Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

October 1, 2013

Woman shares ordeals of Inflammatory Breast Cancer

VALDOSTA — Ellen McCarthy called it “Devil Cancer.”

In the Facebook comments she posted from the time she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer on Jan. 9, 2012 to being declared cancer free, Dec. 30, 2012, she often opened her posts with the same term.

Devil Cancer.

Jan. 9, 2012: “My dear Facebook friends and family, today I learned that I have a rare breast cancer. It is called inflammatory breast cancer. I see the doc tomorrow and will find out more. The usual practice for this raging devil is treatment first and then surgery, if necessary. Will keep you updated when I know more.”

It started a few weeks earlier, in December 2012. Stepping out of the shower, she noticed swelling in her left breast. She considered asking her sister, Claire Spriggs-Marrs, about the swelling. Asking a sister was a given for Ellen’s close-knit family. The daughters and son of the late Andrew and Carolyn Squires, sisters Ellen, Claire, Marie and Lydia, and brother Andy, have been close since their days growing up in Valdosta. The sisters remained close as they married military men and moved away, then through the decades found their way back home to their native South Georgia.

So, asking Claire was a given. Looking at the affected area, Claire said Ellen needed to see a doctor; however, not taking the swelling seriously at first, Ellen forgot to call the doctor that afternoon. She did the next day at Claire’s insistence.

By late December, Ellen had a skin and tissue biopsy at Smith-Northview Hospital. By the time she received her Jan. 9 diagnosis, Ellen already knew what they doctor would say: Inflammatory breast cancer. She had done her research.

“Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare and very aggressive disease in which cancer cells block lymph vessels in the skin of the breast,” according to the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation. “This type of breast cancer is called ‘inflammatory’ because the breast often looks swollen and red, or ‘inflamed.’ Inflammatory breast cancer accounts for one to five percent of all breast cancers diagnosed in the United States. Most inflammatory breast cancers are invasive ductal carcinomas, which means they developed from cells that line the milk ducts of the breast and then spread beyond the ducts.”

Inflammatory breast cancer moves quickly. It is not unusual for it to spread in a matter of months or even weeks. For McCarthy, the swelling appeared suddenly.

“Inflammatory breast cancer is either stage III or IV at diagnosis, depending on whether cancer cells have spread only to the nearby lymph nodes or to other tissues as well.”

Ellen McCarthy answered for the doctor. She told him her diagnosis. The doctor said, “Yes. Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer,” McCarthy said, recalling the conversation. She was stage III. Her odds: 40/60. A 40 percent chance of survival ...

Devil cancer.

She began chemotherapy, only to learn she was allergic to the chemo. She expected to lose her hair but did not expect the side effects of raw, “fire-red” hands where the skin peeled away in sheets.

Devil cancer.

She had surgery. A radical removal of the left breast and several lymph nodes. The removal of the right breast as a future precaution.

Devil cancer.

Her skin burned from 32 sessions of radiation. Post-cancer, she has developed lymphedema, localized fluid retention and tissue swelling, along her left arm; arthritis makes it nearly impossible for McCarthy to pull on the compression sleeve to help this condition.

Devil cancer.

During her treatments, she developed shingles on her back down along her left leg.

Devil cancer.

She began losing her hair. It came out in clumps. Her sisters told her to shave her head. She did. Chemo eventually took every single hair from her body and head, even her eyebrows and lashes. All save one eyelash which she triumphantly dabbed with mascara. At first, she wore hats, wigs, and even a turban adorned with a large flower. Soon, she stopped. She wore nothing on her bare head. “I decided to own my baldness.”

Cancer may be a devil. It may take her life, but Ellen McCarthy didn’t want it to steal her spirit.

Given the 40/60 prognosis, Ellen thought she might die. A mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she thought she may not live much longer to see her family continue growing.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it. ... I stayed pretty positive. Any doubts I had, I kept to myself.”

She relied deeply on her family. The sisters supported one another. Claire would drive Ellen to her treatments. She would make chicken-salad lunches for Ellen. They would share chicken salad with anyone else waiting for treatments. Though chemo left her bone weary and caused aggravating allergic reactions, but the treatments never made her sick to her stomach. Her granddaughter, Meagan Lane, would sit with her during treatments and at home.

She kept her Facebook blog of her treatments and her progress. Writing her story day by day was a catharsis. Reading people’s positive feedback buoyed Ellen.

Feb. 3, 2012: “Well folks, I told you that I would do it. Today I had my head shaved. The ‘Sisters’ decided it was time since it was shedding really badly. I don’t want anyone to feel bad about me losing my hair. I don’t. As I said before looking forward to this new chapter in my life. Bought 3 hats today. Don’t know if I will wear them or not. Thanks to Mary, my hairdresser, for buzzing me today. Peace. Ellen”

March 16, 2012: “Been really sick all week. Hands, ankles and feet itchy and on fire. Bones hurt so bad I can’t walk. I have slept almost since Monday. My Peaches (her dachshund) doesn’t understand her human mommy being in the bed.”

April 4, 2012: “Well, I’m allergic to the new chemo. Doc out of town. See him Monday. Today I saw the skin doc. I have shingles among other things. I have 5 new meds. 2 creams, swish and spit and nice pills. Boy do I need those nice pills. I’m going to take a pain pill and go to bed. Peace, Ellen.”

April 9, 2012: “Well, I have been so allergic to the chemo that it is being postponed. It seems that I will be having my surgery in the next two to three weeks , then two more chemos and then radiation. I can’t do anything normal or easy. ...”

May 8, 2012: “OK Friends, I had an appt. with my surgeon today and it was a negative but we will make it a positive. My cancer has metastasized but the question is where? All of my lymph nodes (18) that were removed had the cancer cells. Lymph nodes talk to each other so there (is) no knowing where it could be. I will have to go through more chemo then radiation. This I already knew but it could be more than I expected. Doctors won’t give you a prognosis, life expectancy, any more. But, medical wise it doesn’t look good. That’s it.”

May 22, 2012: “I started chemo again today. One more and then 32 radiations. I feel fine, so far.”

May 29, 2012: “Went to the doc today. Had a fever and that’s not good. Also had to have fluids and have to have them again tomorrow. I am very dehydrated. Running a fever now. Have lost 39 pounds. Feel lousy and going to bed.”

July 29, 2012: “I know I haven’t posted in a while. That’s because all was well. I have been having radiation. I have had 17 radiations and have 16 left. My last rad is on August 20. ... My radiation has seriously burned me. It has also affected my esophagus. I can’t swallow my pills or my food. I have been given a scrip for Lidocaine Viscous, a syrup that is the consistency of mucous (disgusting), but today that is not working. It is to deaden my esophagus so I can swallow.”

August 28, 2012: “Went to the oncologist and he told me to take 3 months (and) build my strength. He said that I had been through a lot. In 3 months we will take blood again and see if I am in remission.”

Come December 2012, McCarthy was told she was in remission. After chemo and radiation, she was told she was cancer free. She demanded a PET scan to confirm this.

On Dec. 30, 2012, she received the confirmation. Her year of cancer came to an end a day prior to New Year’s Eve.

Ellen McCarthy, cancer free.

Throughout that year, she maintained her active schedule, leading several civic organizations. She discovered new things about her life and herself.

She still has regular check-ups, but nearly a year out from being declared cancer free, McCarthy has been looking for “what the Good Lord wants me to do.”

Mostly, she hopes this article helps other women learn more about inflammatory breast cancer.

Meanwhile, she stays close to family. For this interview, she met at her sister Claire’s house. This past weekend, Ellen officiated a daughter’s wedding. Looking in the mirror brings her closer to family.

Before cancer, her hair was brown. After cancer, her hair is a mix of dark and gray, which reminds her of her mother Carolyn’s hair.

Seeing this hair, Ellen McCarthy comments, It’s like a sign that her mother was her guardian angel throughout breast cancer.

Text Only
Local News
  • doug henderson.jpg Memorial tourney returns

    The Doug Henderson III Memorial Golf Tournament has raised thousands of dollars for scholarship funds and to help organizations throughout the region.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • 041914-WA-Egghunt021.jpg Park puts wild spin on Easter tradition

    Adventurous egg hunters braved overcast skies and a persistent drizzle to search for hidden prizes Saturday during Wild Adventure’s first Ostrich Egg Hunt.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • FallenTree003.JPG More spills reported

    City of Valdosta employees have spent the weekend responding to spills caused by several inches of rain that have again drenched the city during the past few days.

    April 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Underwater Easter_Rich copy.jpg Stories behind ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’

    Christ comes from the Greek word, “Christos,” meaning “the anointed one.”

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • 140418_valwood001.jpg Valwood students register to vote

    Valwood teaches its students about the importance of voting. Each year, the school has encouraged eligible seniors to register to vote and participate in local elections.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • wadebrandon14.jpg Police still seeking missing mother, son

    Though their assignments have changed during the past dozen years, Valdosta Police Capt. Bobbi McGraw and Sgt. Chris Crews continue working the case of a missing mother and her son.

    April 19, 2014 3 Photos

  • 041814-TreeDownonRobinHood.jpg Minor flooding expected

    Minor flooding of the Withlacoochee River is expected this weekend thanks to the day-long rains across South Georgia Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • 041814-TreeDownonRobinHood.jpg Wastewater hazards assessed

    During heavy rain events, five to 15 manholes throughout the city are at risk of overflowing into local waterways, according to the City of Valdosta.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • 140418-VSU_HSBA003.jpg Valdosta State cuts ribbon for health, business building

    Eighteen months after breaking ground on the project, Valdosta State University held the official ribbon cutting Friday for its Health Sciences and Business Administration Building.

    April 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • 140417-Rail_Plan-001.jpg State Transportation seeks public input on rail plan

    The Georgia Department of Transportation held public meetings across the state this week to discuss its 2014 Georgia State Rail Plan.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

Top News
Poll

Given the amount of rain recently, what's your favorite “rain” song?

Singing in the Rain
Purple Rain
Have You Ever Seen the Rain?
November Rain
Rainy Night in Georgia
Other
     View Results