Shelley Galloway is on the cusp of getting her life back. For the last 13 months, she has been battling breast cancer and it has been a battle indeed.
She’s gone through surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and her employer, a bank, even terminated her over the phone while she was fighting for her life. But she just took her last treatment, got her chemo port out and she’s ready to move forward. She is 45, married and has a daughter.
It was a pain in her wrist that moved up her arm of all things that let her know she had a problem.
“I thought it was carpal tunnel at first,” she said. “Then the pain gradually moved to the top part of my arm.”
Her husband Keith was afraid it might be a blood clot and insisted that Shelley get checked out. So she wasted no time seeing a doctor.
“They ran several tests and I wound up finding out I had breast cancer,” Shelley said.
How common is it for a pain in the wrist to turn into breast cancer?
“It’s not common at all,” Shelley said. “But it might have actually saved my life by letting me know I had a problem. The tumor was kind of up under my arm and it was pressing on a nerve and that made my arm hurt. I didn’t feel a lump or anything. It was amazing how it worked out. I’m thankful I had the arm pain now.”
It wasn’t just a small hurt. It was a throbbing pain that got worse over the course of a week.
Doctors told her it was HER2+ cancer, Stage 3, meaning it had spread to nearby lymph nodes.
“They told me a normal lymph node is about the size of your pinky nail,” Shelley said. “Mine was the size of a golf ball.”
Breast cancer was the furthest thing from her mind when she developed the arm pain, then went through the testing. They did a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.
“When it happens and they say it’s breast cancer, it’s like someone started a time clock and a race is about to begin,” Shelley said. “At least that’s the way it was in my mind. Everything went so fast.”
She said when they “stage it,” you don’t know how bad it is or how much time you have left.
“Things in everyday life you might not have noticed before, you begin to pay attention to,” Shelley said. “You pay attention to every little detail. Your whole outlook changes. Family becomes more important. Just sitting on the porch drinking coffee, looking at nature becomes more vivid. It gives you a jolt, a wakeup call.”
The first thing doctors did for Shelley after finding out the type and stage was to put in a port. They wanted to start chemotherapy as soon as possible.
“They wanted to kill it, shrink it,” she said.
Over the course of her cancer journey, she went through 3 different kinds of chemotherapy over more than a year. She went through the bad kind too, the one they call “the red devil.”
“It all made me deathly sick,” Shelley said. “A lot of times, I would throw up before I left the Cancer Center.”
She said diarrhea was also a side effect and she would be exhausted after going through a round of chemo. On top of that, she was taking steroids and it caused her to gain weight.
But that’s not all.
“The type of chemo I took basically destroys your female organs, so I started menopause,” Shelley said. With the type of cancer she had, she couldn’t take hormones to offset that.
She did 6 weeks of radiation to further shrink the tumor, then had a double mastectomy. They stripped the lymph nodes out of her right arm.
“I have lymphedema in that arm now,” Shelley said. That’s a side effect of cancer you don’t hear much about. Infected lymph nodes have to be removed as part of the treatment. The lymph then has nowhere to go causing the swelling known as lymphedema.
None of what she has gone through was fun. But there were small victories along the way.
“My daughter Gracie Small is 20,” Shelley said. “She got accepted into the nursing program at Snead State. Her first day of school was my first day of chemo. She got up early, drove me to my chemo treatment and sat with me as long as she could before she had to leave for class.”
A chemo treatment is not a quick thing. It would require from 4 to 7 hours of sitting in the treatment chair to receive a round.
“I didn’t really have the energy to do anything but sleep after chemo,” Shelley said. “It was constant sickness and sleep. In between, I lost my hair, my eyebrows, my eyelashes, everything. Also, your face transforms to a round face because of the steroids.”
She said you don’t know the person looking back at you from the mirror as all that goes on.
“It becomes the new you,” she said.
Some women wear a wig when they lose their hair due to chemo. Others wear scarves. Shelley bravely rocked the bald.
“If it was cold weather, I would wear a toboggan,” she said. “Whenever I took a chemo treatment, my body felt cold. I was freezing constantly. It was an experience.”
Her doctors remained upbeat the entire time, making it sound almost as though she were training for an athletic event.
“My doctor would say, ‘You have put in all the work needed to lower the chances of it recurring. You’ve done everything you were supposed to do.”
She wasn’t sure whether she was going to live or die and she would talk to her doctor about it. Shelley said she wasn’t worried about herself by that point. She didn’t want to be a burden to her family. She wanted them to be okay.
“He was always positive,” she said of her physician. “He would say, ‘You’re putting in the work and I am seeing good results.’ He never told me anything negative and I feel like he would have if he had seen something.”
Her treatment was at the Marshall Cancer Care Center and her doctor was Dr. Jonathan Storey.
She was pleased with the care she got at the local Cancer Care Center.
“You could got to Huntsville or Birmingham, but I don’t think you’re going to find a better doctor or a better Cancer Care Center,” Shelley said. “Why would you want to drive an hour or more to treatment when you’re going to be sick and the care you get here is just as good as they care you can get somewhere else? I felt tons of support at the Cancer Center.”
What’s next for Shelley?
The loss of her job was a kick when she was down, she felt. It might have happened because the bank changed ownership during that time. She is looking on it as a blessing, feeling as though something better will come along.
She hopes at some point to return to the Cancer Center and donate some of her own time as a volunteer. And she will share one bit of advice with women or anyone else:
“If you’re having any type of symptom, don’t ignore it,” Shelley said. “Stop what you’re doing and get it checked out. It could be a matter of life and death. What would have happened if I hadn’t got my arm checked? It might have progressed to Stage 4 and been terminal. If you know something is just not right, get it checked out. Don’t ignore it.”
Shelley lives in Albertville and she has been helping the Trading Post there do some breast cancer awareness. They are selling tumblers for breast cancer awareness for a donation of $10 or more.