Shelly Lawrence distinctly remembers Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. It was Labor Day, and she was excited to spend time with her family. While getting out of bed, Lawrence remembers her hand brushing the area by her left breast and feeling a large bump.
“I immediately got sick to my stomach, because I’d already dealt with cancer twice,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence was first diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma in 2009. Her cancer went into remission for a few years, but reappeared again in 2015. She was in remission once again in 2020 when she found the lump on her breast.
“I’ve always been on top of all my mammograms and making sure that everything is taken care of, everything is checked out,” Lawrence said. Her mother died of breast cancer, so the disease was on Lawrence’s radar. Still, she did not expect it after two rounds of lymphoma.
“I just thought I was okay. I didn’t think that I would ever [have it], even though I have a history of breast cancer in my family. I never thought that it would come knocking at my door.”
Lawrence had her sister, who is a registered nurse, check the lump. Her sister recommended she get it checked out and tested right away.
“I felt like I was reliving that same experience of having to go to the doctor and go through the process,” Lawrence said. She was given a mammogram, then an MRI mammogram.
“It was very scary because both times that I had lymphoma, it never showed up in my breast area,” she said. “It was something new. Everything was new this time.”
When Lawrence received her test results, she was not surprised that her left breast tested positive for cancer. She was surprised, however, at the cancer in her right breast as well.
“That was crazy,” she said.
Lawrence had to undergo chemotherapy for the third time. She said, even though the process was the same, chemotherapy for her breast cancer was harder than the previous two times. She said it was rougher on her body.
Lawrence also said having cancer in the middle of the pandemic was additionally frightening because there were so many changes to how the hospital operated and new risks for her compromised immune system.
Patients at Community Howard Regional Health were not allowed to bring anyone with them in order to protect hospital staff and other patients, so Lawrence went to her chemotherapy sessions alone. She said it was hard to stay positive, but her sister made sure to send her a CARE package every chemotherapy session.
“It was just such an encouragement to me that even though she couldn’t be with me, I was on her mind and heart,” Lawrence said. “So every session, I was like a kid on Christmas day, with anticipation of what I was going to receive from her.”
Luckily, the chemotherapy eradicated the cancer. Lawrence’s life was still being affected by the threat of breast cancer, however, and she had a very difficult choice to make.
Since Lawrence has such an extensive history with cancer, her doctors recommended she take a genetic test to help determine whether she should have a double mastectomy.
The Breast Cancer Risk Assessment test analyzes specific genes for mutations that can contribute to the development of breast cancer. The test is used to help predict whether someone is at risk of developing breast cancer or whether the cancer will return.
Lawrence said she knew she would test positive because in addition to her mother, she has aunts on both sides of her family who had breast cancer.
“I was so determined to have them just remove the lump,” Lawrence said. Unfortunately, her gene test came back positive. Her doctors told her she needed to seriously consider a double mastectomy.
Lawrence had reservations about a double mastectomy. Even though she knew it was important, she did not want to have her breasts removed.
“It felt like somebody was going to take my arm off,” Lawrence said. “What is it going to be like not having an arm? I was trying to visualize, if they remove my breasts, am I going to be less of a woman? I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. How it was going to feel, what I was going to look like, or how I was going to adjust.”
Annette Moore, Lawrence’s oncologist at Community Howard, said getting a mastectomy is a difficult decision for women to make.
“Every appointment, we went back through the pros and cons,” Moore said. “It’s a very, very personal thing. It is like losing a limb.”
Lawrence said Moore talked with her, not as a doctor to a patient, but woman to woman to address some of Lawrence’s fears.
“She just really encouraged me and said that doesn’t define you,” Lawrence said. “What defines you is your personality, your family, and your love for yourself. That’s what defines you as a woman.”
Lawrence still felt uncertain about getting a double mastectomy, though, so she discussed her options with her son, Plez. Plez is a senior in high school and plays running back on the Kokomo High School varsity football team. He hopes to play football at an Indiana college so he can stay close to his mom.
“The first time she told me [about the breast cancer], I was bawling my eyes out,” Plez said. “This would be the third time. Going through that as a child, then going through it again, and now I’m 17 and I’m going through it again; it was like, when can I catch a break? When somebody’s parents have cancer, I don’t think people understand how much that affects the kid.”
Plez said his mom’s breast cancer diagnosis caused him to have a crisis of faith. He stopped going to church and isolated himself. Concerned, his mom scheduled a time for Plez to meet with his pastor.
Plez said his pastor helped him see the situation as a faith-building moment, and that gave him clarity when his mom asked for advice.
“I love my mom. She’s all I’ve got, so I was like, I want you to live,” Plez said. “I know for a woman it’s hard, but I really wanted her to see me graduate and see me go on in life. When she asked me about that decision, I said, ‘I want you to choose life.’”
Lawrence said Plez gave her the push she needed to make a decision about the double mastectomy her doctors were recommending.
“He said, ‘Mom, they’re nothing but breasts,’” Lawrence said. “I said, ‘I understand that, but I want to know how you really feel.’ I remember him putting out his left hand, and he said, ‘Mom, imagine these are your breasts,’ and then he put out his right hand and said, ‘Imagine this is your life.’ Then he asked me which one I thought was important. He said he would rather me be here. When he said that, it was like my eyes just opened up. That’s when I called the doctor and said go ahead and schedule the surgery. I was at peace about it.”
Lawrence said she has never regretted her double mastectomy. She was pleasantly surprised at her smooth recovery, and she is very happy with her reconstructive surgery.
“It’s like I’m new and improved,” Lawrence said. “I have no regrets whatsoever. I know I made the right decision.”
Lawrence said having breast cancer changed the way she thinks about life. She now knows what is truly important to her, and she cherishes the small moments.
Lawrence wrote down three “nuggets of wisdom” she wants to share with people. She learned them after her breast cancer diagnosis, but she feels they are important life lessons for everyone.
“I’ve always told people to take one day at a time,” Lawrence said. “That’s what I had to learn in the journey when dealing with breast cancer, or just cancer period: I had to take it just one day at a time.”
Lawrence teared up as she described the second lesson she learned from her experience with breast cancer.
“I had to learn to give myself grace, because a lot of times we feel like we have to be strong and be all tough, but it’s okay. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be disappointed, just as long as you don’t stay there. Have your moment, get up, and keep going.”
“The third thing that I would say is, never despise the process of what you’re going through when you’re going through adversity. A lot of times, you find a lot of hidden treasures,” she said. “When things are not so good, if you just learn to relax, slow down and smell the flowers, you’ll find a lot of hidden treasure that could bring a lot of value to your life and make you understand what’s important and what’s not.”
Lawrence’s other piece of advice is to take care of your health. If something looks or feels wrong, get it checked, and stay up to date on screenings and physicals.
“I just encourage women to get their mammograms yearly and to get a full physical,” she said. “Be proactive, because it’s best to be one step ahead of the game. That’ll give you the chance to have a happy, prolonged life.”