Woman proves breast cancer diagnosis 'not a death sentence'

info@islandpacket.comOctober 25, 2011 

It was a phone call Nelle Pender never expected to receive. Her routine mammogram had revealed an abnormality in her breast.

"I had been getting tested for years, and they never found anything," Pender said. "I was shocked, but I was sure there wasn't going to be a problem."

Two days later, Pender returned to Beaufort Memorial Hospital for a more thorough examination and ultrasound. The radiologist pulled up the X-ray on his computer and showed her the spot that looked suspicious.

"He kept pointing to one area, but I couldn't see it," said the 53-year-old Beaufort resident. "It just looked like a gray blob to me."

A biopsy confirmed she had breast cancer.

"When they called to tell me, I started to cry and almost collapsed to the floor," Pender recalled. "Once they said cancer, I didn't hear anything else. My mind went blank."

Over the next several weeks, she made a dozen trips to Beaufort Memorial Hospital and the Keyserling Cancer Center in Port Royal. She had an MRI, a CAT scan and PET scan to pinpoint the location of the tumor and determine if it had spread beyond her breast. She met with a surgeon, a medical oncologist and radiation oncologist.

Pender was given the option of having a lumpectomy or mastectomy. Her mother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer two years earlier, had undergone a lumpectomy and radiation.

"I just wanted them to cut the damn things off," Pender said. "It would give me the peace of mind that it was over."

The double mastectomy was followed by four rounds of chemotherapy. She was also put on a cancer-fighting drug for 10 years.

As part of her follow-up care, she has a checkup every six months with her surgeon, Dr. Perry Burrus, and oncologist, Dr. Majd Chahin.

"I don't have any regrets," Pender said. "I was glad to have the choice, but I wanted to get it over and done with."

A year ago, her mother's cancer returned. She went on to have a mastectomy. And then in April, her husband was diagnosed with rectal cancer. The tumor was discovered during a routine colonoscopy.

"Today, a diagnosis of cancer is not a death sentence" said Constance Duke, cancer program director for Beaufort Memorial Hospital. "More than 60 percent of patients are cured of cancer, and the statistics are getting better every year."

This October, during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Pender is reminded of the unnerving call she received two years ago.

"I'm a cancer survivor, but I don't define myself by it," she said. "Yes, I had cancer. I took care of it, and it's done. It's time to get back to having fun."

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