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Never stop the fight

Girard resident has breast cancer, but breast cancer doesn’t have her

Editor’s note: Local breast cancer survivors are sharing their stories on the Health pages throughout October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

GIRARD — Denise O’Malley, 65, has a corner in her house with inspirational plaques, butterflies and cards — “just stuff to make you happy,” she said.

A large sign given to O’Malley by a friend reads, “I am beautiful because I am fearfully, wonderfully made.” The wood of the sign is cracked on the back, but still it still looks lovely, just like O’Malley, she said.

It has been 5 1/2 years since O’Malley was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“My girlfriend Carol is a nag — and I don’t keep up on things, I really don’t — she wanted to know when did you have your last mammogram?” O’Malley recalled.

O’Malley went to a clinic at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, she said. The young doctor’s eyes grew wide when she saw the results of O’Malley’s mammogram. “And I realized right then and there, oh boy, I’m in trouble,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley said she only heard every third word as the situation was explained. With five healthy sisters, she couldn’t believe that she could get breast cancer.

“I never valued life. I took it for granted,” O’Malley said. “But when you’re faced with your own mortality now, and somebody’s smacking you in the face with it, it’s like — wow.”

O’Malley was at the end of Stage 2 breast cancer, and HR positive, HER2 negative, she said. The doctors explained she had a genetic disposition to create tumors, inherited from her father’s side of the family.

“I know a little this and a little that, but cancer, you know, that’s something you celebrate over October. That somebody else gets. But when it’s you,” O’Malley said. “So I wasn’t real informed. I didn’t have the education at the time.”

O’Malley started intensive chemotherapy through a port in her chest, seven hours a day, five days a week, she said. Then, came the sickness. Eventually, a friend who was also a cancer survivor, told Denise it was time for her to shave off her hip-length, brown hair.

“She was so gentle about it,” O’Malley said. “She said, you do not want to wake up and find your hair everywhere. Let it go. Get a wig. Start to accept things. But, accepting it is hard. It’s almost like giving in. And I’m not a person to give in. I’m a strong believer in fighting. But how do you fight something you can’t see? It has no face, no face.”

She said her brother was one of her biggest supporters, reminding her to keep fighting.

O’Malley wanted to save her breasts as much as she could. In the first procedure she underwent, half of her left breast was removed.

“So from that point on I had Sloppy Boo and Baby Boo. I gave them names,” O’Malley said.

Next, she received radiation treatment, then more chemotherapy. In between treatments, she had to receive painful shots to help boost her immune system.

When she finally had her last radiation treatment, O’Malley didn’t ring the bell on the way out, as most patients do.

“In here, I have cancer. Out there, no one knows. So out the door I went, and I took off my hat off and I could feel my hair, little spiky hair.”

O’Malley said she was referred to the Hope Center for Cancer Care in Warren, which felt like home with it’s “pretty, soft pictures on the wall,” and friendly people.

A doctor there told O’Malley that she needed to have a complete bilateral mastectomy, meaning both breasts would be removed. It was the best way to prevent more tumors from growing.

O’Malley said her plastic surgeon handled her with “kid gloves.” She wanted to be “fixed,” but instead got the bad news that a reconstruction would not be possible because of the damage from the radiation and chemotherapy.

“Man, how I bargained with God. How I waited and looked at that clock as it tick, tick, ticked away the day of the surgery. I wanted a miracle. Everybody got miracles. Well, I didn’t get one,” O’Malley said.

She said the plastic surgeon sat her down and told her she would be like a caterpillar emerging from its cocoon as a butterfly.

“You start accepting this is what happened to me. I have nothing to be ashamed about. I’m still a woman. I’m great in every way. In fact, I’m spectacular,” O’Malley said. “I’ve come to realize yeah, I got cancer for sure, but this, it don’t ruin my life. It don’t got me. It got it, but it don’t got me.”

O’Malley said these days, she’s alive.

“It happened in 2015. If you make it the first five years, you’ve done well, especially with what I have,” she said.

O’Malley still takes pills and see doctors. She knows another tumor is likely, but it won’t be in the breast.

She worries about her daughter and son, who may share her genetic disposition. She reminds her son that he can get breast cancer too, or another type of cancer.

O’Malley said her breasts and the pictures of her body will help with research. She hopes that one day, the disease may be eradicated completely. And, she hopes that sharing her story might help, too.

“I have my dreams. I have my hopes. I’m just going to carry on. It don’t matter. You know, and if I can help someone — I’ll tell you, there is life after yourself. You just gotta step out of your way.”

avugrincic@tribtoday.com

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