By Sean Barron
The main message Michelle Apple hopes will reach and resonate with those who have learned that they have cancer can be summed up in five words: Be an advocate for yourself.
“Cancer doesn’t define me; it’s just my diagnosis,” the Boardman woman said recently, referring to having been diagnosed last summer with invasive lobular carcinoma, a form of breast cancer that starts in the milk-producing glands and often spreads to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.
She also doesn’t hesitate to tell anyone who will listen about what she strongly feels is the value of maintaining a positive attitude and living as normal a life as possible.
During the early stages of this type of cancer, no signs or symptoms may be present. As it progresses, however, invasive lobular carcinoma can cause a thickening and swelling of the breast, along with a change in the appearance or texture of the skin over that area, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website.
About a year ago, Apple felt a lump about the size of a fingernail, which led her to undergo a standard mammogram. Nevertheless, the test failed to detect any abnormalities, but over time, the growth near her underarm continued to increase, remembered Apple, a corporate dietitian with AVI Foodsystems Inc. in Boardman.
Initially, she ignored the situation before undergoing ultrasound imaging and receiving a more sophisticated 3D mammogram at the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center in Youngstown. It revealed a solid mass the original mammogram had missed. Soon after, she had a biopsy, Apple noted.
A second opinion she sought at the Cleveland Clinic, which led to the same set of procedures she had at the local breast-care facility, as well as an MRI, showed the mass was about 4 or 5 centimeters in diameter, considerably larger than originally thought. From there, Apple underwent an eight-hour surgery in July after having had a mastectomy, she continued.
“They removed 28 lymph nodes, 21 of which were cancerous,” Apple said, noting that before the procedure, she had a separate test to see if she carried a certain type of gene that placed her at an increased risk for needing to have both breasts removed.
Those results came back negative, Apple added.
The next steps on her journey are to receive her last chemotherapy treatment toward the end of this month, then begin six weeks of radiation therapy this month, explained Apple, a staunch animal-rights activist who also works out regularly at a local gym and volunteers for the Animal Charity of Ohio humane society.
Despite the emotional difficulties associated with her diagnosis – after which she experienced the typical stages of grief such as denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance – Apple is grateful to those who had been diagnosed years earlier.
Whether those women have survived or lost their battles with cancer, they have “provided a blueprint for newly diagnosed patients such as myself,” in conjunction with improvements in technology, Apple said.
“I meet survivors, and they give me hope that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she added.
Apple also recalled having met two people age 15 and 23 who found out they had cancer. The older woman expressed trepidation at the prospect of losing her hair, so in an effort to help her feel empowered instead of fearful, Apple posted on Facebook a photograph of herself with a shaved head, she explained.
“The 23-year-old called and thanked me,” Apple said.
The value of receiving support and acceptance from friends, family and others is essential when coping with a cancer diagnosis, Apple continued, adding she’s grateful to her circle of supporters that include her husband, Brian Apple.
Despite dealing with some difficult days, talking about her disease is cathartic and helps her stay on a positive track, said Apple.
She also offered a few additional suggestions to those who are grappling with a new diagnosis or trying to cope with cancer in general.
“Never lose hope,” she added. “Keep as much normalcy as possible.”