When Burkesville resident Eugenia Ferguson started having shooting pains in her chest in May of 2015, she chalked it up to stress. She was in the middle of a divorce with her then husband and figured her body was just worn out. She even thought the pain might be from consuming too much caffeine, so she decided to cut back on coffee, but the pain persisted.
“About two weeks later, I noticed a lump in my right breast and my nipple inverted and that’s when I knew I needed to call my doctor,” Eugenia said. “I had just had a mammogram in January that came back clear, but once my doctor heard what was going on, she had me come in right away.”
Eugenia was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, one of the most common forms of breast cancer, and her cancer was already at Stage 2.
What do you remember about when you were first diagnosed with cancer?
When I went and had the biopsy, I was going through lots of personal trauma with my divorce. I knew in my heart it was cancer. When I went in for my follow up appointment with Dr. Mark Jessen, my local doctor, he gave me the diagnosis.
When he told me that I had cancer, I just looked at him and said “OK, what are we going to do about it?” Originally, they weren’t going to be able to get me into an oncologist until a month later, but I called a family member who works in hospice in Bowling Green and he gave me the name of a doctor and I was able to get in almost immediately. I just knew I couldn’t sit around for a month once I knew I had cancer. I wanted to get the ball rolling as soon as possible.
How did those around you react to the news of your diagnosis?
I told my family, but I didn’t want it to be a big public thing and I didn’t want my news to be on social media or for people to do anything big. I knew I was going to pray on it and get the ball rolling, but I didn’t want all kinds of people knowing.
What did your treatment plan look like?
My doctor told me I could either do chemotherapy first to try and reduce the size of the tumor and then take out the tumor, or I could do a mastectomy first and then do chemotherapy. I didn’t even need to think about the options. I wanted the breast off. Two weeks later, I had a complete mastectomy of my right breast.
What was your mastectomy recovery like?
I remember when I first woke up, my hand went straight to where my right breast was, but I was wrapped in so much gauze. Four days after the procedure, they took the gauze off and I saw myself for the first time. I don’t know which was worse, seeing myself without the breast or the initial diagnosis of cancer.
I was a little emotional, but I try to stay positive no matter what the situation and I knew the Lord wasn’t going to let me go through all of this by myself.
What was chemotherapy like for you?
My oncologist, Dr. Catherine Heltsly, had me do four chemotherapy treatments, starting in July of 2015, that were each three weeks. I needed to do chemotherapy in addition to the mastectomy because there was some cancer in my lymph nodes.
Thankfully they did not find a lot of cancerous cells outside my breast, so my chemotherapy treatments were limited.
I knew I would lose my hair, but the strangest part is just not being able to anticipate what your body will truly go through. I had heard so many horror stories, but chemotherapy made me so tired.
I did lose my hair and I remember the day it happened, my daughter happened to be at my house and I was in the shower. All of the sudden it just started coming out. It wasn’t gradual at all and I was so startled by it. After my shower, my daughter Leslie pictured above, used scissors to shape up my hair and then I went to Tomorrow’s Woman in Bowling Green and got a wig and I also wore hats and toboggans.
The exhaustion I felt with my chemotherapy was almost unexplainable. I was tired all the time. And during my treatments, everything tasted strange and felt off in my mouth. Even water had an odd taste and texture. Chemotherapy also affected my sinuses and my eyes. After my very first treatment, my eyes were burning and were so swollen.
How did you decide to do reconstructive surgery for your breast?
After my mastectomy, my doctor asked if I thought I wanted plastic surgery for an implant. At the time I had a prosthesis, but it was heavy and I didn’t love it. I was unsure if I wanted to go through another surgery, but everyone I spoke to encouraged me that if I was going to do the plastic surgery, I should do it as soon as possible. At the time I was 54 and I realized I still had a lot of life left in me and I wanted to explore the implant surgery.
In December of 2015 I went and saw Dr. Atalla and I began to get spacer procedures where he would inject enough saline into my right chest area that it would stretch my skin just a bit. Eventually there would be enough space where an implant would fit. I would go once every two weeks for around two months and then I had the implant surgery in February 2016.
I’m so glad I decided to do the reconstructive surgery. Dr. Atalla is amazing and I had the best experience you could possibly hope for.
Even though I had just had a mastectomy of my right breast, in addition to the right implant, they had to work on my left breast to make sure they were both even. They essentially had to reconstruct both breasts.
How do you make sure now to maintain your health?
I go in for check ups every three months and I take a little chemotherapy pill for cancer patients that I have to take every night for five years following my treatment. It’s a small dose of chemotherapy and even though I find myself rather healthy, it does lower my immune system and causes my joints to ache.
What advice would you have for others going through cancer?
Be strong and try to have inner peace and faith. Know that there are millions going through the same thing and try to find organizations that help you realize you are not alone. I work with an organization in Cumberland County called “We Care.” We work to raise money with different fundraisers to help cancer patients as they go through treatments. We help pay for gas or a hotel so patients can get through their treatments.
What advice would you have for caretakers or supporters who have friends or family going through cancer?
Be calm. Be there for them, but know that they need space. Everyone tried to smother me, but I knew I needed to be by myself and to rest. Understand that the patient needs their rest. Also, don’t run to them and tell them every horror story you hear about cancer. It’s amazing how many people would do that, but it just doesn’t help anything.
What do you appreciate more now after going through cancer?
I just appreciate life. The small things are so important. The things I used to get worked up over, I’m now like “that’s nothing.” I say this as the complete truth: breast cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me because it opened my eyes to life. I know that’s cliché, but it’s true.
There were too many things that took place in my cancer story to make me realize that I’m so thankful for the way it happened. One event that made me so thankful happened during my chemotherapy. I had lost my dad in 2013 and I’m the only daughter in the family. I randomly sat next to a man who I discovered was a childhood friend of my father’s. It was a man I had never met in my life, but we sat there as I received chemotherapy and laughed, cried and told all kinds of stories about my dad. I truly feel like that was God letting me talk to my Daddy. I had heard so many stories about this man sitting next to me and the moment I really needed my daddy, I got this opportunity.