When Cindy Meadows developed breast cancer 10 years ago at 43 years old, her two older sisters began monitoring their health more closely. Along with annual mammograms, Susan Holder and Ginger Wood underwent annual ultrasounds.
On March 3, 2020, almost eight years to the day after Meadows’ diagnosis on March 5, 2012, doctors diagnosed the then 53-year-old Wood with breast cancer. One of the first people she called was her sister.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned,” said Meadows, who celebrated 10 years cancer-free in March. “After my diagnosis, I focused on my nieces, making sure they knew to get mammograms. I never thought it would happen to one of my sisters.”
One in eight women will battle breast cancer, according to medical data. And a woman with a first-degree female relative, such as a sister or mother, with breast cancer has about twice the risk of developing the disease.
To raise awareness of the disease facing tens of thousands of families across the United States, splashes of pink will adorn area football stadiums, grocery store aisles, fire departments and city streets during October for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
There are breast cancer-themed bra-painting parties, art auctions, bunco parties, line dance competitions, CrossFit workouts and walks. Two of Decatur’s most popular events are the Decatur Morgan Hospital Foundation’s virtual Power of Pink Walk and the Power of Pink Fashion Show.
According to Noel Lovelace, president of the Decatur Morgan Hospital Foundation, since the foundation’s Power of Pink campaign debuted 15 years ago, the walk and fashion show have raised over a million dollars for facility improvements, new technology and free screenings for individuals in need. Proceeds from this year’s events will benefit the Lee Lott Breast Health Fund and Women’s Services at Decatur Morgan Hospital.
“Early detection, improvements in treatment options and increased awareness are helping more and more individuals beat breast cancer each year,” Lovelace said.
For Meadows and Wood, their family’s journey with the disease began with the early detection of Meadows' breast cancer in 2012.
“Before I was diagnosed, there was no evidence of breast cancer in our family,” Meadows said. “Mine didn’t show up on a mammogram or an ultrasound. My doctor just felt something and ordered a biopsy.”
Meadows, who was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer, underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. For support, she turned to her family, including her husband, three sons, parents and siblings.
“My sisters and my mother played such a big role in helping me when I got sick. I took a year off of school and was real sick for about four months because of the chemotherapy,” said Meadows, who teaches at Decatur’s Banks-Caddell Elementary.
“It was awful watching her go through that," recalled Wood, who teaches at Decatur’s Oak Park Elementary. "She was in a lot of pain. We would get her up to try to get food down her and then she would go right back to bed. When I was diagnosed, I just prayed I would not have chemotherapy.”
Pandemic a complication
Treatment for Wood, who was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer, included a lumpectomy and radiation.
“My treatment was a lot less difficult physically than Cindy’s was. What made my experience difficult was that I got my diagnosis at the beginning of the pandemic,” Wood said.
Two weeks after Wood’s diagnosis, the country was shut down due to COVID.
While family and friends could not visit Wood, they supported her with drive-by parades, cards and food.
“There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t have food on my porch or a card in the mail,” Wood said. “And, even though they weren’t allowed in the hospital when I had my lumpectomy, they still came to the hospital. When the orderly brought me down after the surgery, she said, ‘Do you know those girls standing over there in the bushes?’ It was my family. They were standing outside waiting for me to come out.”
Both Meadows and Wood said one of the most difficult experiences of having breast cancer was telling their loved ones.
“It is very traumatic telling the family because you know you are going to scare them to death and worry them,” Meadows said. “When I was diagnosed, I had known a couple of people who had breast cancer, but they had all passed away. I didn’t know anyone who had survived. It just wasn’t talked about.”
Support group forms
To encourage more survivors to talk to about their experiences, Meadows, along with several other women, in 2013 formed the Pink Sisters, a breast cancer support group.
“It started out with just a few of us. Now we have about 60 women, mainly from Morgan and Lawrence counties,” Meadows said. “Our group tries to be a face of survival. We want people to see that you can be diagnosed with breast cancer and get through it.”
In 2015, Darlene Hutto, of Hillsboro, became a member of the Pink Sisters.
Like Wood, Hutto began scheduling annual mammograms after a close relative was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“My mother, Ruthie Sandlin, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 at the age of 74. She was also diagnosed with colon cancer in 2007. That really opened my eyes that cancer can impact anyone,” Hutto said.
For treatment, Sandlin, who lives in Moulton, underwent a single mastectomy and took the drug Arimidex for five years. At the age of 49, Hutto received her diagnosis of breast cancer.
“I went into shock. I had a sore spot on my breast, but I had been going to the gym, so I thought I just pulled something. The mammogram and ultrasound came back clean, but my doctor decided to do a biopsy just in case. It came back as stage 3 invasive mammary carcinoma and abundant ductile carcinoma,” Hutto said.
Hutto connected with Meadows who, along with the other Pink Sisters, provided her support through her double mastectomy, six chemotherapy treatments, 28 rounds of radiation and breast reconstruction.
“It meant a lot to have them there to ask them about side effects. They encouraged me, not just through my physical recovery, but also through my mental and emotional recovery,” Hutto said.
Individuals interested in joining the Pink Sisters can contact them on Facebook or through Clearview Cancer Institute.
“Going through cancer changes you,” Meadows said. “You look at things differently and are more aware of things and appreciate things more. You realize life is short and you need to cherish every moment.”