Cancer attacked TJ Miles and Misty Martin while they were in their prime. The insidious disease developed in their breasts during their 30s, forcing them to fight for their young lives.
Miles was 30 years old with no history of breast cancer in her family when she felt an itching, burning sensation in her breast. Because she was hoping to have another child, she thought she might be pregnant. But her test came back negative. When the pain persisted for a few more months, she returned to her doctor, who immediately ordered an ultrasound. A golf ball-sized lump was found in her armpit.
Martin was 39 when she discovered a lump while doing a self-exam. It came at a time when she was still devastated over losing her baby during the fifth month of pregnancy.
Both women were diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer. Miles, who lives on a farm in Lyle, and Martin, who makes her home in The Dalles, were referred to Mid-Columbia Medical Center’s Celilo Cancer Center.
There, Melodi Johnson, MCMC’s breast cancer nurse navigator, offered to guide them through the process they were facing. Each accepted Johnson’s offer. That was back in the spring of 2014, when their questions were limitless and their worries immense.
When Martin went to her first visit with her surgeon, Dr. Ann Rust, Johnson sat in. Dr. Rust explained the type of cancer Martin had and her treatment options. “After that appointment, my mind was just swirling,” she recalls. “Then I got a follow-up call from Melodi and we started discussing my options.”
Martin and Miles had difficult decisions to make — not just about how much of their breasts doctors would remove, but whether they’d have the option to get pregnant again.
Martin chose a lumpectomy and to have her ovaries removed to help prevent her high risk of recurrence. Miles elected to have a double mastectomy but to keep her ovaries for the time being.
Miles credits Johnson with making sure she knew she had the choice to delay the latter procedure. “Everything was always my choice,” Miles says. “She was my advocate.”
Miles chose to have Johnson accompany her to every appointment at Celilo. She appreciated her ability to explain procedures and options in layman’s terms. “Without Melodi, I would have been lost,” Martin says.
“She was really supportive and caring. Knowing you could call Melodi at any time and she would have an answer to your question was really wonderful.”
Chemotherapy came next. “There are the fears, Is it working? Is it getting rid of any cancer cells that might be left?” Martin says. She was relieved Johnson was the nurse for her first round of treatment, which, unfortunately, brought a big change in Martin’s life.
Her body had a hard time dealing with it. Her heart raced, she lost a lot of weight, and she became very sick. She had to take medical leave from her job as a police dispatcher with Columbia Rivers Inter-Tribal Fisheries Enforcement.
Misty Martin with
her faithful dog Clyde
She spent six months on her couch, with her faithful Rottweiler-Newfoundland mix, Clyde, lying by her side and her husband, Derek, tending to her and the household chores. “Without my husband, I wouldn’t have had the help I needed at home, he was my main support.
When I was feeling terrible, he would sit by my side and hold my hand, so I wouldn’t feel so alone.”
The compassionate, supportive nurses at Celilo were instrumental in both women’s treatments. “They treat you like a person, not just a patient,” Martin says. “When you are worrying about having cancer, you need people around you who are going to give you the best support possible. These are those people.”
Once an early allergic reaction was brought under control, Miles never got sick from her chemotherapy treatments. In fact, she continued to work as a waitress at the Baldwin Saloon in The Dalles and compete in barrel racing.
She was at a barrel race in Pasco when her hair started falling out in big chunks from the chemo treatments. She says that was the toughest mental challenge for her. She remembers sitting on the floor, crying, as her husband, Nick, shaved her head while their 9-year-old son, Tyler, sat next to her.
“He said, ‘It’s OK, mom. You still look beautiful’.” Then they both shaved their heads in honor of her.
Miles and Martin learned to embrace headscarves. Getting properly fitted for them was another advantage of being treated at Celilo. Martin praises body image coordinator Michelle Lauterbach for finding scarves and hats made of material that didn’t irritate her sensitive scalp.
Celilo esthetician Annette Goodman gave Miles a facial and showed her how to draw in natural-looking eyebrows and eyelashes with makeup (both women lost theirs to chemotherapy).
Goodman taught Martin how to care for her skin, which had become sensitive and developed blisters from the harsh chemo. The individual attention was comforting. “I had the best care,” Miles says. “It couldn’t have been better. I felt like I was their only patient.”
Martin says she’s listened to breast cancer survivors who were treated at other facilities and she’s convinced Celilo takes a more personalized approach. “Celilo Cancer Center is full of wonderful people who provide support when you are going through one of the most overwhelming and difficult times in your life,” Martin says.
Both women were determined to stay positive throughout their journey. “I just knew I was going to run my life and the cancer wasn’t,” Miles says.
When times were tough, Miles turned to her passion, horses, and went riding with girlfriends. It always made her feel better.
Martin and her husband enjoyed campfires in the evening in their backyard, so they kept that up throughout her treatments.
He simply bundled her up in blankets and they’d try to make life as normal as possible. After more than a year of surgeries and treatment, freedom from cancer seems close for these two women. Miles has one more reconstructive breast surgery scheduled this fall and will take the hormone blocker, tamoxifen, for five years.
Following her surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, Martin recently concluded a year of intravenous targeted biotherapy. She will continue to take medications to help prevent a recurrence for the next 10 years.
Martin loves that she is able to take daily walks with her dog again, and she and her husband are looking forward to a trip to Arches National Park in Utah in October.
Their journeys with cancer have made both women appreciate life even more. “I worry a lot less about the little things in life,” Martin says.
“Everyone should do what makes them happy in life, enjoy each day,” Miles says.