She always had scheduled her annual checkups and mammograms.
At age 55, it was what she was supposed to do to detect cancer early.
But in December 2019, Stacey St. Louis was under the weather and had to cancel her regularly scheduled mammogram. Fast-forward to early 2020: Because of COVID-19, the mammogram units in most hospitals were shut down unless it was an emergency.
It was in late April when Stacey was getting dressed, and she felt a marble-sized lump in her breast. She thought it was a cyst, but a week later, she spoke with her doctor, who ordered a diagnostic mammogram. On May 13, 2020, Stacey’s 56th birthday, the ultrasound radiologist said her lump looked like cancer, and she ordered a biopsy. It just took a few days before Stacey was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, along with being HER2 positive.
“It was at that moment I thought to myself, ‘What is the next step; what do I do next?”’ Stacey recalled thinking as she was told the news.
She spoke the next week with her surgeon, Dr. David Lang, who gave her the choice between a lumpectomy and mastectomy, and Stacey was scheduled for her lumpectomy surgery the next Monday. Dr. Lang also removed six lymph nodes and reported the “margins were clean.” Several weeks later, a second procedure was performed to implant a chemotherapy port under Stacey’s skin. The port allowed easy access to her bloodstream and was used for blood draws and the infusing of chemotherapy drugs.
Because this was at the height of COVID shutdowns, no friends or family were able to accompany Stacey inside the hospital for her surgery or her treatments.
Stacey, who lives in Bradley, found comfort in meeting several women along the way (including some of her nurses) who had either experienced breast cancer themselves or been touched by it in some way.
Stacey’s oncologist, Dr. Patrick McGinnis, explained this treatment would be a very short time in her life.
“I never felt my diagnosis was a death sentence. I focused on each day and tried to remain positive,” she said of her journey.
Her chemotherapy started July 1, 2020, and she had six rounds — one every 21 days.
After the first round was complete, Stacey began to lose her hair. At that point, she made the decision to shave it off with the help and support of her boyfriend and a close friend. She said shaving it off was hard at first.
“But once I lost it, I really didn’t miss it,” she added.
Chemotherapy made Stacey quite sick and weak, and much of her time during treatment was spent resting in a chair or in bed. She was forced to use a walker for mobility and eventually gave in to a wheelchair. Doctors backed off her chemotherapy a bit to let her body heal.
Stacey noticed her sense of taste progressively changed, and by the third treatment, nothing tasted good.
“Everything changed in my whole body. I was hot, and then I was cold. And I had considerable bone pain,” she recalled.
Strangers who crossed her path bolstered her spirits, and Stacey calls them “breast cancer angels.” One waiter at Red Lobster went out of his way to make her dinner a pleasurable experience on the first night she had eaten out after her treatments were complete.
Stacey said, “For someone who hadn’t really eaten in months, he truly made my day, and took good care of me. You just begin to realize how you, too, can affect someone’s life, by maybe a smile, opening the door and just saying, ‘Hello!’”
Another stranger in a store stopped her to say, “I remember looking like you … breast cancer, right?” The healthy-looking woman with a head full of hair gave Stacey a smile but mostly boosted her spirits and offered hope.
A cancer center volunteer crochets hats to keep patients’ bare heads warm, and another makes small pillows and ice bag covers for cancer patients to use during their recovery from surgery.
“Those little things make a really big difference,” Stacey said.
After chemotherapy ended in November, Stacey did four weeks of radiation, every day, finishing at the end of 2020. She returned to her job with Comcast as an administrative assistant in January 2021.
There is a 75 percent chance Stacey’s cancer will not return, and she still is healing and taking life one day at a time.
“I am so thankful for the love and support of my family and friends. Though I couldn’t see them in person during that time, their phone calls and video chats were such a bright light in my day. It’s hard to put into words how much I appreciated their support from afar,” she reflected.
“When I look back at what I went through, it does seem that it was a short time in my life,” she said, adding, “I don’t take things for granted, and I try not to waste time. I see things a little differently. Use your time to its fullest because you can’t get that time back. Life can change in one touch, one phrase, one word.
“Every day is a new challenge. I don’t want this to define me,” Stacey concluded.
She would like to thank the entire team at AMITA St. Mary’s Cancer Center and hospital for the exceptional care she received.
Additionally, Stacey wants to encourage all women to do their monthly self-exams. She said she feels if she would have done them regularly, she might have found the lump sooner.
“Taking just a few minutes each month for self-care is so important, and it can save your life,” she concluded.