for the chemo to work through a person’s system, Primrose said.
“After radiation, I just had to heal for three or four months,” Primrose said. “I had all these side effects from the chemo, and then the radiation. For the first three weeks, it wasn’t so bad, but in the last three weeks, the radiation caused so much pain and my skin to blister like I was burnt.”
Primrose said she experienced restless legs, pain in joints, insomnia, nausea, hands and legs tingling all the time and such bad heartburn she actually went to the emergency room a couple of times.
“The doctors tell you not to go anywhere because you can’t risk getting anyone’s germs,” Primrose said. “When going through chemotherapy, you are pushing this poison though your body. The doctors don’t want you cooking for anyone, sharing a bathroom or sleeping with the same blankets and pillows as anyone.”
Primrose said she moved in with her sister, who set up a bedroom in the den and gave Primrose her own bathroom.
“I thank God for my sister, her husband and her daughter, for taking care of me,” Primrose said. “I don’t think I would have had the same results if my sister and her family hadn’t been there to take care of me. I stayed with them for about six months.”
Primrose said she was able to finally go back to work in March 2017, she works at Cassville Walmart as a sales clerk, two days a week.
“It was June of 2017 when the doctor called me and said I was cancer-free,” Primrose said.
Primrose will have to take a hormone blocker for the next five years, and have to go back every six months for a blood test to see where her white blood cell count levels are at, and to make sure that they haven’t dropped.
“I still suffer from insomnia,” she said. “My joints feel sore, and I don’t feel like I am as physically strong as I used to be. If I get down the floor to play with my grandchildren, I have to have help to get back up, I just don’t have the strength in my legs and arms anymore. Also, I eat much healthier, lots of fruits and vegetable and drink more water, and the doctors all recommend that I don’t eat much sugar.”
Primrose was diagnosed with breast cancer at 54 years old, and at age 53, she had gone through menopause.
“The breast cancer was actually brought on by my menopause, and it, of course, was genetic for me as well,” Primrose said. “I was taking an over-the-counter estrogen supplement, my doctor recommended I start taking when I was going through menopause. The medicine was putting hormones in my body, when they found the cancer they told me to stop taking the estrogen pill, because although the estrogen pill didn’t cause my cancer, it was feeding my cancer.
“I definitely wish I could forget treatment. It just felt like I was constantly going to the hospital or a doctors appointment, and didn’t really get out other than that. It makes you feel isolated. Also, I was so physically weak I just couldn’t get around much, and you are so afraid to catch anything and get sick because your immune system is so weak.”
Primrose said she was blessed because she had a great support system, her daughters, nieces, sister and brother-in-law, and also friends and co-workers. However, Primrose said it was still hard to stay positive.
“I never really thought I was going to die from cancer,” she said. “I mean, I felt like I was going to die a few times, but I just never thought I would die. I had lots of people calling me who had breast cancer, people I didn’t even know very well. They would call and tell me, ‘This isn’t going to last forever. Tomorrow will be better, and you won’t feel this way forever.’
“It was very emotional for me, I cried every day for a year. Every time I would go in for a treatment, I would start crying. It wasn’t because I thought someone was going to hurt me — it just made me aware of the situation I was in.”
Primrose said people always seemed to call her on the day that she needed it the most.
“I just don’t think you could get through it by yourself, and you need support from people,” Primrose said. “People don’t have to do much, but just being there for me helped me so much. My sister always made a point to tell her boss that she couldn’t work Wednesdays, because she would always take me to chemo.”
Primrose said before she could even get the chemo drugs, they would have to give her steroids and an antihistamine. The chemo process would take about four hours.
“The other patients and their families were all in the same boat, so we became kind of a community and support for each other,” Primrose said. “Everyone knew I would start crying as soon as I would go in for chemo treatment, and the other patients would always lend a supportive hand. I don’t know why I cried like that. Maybe for a moment it just snapped me into reality and made me realize the situation I was in.”
Primrose said having breast cancer was the worst experience of her life, but also, it makes her realize every day that she beat cancer.
“I mean, what an accomplishment,” Primrose said. “I feel like I wake up every day with a purpose. I started volunteering at a soup kitchen in Rogers two days a week.”
Primrose said going through breast cancer makes her feel blessed and grateful.
“I didn’t beat cancer for nothing,” she said. “Even if I can help just one person, that is my purpose.”
Primrose did get reconstructive surgery, a deep inferior epigastric perforators (DIEP) flap.
“They did basically a skin graft out of my stomach and attached it to where my breasts used to be, then they took fat from my own body and injected it to where those skin flaps are,” Primrose said. “I went to two different surgeons to determine which option would be best for me, and we decided that silicone implants wouldn’t work for me, but I still call them my fake breasts.”
Primrose lost all of her hair, and said some people don’t have all the side-effects, but she did.
“I didn’t wear a wig,” she said. “I got one through he American Cancer Society, but I never wore it, I always just put on a bandana. It’s devastating to watch your hair go down the drain. My hair began to grow back a couple of months after chemo. What’s funny is my hair used to be straight, but it came back curly. My sister said that I always wanted curly hair, and now I got it. I was so thankful that my hair came back, one of my fears was that it wouldn’t come back at all.”
Primrose said there is also a financial aspect of getting cancer, as she had to take off of work for a full year.
“The first six months, I had no money coming in,” she said. “I had disability through work, but it would only pay for six months and you had to be disabled for six months to get it. So I had to borrow against my 401K just to pay my normal bills for the first six months. I had insurance for most of my medical bills, but I still had to pay 20 percent. It cost $18,000 for a round of chemo, and hundreds of thousands for my reconstructive surgery. Out of pocket, I owe about $25,000 for the last two years of treatment. It’s a financial burden. I mean, you have to fight for your life, then turn around and make sure your water and electric stays on.”
At some point, Primrose will have to have another PET scan to see if her cells have cancer.
Her husband, Phil, passed away a couple of years before she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I wish I had him through that process,” she said. “It’s so scary. I was afraid every day. I’ve heard women say that they have never had a mammogram, and I believe it is important no matter how old you are. One in eight women will get breast cancer, you never know what turn your life is going to take.
“This was just the road I had to take.”