“I had very fibrous breasts. Every time I went to go have a mammogram, they would tell me that I had very dense breasts.”
What McGowen wasn’t told is that there is an increased risk of breast cancer for a person with dense breast tissue. Although she was conducting regular self-exams and had even been in for a few mammograms, she didn’t follow up. Looking back, she encourages others, even if they always have lumps, to go and get them checked out.
"I probably could have avoided chemo and radiation if I had gone in earlier,” McGowen said. “I caused myself quite a bit of trouble and pain by not going and getting it checked out.”
After what McGowen said was probably at least two years, she finally went to get the lump checked. In November 2015, after an exam, her doctor sent her for a diagnostic mammogram in Enid.
“It came back that it was breast cancer,” McGowen said. “I just kind of knew that it would be.”
McGowen had asked her mother and a few close friends to pray for her. After receiving the results, she numbly finished her day’s work before she and her husband went home.
“We had to tell our kids, that was probably one of the hardest parts,” McGowen said.
McGowen had no family history of breast cancer, but because she was in her early 40's, genetic testing was suggested.
“What I didn't understand about breast cancer until I got it is, there are several different kinds of breast cancer,” McGowen said. “That changes what approach they take to treat it. Then you have to make decisions, not necessarily having all the information.”
One of the decisions McGowen had to make regarded her surgery. She didn’t even know if the cancer was in her lymph nodes or if it had spread. She could just have a lumpectomy (the removal of the lump only), have the whole breast removed, have all the lymph nodes removed as well or have a double mastectomy.
“Probably the scariest thing is not knowing,” McGowen explained. “I chose to have a single mastectomy because I didn't have the breast cancer gene. They go in and take one of the lymph nodes and it was in that lymph node. So they took the rest of the lymph nodes out. It wasn't in any the rest of them, thankfully.”
They later learned her cancer was hormone responsive, which tends to be less aggressive and hormonal therapies can help prevent recurrence of that particular cancer. McGowen said she had taken some hormone therapy after one of her pregnancies and didn’t know if that might have had something to do with being hormone responsive. The percentage of growth in response to certain hormone receptors is measured in percentage, according to BreastCancer.org.
“It's considered hormone responsive If it's greater than 10 percent,” McGowen stated. “Mine was 98 percent responsive.”
McGowen began chemotherapy in January 2016 which consisted of eight treatments over a four month period. Chemo was followed by 24 rapidly consecutive radiation treatments that started in May and finished in June. Thankfully, McGowen said she wasn’t as sick as a lot of people seem to get with the treatment. She also relied a lot on the BreastCancer.org forum for information and support from other women going through the same cancer and treatments.
“Now I have to take a monthly shot and I take a daily pill. That also is part of my treatment, because mine was very hormone responsive,” McGowen shared. “I go back every six months now for checkups.”
Meanwhile, McGowen’s husband, at the time 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter all handled the situation in their own unique ways.
“My son is a very analytical, just kind of no nonsense kind of kid,” McGowen said. “He could tell me how cancer cells were different than regular cells.”
McGowen said her daughter was very worried about her, but a friend who is a cancer survivor helped keep the mother/daughter connection strong.
“My husband did tons of research. He could tell you what all the treatment options were and what all the steps were going to be,” McGowen said. “I couldn't make myself think about something that was any further than the decision I had to make next. It was just too overwhelming.”
One thing that was a big help to McGowen, especially with the daily radiation treatments, was the free housing that is made available close to the hospital in Enid.
“They (the hospital) referred me, it was called Golden Oaks Retirement Community in Enid,” McGowen said. “I just had a little apartment and it was perfect.”
Nearly a year later in May 2017, McGowen underwent breast reconstruction.
“What they do there is take tissue, fat and blood vessels from your stomach,” McGowen explained. “Basically it’s a tummy tuck and then they use that to make your breast. So I didn’t have to get an implant.”
With a supportive husband, church group and her mom coming to help drive the kids around, McGowen said everything they did was very important to her and she is very thankful for the support.
Now, McGowen is a bit more health conscious, eating more fruits and vegetables than before and exercising.
“I still eat sweets, I just probably don’t eat as many as I used to,” McGowen said.
McGowen explained the biggest impact cancer made on her life was strengthening her faith.
“My faith in God sustained me through all of it and I really relied on Him,” McGowen said.