Choosing joy: Women share their battles with breast cancer

Watts

Lyndsay Watts, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in August, 2018, appears with some of the swimmers she coaches in Enid, Okla. (Enid News & Eagle / Bonnie Vculek)

ENID, Okla. — As a healthy, active, 37 year-old woman, Lyndsay Watts didn’t foresee breast cancer as a serious risk in her life.

Now, little more than a month into a course of chemotherapy, Watts wants other women to be proactive about their health, and to consider getting their first mammogram in their 30s.

Originally from Southern California, Watts, a mother of two, is the Enid High School swimming coach and a special education teacher. Growing up with an active lifestyle and no known risk factors for cancer, she said breast cancer wasn’t a concern for her.

“When you’re 37 years old and healthy, you don’t think about getting a regular mammogram,” Watts said.

That changed in mid-August when Watts began experiencing a tingling feeling in her left breast, then found a lump.

Her doctor reassured her at an already-scheduled well-woman visit it probably was a benign cyst, but ordered an ultrasound and then a mammogram to confirm the diagnosis.

When the doctor ordered a second image of her armpit, Watts said she “knew something was probably wrong.”

But, she would have to wait to find out how wrong it was. Her Thursday ultrasound stretched into a Monday biopsy, then waiting until the following day for the results.

Watts said it was a stressful few days of searching online for information on breast cancer.

“It was a hot mess of Google-searching everything,” Watts said. “It was a stressful weekend, to say the least.”

The doctors had prepared her for an 80 percent chance her lump was breast cancer. That jumped to certainty when the biopsy came back, revealing stage 2 breast cancer and ushering in a “whirlwind couple of weeks” of visits with surgeons and oncologists, Watts said.

“It was stressful, because everyone keeps asking ‘Do you have any questions?’ and of course I don’t have questions, because I’ve never done this before,” Watts said. “It’s stressful because you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, or ask, or how you’re supposed to feel.”

Now three sessions into 20 weeks of chemotherapy, Watts wishes she had known more about breast cancer earlier in her life, and that she’d had her first mammogram much earlier than the recommended guidelines.

According to American Cancer Society (ACS), all women should have annual mammograms starting by age 45, and can drop to every other year at age 55. “Women should have the choice to start screening with yearly mammograms as early as age 40 if they want to,” according to the ACS guidelines.

But, Watts said, those guidelines were too late for her cancer, and are too late for the 3 percent of new breast cancer patients each year who are younger than 40. According to ACS figures, almost 8,000 American women per year, like Watts, will be diagnosed with breast cancer before age 40.

“If more women were getting mammograms at 30 or 35 years old, they wouldn’t have so many women being diagnosed with stage 3 or 4 cancer at 36 or 37 years old,” Watts said.

While Watts wishes she had been screened for the disease earlier, and as she faces a long course of chemotherapy, followed by the possibility of radiation and surgery, she’s chosen to lean on her faith, and face each day with joy.

“I believe in choosing joy every day,” Watts said. “I look for ways to show that, even in times of strife, you can still be joyous, you can still be kind to neighbors and you can still spread love.

“It’s given me something to get through my days,” Watts said. “Instead of wallowing in self-pity, I look for ways to brighten other people’s days.”

Amy Stewart, of Oklahoma City, said choosing joy was one of the keys to her getting through breast cancer.

“I felt like the Lord told me to choose joy all the way through my journey,” Stewart said. “That really does make such a difference.”

Stewart was first introduced to breast cancer as a support-giver when her sister, Mindy, who lives in Florida, was diagnosed with the disease in October, 2015.

“I was on the opposite end, and was just trying — knowing I couldn’t really do anything — was just trying to encourage her and be there for her,” Stewart said.

Stewart said she established a routine of texting and calling her sister daily, “to let her know how much she was loved and that I was praying for her,” and was able to attend one of her sister’s chemotherapy treatments to offer support.

She found out firsthand how important that support was when she found a lump in her own breast in September, 2016. The lump was diagnosed as stage 3 breast cancer that also had spread to her lymph nodes.

Stewart said Mindy had just finished her chemotherapy treatments, and Mindy leaned on faith to help her “in an incredibly selfless way.”

“She was praying the Lord would put the cancer in her so I wouldn’t have to go through that journey,” Stewart said. “She just didn’t want me to go through what she’d just been through.”

Stewart faced 16 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by 33 rounds of radiation, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

One of the biggest adjustments for Stewart early-on was the loss of one of her favorite traits — her “big hair.”

“I’ve always had big hair, and I knew it was going to be hard to lose my hair,” Stewart said.

She said the support of her husband, Paul, was key to getting her through that transition, and through all of the treatments.

“At the very beginning he told me, ‘Hair or no hair, it’s still you — just remember that,’” Stewart said, “and that was very freeing for me, to just be able to focus on being beautiful from the inside out, and not worry about the external beauty.”

Like Watts, Stewart said faith was key to her approach to facing cancer.

“I was at peace knowing that if it didn’t turn out a certain way, I was safe knowing I was going to heaven, but I didn’t want to leave my children, so I just knew I had to fight through this,” she said. “My prayer was the Lord would give me his strength, that when I didn’t have any he would lift me up on his wings, and he really came through. God showed up in such a big way.”

She said having an extended “village” of support also was crucial, from caring co-workers and family members to her team of doctors.

To foster that support, she’s continued to work with Project 31, an Oklahoma faith-based community “built by and for breast cancer survivors — standing together to work through the fallout, keep our families and relationships strong, and find the tools we need to live lives defined by so much more than breast cancer,” according to the group’s website.

Stewart finished her cancer treatments last August, and she and her sister Mindy now are both cancer-free.

Based on her experiences, Stewart works to support other women facing breast cancer. She encourages them to build up their support network, and she encourages all women to be proactive about their health.

“When I look back on my journey, I don’t have any regrets, because I did do research, I asked a lot of questions and I asked for a second opinion,” Stewart said.

As Watts continues down that path already completed by Stewart, she said she’s looking forward to the good that will come from her battle with cancer.

“God knows what’s going to happen, and whatever happens, happens,” Watts said. “Who knows? Maybe one of my kids will grow up to cure cancer. But, I know God’s going to use this for something good.”

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