The story that Debbie Hughes tells is one of courage, loss, pain, and determination; it’s a story that many women in Macon County know well, that some have experienced themselves. It’s a story of breast cancer. For Hughes, it’s also a story of victory.
Hughes was diagnosed officially in February of 2003, a few months after a Christmas party that changed her life: “On December 21, we were having a Christmas get together. And [my daughter] Hannah was small enough, 7, and she sat down on my lap and leaned up against me. And I thought—something is not right.
“And that’s how I actually found it. Because she must have just hit me just right. I didn’t tell anybody until after New Year’s because I didn’t want to mess up anybody’s Christmas. But that was… torture.
“Then I went to the doctor just after New Years’ and started the process. It was quick. I had to have a mammogram, and they did ultrasounds, and then I went in for several needle biopsies. They did where they go in and take a little bit of the tissue—they did that to begin with—and then I went in for two surgeries where they tried to remove what they could.”
The surgeries were only precursors to the mastectomy that Hughes did finally undergo. “…they were trying to save my breast, because I was 41. They didn’t get clear margins with the first or second biopsy. So I just said ‘get it out.’ Being cancer free overrides any of that stuff. It was hard, but then I went through the reconstructive process, so…”
Doctors did a simple node test on the day of the surgery, checking the lymph nodes under the arm for cancer tissue by inserting a dye and then reading results. This is usually the first place cancer will spread. They didn’t find any. This meant that going into the surgery, Hughes knew she wouldn’t have to undergo radiation, but as a Stage 2 cancer patient, she would have to go through post-operative chemotherapy.
“They could have done it in four treatments,” said Hughes, “but since I was such a young age, they wanted to be aggressive, so they went ahead and did six. It was rough… rough.
“Chemo comes in different medicines. They called one of them The Red Devil and—it’s red. It’s red, when they put it in you… after that first treatment, they would have to tell me when they were bringing that first medicine to me because I couldn’t look at it. Just the thought of it—I can still think of it now and it’s… horrible. Horrible.
“I had six treatments, three weeks apart. I got all mine right on time, except on my birthday. They wouldn’t do it because it was my birthday— I said ‘thank you!’
“It was a rough few weeks. I took my first treatment on March 20, and I took my last on July 3rd. I can remember those dates—I think I’ll always remember those dates. Especially July 3rd.”
“As far as the reconstructive—when they removed my breast, they went ahead and put an implant in. And I would have to go in as I felt like it, every two to three weeks, to fill that expander up. They put so many cc’s of saline in until it gets where it would actually match the other one. But if I had it to do over I’d say… take them both.
“I don’t live every day in fear—I haven’t at any time. Because I’m not going to let it do that to me. But I think if they had removed them both, I think I would have had that peace of mind. I think worry hurts you more than it helps.”
Hughes said that her first advice for a person who’s just been diagnosed is to maintain positive energy:
“I’ve talked to so many people, who call and say ‘how did you get through it? I’ve just been diagnosed.’ And staying positive was what helped me most. You’ve got to put it in the Lord’s hands—it’s there anyway. You’ve got to put it there. Because I think that everybody’s life is planned out the way the good Lord wants it. And if he chooses for me to be here, I’ll be here; if not, I won’t, you know? I don’t worry about it. Really, I don’t.”
The other thing that pulled her through those months, said Hughes, was the support of her family, and having a seven year old daughter to live for.
Her then 7-year-old daughter is now 16, and understands that cancer runs in the family—Hughes’ own mother had breast cancer as well, in 1984 (she’s been cancer free since that year). “We really don’t dwell on it too much because [my daughter] is the type that it would really bother her,” said Hughes. “I think she would really herself to death about it. She knows it’s important, but I try to stress it really more for me right now.”