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Trio of cancer

High school best friends diagnosed with breast cancer within a year

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of survivor stories to run on the Health page in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Examples of occurrences with nearly impossible odds include hitting the correct set of Mega Millions lottery numbers, winning an Olympic gold medal, being elected president of the United States and becoming the next Bill Gates.

You also can add to the list the likelihood that three high school best friends being diagnosed with different forms of breast cancer around the same time. That’s what happened to Litrena Gordon-Staton, Rajohnna Shelton and Rashanda Hernaiz, all 42 and 1996 Woodrow Wilson High School graduates.

“The doctor said, ‘I’m going to be straight with you. It looks like cancer,'” Gordon-Staton, now of Mechanicsburg, Pa., said before learning she had invasive ductal carcinoma, one of the most common types of breast cancer in which the disease breaks through the wall of milk-producing ducts and spreads through breast tissue.

Soreness under her arm encouraged Gordon-Staton, who’s also a 23-year U.S. Army veteran as well as a huge movie buff, to conduct a self-exam July 10. After having watched the 1983 hit film “Terms of Endearment,” she drew parallels between herself and the character Emma (played by Debra Winger), who learns she has the disease.

Nevertheless, “I tried to talk myself out of it, that probably nothing is wrong,” she said. After all, she survived tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a near-fatal car accident.

A few days after her self-exam, Gordon-Staton, underwent an ultrasound and a mammogram in Mechanicsburg, followed by a biopsy. That led to the discovery of a tumor about the size of a quarter, she said.

Perhaps as difficult as the diagnosis was the weeklong wait to see a breast surgeon in late July, she recalled.

“The lump felt like a golf ball. I was like, ‘Am I going to die?'” Gordon-Staton said.

In August, she underwent a lumpectomy, then surgery in early September, followed by what will be four rounds of chemotherapy, the first of which carried side effects less severe than she expected.

She leaned on her husband, daughter, and her two best friends for strength and emotional support.

One of those two best friends, Hernaiz, of Campbell, began her breast cancer journey last year.

“At age 2, (my child) kicked me in my breast while we were playing and I said, ‘Ouch, that hurts,'” said the 23-year teaching veteran who works at Alta Head Start Learning Center in Youngstown. She said she initially assumed the lump she later felt was the result of the kick.

A co-worker who had been diagnosed with cancer felt the affected area and encouraged Hernaiz to make an appointment with the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital. Hernaiz’s March 2019 diagnosis was confirmed after she had undergone a mammogram and a biopsy in both breasts, she said.

What Hernaiz initially thought was Stage 1 breast cancer turned out to be an advanced form of Stage 3 cancer, as revealed by a bone scan and other tests. She then tested positive for carrying the HER2 gene. The gene normally makes proteins that form receptors, which control the growth, division and life of breast cells, but in 10 to 20 percent of breast cancer cases, it doesn’t work correctly and makes too many copies of itself, according to www.breastcancer.org.

In addition, two of seven lymph nodes that were removed were cancerous, and she continues to suffer from neuropathy, along with pain in her arm and numbness in her hand.

Hernaiz began chemotherapy treatments in June 2019, followed by surgery in November and 28 daily rounds of radiation in January at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, which felt like “a really bad sunburn,” said Hernaiz.

“My co-workers were with me for every chemo for six hours (each),” she said.

She said she’s now in a pain-management program.

Shelton, a beautician at Cost Cutters, formerly Famous Hair, received her diagnosis in October 2019 after her doctor showed her a report of a mammogram that was “cloudy.” Further testing and an MRI revealed three spots on her right breast, the Youngstown woman recalled.

Shelton’s cancer was triple negative, meaning that cancerous cells lack estrogen and progesterone receptors, and don’t make enough of the normal HER2 protein. As a result, she opted for a bilateral double mastectomy, the first of three phases of reconstructive surgery, to reduce the risk of the cancer spreading, she said.

The final phase is set for Nov. 3, she said.

Shelton said through Hope Center for Cancer Care in Boardman and her oncologist, she underwent “tons of bloodwork” and four rounds of chemotherapy. The oncologist also told Shelton she carries an abnormal BRCA2 gene mutation, which greatly increases the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer, www.breastcancer.org states.

The three best friends offered suggestions and advice for those who have received a breast cancer diagnosis, which includes having a strong support network, maintaining a positive outlook and faith that they will get through it and conducting regular self-exams.

“Cancer has a lot of moving pieces. It is a lot of waiting and a lot of accepting,” Gordon-Staton said. “You’ll get through it. Your attitude dictates your destiny.”

“Your support system is your best system. There’s always someone in the world who has it worse than me,” Shelton said.

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