Two years ago — Nov. 7, 2012, to be exact — Laura Emmett went to Fox Hospital for the routine mammogram that changed her life. When the technologist came into the exam room to talk to her with the radiologist, she knew something was wrong. The next day, Emmett was seen by her surgeon, who diagnosed her with stage zero breast cancer.
Stage zero is a non-invasive cancer that involves abnormal cells in the lining of the breast milk duct. It is a very early cancer that is highly treatable, but if left untreated, it can spread into the surrounding breast tissue.
Some patients with stage zero breast cancer are simply encouraged to get regular clinical breast exams and mammograms, or they might be prescribed a hormone therapy medication to help prevent the growth of cancer cells.
Since Emmett has a family history of breast cancer, her surgeon recommended that she get the BRCA gene mutation test. The National Cancer Institute explains that the BRCA gene normally helps to suppress cell growth, but a person who inherits certain mutations (changes) in a BRCA1 gene has a higher risk of getting breast, ovarian, prostate, and other types of cancer.
The results were positive, and Emmett, whose mother died of breast cancer at age 50, knew she had to make a difficult decision.
Emmett’s husband, Ron Emmett, went with her to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan where they met with a team of doctors consisting of a gynecologist, breast surgeon and plastic surgeon. On Jan. 9, 2013, Emmett underwent a double mastectomy.
The BRCA test results had shown that Emmett had an increased chance of getting ovarian cancer, so an oophorectomy, or ovary removal surgery, was also performed.
A biopsy showed stage zero cancer in Emmett’s fallopian tubes, something that never would have been diagnosed if she had not had the mammogram and BRCA test that led to this surgery. Emmett is now a big proponent of regular mammograms. Even though she had done regular self breast exams, she never felt a lump. The abnormal cells were hidden deep in the lining of her milk duct where they never would have been detected if she hadn’t had the mammogram.
Emmett said she feels very fortunate that her family, friends and co-workers supported her through her year-long journey from the initial operation, to reconstructive surgery, to her return to good health. During this time, she posted her progress on Facebook, and many of her friends were encouraged by her posts to get mammograms.
During her recuperation period, Emmett says, “I couldn’t lift my arms to wash my hair or put on makeup. I felt helpless.”
Emmett realized this was a good time to relax and let other people take care of her. Her daughter, Theresa, stayed with Emmett the first two weeks after her surgery and took care of her. Even Emmett’s 6-year-old granddaughter, Leena, helped out by helping her walk wherever she needed to go. When Theresa and Leena returned to their home in Ballston Spa, Emmett’s husband, co-workers, and friends were more than willing to help out by preparing meals and doing errands for her.
Emmett advises others whose friends are going through a difficult time: “If you ask: ‘What can I do to help you?’ your friend won’t know what to say. Offer to do something specific like wash her hair, cook dinner or vacuum her floors. Then your friend can say: ‘Yes, please!’”
After Emmett’s mastectomy, the surgeon inserted temporary tissue expanders under the skin over her chest. Then she returned to Manhattan every other week for the silicone fills that gradually stretched the expanders and the skin over them. After six months, the surgeon replaced the expanders with the permanent implants. Emmett says: “The results are great.”
After going through her year-long journey with cancer, Emmett knew she had to help others who suffer from the disease. She makes bracelets to raise awareness for breast cancer. A portion of the proceeds benefits the Breast Cancer Action Group; you can read more at www.baction.org.
Emmett and her friend, Lauri Arnold, another breast cancer survivor, founded a peer-led cancer support group that meets on the third Wednesday of every month. Meetings take place in a room next to Starbucks in SUNY Oneonta’s Hunt Union from 4 to 5:30 p.m.The group is open to anyone who has been touched by cancer in any way, whether as a patient, survivor, friend or family member.
Every other month the cancer support group welcomes a guest speaker. Speakers have included a Reiki master, an energy healer, and executive chef and culinary consultant, Sean Taylor. Under Taylor’s direction, the group prepared a delicious meal of fish tacos with pan-fried tilapia, freshly made mango salsa, and guacamole.
The next meeting of the Oneonta peer-led Cancer Support Group will take place on Wednesday and will feature Sara Nelson O’Brien, author of The Bald Headed, Tattooed, Motorcycle Mama’s Devotional Guide: For Women Battling Cancer and Those Who Love Them. Emmett says: “We welcome new members to our group every month. We are there to support each other through the ups and downs of the healing journey.”
This article originally appeared in the Oneonta Daily Star on October 9, 2014