MICHELLE Ashwood-Stewart was not fully 40 years old when she did the mammogram that picked up her breast cancer. At 39, she had gone to a health fair with her son so that he could have his medical done in time for school, where she saw a mobile mammography unit and felt a strong urge to have her breast examined.
“I just kept feeling like I needed to go and do a mammogram,” she relayed to All Woman. “And the feeling wouldn't go away, so I went.”
The medics were reluctant to perform the test because she was not yet 40, which is the recommended age for women to start having their annual mammograms done, but Ashwood-Stewart was persistent, and was eventually allowed to do the exam after explaining that her father had died from cancer.
That was September 2007, and when she was told that they found a lump in one breast later that year, she was surprised but not shaken. A friend reminded her that a lump did not necessarily mean she had cancer, and she continued her life as if nothing had happened, to the point where she almost forgot about it.
“They recommended that I do another mammogram and an ultrasound at the end of January, after which I had a fine needle biopsy done,” she recalled.
By March the verdict was in. The lump was malignant. She had breast cancer.
“That was indescribable. It was horrifying… frightening… surreal. It was an out-of-body experience. I was just clueless,” she expressed.
Ashwood-Stewart was referred to a surgeon, with whom she mulled over the treatment options.
“He insisted on a lumpectomy (surgery to remove only the lump from the breast), but when he went to remove that one lump he found three — two of which were cancerous,” she said.
The discovery of the other lumps was a game changer. The option of just taking out the lumps was no longer on the table. She had to remove that breast. It also caused her to become wary of the other breast, which was brushed aside since the first mammogram came back clean.
“I thought to myself that we've done two mammograms, one ultrasound, and an ultrasound-guided surgery, and none of those found the other two lumps. It was only in the lumpectomy that he saw them. So what was happening to the other breast? I can't do this twice.”
When she thought of the nightmare that she had been living since the discovery, Ashwood-Stewart decided that she wanted to have both breasts removed. She also opted to have reconstructive surgery done, which would rebuild her breast using tissue from her abdomen. This was not walk in the park, especially since her health insurance would not stand the cost of removing the other breast.
“They only covered a portion of the mastectomy in one breast. They were not doing the other breast at all, and they were not doing the reconstruction as that was seen as cosmetic and elective. I had to raise funds and find money,” she said.
She would soon have the double mastectomy done, along with the reconstructive surgery, and with the love and support of her husband and son, her church family, and colleagues at The University of the West Indies, she emerged the victor of the battle with cancer.
A decade later, she penned her experience and published it in the form of a book called Through the Valley, which focuses on her spiritual journey through the diagnosis and treatment.
Truly believing that the entire experience was orchestrated by God, Ashwood-Stewart uses her story to encourage other women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer to not lose hope while going through their valleys.
“The book came out of sharing with friends along the way. I'm a talker. That's how I process life. Once I hear of anybody with breast cancer, I try to talk to them and suggest that they reach out to people,” she said. “Some people try to journey it alone, but while I'm sure that some of them get through like that, I know that couldn't. I found that in telling my story a lot of people have been encouraged.”
She also uses her experience of finding her cancer at stage one as a testament to how early detection can improve the chances of beating the illness.
“Do the self-breast exams and get your annual mammogram,” she urges other women. “Early detection is the key to being a survivor. That's the only reason I didn't have to do chemo or radiation or any of that. It's better to know and to be able to do something than to find out late and think, “If only I had…”