Brainerd woman shares her breast cancer journey
“I didn't have to do chemo. So I'm a fortunate one, you know there's a lot of other people out there that have worse cases, terminal cancer. Even though our journeys are the same, I got lucky that my journey was short. I'm blessed. My heart goes out to those people that didn't have a good ending like mine.”
As if 2020 hasn’t been stressful enough, one rural Brainerd family had an added stressor in their lives — breast cancer.
Ann Hunnicutt was feeling blessed Friday, Oct. 16, as she sat at the dining room table in her home built by her grandfather, sharing her breast cancer journey. Hunnicutt never, in a million years, thought she would be diagnosed with breast cancer, as no woman in her immediate family had it. People who have a mother, sister or daughter diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50 are substantially more likely to have a genetic mutation linked to breast cancer, according to the nonprofit breastcancer.org .
Hunnicutt admitted she wasn’t good at being proactive with self examinations to make sure she felt no lumps in her breasts, which can be a sign of breast cancer. But one day in February, she happened to do a self exam and is happy she did.
“I found a lump in my left breast,” Hunnicutt said. “It was small and I really wasn’t too concerned, but I knew I had to get some other ... routine female checkups done so I’m like, well, just do it all at once.”
Hunnicutt went to her primary doctor, Dr. Jennifer Mahling-Stadum at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s-Brainerd Clinic, who recommended a mammogram and an ultrasound.
“I wasn't too worried about it,” Hunnicutt said, as it all sounded routine. “I went the same day to get the mammogram done and the ultrasound and nobody really had any concerns — like it should be nothing, should be good, we’ll just do some routine checkups. So, yeah I wasn’t too concerned until the ultrasound (results). They had found something.”
Hospital staff wanted to do a biopsy and wanted to schedule it right away, but Hunnicutt said she is not a person who likes to miss work. She asked if it would be OK if they scheduled it on Good Friday, which was six weeks away.
But then COVID-19 hit and Gov. Tim Walz announced the closures of schools on March 18. Hunnicutt, a 1995 Brainerd High School graduate, works as a behavioral interventionist at Riverside Elementary School. The school began doing child care for people who were essential workers and worked in emergency services, so she thought she could take a day off.
“I thought I could just take a day off and get in a little sooner, so I probably got in two weeks sooner, which is a blessing really because then I had the biopsy done, and within two days they called me,” she said.
Hunnicutt’s doctor told her she had ductal carcinoma in situ, a breast condition where there are abnormal cells in the milk duct.
Ductal carcinoma in situ refers to abnormal cells in the epithelium, or the lining of the milk ducts. The good news is these cells are contained within the ducts (in situ) and have not spread to other organs to cause serious disease or death, the website stated. However, without additional treatment following surgery, ductal carcinoma in situ has the potential to evolve into invasive cancer.
Being that the breast condition was contained, Hunnicutt still did not panic about having it. She got the news and told her husband Matt Hunnicutt and their two daughters — Jordan, 15, a sophomore at Brainerd High School, and Madison, 13, a seventh grader at Forestview Middle School.
“I really just had peace with it,” Hunnicutt said. “I wasn’t upset, I wasn’t crying about it. I just was like, ‘OK, so what do we need to do?’
“My daughters dealt with it very well. I think my husband had the hardest time with it because for him it was unknown. How do you support somebody, how do you take care of everybody?”
Hunnicutt had surgery two days later and she said everyone at the hospital was wonderful at providing all the details she needed to prepare. The surgery went well and she had to have one more biopsy done to make sure the abnormal cells didn’t spread to the surrounding tissues.
She was told she would get a call back in two business days on the results of the biopsy. It was closer to seven days and the biopsy showed the rural Brainerd woman did have invasive cancer. There was a second surgery and Hunnicutt had some complications with a lymph node wound that wouldn’t heal.
Hunnicutt’s 15-year-old daughter, who wants to be a surgeon, stepped in to help her mom. Jordan helped pack her mother’s wound under her armpit two times a day.
“I knew my husband couldn’t do this so I’m like, I’m gonna bank on my 15-year-old daughter,” Hunnicutt said. “She had to pack my wound and, bless her little heart, she did absolutely wonderful.”
Hunnicutt followed with radiation treatments. She met with her radiation team at Essentia and they made her feel comfortable throughout the whole process.
“They have good humor,” Hunnicutt said. “You can’t take stuff so seriously sometimes. I mean I know that my cancer, I’m not saying it’s any different than anybody else’s, but from Day One — they never said that this is terminal. So for me, I was like let’s do ... the steps we need to do. And you got to have some humor along the way. So my whole team was just great and then radiation started. And I think that was kind of my first, kind of like, breakdown.
“This whole time I was strong for my kids, I was strong for my husband. I had such great support from my friends and family, coworkers, everybody. But I sat in the radiation table, getting fitted for the machine for the treatments, and I literally just kind of had a breakdown, like this has kind of all been surreal. It didn’t seem like really a big deal, but then radiation — it’s something that I’ve never experienced. ... The radiation scared me.”
Hunnicutt went to radiation for 12 weeks, Monday through Friday. She completed radiation in August and now will take medications for five years.
Hunnicutt said, looking back at her experience, the one piece of advice she has for others is to do self examinations on a regular basis.
“Who knows where I’d be if I would have not done it,” she said.
Hunnicutt said support from her family and friends is what helped her get through her cancer ordeal.
“It was probably a lot harder for my husband because he didn’t know what to do,” Hunnicutt said. “He didn’t know what the outcome was going to be and I’m a little more, you know, God has me, I’m a Christian. It is what it is. ... I’ll get through this.”
One of the most emotional, hardest pieces of her whole journey, Hunnicutt said, was seeing the terminal cancer patients.
“I would go to radiation and I would see people with no hair and looking very sick and there I walk in with this big head of hair and all I’m there for is radiation,” Hunnicutt said. “I didn’t have to do chemo. So I’m a fortunate one, you know there’s a lot of other people out there that have worse cases, terminal cancer. Even though our journeys are the same, I got lucky that my journey was short. I’m blessed. My heart goes out to those people that didn’t have a good ending like mine. You know, they didn't have an easy journey, like mine.”
Another challenging part of her journey was due to COVID-19. Her husband was not able to go and hold his wife’s hand at any of her appointments, surgery or her first radiation treatment.
Matthew Hunnicutt said it was tough not being able to be with his wife during this time. He wasn’t able to hear what the doctors said about her condition or what the next steps were.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said. For Matthew, it felt like he was dropping his wife off for a dental appointment, but he wasn’t — she had cancer. “I didn’t like it at all because I wanted to know a little bit more about what was going on, instead of just a, ‘See you later and I will call you when I’m done since you’re at work.’
“Coming from a guy, that I don't know their terminology and I don’t know anything besides the whole day I’m going to work and I just tried to ... stay busy. But at the same time I was kind of nervous, like what if something happened?”
Hunnicutt’s two daughters will have to start having mammograms at age 32, as Ann Hunnicutt had cancer at age 42. The daughters, who both said they are happy their mother is OK, plan to do their regular self examinations through their lives.
Jordan said helping her mother out with the wound was tough as she thought she may “kill her or something” because she wasn’t quite sure if she was doing it correctly.
Hunnicutt said none of her immediate family has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Hunnicutt is the daughter of Tim Pickar and the granddaughter of the late Richard and Laree Pickar.
“I moved up here because I got married,” Hunnicutt said. “My family’s here and I’m gonna raise my kids here, I mean I’m in my grandma and grandpa’s house, which is just a blessing. I never thought I’d be here in this house. My grandpa died two years ago, and my grandma just passed last year.
“After she passed, I found out I had cancer and I’m like, thank God she passed, because my grandma is such a worrywart about everybody else. So she wouldn’t have made it through, I mean she would have been freaking out. ... God has this timing for everything and it was perfect timing and Grandma didn’t have to go through it with me.”
JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5851. Follow me at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.