Fayetteville Mom Shares Decision to Have Double Mastectomy

By Shannon Magsam

Editor’s note: So many women were rooting for Fayetteville mom Gail Halleck during a recent nwaMotherlode giveaway that we couldn’t help but wonder about the back story on this obviously remarkable woman. We found out that Gail, 43, is celebrating the first anniversary after a double mastectomy. Gail (on the far right in the picture) was happy to share her story in hopes of helping other women going through breast cancer. She’s also passionate about encouraging women to perform self breast exams and to determine whether they have dense breasts, which was recently linked to higher incidence of breast cancer. She feels that sharing this information is part of her mission in life now. Here’s her story:

gailimg_0434-1.jpgOn May 3, 2007, Gail was driving her 4-year-old daughter home after the last day of preschool. They had just celebrated the occasion with a school-wide tea party. Gail was trying to keep the mood light, but she couldn’t help feeling anxious. She had noticed a pea-sized lump in her breast the Friday before and wondered when she’d get the test results. She’d had fibrocystic breasts for a long time, but this lump felt different and she was experiencing tenderness too soon after her period.

Her cell phone rang just as she was turning onto their street in Fayetteville.

It was then she heard the news: fast-growing, aggressive cancer in her left breast.

“I went into the house and started scribbling notes,” she said. “They said I had invasive ductal carcinoma and I needed an MRI to determine if the other breast was clear and to get a better picture of things before surgery. It showed an area on the right breast that looked suspicious so then I had to have an MRI-assisted biopsy. Thankfully, it was determined not to be cancer.”

Gail was still stunned by the news and hurtled herself into learning her options to keep from being so scared.

On May 18, Gail had a lumpectomy (a surgical procedure which involves removing a suspected cancerous tumor or lump from the breast) and sentinel node biopsies on both breasts to determine how systemic the cancer might be.

“By then I was already talking to my doctor about a mastectomy,” she said. “There are a million decisions. That one was excruciating, but I knew that’s what I wanted.”

Thankfully, the cancer had not spread into her nodes and was only in the left breast, but she decided she’d like to have both breasts removed to decrease risk of future cancer. While it was a grade 3 tumor and it tested triple negative for for estrogen, progesterone and HER-2 protein, it was considered stage 1 (early detection) because of the small size of the tumor (just under one centimeter) and her clear node status.

Before the mastectomies, Gail started chemotherapy in June. Apart from the original diagnosis, Gail said the worst time for her was the fear of treatment.

“I was afraid of what chemotherapy would do to me,” she said. “I wondered if I’d get sick or not. But the reality was I didn’t throw up once. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. They manage that so much better now.”

As her doctors had predicted, exactly 14 days after the first chemo treatment her hair started falling out. It started with the hair on her head, followed by her eyebrows and eyelashes.

She also stopped having a period. But the hair was the most noticeable thing.

She got a wig because her son, Jacob, now 12, was starting middle school and she didn’t want to embarrass him. But she started wearing scarves and hats and she never really used the wigs.

“He got used to it,” she said.

Both her children were helped immensely during her chemotherapy by the support group called CLIMB at Helping Oncology Patients Excel (h.o.p.e.) in Fayetteville. Gail’s husband, Mark, otherwise known as her personal rock, attended support groups with her. Mark’s mother died of breast cancer nine years ago.

Friends were also a big part of an informal support group. They pitched in and took the children, Rachel and Jacob, to their homes for play dates and provided many meals along with emotional support (many of those were Leverett Elementary ladies who spoke up about Gail during the Bath Junkie contest). Gail’s sister, Wendy, (whom she calls “Sister Mom” because she’s seven years older) was also a huge support and she was made an honorary citizen of Northwest Arkansas last year because she practically lived here.

Gail completed chemo in September. On Nov. 7, she went to Dallas to have the double mastectomy. She has two long cuts along her back where they took tissue and muscle for her reconstruction. She was also able to get breast implants during the surgery, which is not always possible.

She really didn’t care about the size or shape of her saline implants.

“I couldn’t think aesthetics – I was just so driven to get them off,” she said.

In April, Gail had “revision” surgery – yet another decision – to have nipples.

Gail has worked back up to exercising every day just as she did before she found out she had breast cancer. It’s not as vigorous, but she’s trying to build up her strength. She’s even started lifting weights again.

Gail still occasionally worries that the cancer will come back. There is still breast tissue under the implants. However, her chances have been radically reduced with the mastectomies.

Gail has also had comprehensive genetic testing done to determine not only her risk, but the risk to her daughter and sister. She was thrilled that all the tests came back negative.

Gail said her mission now is to share with women two things: find out if you have dense breasts with a baseline mammogram and continue practicing self breast exams (that’s how she found her cancer).

Gail said knowing whether you have dense breasts is important because then you’ll know to push for, at the very least, digital mammography, an ultrasound or an MRI. Gail never realized how her dense breasts made it nearly impossible for cancer to be detected.

She had just had a mammogram six months earlier and it detected no abnormalities.

She now has regular MRI’s at her check-ups. “I believe MRI’s are going to become the standard of care in the future,” she said.

Gail carries proof with her every day that women can face breast cancer and survive. She is glad to talk to anyone who is struggling with the disease as other survivors did for her.

“I feel like it’s my duty to help others who are going through the same thing,” she said. “I also want to make sure they know about breast density issues and how important it is to do self breast exams.”

CLICK HERE for more information about local cancer support groups and tips for newly diagnosed patients.

Caveat: Please note that Motherlode is reporting Gail’s personal experience and is not offering medical advice to others.

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