DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — Bailey, then a 4-year-old beagle, pawed at Michele Bazzel to wake up. Bazzel said she felt like her dog knew she was sick.
She was. She had breast cancer.
“Bailey kept me going,” Bazzel said.
She was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer when she went for her yearly mammogram in January 2008. It was a lump too deep for Bazzel to feel during a self-exam.
Heather Shah, an oncologist at Clearview Cancer Institute in Decatur and Bazzel’s physician, said it is an aggressive form of breast cancer.
“Triple-negative breast cancer tends to occur in young patients and spreads,” Shah said. “Those patients get chemotherapy. If it comes back, it tends to come back quicker.”
Bazzel smiled and said it’s not going to come back. She doesn’t have time for that.
After her diagnosis, Bazzel had a mastectomy. She started chemotherapy in February and finished in July.
The 52-year-old has been in remission for five years.
Bazzel works as a receptionist at Clearview Cancer Institute, so she said she had an idea of what to expect. Her father also was a cancer patient at the institute for 11 years.
Teary-eyed, Bazzel said her job is therapy for her.
“I thought I knew a lot from going through the steps with dad,” Bazzel said. “Losing your hair is one thing, but then you lose your eyelashes.”
Bazzel said losing her hair was not a big deal to her.
“There are no bad hair days. No bed head hair,” Bazzel said. “I had a baseball cap that said ‘No hair day.’ “
While Bazzel going through chemotherapy, she was alone. She is not married and has no children. Bazzel said she has her parents, but her father also was receiving treatment at Clearview.
Bazzel said her diagnosis scared her because she knew her parents depended on her. She said it was a hard time for her mother.
“She tried to be strong for both of us,” Bazzel said. “She was, but she was used to me being the strong one. She had to take over the ropes for a while.”
After her mastectomy, Bazzel said she did not feel complete at first. She had one breast removed.
“I decided not to do a reconstruction,” she said. “You get used to it.”
Instead of reconstruction, Bazzel decided to wear a prosthesis.
She has not been swimming in five years because she is self-conscious. But because of a friend who found swimsuit inserts, Bazzel said, she plans to go swimming.
Shah said it is not recommended to remove both breasts, just the breast with cancer.
Bazzel said during treatment, there were days that she got depressed.
“As your body goes through ups and downs, your mind does, too,” Bazzel said.
With such a large staff, Shah said, treating co-workers happens from time to time.
“It’s such a big family,” Shah said. “It’s someone you work with day in and day out, so you really know them and can support them emotionally. It means a lot to me when staff trusts us to take care of them and their family.”
According to breastcancer.org, one in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer. In 2013, an estimated 232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 64,640 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer. About 2,240 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in men in 2013. A man’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is about one in 1,000.
The National Cancer Institute reported Morgan County has a typical number of cases compared to the U.S. average, and the numbers are decreasing.
Limestone County has fewer than the national average, and its cases also are decreasing. Lawrence County did not have enough reported cases for an accurate measure.
According to Shah, there is a variety of breast cancer types. The biology of the cancer helps to determine the treatment that is needed. She said oncologists look at different markers such as estrogen and progesterone receptors. Breast cancer cells with estrogen and/or progesterone receptors are hormone sensitive and can be treated with hormone therapy.
Human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) is a protein that is present in large amounts in 20 to 25 percent of breast cancers. Anit-HER2 treatments block HER2 to stop the growth of cancer cells.
“Triple-negative means it is not really showing any of those targets on its surface,” Shah said. “Those patients get chemotherapy.”
Even though triple-negative tends to be an aggressive breast cancer, Shah said it is curable but depends on the stage of the cancer. Shah said there are symptoms to look for with breast cancer.
“Usually symptoms mean it is an early stage of cancer because the breast is external and the symptoms are localized,” Shah said.
Lumps are not the only thing to look for during self-exams. Other symptoms to look for are changes in the shape of breasts, Shah said. She added there can be skin and nipple changes, as well as welling under the arm in the lymph nodes.
According to Shah, male breast cancer is less common and tends to be diagnosed early. She said male breast cancer is usually hormone sensitive and treated with hormone-blocking therapies.
It is important for patients to know their bodies and to see a physician if there’s something unusual, Shah said.
According to breastcancer.org, about 39,620 women in the U.S. were expected to die in 2013 from breast cancer. Death rates have been decreasing since 1989, with larger decreases in women younger than 50. These decreases are thought to be the result of treatment advances, earlier detection through screening and increased awareness.
“Awareness is important so that people are vigilant about their checkups to help with early diagnosis,” Shah said. “That means more survivors.”
Now that Bazzel has been cancer free for five years, she described her job a God send. Bazzel said sometimes she forgets she had breast cancer.
“Sometimes I wake up with a headache,” Bazzel said. “I get to work and look around and see suffering people. I think, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.’ “