Deb Simmons, 71, has diligently had a mammogram every year. In August 2018, she had her yearly mammogram and was called back to be rechecked.
“I’d been called back before so I wasn’t really worried,” Simmons said while sitting in her Pequot Lakes home.
This time she had a 3D mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. She was shocked when doctors found cancer in a tumor in her breast and six lymph nodes, especially when there was no history of breast cancer in her family.
“I wish I’d done the 3D (mammogram) first,” Simmons said, adding, however, that she couldn’t feel the lump in her breast, even when the doctor put her finger on it.
“It’s extremely good it was caught so early. I can’t say enough about having a mammogram every year. It’s extremely important. It saved my life,” Simmons said.
Simmons had surgery in September 2018 to remove the tumor and 14 lymph nodes, including the six cancerous lymph nodes. Doctors didn’t find cancer anywhere else.
Surgery didn’t cause her any problems, and a month later she started 3 ½ months of chemotherapy treatments.
“That was the toughest part,” Simmons said.
The chemotherapy compromised her immune system and she contracted pneumonia, prompting a stay at a rehabilitation facility for a month to gain her strength back before she could return home.
That delayed radiation treatments for two months, which Simmons said wasn’t so bad because she then drove to those daily appointments on Monday-Friday each week for six weeks in decent spring weather. She finished radiation in May and is now relieved to say she is cancer-free and was able to return to her part-time job at the Breezy Point Resort Gift Shop. She must return for checkups every three months.
“And I will be diligent about that,” she said.
Like many breast cancer survivors, Simmons can’t emphasize enough how important it is for women to have regular mammograms.
“I really encourage every woman I know to have a mammogram every year. I know women my age who have never had a mammogram,” she said.
She also advises people in similar situations to eat whatever they can despite a loss of appetite because nourishment is important, do physical therapy if needed, and accept help from friends and family.
“At first it’s hard to accept help, but you have to. And embrace it,” Simmons said.
“The support I got from Essentia (Health), my friends and my family - it was just so important,” she said. “I’ve always been independent and able to take care of myself. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Her family includes a daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren who live in the Twin Cities, and three sisters. To celebrate surviving breast cancer, her family and her sisters’ families got together in California. She also has a friend who took good care of her and took her to appointments, and they celebrated earlier this month with a trip to the Gunflint Trail.
Simmons praised the Pink Ribbon Cupboard, which offers help with expenses for people undergoing breast cancer treatment.
“They are phenomenal in their support as well as financial support,” she said.
She’s also become involved in the Susan G. Komen Brainerd Lakes Race for the Cure, serving on the planning committee for the June 27, 2020, event that will be held at Pequot Lakes High School.
“I’ll do everything I can because they are so supportive. It just is amazing,” Simmons said.
As she gets used to her hair growing back curly, Simmons said her breast cancer journey has made her not sweat the small stuff because it’s not important.
“I have more understanding and patience of everything in my life,” she said.
Simmons admits her breast cancer fight wasn’t easy, but it was worth the battle.
“I’m back to 100%. It’s a fight. You have got to fight. If you don’t - I probably wouldn’t have made it,” she said. “It’s not without a fight, but it’s worth it.”