“Happy birthday to me. I turned 34 today… I am documenting this to remind me that I have to take care of myself. I am just doing the small things I enjoy to celebrate the year, which is a pretty big deal.”
Edo-abasi McGee, a pharmacist and professor in metro Atlanta, wrote those words in her journal in February, about four months before her doctors told her she was breast cancer-free. Another trip around the sun was especially momentous.
“Cancer was probably the best thing to ever happen to me,” she said. But that wasn’t her sentiment last March when the married mother of one child received the diagnosis at 33.
“It was a shock. While driving home from the clinic, I had lots of thoughts,” she remembered. “Of course I’m crying and trying to figure things out.”
Beating the odds
Her big sister had been diagnosed with the same disease while pregnant about five years before, but she beat it. The experience was so scary that McGee was encouraged to begin annual mammograms in her 20s, although the American Cancer Society recommends most should start at age 40.
The stage 1 discovery was also a surprise, because she and her sister had tested negative for BRCA1 and BRCA2, two human genes that increase the risk of female breast and ovarian cancers.
About 72 percent of women who inherit a BRCA 1 mutation and about 69 percent who get the BRCA2 mutation develop breast cancer by the age of 80, according to the National Cancer Institute. However, only five to 10 percent of breast cancers are related to an inherited gene.
“It wasn’t necessarily something I thought I would get,” McGee admitted. “My mother and grandmother never had it. I have four sisters total, and only one of us had gotten it at that point.”
McGee’s life was changing quickly, and she was suddenly faced with some hard choices. She needed to decide between a lumpectomy, the removal of cancerous tissue in the breast, and a double mastectomy, the removal of both breast completely.
Fighting to win
“I asked my husband, and he didn’t feel like he could tell me what to do with my body. He said, ‘You have to be comfortable with that decision. No one can make it for you,’” she recalled.
With guidance from her sibling who survived the illness, McGee followed in her footsteps and picked the latter.
“It was difficult. We are all born with our breast, so you don’t want to lose it,” she said. “At the same time, I was young and didn’t want to go through this again. I didn’t want it coming back in the other breast.”
After nearly four gruelling months of chemotherapy, which resulted in hair loss and constant fatigue, McGee endured the 14-hour operation. During the procedure, surgeons were also able use the fat from her belly to reconstruct her breasts.
“That was enticing. I had been receiving chemo and felt like an oompa loompa with the steroids. I thought, ‘Oh I’m going to get a tummy tuck after this? Do it,’” she joked.
A new normal
Her recovery period was no laughing matter though. “It was tough,” she said.
She had to sleep upright in a recliner for two weeks to protect her wounds. For about four weeks, she had to replace her bandages constantly to manage the usual drainage and discharge from the incisions. And by the eight-week mark, she was walking more comfortably, finally achieving a new normal.
The survivor became breast cancer-free in June. She said she no longer has to go in for mammograms since she doesn’t have breast tissue, and in September, doctors took out the port in her chest, which was used during her chemotherapy treatments.
In addition to having to take Tamoxifen medication daily for the next 10 years to reduce breast cancer recurrence, therapy is also now a part of her daily maintenance routine.
“I started going the fifth or sixth week after surgery. I was having lots of anxiety about going back to work, and I was trying to deal with self-image issues,” she said. “The main thing I learned from therapy is self-awareness. I have to protect my time for self-care. I do various things, whether it’s working out, meditating or journalling.”
The Journey Begins
McGee laughingly said her preachy lectures about self-care annoy her sisters, but they take breast cancer prevention very seriously. They get their mammograms regularly, but their oncologists said they might not need BRCA assessments since the two breast cancer survivors in the family have already tested negative.
In fact, McGee, born in Nigeria, has submitted her health information to researchers at a Chicago university for a study about breast cancer risk factors specifically associated with West African women. Their findings won’t be revealed for several years.
In the meantime, McGee has vowed to share her journey with as many as possible.
“Everyone’s story is so different that you can only tell yours and hope people can benefit,” she said. “I truly believe God allowed me to go through this to help other women. Sometimes we go through some battles to hold the rope for others.”
For McGee, last year was about growing to a new level. This year is about applying the lessons she’s learned.
“I’m believing that at 34 God will use me in the places he matured,” she ended her journal entry. “I thank God.”