Stockton Springs woman fighting rare form of breast cancerWhaley seeks to raise awareness in hope of helping others
Stockton Springs — Last April, Mary Ann Whaley went to her doctor for the first time and said she was unusually tired.
"I said, 'I think I have cancer,'" recalled Whaley during a recent interview with The Republican Journal.
But her doctor attributed her fatigue to stress, since her husband, Fred, was living at home after suffering a series of strokes. Whaley had the help of home health-care providers who were tending to her husband's needs for eight hours each day, but some of his care fell to her.
In May, however, Whaley said she noticed some swelling and an unusual cording underneath the skin of her right armpit. She returned to the doctor, only to be told she had likely strained a muscle while lifting her husband.
On July 3, Whaley had a chest X-ray, and she said those images did not show that anything was amiss.
Then on July 9, Whaley had her routine annual mammogram, the results of which she said appeared to be normal, with the exception of some swelling and thickening skin the radiologist spotted in Whaley's right breast tissue, as well as the cording under her armpit.
"The radiologist just said come back in six months," recalled Whaley.
When she saw her doctor the following day, Whaley said, she again asked about the possibility of cancer.
"The doctor said, 'It can't be cancer, you just had a mammogram yesterday,'" said Whaley.
By that time Whaley had presented a few symptoms — aside from the swelling and discomfort under her arm, Whaley said, her right nipple started to change from its normal shade to an almost white color.
Still feeling sore and tired, Whaley returned to her doctor Aug. 15, at which time her physician suggested she have a CAT scan to see what might be causing all the problems. Whaley had the CAT scan Aug. 22, and at that time learned that her worst fear was indeed a reality.
"By then it showed a malignancy in the chest cavity around the lung," said Whaley.
And the swelling and cording in her right armpit turned out to be lymphedema, or swelling of the tissue and fluid retention.
After that, Whaley said, she went to an oncologist at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast, who conducted a biopsy of the breast tissue.
"The oncologist took one look at everything and said, 'I think you have inflammatory breast cancer,'" remembered Whaley.
Whaley's cancer was at stage four, but she said because of the quick-spreading nature of inflammatory breast cancer it is not uncommon for women to be diagnosed when their cancer has reached stage three. It typically does not get picked up by routine cancer screenings like mammograms because it grows mainly in the breast skin and underlying tissue, and because it is fairly rare — according to the National Cancer Institute, it accounts for one to five percent of all breast cancer cases in the United States.
"If I had the biopsy done sooner, I could have been at stage three," she said.
That diagnosis put Whaley on the fast track to educating herself about the kind of cancer she was dealing with. With the help of the Inflammatory Breast Cancer program at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center in Boston, Whaley found out she was fighting a rare form of the disease that is often detected late and has a relatively low survival rate.
After her appointment in Boston Sept. 7, Whaley learned her cancer was of the triple negative variety. More common kinds of breast cancer, Whaley said, are fueled by one of three kinds of hormones — estrogen, progesterone or HER2.
"If your cancer is hormone-receptive, that's a good thing," she said. "All they have to do is cut out those hormones and it decreases the growth of the cancer. But in my case, my cancer is not fed by estrogen, progesterone or HER2. They don't know what feeds triple negative."
And so far, none of the treatments Whaley has tried has been effective. She is now undergoing a double regimen of chemotherapy in an effort to manage her disease.
"I'm always going to have cancer, but hopefully they can find something to slow it down," she said.
Whaley remains hopeful that her doctors will find a treatment plan that will buy her more time with her family, but in the meantime, she said, she plans to live her life to the fullest no matter how much time she has left.
"I'm going to enjoy every moment, and try to stay in the moment," she said. "It's just out of my control now."
One of the things she hopes to do is raise awareness about inflammatory breast cancer and encourage other women to be mindful of the symptoms and be assertive if their doctor is hesitant to order a biopsy if they experience the same symptoms she did last year.
"I just really want to get the word out," she said. "I may be the only person in Waldo County with inflammatory breast cancer, but there could be other women out there with symptoms who just don't know it."
For more information about inflammatory breast cancer, visit the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center website at dfbwcc.org.