For 42-year-old Shana Cunningham, listening to her mother-in-law just might have saved her life.
When Shana turned 40, she celebrated by doing what her mother-in-law, Wallette, suggested: Getting her first mammogram. Her first annual checkup showed nothing to worry about. Then during her second mammogram at age 41, the radiologist at the Augusta University Breast Health Center spotted something concerning on her 3D mammogram and follow-up ultrasound.
Her mother, Carolyn, and her sister, Teresa, supported her during the biopsy and her first meeting with Dr. Matthew Pugliese, a surgical oncologist at the Georgia Cancer Center. In that meeting, said Shana, “He told me that I had breast cancer”—specifically bilateral breast cancer, tumors in both breasts.
For the mother of five, the news came as a shock. Although she comes from a large family (Shana has six siblings, and her parents each had 14 or 15 siblings), she had zero family history of breast or ovarian cancer. At the same time, she felt a surprising sense of calm: “These folks around me…as I went from place to place [in the cancer center], they were so great, so easy to talk to and they made everything really easy to deal with. It seemed like it was going to be a walk in the park…it didn’t seem like something I was going to have to worry about.”
Shana would undergo a lumpectomy on both sides, as well as a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. The only time she cried was when she had contrast imaging prior to her surgery because of the pain of the needle injections. But otherwise, said Shana, “I felt better laughing about it. I never wanted a pity party.”
For example, when people told her they were sorry she had cancer, she’d often respond, “Why? Did you do it? If you did, let me know.” It was an answer that would always bring a laugh and was Shana’s way of saying, “It’s going to be alright.”
During four months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation, her family and friends rallied around her. Her husband, Roan, a survivor of non-Hodgkins lymphoma 15 years ago, made sure she stayed hydrated and rested as much as possible. Her son, Jarvis, took a leave of absence from college to help care for her. In a heart-pulling moment, her daughter, Kamala, gently shaved Shana’s head when her hair started falling out, and her sisters, brothers, mother and other friends and family all either shaved their heads too or cut their hair in camaraderie. Her family and co-workers—200-strong—also bought T-shirts and walked in a local cancer fundraiser in her honor.
Today, Shana is a proud cancer survivor who takes every moment she can to share the good advice her mother-in-law gave her. “The most important thing is to get your mammogram. It can win the battle even before you go on the battlefield,” she said. “Early detection saved me. Women need to take those exams seriously and keep getting them.” And, she added, laughing, “They can’t keep me out of mammography.”