Under a lucky star
Douglas High School teacher Susan Bullard considers herself a lucky woman. She is a healthy, vibrant, upbeat mother of two sons, who has beaten breast cancer.
Never mind that she lost her right breast to a mastectomy six years ago, when her sons were toddlers and she had just relocated to Gardnerville. Never mind that she watched her mother die from a form of cancer six months before she was diagnosed. And never mind that she has met and lost friends to the deadly disease during her own struggle.
She is a lucky woman. She is alive.
“I am not a hero,” she said. “Something happens and I guess I felt I had no choice. I had young children and I did what I had to do.”
It is estimated that 203,500 new cases of breast cancer are expected to occur among women in the United States this year. Of 192,200 cases diagnosed in 2001, 40,200 women died, according to the American Cancer Society. Men account for 1 percent of all breast cancer cases annually.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. All women are encouraged to recognize the importance of early breast cancer detection by participating in National Mammography Day Oct. 18.
The journey started for Bullard, 47, when she was 18-years-old in the early 1970s. She visited a YMCA with a friend and as they sat in the sauna, they met a woman who had jagged scars that indicated she had a mastectomy. The woman showed no fear or pity, and Bullard remembered thinking, “What a brave woman.”
Flash forward some 20-odd years and Bullard watched her mother suffer with lymphoma for seven years. Betty Bullard, 72, died in 1995 after Bullard and her sister decided to forgo continuing chemotherapy and let their mother die without the side effects of the powerful drugs.
“It was hard to say what was hurting her more D the chemo or the cancer,” said Bullard. ” You know some doctors don’t want to give up – admit their patient is terminal, and we really had to fight to take her off.”
Her mother died shortly after.
Bullard had been working in Fargo, N.D. as a television anchor, producer and editor for an ABC affiliate station and her family soon relocated to Gardnerville to escape the brutal winters of the Midwest. Bullard was still grieving her loss, when she found two lumps in her lymph nodes under her right arm since she had just moved to the area she hardly knew anyone. She went to Carson-Tahoe Hospital and was soon paired with oncologist Dr. John Kelly who confirmed her biopsy was positive for breast cancer.
In order to get a second opinion, Bullard went to the Stanford Comprehensive Breast Cancer Clinic in Stanford, Calif. and had her test results examined by a team of doctors.
“Boy, you really feel like a piece of meat,” said Bullard. “I was sitting at the doctor’s table, stripped to the waist and 12 strangers walk in and some are poking and prodding my chest.
“I just fixed my eyes in the corner and waited for it to be over.”
The team backed up Kelly’s diagnoses.
Two weeks later, Bullard was in the hospital again, having her right breast completely removed.
“It really frightened me. My mom had many rounds of chemo and I knew how devastating it is to the body,” said Bullard. “But I was lucky. I tolerated it pretty well. I lost all my hair and looked really haggard.
“Sometimes I would look in the mirror and see my mother. I just wish I could have had her to talk with.”
For six months, three-and-a-half hours every three weeks, Bullard received chemotherapy treatment. Sometimes it just wiped her out.
“I was lucky I didn’t have many side effects,” she said. “I remember pushing my grocery cart and just hanging on,” she said.
Bullard was also lucky enough to join a support group at the hospital’s Cancer Resource Center in Carson City to laugh or cry with and get helpful tips from other breast cancer survivors D such as where to buy the best wigs or scarves, or how to carry Tums to settle a stomach nauseated from chemo treatment.
Bullard decided against reconstructive surgery. The decision was easy for her because her priority was seeing her sons make it through high school.
“It just wasn’t a big deal,” she said.
It has been six years since Bullard was deemed cancer free but she continues to support other victims and says she wears the experience like a badge of honor.
“It is a big jolt, like 9/11,” she said. “It puts things back in perspective. I try not to sweat the small stuff.
“I just think, if I can handle the big “C,” I can handle anything.”
Bullard believes environmental factors played a role into her getting breast cancer.
“Look at our diet in the U.S.,” she said. “In Japan, breast cancer is almost nonexistent, although (her doctor) Kelly said there is no conclusive evidence to any one source.”
But, she said early detection is what saved her life and Bullard encourages women to be proactive with self-examinations and annual mammograms.
If you would like more information, visit the American Cancer Society’s Web site at http://www.cancer.org.
n R-C Staff Writer Regina Purcell can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org