In August of 2021, 53-year-old Wanda Ellison said her goodbyes to CSB of Middle Georgia and finally retired after devoting 30 years to the behavioral health care center. Excited to experience her newfound freedom with her husband Randy and their two adult sons, Chet, and Chace, she began anticipating the joys retirement would bring but was soon hit with a feeling she hadn’t experienced before…
“I just didn’t feel good, and I was thinking, ‘Here I am retired, I should feel on top of the world’ but I just didn’t. I had been working since I was 13 years old, so after retirement and working all those years, I just thought that I was getting lazy." she said with a laugh, "I wasn’t listening to my body, but it was really my body trying to tell me that something was wrong, and I just didn’t listen."
Trusting her gut, Ellison made an appointment with her doctor in February of 2022 for a physical exam and a mammogram screening. After going through the process of a full 3-D mammography as well as taking multiple blood tests, her results came back and indicated that she was completely normal and healthy. However, it would only take one month for her to make a grave discovery that would suggest she get a second opinion.
“In March of 2022 I went and stayed with my Aunt for the weekend and while I was there, I felt a lump under my arm. So, I called my cousin, who is a nurse, and asked her what she thought it could be and what I should do. She told me to go see my doctor as soon as possible and not to put it off.” explained Ellison.
Heeding that critically important advice, Ellison made a second appointment with her healthcare provider who took immediate measures and sent her in for a CT scan. During the examination, two cysts were detected so the next step was for Ellison to travel to Macon in mid-April to undergo a biopsy. After her biopsy procedure, she apprehensively asked her doctor what he thought it could be to which he solemnly replied, ‘This doesn’t look good.
“I had just had a full physical the month before, so it really popped up quickly.” explained Ellison, “All the while I’m thinking that it could be anything but also nothing at all. I was trying not to think the worst.”
Then, as the days rolled by and a week had come and gone, she returned to her doctor's office for her results, expecting that it would be touch and go.
“Randy wanted to go with me, but I was like ‘Don’t worry about it; everything will be fine.’ Because I had just had all the bloodwork and tests done with a mammogram and I truly believed everything was fine. But it didn’t turn out that way.”
It was during this appointment when the words “Breast Cancer” slipped from the lips of Ellison’s doctor, and it suddenly felt as if the world was collapsing around her.
“I went in, and they told me - I broke down. I honestly felt like someone had run me over with a mac truck. My youngest son, Chace, went with me because I honestly thought it was going to be fine… but it wasn’t.” she shared.
In May of 2022, Ellison was diagnosed with Stage IV Triple Negative Breast Cancer. A very aggressive form of breast cancer that accounts for about 10-15% of all breast cancers. The term triple-negative breast cancer refers to the fact that the cancer cells don’t have estrogen or progesterone receptors (ER or PR) and also don’t make any or too much of the protein called HER2. (The cells test "negative" on all 3 tests.) These cancers tend to be more common in women younger than age 40, who are Black, or who have a BRCA1 mutation.
TNBC tends to grow quickly, is more likely to have spread at the time it’s found and is more likely to come back after treatment than other types of breast cancer. Because of this, the survival rates for TNBC are generally not quite as high as they are for other types of breast cancer.
Survival rates can give you an idea of what percentage of people with the same type and stage of cancer are still alive a certain amount of time (usually 5 years) after they were diagnosed. They can’t tell you how long you will live, but they may help give you a better understanding of how likely it is that your treatment will be successful.
TNBC differs from other types of invasive breast cancer in that it tends to grow and spread faster, has fewer treatment options, and tends to have a worse prognosis or outlook with a 5-year survival rate at 91%.
“I don’t even remember walking from the doctor’s office to the car but I remember getting in the car and feeling like every bit of the blood in my body had dissolved into the atmosphere. Then my husband called to find out if I’m okay and I’m having to tell him about my diagnosis over the phone. I'll never forget the distress in his voice from how upset he was that he didn’t come with me... But I thought everything was going to be fine." Ellison heartbreakingly recalled.
After breaking the unimaginable news to her son Chet and the remainder of their family, she began taking the next step in choosing an oncology department that she felt would work best for her and take the appropriate steps and measures to ensure that she receives the cure she was hoping for. It was during this time that she contacted the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville Florida.
“With everything from that point forward you had to make the most precise decisions you possibly could because those decisions could ultimately save your life one way or another. So, I decided to go to the MAYO Clinic because I had always heard great things about the MAYO Clinic and with this type of cancer I wanted to go to the absolute best.” she explained.
The clinic immediately began running further tests on Ellison and gave her a second biopsy procedure where they put in a marker at the site of the tumor so that they could take a direct look at everything. They also did a PETSCAN and discovered that not only was the cancer in her lymph nodes, but it was also in her neck, ribs, spleen, and pelvic bone. Due to it being in her pelvic bone, Ellison had to undergo a bone biopsy so that the surgeons could determine if it was cancer. Then, those results came back positive, and the reeling state of shock began to succumb her once again.
“The doctor told me that If I had not found the lump when I did, that I wouldn’t have lived to see my next birthday which was in February. Hearing those words is kind of like hearing that Tim Mcgraw song – Live Like You Were Dying - in the most surreal way. I began thinking about what I’ve not done in my life that I want to be able to do.” she softly recalled, “They did not give me a lot of hope that I would be able to fight it because it had metastasized. However, they did tell me that around one percent of people are able to turn this around, the life expectancy is about five years if they can’t control it. That’s the moment that I decided I was going to be in the one percent.”
After receiving her full diagnoses, Ellison began taking chemo treatments of Taxol, Carboplatin and Keytruda at the Mayo Clinic. During this time her Oncologist recommended that she consider moving to a more local clinic, because as her chemotherapy progressed it would become more difficult to make the three-hour drive to Jacksonville from Swainsboro and back home again. That's when she found St. Joseph's Candler Cancer Center in Pembroke and began taking the remainder of her treatment there.
“I had big plans for the summer of 2022, being my first summer of retirement but unfortunately the chemotherapy put that into a halt because I was just so drained. I pretty much slept my summer away because I would take chemo on Wednesday and would be drained for days. By the weekend I began feeling a little better but in no time, Wednesday would come back around, and I’d have to start all over again.” She said with a sigh, “Thankfully chemotherapy never made me sick because they put me on medication for nausea. I also didn’t have to have any radiation and never had to undergo any surgery; I only had to go through the chemotherapy.
Ellison then shared the most beautiful moment she experienced through this tumultuous journey. As she began losing her hair, she came face to face with vulnerability like never before and a tangible sign that her life had ultimately changed. However, through this selfish and devastating disease she found her strength through the love and support of her children and husband, who rallied around her and shaved their own heads in solidarity with her to emphasize that her fight is never alone. My nephew shaved his head and a family friend as well.
“I lost all my hair but the best thing about it was my children and how they handled it. When I realized that it had started falling out, we had a shave mommas hair day. I used to cut their hair when they were little, so it was kind of like a little payback for them and we made it fun. So, we went outside, and my youngest son Chace took the clippers and I remember he cut one strip down the center of my head, and he stopped, and I said, ‘Oh no! You are not leaving me like this!’ and I turned around and when I did, he took the clippers and shaved every bit of that beautiful red hair he had off his head, then he handed the clippers to my husband Randy, and he shaved his head and then Randy handed the clippers to my son Chet and he shaved his beard off. Then each one of them took turns shaving my head and they got it all off.” she reminisced through tearful eyes, “That moment was so surreal. It makes you look at life differently. Don’t sweat the little stuff anymore.”
She shared that it was through her faith and the prayers that she received from her family and friends that saved her life in the end. Ellison explained that those quiet whispers of hope did more than any chemotherapy or doctor could have done, because God listened and there’s something else in this life that he wants her to do because as of right now she is in remission.
“When my doctor told me that I was in remission, I was in shock. Looking back to when I first began this journey and he told me that only one percent ever went into remission, I remember looking at him and saying, ‘You don’t know me, I’m going to be in your one percent.’ And he just smiled his sweet smile and said, ‘Okay, I want you to do that.’ and I did!” she said with a bright smile, “I’m stubborn. I told myself that I was going to be in that one percent. I guess I’m just a fighter and survivor. I have had four clear PETSCANS but have learned that you can’t take things for granted because my next PETSCAN may not be clear, but if it’s not, that’s okay. I’m gonna fight again because I feel like there’s something here that I’m supposed to do and if it's telling my story to save somebody else or just to be an inspiration for faith, then that’s what I need to do.”
As her story concluded, she further expressed her love for her faith and her small-town community. She thanks the people of Swainsboro who lifted her up in prayer, supported her, and provided meals for her family during this trying time. She also thanks the officers at the Swainsboro Police Department for taking care of things at the department while Randy was taking care of her.
“I love my Swainsboro family, my Emanuel County family and my SPD family so much.” Said Ellison
She also wants everyone to know that even if you get a clear mammogram or clear bloodwork, you still need to do self-examinations, especially in your lymph node area. Doctors really stress to check your breasts and make sure you don’t find any lumps but it's further than that. You need to check under your arms, make sure that you don’t have any swollen lymph nodes and take it seriously if you do find them. Furthermore, don’t forget to say I love you.
“After we lost our son Chad, our family made sure that we never leave each other or hang up the phone without telling each other that we love each other. You need to make sure that your family knows that you care about them, and I guess it became even more so after I was diagnosed. My boys are truly very loving men and I think that their support and just knowing how much they love me helped heal me. If I were to leave this world today, there’s no doubt in my mind how much they love me, or how much Randy loves me and there’s no doubt in their minds how I feel about them… that I love them more than life itself.” She said through a smile, “I think that when people lose loved ones they say, ‘I hope they know how I felt about them.’ That’s just human nature, but if you want them to know, you need to tell them today.”