Ginger Loucks says her diagnosis did not happen by chance.
She recalls filling in at the Marsing School District for the secretary, and that happened to be when a mobile mammogram bus was on site.
It saved her life, she says.
The Friday before Ginger walked on that mobile mammogram bus, she had seen her gynecologist, and had mentioned she was experiencing pain in her right breast for several months, like an ache, that would come and go.
The gynecologist explained that was normal, that changing hormones could cause such a symptom. No lumps were felt. Plus, she was only 36, so cancer was unlikely. Ginger researched what her doctor told her, and everything agreed. But that following Tuesday, she chose to visit the mobile mammogram bus.
“I didn’t have to be 40 to walk on that bus,” Ginger said. “Be your own advocate and push for it,” Ginger said. “I think a lot of doctors are pretty respectful to that. And tell them how important it is to you, just to know, for peace of mind.”
The results of the mammogram showed invasive, spider-web like cancer, from her nipple to near her armpit. It was 11 centimeters by 8 centimeters.
“Something that was really surprising to me was just, like, the size that my cancer was,” Ginger said. “How did I not know that was in my body?”
“[Even] if you do self exams, I mean, but that was my entire breast, so what was I examining? How did I know it felt different than it should have?’” she added. “I'm just super grateful that I was given an opportunity to get on one of the buses.”
The journey of recovery, though, was far from easy, and as of Oct. 22, Ginger is finishing her final breast reconstruction surgeries, which posed a struggle of their own.
Ginger remembers the moment she was told she had breast cancer. She reads from a memory posted to Facebook:
“I remember the day so clearly, because I was riding in the car with my mom on the way to an exciting eighth grade girls basketball game, in Melba, Idaho, to watch one of my favorite teams play. I usually drove myself and my little kids. But for some reason my mom offered to drive me. We were about seven minutes away from the game when my doctor called and asked me if I was busy. And I said I was on my way to a game. She asked if I was driving, or if I was somewhere I could talk at the moment. And I knew this wasn't gonna be good.
She told me I had breast cancer. And I didn't hear anything. after that. I remember asking her to text me because I kind of just froze. I remember trying to be super quiet in the car and not upset my mom or small kids in the back. I remember crying as we pulled up to the gym, and my mom telling me that we didn't have to stay. But of course I wanted to because, you know, it was my favorite team. My daughter's team was really fun to watch.
I remember thinking the entire game that I needed to hold myself together and get home and call my husband ... I remember that night that all my friends gathered around me. I was really thankful for that; I didn't have to do that last year alone ... I remember when my kids shared with me they were scared, worried and confused. And there were lots of tears. But I'm thankful that my kids have a relationship with God. And we could give all our worries to Him in prayer. And my Bible verse was Philippians 4:16. I'm thankful for the strength and courage and the bravery that God gave me during that time.”
After that phone call, Ginger’s mother would accompany her to every appointment. And, to Ginger’s gratitude, many of her friends formed a circle of support, visiting her in the hospital and at home, even if it was just to be physically present while she slept.
The entire community offered assistance, providing meals from December to May.
Ginger began her treatments in December of 2018, starting with chemotherapy and therapy targeted to the area.
Initial surgery followed close behind, with more targeted therapy. Radiation came after. Both breasts were to be removed, to reduce the chance of cancer infecting the other breast.
The plan was to begin reconstruction shortly after the radiation. That was until tests found cancer in Ginger’s lymph nodes.
When asked what stage her cancer was in, Ginger said she never wants to know, though, based on its size and that it had spread to her lymph nodes, the diagnosis probably wasn’t very good.
“I just kind of told [the team] from the beginning, ‘I don't really want to know,’ because no one will dictate my last breath except for God,” Ginger said. “So we just kind of left it at that. I didn't want it to ... be stuck in my mind forever.”
Like the hiccup of finding cancer in her lymph nodes, Ginger’s journey of getting her breasts reconstructed was a struggle of its own.
Chemotherapy and radiation had greatly decreased her immune system, making Ginger susceptible to infection, including during the reconstruction surgery, which began in August of last year. Ginger remembers carrying a breast cancer awareness flag at Caldwell Night Rodeo, then being hospitalized two days later due to her implant becoming infected.
She would experience several more infections and reconstruction adjustments, finally finishing her last surgery this month.
“Nothing was ever super easy but it was my first time so I didn't know any different,” Ginger said. “I was just along for the ride. Just whatever bumps came my way I had to just, you know, overcome them.”
Ginger remains grateful for the support she received from all those at Saint Alphonsus, her family, friends and community, and her relationship with God.
“And I'm grateful that my children had that too, because they think it would be a super hard journey to go on, not having Him be there for you,” Ginger said. “This is His story He already wrote. ... I knew that outcome had to be good, even on days that it felt like it might not be.”
A Day in the Life after breast cancer
Her nails are painted pink, fitting for Breast Cancer Awareness month.
Ginger actively assists her husband with raising the cattle, and runs her food truck on Mondays in Marsing, offering her specialties of beef tri-tips. Tuesdays she volunteers with the County Fair planning, and the following days are spent taking care of whatever needs to be done at home, or at the fairgrounds. She is also constantly driving around to her four children’s extracurricular activities, often sports.
“I’d say we’re very much back to normal,” Ginger says, “and I’m grateful for that.”
While October specifically highlights the importance of breast cancer awareness, and frequently hosts campaigns that offer educational resources, Ginger touts the importance of getting a mammogram year-round, and she always encourages: “just take care of yourself. Because, you know, somebody somewhere needs you.”
Even for younger people, who are just over 30, below the recommended screening age, Ginger recommends to start getting mammograms as soon as you feel it is appropriate, especially if cancer runs in your family. A video version of Ginger’s story is also available through Saint Alphonsus’ website.
“I just really want people to know how important it is to just go get the mammogram, because what are you waiting for?” Ginger said. “Just be aware. If you ever have something that you think is anything, just get it checked out, because wouldn’t it be better to have them say it’s nothing, than to find out that it's something.”
Karen Robison did everything in her control to prevent breast cancer, starting early in her 20s and gaining momentum as she aged. She ate mostly organic fruits and vegetables, exercised, drank almost no alcohol, and didn’t smoke. She also changed her household and makeup products, “to be very clean.”
Karen’s family history was riddled with various cancers. While part of her was almost sure of getting breast cancer at some point, another part of her thought she was doing enough to prevent it.
Despite the prevalence of cancer in her family, Karen did not test positive for the bracket gene, “which is basically the only gene that there are really clear guidelines on how to deal with many cancers,” she said.
Karen started getting annual mammograms and MRIs 10 years earlier than the recommended age (40 years old).She even planned to have both breasts removed, and possibly her ovaries; in someone high risk, estrogen produced there can increase the possibility of getting it.
“I knew when I hit 50 I was going to make an appointment,” Karen said.
But before she could do that, MRI and biopsy screenings revealed she had an 8 mm lump; something she never felt on her self-exams. She didn’t even feel it until the doctors told her exactly where it was. Today, she doesn’t know how large it would have gotten before a mammogram detected it.
Karen got that call in March 2019. When she got the call, part of her was shocked; she thought she had done enough to prevent the cancer. The other part of her wasn’t shocked, reasoning that at best Karen had delayed the inevitable.
“It almost felt like a rib,” she describes. “It was the MRI that saved my life … .”
She has to pause, as the emotional memories return.
“I say that not to exaggerate … But with breast cancer, whether you live or die from it, a lot of it has to do with when it's found and women, where they find it early, have much better outcomes. And when they find it late, they don't.”
Karen had to wait, after her surgery and chemotherapy, to have her breasts reconstructed. She chose not to wear prosthetics.
Some of her clothes were more flattering without her breasts, and Karen could now comfortably sleep on her stomach, but hugging her loved ones felt strange. She is now trying to navigate what she describes as a new body.
“These,” she says, touching her chest, “I mean ... they're not real, but I can wear my clothes that I couldn't wear for a while.”
Karen was surprised at the complexity of reconstructive surgery. Essentially, it’s more complicated than getting implants, and the risk of infection increases. She has one more surgery to go, for nipple reconstruction, before her breasts are completely reconstructed. Her most recent surgery was in May.
Karen is grateful to her reconstruction surgeon, Susan Hegstad, who, she says, could make a lot more money as a plastic surgeon.
“The insurance will only pay so much for these things,” Karen said. “She's doing this because she's giving back. And she's considered like one of the best people in this state.”
If she had had a lumpectomy, Karen would have had to continue with annual mammograms and biopsies. That would have caused a lot of anxiety.
“There would be very low tolerance for anything unusual,” Karen said. “So I would be constantly getting, possibly, false positives or suspicious looking things. I'd be constantly having biopsies. That would be my life.”
Karen expressed her gratitude to her support network, and that she was able to afford taking care of herself, up to the point of being diagnosed and beyond. During that time, she also utilized St. Luke’s mental health care resources, having personal counseling and talking with others who have experienced breast cancer.
She hopes to find a calm, a normal, and she hopes that with time, the emotional impacts will lessen. Initially, when diagnosed, Karen described it as being in a constant state of fight or flight, waiting for the results.
“There's a component of PTSD … and you just don't know when you're gonna get set off by it,” Karen said.
‘It happens to 1 in 8’
After the initial shock, Karen immediately thought about the upcoming struggle.
“Hair loss is a big stressor during cancer,” Karen said. “That’s one of the first things you think of when you’re diagnosed ... first of all you're like, ‘Oh my God, am I going to die? And then quickly, after that, you start thinking, “Oh my God I'm going to go bald. And everybody's going to know everything about what's going on with me just by looking at me.”
Her immediate goal was to continue her work as a pediatric pharmacist for St. Luke’s.
“I didn’t want cancer to define me,” she said
Karen had her mastectomies, or breast removal surgeries, first, to remove the cancer and prevent it from happening in the second breast. Then, she needed chemotherapy.
The cancer tumor being small, and having not detectably spread, meant less chemotherapy treatments for Karen, and she did not need to have radiation. The chemotherapy, though, did mean Karen would lose her hair, and she would feel fatigued. And, the chemotherapy slowed her ability to perform multiple complex tasks at a time; at one point she was able to only completely focus on one complex task at a time
“That's not possible with my job,” Karen said.
Karen’s coworkers were supportive, stepping in to help when she was feeling mentally fatigued. The last month of her chemotherapy, Karen had to leave work, but not because she was told to.
The team is often called to hospital “codes” to provide medication, and they bring a crash cart. Karen’s voice trembles as she recalls being unable to move the crash cart.
“By that point I was so frazzled. And this goes back to the fight or flight, the increased level of stress,” Karen said. “And then I had to like, try to figure out the doses.” Fortunately, co-workers came to help.
“They came down because they knew I would probably need some help. And the other pharmacists took over for me,” Karen said. “I walked to my boss and said, ‘I can't do this.’”
Breast cancer happens to 1 in 8 women, Karen said, and that’s before taking one’s risk levels into consideration.
“To me those numbers are just kind of staggering,” she said. “We just accept it.”
Today, Karen is on a “high” on the roller coaster of her battle with breast cancer, being cleared to do any physical activity she pleases. She does hot yoga in her bedroom closet due to COVID-19 circumstances, and enjoys hiking with her husband.
She isn’t in pain, and Karen is grateful to all who invested, financially or otherwise, in her recovery.
Similar to her yoga exercises, Karen continues to exercise mindfulness, living in the present and not worrying about “what if’s.”
Her advice: get screened, because early detection is key. It certainly was for her.
“I have much more empathy for my patients and the parents of my oncology patients,” Karen said. “I always felt like I was a very empathetic person, anyway, but there's nothing like going through the experience yourself to really understand all those fears and complications.”