Teresa Bannon fingers the pendant around her neck and muses on the day she first learned of her abnormal mammogram.
A registered nurse, she perhaps knew too much. She understood the ultrasound and needle biopsy that followed the questionable screening three years ago, but as she looked at those results with her physician and the radiologist, it hit home.
"Even though I was suspecting it, the news was crushing," Teresa admits today. "I was 46. Because of breast cancer in my family, I'd had a baseline mammogram at 35, and since 40, have been faithfully scheduling my annual screenings at the Breast Care Center [at Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital]. But you're never really prepared. I remember going down to Goleta Beach to reflect on the news. I was numb."
Yet early detection can pay off. The October 31 mammogram had detected a spot so small, and aggressive treatment got under way so immediately that time was on her side.
Following consultation with breast surgeon Dr. Kim Grafton --"she is intensely fabulous," claims Teresa -- a lumpectomy, or partial mastectomy, was performed in November at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. Chemotherapy began in January at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara: four rounds of chemicals, timed three weeks apart, basically invaded her entire body and all organs, poisoning the cancer.
"I lost my hair and was sicker than a dog," she recalls. "It really was the worst part of the treatment. At one time I passed out in the shower. I was basically dehydrated and had been too sick and too out of it to get up for a drink of water."
With the support of family, friends and co-workers, Teresa survived those months, moving next to a six-week course of radiation, again at the Cancer Center. On July 1, 2007, eight months after the mammogram, she was back at work. A clinical resource nurse on the Mother / Infant unit at SBCH for more than a decade, she continues to work the night shift. "I'm a vampire nurse and proud of it," she jokes, explaining that she's grown to love the schedule she chose as a single mom when her three children were young.
Her yaya sisters. Looking back on those challenging months, and what she learned, Teresa is quick to acknowledge her "YaYa sisters." These long-time childhood girl- friends -- some from St. Raphael's Elementary School in Goleta, and all from Bishop Garcia Diego High School -- now live up and down the coast between Ventura and Paso Robles. Following Teresa's diagnosis, they donned pink t-shirts, picked her up, took her "strutting" on the beach, ending up with pink cocktails and dinner on one friend's best holiday china. "I know I'm never alone," she claims. "Friends, family, co-workers - they've been such a support."
Ironically, it is time now for Teresa to be the support system. Her older sister, Jill, was recently diagnosed with the same type of breast cancer. Teresa has pledged to be there for her. "It's my turn to help out now, just as my mother helped me," she says.
The realization of one's own strength. It's something she hopes Jill will also discover. "Physically, you find out that your body can deal with much more than you thought. That was something I didn't expect to learn, particularly when I was going through chemo."
That was a difficult time, but there's the good- luck charm to consider. Too weak and nauseous to do much more than sleep and watch television, Teresa admits that in the fog of chemotherapy one night, she called one of the shopping channels that air in the wee hours.
She ended up purchasing the piece of jewelry she's now fingering. "I barely remember doing it," she grins, "but I call it my chemo pendant."
Teresa continues to do well today, and recently scheduled her next mammogram-this time on the new digital mammography machine at Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital. "I live in Goleta, I started my nursing career there, and I think the Breast Care Center is outstanding. It's why I go there, and this new equipment is a huge bonus."
Read other stories from the Winter 2010 Cottage Magazine here.