Sheila Gamble is coming up on her 25th anniversary as a breast cancer survivor. The year 1989 was full of ups and downs, jubilations and fears as she battled this terrible disease.
Through it all, it was God’s grace, her faith, her husband Milton, family and friends that carried her through this ordeal.
“God has been so good to us and I am proof that he is still a God of miracles,” she commented.
At age 36, Sheila discovered a lump in her left breast. It was in January of 1989 and she was the mother of three young children –one in 5K, one in first grade and the oldest in fourth grade. Soon after, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Dr. Ellis performed a left radical mastectomy and the cancer was discovered in 12 lymph nodes.
Her oncologist, Dr. Pavy, felt that Duke University Hospital offered the best opportunity for her treatment. In February, she and Milton left home for Duke where her own bone marrow was harvested before starting a heavy dosage of chemo drugs. The healthy bone marrow was saved to be transplanted following chemo because the powerful drugs she needed to fight the cancer also killed bone marrow.
Sheila was able to return home to start the chemo at McLeod hospital where she underwent four sessions. The drugs were administered for three days between 28 day intervals. Midway between doses she got very ill, so she planned family outings during the first 14 days.
Through all this, Sheila says her family and close friends, especially Marsha Fincher and Chery Whittington, were right beside her as “bucket patrol.”
“Also, the staff in the McLeod
cancer ward were wonderful to me,” she said.
At first, her insurance denied claims for the bone marrow transplant, and the hospital required $100,000 up front. Friends, including David Eagerton, hosted fundraisers, and Greenwood School hosted Shamrocks for Sheila, selling shamrocks at 25 cents. Henry Brunson of Cooks for Christ held one of his first benefits for her.
Eventually, their attorney got approval from the insurance company for the transplant.
In late summer. after six weeks at Duke where the bone marrow was successfully replanted in her body, Sheila came home to begin radiation.
Of course, during her chemo, Sheila lost her hair. To make it fun she bought two wigs, one short red wig and one long blonde Dolly Parton styled wig.
“Sheila is Pollyanna, always looking on the bright side,” commented her husband Milton.
By November of 1989 a shortness of breathe revealed a toxicity to the strong drugs used to fight her cancer. She was rushed to Duke, “and I didn’t think I’d come back,” she admitted. There was a terrible ice storm which prevented her being airlifted. A break in the storm allowed Milton to drive her to Durham, N. C. He borrowed his dad’s car because at the last minute he discovered his car had a flat tire.
The hardest part of fighting cancer, Sheila said, was pulling out of her driveway to go to Duke watching her three kids crying and standing outside with their grandparents.
“I left my kids knowing I had a 50 percent chance of never seeing them again,” she explained.
After surgery at Duke, Sheila was put on steroids. As Christmas approached, Milton was making plans to bring the children to Duke for the holiday. But on Dec. 23, Sheila was released. It happened to snow that day and she returned home, still on heavy steroids, for a joyful white Christmas with her family.
The next two or three years, although cancer free, brought other health issues due to the strong medications she took to fight the disease. The drugs decayed her joints and she had a hip replaced repaired a hip twice, repaired both knees and both ankles, as well as a broken shoulder and pelvic bone. She has suffered from pulmonary fibrosis and has a paralyzed vocal chord. Another side effect of the drugs was a bad case of shingles which lead to a stroke in 1990.
But she is not complaining “By God’s grace, I have
seen my children grow up, two daughters get married and enjoyed my five grandchildren. I also got to go to Alaska,” she exclaimed.
In early December, she will be there for her son’s wedding.
Sheila sees Dr. Pavy for yearly checkups. A couple of years ago, he suggested she get tested for the BRCA gene. She tested positive to the gene that makes one more likely to have cancer. It was suggested that her children take the simple blood test for this gene as well. Her middle child, Emily (a former Miss Florence) was tested and also found the have the gene. Emily and her husband now reside in Inman with three small children.
Emily has decided to have a double mastectomy to avoid the high risk she has for cancer. Her surgery has been scheduled for Oct. 28.
Sheila admits to feeling some guilt for passing this gene to her daughter, but she is proud of her for making what could be a life-saving decision.