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Think pink

Sharing tale of breast cancer survival, hoping to save a life

Shaylon Mackall, a member of the Beaver Local High School varsity girls’ volleyball team, poses with her mother Shandon Mackall and grandmother Joyce Sweeney. Sweeney, who is battling breast cancer, recently was the recipient of proceeds raised during the Beaver Local vs. East Liverpool high schools’ Volley For A Cure benefit in August. (Submitted photo)

EAST LIVERPOOL –The American Cancer Society predicts 12 percent of U.S. women develop invasive breast cancer over her lifetime, but not everyone’s story ends happily like Joyce Sweeney.

The West Point woman continues to complete radiation treatment, after undergoing a full mastectomy. She hopes that her story will serve as a cautionary tale for women, who believe that breast cancer cannot happen to them.

After all, Sweeney herself was one of those women.

Her journey had began earlier this year, after suffering discomfort in her breast and telling her doctor. He sent her to get her first mammogram (at age 58) and ultrasound, something that she had always avoided due to rumors that the radiation could cause cancer.

It turns out to be that one rumor almost cost Sweeney’s life, as doctors discovered she was suffering from two types of cancer that had reached Stage 3 that spread her breasts into her lymph nodes.

Joyce Sweeney and her sister-in-law Lori Sweeney, also a breast cancer survivor, were photographed at a recent Volley For A Cure benefit volleyball game between Beaver Local and East Liverpool high schools. (Submitted photo)

She didn’t typically fit the mold of individuals whom she believed would contract the disease. Sweeney was a non-smoker and didn’t possess mutated breast cancer genes. (BRCA)

Every human has both the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, the genes normally suppress breast cancer; however, in some people, the gene mutates and its carriers are more likely to develop cancer.

About one in 400 people typically carry either the mutated BRCA1 or BRCA gene. Typically half of the women with the mutated gene will develop breast cancer by age 70.

That is why it is important to heed the American College of Radiology’s recommendation of annual mammograms for all women over age 40 regardless of symptoms or family history.

As in Sweeney’s case, early detection can make a difference. According to the American Cancer Society, early stage breast cancer has a five-year survival rate of 99 percent compared to that discovered in the later stage, which is approximately one-third of that.

Early detection provides victims more treatment options. In Sweeney’s case, she elected to have a full mastectomy, after chemotherapy treatments reduced the mass to one-quarter of its original size.

That decision may not be for everyone, but Sweeney explains, “I couldn’t be one of those women who lost one breast and always wondered if (the cancer) was going to be back. Right away, I noticed that I was four pounds lighter, and then realized that the weight that I lost was my breasts. Today, I still feel a sort of tenseness like I’m wearing an iron bra and have limited motion in my arms; however, I’m still here.”

As part of her post-surgery protocol, Sweeney is in midst of 33 rounds of radiation treatment — just in case they missed any cancer behind. “If you have any discomfort at all, especially in your breasts, have it checked out. I’m glad that I had, and it turned out to be in the early stages of something,” Sweeney said, adding that she had lost her sister to breast cancer the previous year. “Thank goodness mine was not as aggressive.”

Shandon Mackall, Joyce’s daughter, acknowledges that the community has really pulled together to assist their family through the crisis.

Cancer treatment can be quite expensive, and fundraisers have included spaghetti dinners, poker runs and drawings for Myrtle Beach vacations. Most recently the East Liverpool and Beaver Local high school volleyball teams played their Volley for the Cure benefit with the funds earmarked for Sweeney.

“My mother’s cancer scare has taught me about the importance of paying attention to one’s body, especially when something doesn’t look or feel right. Things can change in the blink of an eye. Never say it won’t or cannot happen to you, because cancer doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anyone of us,” Mackall explained. “I’m proud of my mom and the fighter she is. She has shown so much strength and courage through all of this”

Both women still wonder how Sweeney came to have this disease. Some theorize it is environmental, as there appears to be a pattern of people on Roller Coaster Road to have been stricken by cancer. Others theorize that perhaps she ingested something — stressing the important of watching what one eats.

However, Sweeney’s prognosis appears to be good, and she is thankful to be able to spend time with her family. “God has gotten me this far, and after I finish my last radiation treatment and am declared cancer free, I will have to take a special chemotherapy pill for five years,” she said.

She does still gets emotional when thinking about the community outpouring: “It really encourages me that humanity is still here for each other.”

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