Corps worker counts herself as cancer survivor

U.S. Army Garrison, staff writer for The Redstone Rocket
Published Oct. 4, 2013
Patricia James, contract specialist for the Corps of Engineers – Huntsville Center, received a clean bill of health from her oncologist this past January. James was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002.

Patricia James, contract specialist for the Corps of Engineers – Huntsville Center, received a clean bill of health from her oncologist this past January. James was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002.

It was only the size of a green pea, but it changed Patricia James’s life.

It began as a seemingly normal injury. Chatting with a friend one day, when James went to close her car door she caught herself right in the sternum. In pain for weeks, one day she felt what seemed like a bruise. Making an appointment with her doctor, she explained what had happened, and the mysterious bruise, that depending on how she moved, felt like a lump.

The doctor checked but didn’t feel anything. Still concerned, James asked the nurse to feel for herself. She immediately found the spot. Checking again, the doctor told James not to worry, it was just a bump. Still, James worried.

“You’ve got to be vigilant about your own health care,” said James, a contract specialist for the Corps of Engineers, Huntsville Center. “Don’t be stupid. Don’t accept what someone else says. Are they going to die for you?”

Seeking a second opinion, her new doctor immediately made James an appointment for a mammogram and ultrasound. The tests made for a long day at the doctor, as James had multiple images taken of her breasts.

“I knew something was wrong, because normally when I go I’m there not even 30 minutes, but I was there for half a day,” James said. “I said to myself, “Something is wrong, this is not right.’ I have never been so photographed in my life.”

It wasn’t until the following Monday, as James was preparing to go TDY that she received a phone call from the nurse, asking her to come in and speak with the doctor. Pressed for time, she agreed, but after two hours in the waiting room, was ready to head home and try again another day. Putting in a quick phone call to the doctor who was in surgery, the nurse explained to James that the doctor had requested she not let her leave. The next thing James heard was the click of the office doors locking her in.

“I stayed locked in there for 30 minutes until my doctor finally came in and told me, ‘Ms. James, I’m so sorry about what happened, but I really need to talk to you. It couldn’t have waited,’” James said.

The doctor explained that James needed to go into emergency surgery for a biopsy on the lump she had found in her breast. James stubbornly explained that she had a business trip the following day, and would take care of it when she got home.

“He called my boss,” James said. “He told him what was going on and that he had to cancel my trip or send someone else.”

The biopsy revealed a small tumor about the size of a green pea – breast cancer. Lucky she had found it early, James was given the choice to have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. The decision kept her up all night.

“We always have pains, and I know that in the back of my mind all I’ll be thinking about is cancer. I don’t want my whole life to be about every pain thinking, ‘Oh I've got cancer, oh it came back,’” James said. “So I opted for a radical mastectomy. When the doctor asked me, ‘Are you sure?’ I was teasing him and said, ‘Oh yeah, I can always get some more girls.’ I just didn’t want to go the rest of my life wondering if I made the wrong choice.”

In addition to the mastectomy, James also underwent four cycles of chemotherapy. The drugs made her gain weight. She lost her hair, everywhere except her eyebrows. Her fingernails turned black. The smell of bananas began to make her sick, and to this day the scent of certain perfumes makes her throw up. The residuals of her chemotherapy still linger. She has never gotten used to the stick of a needle. Both physically and emotionally, breast cancer has changed her.

“It’s been 10 years now and I still get sick when I see my breasts,” James said. “The first time I saw it all I kept doing was throwing up. It was a year before I could look at them without throwing up. When I look at the scar tissue I still have that uneasy feeling.”

Throughout her battle, however, James remained strong, going through seven surgeries and finishing her college degree. She credits much of that strength to her family and friends, who kept her fighting for her life. More than a decade later James is officially cancer free, released from her oncologist’s care this past January. A survivor, James works to raise awareness not only for breast cancer, but for all kinds of cancer.

“If people don’t talk about it it’ll be swept under the rug,” James said. “Back before we were born, that type of health conversation was taboo, you didn’t talk about that. But medicine has become so modern and so far advanced that people are not dying from cancer. When I was little and heard the word ‘cancer’ I figured they’d be dead tomorrow. Today people are living long lives with cancer.”