DEARBORN - For Stephanie Webb, it wasn’t a matter of “if” she would ever get breast cancer. In her mind, sadly, it was more a question of “when.”
“Unfortunately cancer is quite prolific in my family, especially the maternal side. My mom, grandmother, aunt and a few cousins were diagnosed with breast cancer,” said Webb, who works as a cycle planning specialist in Purchasing Strategy. “So I’ve always known cancer was a possible eventuality for me. Let’s face it, the odds were definitely not in my favor.”
However, that knowledge didn’t lessen the shock, when Webb herself was diagnosed with the disease.
“It was amazing how emotionally unprepared I was to receive the diagnosis,” she said.
Due to her family history, Webb started having mammograms at age 30. Occasionally doctors ordered follow-up procedures (MRI, fine-needle aspiration, biopsy, etc.) to examine abnormal masses, all of which were later categorized as benign cysts. So when at age 43 Webb found a pea-size lump during a self-examination, she figured it, too, was just another cyst. After all, the mammogram she completed six months earlier was normal.
“I checked it periodically thinking it would disappear on its own because it had happened before,” she said. “I wasn’t alarmed. I decided to monitor the size, shape, texture and location for any changes. I mentioned the abnormality to my primary physician and was advised to wait until the next scheduled mammogram to evaluate further.”
However, two months later, Webb had a routine appointment with her ob-gyn who urged her to have a mammogram immediately due to her family history. The mammogram led to an ultrasound. The ultrasound resulted in a needle aspiration biopsy.
At that point, Webb says she was concerned but fear didn’t set in until two days later when she received a personal phone call from the surgeon.
“I was at work when I received the call. The first question the surgeon asked was whether it was a good time to talk. If a doctor is giving you good news, he typically doesn’t ask if it’s a good time to talk. That’s when I really started to panic,” she said. “The doctor stated the mass was malignant and required extraction, and we scheduled an appointment to discuss my options.”
It was near lunchtime when Webb received the news. She said she left work and drove straight to her mother’s house.
“I walked in my mom’s house and as soon as I saw her I started crying. I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything. Mothers are amazing people. She knew, somehow she knew without a word ever being exchanged,” said Webb. “Part of me didn’t want to tell her that I had breast cancer because she had gone through that living hell herself years before and I felt I was burdening her with my illness because parents, especially mothers, worry about their children. There were so many thoughts going through my mind. It was absolutely overwhelming.”
Webb was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. After reviewing options with her surgeon, she decided to have a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation.
Webb says her anxiety about herself quickly turned to concern for her three children, who were 14, 12 and 8 at the time.
“While I was worried about what would happen to me during treatment, I worried about what happened to my children more because I could see how it impacted their lives,” she said. “I tried to show them a silver lining in the darkness, to instill hope where there was fear and uncertainty. I wanted them to know that cancer is an awful disease and the treatment sucks but there was life after cancer. This is not the end. It’s an episode, another chapter in the book of life we have the misfortune of experiencing.”
Webb says she used her mom as a living example.
“I told my kids to look at grandma, she was diagnosed as a Stage 3 and she is an 18-year survivor,” she said.
A brutal round of chemotherapy, however, took its toll.
“The fatigue was overwhelmingly exhausting physically and emotionally. The side effects were compounded with each subsequent session,” explained Webb. “Eventually I lost all of my hair. I still don’t have eyebrows. My hands, feet and nails were discolored. I lost feeling in my fingers and toes. The mouth sores were awful and food was absolutely tasteless. The outward effects of chemo were quite noticeable.”
Anticipating that she might lose her beautiful, long hair, Webb decided early on to donate 12 inches of it to Locks of Love.
“Before I started chemo, I actually measured out my hair to see how long it was. The children and I braided it and we cut it,” she said. “We did this together because I didn’t want my kids to be shocked by all the different things that were going to happen as we went through this illness.”
The children were still devastated, however, when Webb shaved her head after discovering several bald patches.
“I did it in the bathroom by myself and simply tied a bandana around my head afterwards,” she said. “When the kids saw me they burst into tears. I didn’t anticipate such an emotional reaction and needless to say I wasn’t prepared for it either. Some of the small changes were actually monumental for them.”
Webb says it was important to keep reassuring the children everything would be okay.
“I remember one evening while I was tucking my daughter in she asked, ‘Mom, how do you know everything is going to be alright?’ And I responded because I have faith and I trust God put me here to see you through all the years you need me here and you’re still quite young so I’m assuming He still needs me here to care for you,” she said. “I told her that’s my story and that’s what we’re going to believe until we hear differently. And she said, ‘Yeah mom, I do still need you.’”
Despite the seriousness of breast cancer and the effects chemotherapy and radiation have on the physical body, Webb says it’s important to try to maintain a sense of humor and a positive attitude.
“My oncologist told me he was impressed with my attitude throughout the process. I did try to take the ‘cup is half full’ approach even when there were days I was convinced that cup was quite empty. Treatment is emotionally and physically damaging,” she said. “However, throughout the experience I reminded myself this is a temporary state. It’s not who I am. It’s just what I’m going through.”
When she went on medical leave to undergo chemotherapy, Webb sent a note to her colleagues at Ford urging them to encourage the women in their lives to perform regular self-exams in addition to their annual mammograms.
“The doctors didn’t find my breast cancer. I did. I was between mammograms when it surfaced. So, don’t assume you’re ‘safe’ until your next scheduled exam,” she said. “Your body doesn’t realize what time it is. You have to be vigilant.”
Webb has been cancer-free for nearly four years now. She says she will be forever grateful for the love and support she received from family and friends.
Today, she thinks of herself as being very fortunate and blessed.
“I was fortunate the cancer was detected and treated early. I am truly blessed to have a loving family, a powerful prayer group and an outstanding network of supportive friends,” she said. “The phone calls, cards, prayers and other acts of kindness mean more than words can adequately convey. Sometimes it’s through crisis we are reminded of what’s really important in life and how much we mean to others.”
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Stephanie with her daughter Micaela
Stephanie with her daughter Ketura
Stephanie with her son Jared