On Your Health

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Cancer, Twenty Years Later


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Barbara Keel

When Barbara Keel first felt a lump in her left breast, she didn’t think much of it. She was 54. She had no family history of the disease, and she’d just seen her doctor a few months earlier.

“All of a sudden I felt this large mass on my breast. I kept thinking, ‘It’s nothing,’” she said. “It’s nothing.”

It was cancer. This October, she’ll mark 20 years since her diagnosis.

About 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. The good news: dramatic advances in breast cancer treatment give women today better prospects than in past decades. Keel said she encourages other women to focus on living their lives, even during and after treatment.

“You can survive it,” she said. “There are a lot of survivors out there. Don’t ever give up hope.”

From diagnosis to recovery

After Keel first felt the lump in her breast, she ignored it for a few months and then finally went to see her doctor in October 1997. A needle biopsy showed nothing wrong, but an ultrasound made her doctor concerned. She had another biopsy, which revealed two kinds of cancer. Breast cancer has several types.

Breast cancer patients have several treatment options, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy. When it comes to breast cancer surgery, patients have two choices: a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. During a lumpectomy, a surgeon removes the tumor and part of the healthy tissue surrounding it. During a mastectomy, a surgeon will remove the entire breast. A double mastectomy is the removal of both breasts.

Keel had a mastectomy to remove her left breast. Then she underwent chemotherapy and radiation.

Her doctor warned her that three weeks after the first chemo treatment, her hair would fall out. He was right. And Keel’s father died that same day. But through it all, Keel said she didn’t break down. She bought a wig. Even though the chemo left her feeling drained and nauseous, she kept up with her favorite hobby: tap dancing. Her doctor told her to stay active if she felt well enough, so she kept up her routine of dancing three times a week.

Keel said it was important to her to stay positive. “What use is it being negative?” the Edmond grandmother said. “That just takes you down.”

Her husband was so supportive and caring, she said, changing her bandages and taking care of her. Friends brought food. Her children helped out. Her doctor was phenomenal. The support was amazing, she said, because everybody treated her as the same person she always had been.

“I didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for me,” she said.

Life after breast cancer

Dog painting

After she recovered, Keel started volunteering with Reach to Recovery®, a support program for breast cancer patients and survivors through the American Cancer Society. Then she connected with some other INTEGRIS volunteers and began volunteering with patients there at the main hospital campus. She handed out coffee and donuts to patients and their families. “It was so nice doing that because you go to talk to them and reassure them: you can survive,” she said.

Now Keel volunteers at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute. At 73, Keel is still tap dancing. She keeps busy with her nine grandchildren. She paints custom dog portraits and takes art classes.

“I’m living a really full life,” she said. “There is hope after cancer.”

She was checking in with her doctor twice a year, but he recently cleared her to come just once a year. While she may feel a twinge of nervousness, the feeling she has after the appointment is the best in the world.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “I don’t mind my arm getting stuck anymore like I used to. It’s wonderful to go in and know that everything’s still OK.”

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