Ripley native Lora Gaines, 58, found a lump in her breast a week before her annual mammogram on Oct. 29, 2019. A week later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she began chemotherapy just before Christmas.
Older sisters Earlene McGee and Alice Anderson were already travelling together for Gaines’ treatment when more unexpected news came. McGee, 60, Booneville, found a lump herself at the beginning of November, but waited until her Dec. 12, 2019 check up with her Tupelo doctor to have it examined. She was expecting the results for her mammogram in January, but received her diagnosis on Dec. 27, 2019, just days after Christmas.
“I was like, well I’m not going to spring this on nobody right now, so I just waited until after Christmas,” McGee said.
Gaines and McGee grew up in Tippah County the youngest of four children, three girls and one boy. Anderson explained that cancer runs deep in their family. Their late parents both battled cancer: Their mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, and their father had his own battle with prostate cancer. Other family members also had cancer.
Despite this, Gaines was calm when she received the call that her doctors wanted to speak with her in person about her results. She said she wasn’t afraid and wasn’t sad because she “already knew it worked out.”
“It plays a big part in your everyday life, but by the grace of God, every day is going to get back on route,” she said. “It’s simply a test that He put me through, and I’m planning on passing it.”
Gaines said there was a lot of poking, taking pictures, and holding her breath as she underwent treatment. She did twelve rounds of chemotherapy and has to take 18 rounds of chemotherapy medicine. She had her mastectomy on May 4 and praises how perfectly everything went and being in good health afterwards. She saw Dr. Jiahuai Tan for chemotherapy and Dr. Danny Sanders for her surgery. She still has four more rounds of chemotherapy. She should finish by the end of January if everything goes well.
McGee had the same doctors and started her first round of chemotherapy in the middle of January. She had eight rounds, after which she rested for about a month before her mastectomy on June 16. After an additional rest period, she went back for 20 rounds of daily radiation and is now on her fifth of eight rounds of oral chemotherapy. She still sees Dr. Tan monthly to check what she calls her bloodwork and says she will see Dr. Sanders again in January if everything goes according to plan.
“I prayed to God that He healed me, and that’s what He’s doing because other than the side effects from the medicine, I’ve been doing pretty good,” McGee said.
The sisters benefitted from a strong support system to get through their new daily routines. Big sister Anderson was their strongest supporter; she often drove them to their appointments and ensured they kept up their strength by reminding them to eat meals every day.
Of course, Anderson was far from the sisters’ only source of support: Their husbands, children and extended family were always willing to pitch in with rides, bring food or call to check in on if they had eaten and taken their meds. When the COVID-19 pandemic limited their face-to-face interactions, McGee said a cousin would still drop by – spreading out on the back porch – just to talk. Her husband would decontaminate as soon as he came in from work, and family members brought sanitizing materials.
For Gaines, being on lockdown helped her rest from the chemotherapy treatments’ lingering sickness. She said she was already limiting visitors and was OK with not getting out and socializing. She tried to remain as independent as possible. Her husband would often bring her breakfast, and she would try to eat and rest. If she had enough energy to get up, she would attempt to clean, but chemotherapy slowed her movement significantly. During this time, she missed church and the singing group’s anniversary, the third Saturday of March, because she was too weak to walk.
The actual process of chemotherapy was lonely for Gaines and McGee, however. Gaines said it was heartbreaking not to have her sister sitting by her when she had her treatment because she was used to having her by her side. McGee said it felt like chemotherapy takes longer when alone.
The sisters are currently focusing on finishing their treatments and healing. McGee gives all praises to God for having talented, caring doctors and nurses. She takes medicine twice a day and tries to live as independently as she can. She washes herself, fixes her own breakfast and snacks. Snacking every few hours and eating her meals is the key to managing everything.
“That is real important,” she said. “Even though you don’t feel like it, it’s good to keep something on your stomach, so my routine now is just to keep snacking.”
Gaines still goes to the doctor and has to have an echocardiogram every three months because of the medicine she takes, but said her routine has gotten a lot easier. The chemo she is completing now isn’t as harsh on her body as past rounds. Though she still feels weak and has to limit bending, she said it isn’t as bad as before.
Her next step is in the same direction as her sister’s – simply to live her life.
“I know it’s a test that He’s putting us through, and when it’s over, it’s going to be a lovely day,” she said. “I’m just taking one step at a time, and what He has for me, it is for me. I’m just looking to be completely healed, out from up under the doctor, and back to doing what I love to do.”
Going through breast cancer and treatment at the same time has helped the sisters understand what one another was going through. Although still difficult, the physical and emotional pain of battling
“Going through this together, I can’t say that it makes it easier, but I understand when she says something is hurting her,” Gaines said. “She understands when I say something is hurting me, where if we weren’t going through this together, we would just have to sit and listen and say we understand, but we don’t understand. You don’t understand until you go through it.”
McGee gave an example. When her mother battled breast cancer, she remembers a lot of times her mother telling her how she wasn’t hurting. Now, she said, she really does feel hurt.
“Like right now, my fingertips, from the medicine, are tingly all the time. I have to hurry up and get out of the shower because even though the water is warm when I get in there … it’s that tingling, it hurts my feet,” McGee said.
Her sister agreed.
“That right there, when she says that, I know exactly what she means, so us going through it together, I get that … (kind of) twin (connection),” Gaines said. “We can communicate with each other a whole lot better.”