FREEMAN — Judy Graber remembers the thought that entered her mind over 20 years ago when doctors told her she had breast cancer.
But she won’t repeat it.
“You can’t print that,” Graber said with a chuckle in a recent interview..
At that moment, Graber learned she had a disease that the National Breast Cancer Foundation says will kill an estimated 42,170 women in the United States this year. One in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Outside skin cancer, it is the most common cancer in American women, with an estimated 30 percent of all new women cancer diagnoses being breast cancer.
She had not expected the sobering news when she and a few friends from work at a local bank decided they would all go together to have their first mammogram.
“I was 37 or 38. And just on a whim there were four of us ladies, and we said let’s all get our first mammograms together,” Graber, now 59, said. “We weren’t 40 at the time, and when you’re 40 you start going and getting those.”
But that trip changed her life and kicked off a series of treatments that would test both her, her family and her friends as she strived to overcome the deadly disease.
“My first (mammogram) was a doozy,” Graber said.
She had no indication that she was ill. She had not detected any of the tell-tale warning signs, such as a lump in the breast. But the doctors confirmed it, and she was set on a new path of chemotherapy and regular checkups as she faced the challenges that other breast cancer patients see on a daily basis.
She said her doctors were encouraging and optimistic, which helped her develop a positive mindset.
“They found it. I didn’t have any lumps or any reason to think I had it. But it was there, and in the very early stages. It was not overly aggressive, which was a plus. Everything they told me was with a positive mental state,” Graber said. “I felt like I was going to make it, but it still hits you like a truck.”
The news sends a patient reeling, she said. As a wife and mother to two young children, her maternal instincts kicked in, and she felt more worry for her husband, family and coworkers than she did immediately for herself.
“When they tell you, you don’t hear anything else the doctor says after. That is true. You go into your own survival mode. What am I going to do? What about my kids? How am I going to handle work?” Graber said.
She handled it by getting down the business of getting healthy. She underwent chemotherapy and the physical and mental grind that comes with it. She felt lousy. She lost her hair. She underwent a mastectomy. Her prescribed steroids caused weight gain.
The first four months of medication was particularly rough on her, she said, but the second round proved to be less harsh. She said her treatment was made easier by the fact that she was able to receive them at the local Freeman hospital as opposed to having to travel to Sioux Falls, which was a benefit with children at home.
And when doctors told her it was time to change treatments or had a new plan, she was down for it. She was going to face it head on armed with whatever tools modern medical science could give her.
“I said whatever you want me to, I’ll do it,” Graber said.
Friends and family in the community stepped up their support. Meals were scheduled and delivered to ease the family cooking responsibilities. While her daughter was too young to remember much about that time, her son was just old enough to understand what was going on, and a particularly gentle teacher at school provided support and positivity to him when his worries caused him to struggle with his studies.
For her personally, she hated not being able to give her all at work or to her family. The normally outgoing and friendly woman at the bank counter found herself having a hard time keeping up.
“I felt the most guilt because I didn’t feel well, you just want to go home and go to bed,” she said. “Plus, with my kids, the worst fear was leaving them with no mother at that age. Those were my two biggest hurdles emotionally to go through. You try to stay strong at work while feeling like crap, and then you go home and try to be happy. The days were long.”
And while uncertainty still loomed, slowly, but surely, Graber began to feel like she was turning a corner.
“Within about 10 months I was done with the chemo stuff. It took another six months to feel a little better. It just took it that long to get it out of my system,” Graber said.
It then took another two years before the specter of breast cancer wasn’t constantly on the forefront of her mind and life. She went in for regular exams per doctor’s orders, and as time progressed, the exams were scheduled further apart. She worked to live as healthy a lifestyle as possible. It was then she realized that she may be finding her way out of the woods. Graber has now been cancer-free for 21 years.
“It took me a couple of years to start thinking I may have kicked this,” Graber said. “Every time you make an appointment, you wonder what they are going to find this time. You still do the mental game.”
Some things have changed in those two decades. She has moved on to a new position at Freeman Academy, where she serves as the front desk receptionist for the private Christian school. Her kids have started lives and careers of their own, leaving her and husband Linden at home. But even though she returned to a relatively normal life after fighting breast cancer, she hasn’t let the memories of her own struggle fade.
In fact, she uses those memories as a guide to the support she now gives to fellow cancer patients when they seek her out for advice. As a well-known person in the community who underwent treatment for cancer, others just beginning their ordeal occasionally seek her out for guidance and perspective.
“When you hear of someone else getting it, any cancer, my stomach churns. I really feel it,” Graber said.
She often participates in cancer walks and other events that help spread the awareness of the disease — a disease she never expected to be diagnosed with when she first walked into the local hospital with a group of friends looking to have their first mammogram.
She will never regret that decision, she said. Early detection played a huge factor in her recovery, she said, and screening should be a high priority for any woman out there.
“This waiting until you’re 40 business is for the birds,” Graber said, noting the traditional age at which women are suggested to get mammograms. “I think 30 is what I’d love to see for getting a baseline. Get it started. I push it. Even my daughter, she started in her 20s. There’s nothing wrong with that. A person has to be their own advocate.”