Beaufort breast cancer survivor doesn't want others doing it alone

loberle@islandpacket.comSeptember 30, 2013 

Alice Reaves is photographed with her daughter, Becky Woods, on Sunday in Beaufort.

JAY KARR — Jay Karr Buy Photo

She found the cancer herself, during her evening shower on a December evening in 2004.

She thought the plum-sized lump in her left breast might go away on its own.

But the lump grew, and the next month she told her family what she'd found and made a doctor's appointment.

She was told more tests needed to be done.

Something wasn't right.

On Feb. 3, 2005, Alice Reaves learned she had breast cancer.

It was her 55th birthday.

"When you hear the word 'cancer,' it just tears your life all to pieces," she said.

A NEW LANGUAGE

Reaves was overwhelmed, trying to understand what was going on, to comprehend the magnitude of her condition, to make sense of the information presented to her.

An MRI showed a 10 cm patchy area of abnormal increased uptake of gadolinium, suggesting a large carcinoma. The three-needle biopsy came back as an infiltrating ductual adenocarcinoma, grade II of III, moderately differential.

The medical terminology was a foreign language to her.

Information was coming at Reaves fast.

"I had good doctors, and they treated me very well," Reaves said. "But they can just give you the facts, and you have to decide what's best for you."

She was having a mastectomy and worried what it would look like, how it would feel. Should she get silicone or saline implants? Should she have reconstruction done at the same time or wait? But she had no one to answer those questions.

"I needed someone to show me," Reaves said. "When you have a mastectomy, it's a big experience. It's all frightening. ...

"I just didn't know what was going on."

She had her family to support her, but they couldn't answer her questions any more than she could.

A few weeks later, she had surgery to remove the tumor, which had grown to the size of a softball, then began chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

REACHING OUT

In 2007, Reaves traveled to India for a two-week mission trip with three other people from her church, Shell Point Baptist Church. There, she shared her breast cancer story and talked to women about taking care of themselves, doing regular self-examinations and how God had healed her.

She realized sharing her experiences could help others.

The Beaufort resident now tries to support local women in that same way. If they want to see what a mastectomy looks like, she'll show them. If they have questions about how they'll feel during treatment, she'll tell them.

Last year, she was called by her doctor at Hilton Head Hospital to speak with a woman who was going through what Reaves had gone through.

"I try to share my story and try to help anybody I can help, because I sure didn't have anybody helping me," she said.

Reaves also reached out to two women at her church when they were diagnosed with cancer, both of whom have since died.

"You think, 'Why did I survive, and they didn't?'" Reaves said. "It's very hard."

MOVING FORWARD

Reaves had been cancer-free for six years when she found a rash under her breast that resembled a strawberry birthmark. She had lymphangiosarcoma, radiation cancer, a condition so rare her doctor had never seen it before.

So Reaves went to the Cancer Treatment Center in Tulsa, Okla., which she traveled to for nearly 45 treatments over the next two years, including a two-month stay for radiation.

In 2012, the Cancer Treatment Centers of America opened the Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Newman, Ga., just a five-hour drive for the Reaveses.

Throughout it all Reaves could hardly say the word "cancer" without bursting into tears, and she still occasionally tears up when talking about it. She fears its return, saying she has "white coat syndrome."

"My blood pressure seems to go up every time I go to the doctor," Reaves said.

But her original diagnosis -- when she first heard the bad news -- was the hardest part of all. Her daughter was pregnant with her first child. Her husband had already lost his mother, brother and sisters to cancer.

"It's so hard on you, and so hard on your family," Reaves said. "You think your life is over."

She said she constantly referred to a Bible verse, Philipians 4:13: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

Reaves also joined the Paula Williams Beast Cancer Support Group after her first bout of cancer, but stopped going once her treatment was complete. She recently returned.

"I thought I didn't need it anymore," she said. "I thought I was doing good. But I guess you always need that support."

In August, Reaves was honored as a breast cancer survivor at the Southeastern Regional Medical Center's "Celebrate Life" event in Newman, Ga., where she has a tree planted in her honor with her name engraved on it.

She feels that God has called on her to help others through their cancer journeys.

"He'll take me when he wants me. He's not finished with me yet," Reaves said.

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