By Heather Mullinix
Monday, Dedra Crass, 41, rang the bell at the Cumberland Medical Center Regional Cancer Center, signaling an end to the journey that began in January when she felt a lump in her breast.
“It’s the end of my summer with cancer,” she said, smiling.
She’ll continue to require follow-up care and will be taking the estrogen-blocking drug Tamoxifen for ten years, but the surgeries, chemotherapy and daily radiation will be finished and she can return to work and caring for her family.
“It will be nice to take some time off and not think about cancer,” she said. “Then, I’m just looking forward to getting back to normal life.”
It’s been a whirlwind year that started Jan. 4 when her husband, Jason, lost his job after the company he had worked for went bankrupt. The family, which includes son, Joshua, 22, and daughters Demi, 16, and Ryleigh, 7, was now without insurance and living off Dedra’s income.
“That day, we lost our insurance, we lost everything,” she said.
Two weeks later, she felt a lump in her breast. She looked to the Internet, searching how to get a free mammogram and came across an article on the Chronicle’s website about Cumberland Medical Center’s free mammogram program.
The next date was just around the corner, Feb. 12. She called and got the last appointment offered for that Feb. 12 screening, 6:45 a.m.
Cumberland Medical Center’s free mammogram program is supported by a grant from the Upper Cumberland affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. It provides free screening mammograms to patients 40 years of age or older who have not had a mammogram within the past two years. Patients cannot have a previous diagnosis of breast cancer, lumps, breast pain or any other type of breast problem, and they cannot have insurance. More than 365 free mammograms have been provided through the program, which began in 2010.
Free mammograms will be offered Nov. 12, 2013, Jan. 14, 2014, and March 28, 2014.
“I was really glad there was this program out there I had never even heard of,” she said. “I had no insurance but I wanted a mammogram for peace of mind.”
Dedra arrived at CMC’s Breast Center for her appointment, and right away it was noted Dedra would need follow-up to diagnose a suspicious area of treatment. Nurse Navigator Trish Vaughn at CMC made contact with the Cumberland County Health Department. Candace Vaden, with the health department, contacted her the next day with a plan for enrolling in Tennessee’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening Program, which helped coordinate her follow-up mammogram, biopsy and an MRI.
“I had no idea they had that,” Dedra said. “She was calling and faxing and getting everything set up while I was sitting there.”
A second mammogram and ultrasound was scheduled and showed an area of suspicious tissue about 4.2 centimeters in size. Doctors were not immediately concerned she had a tumor, suspecting instead fibrogladular tissue, but recommended further investigation and so did Candace.
“I really was not worried,” Dedra said. “I had no history. When they said it could be fibrogladular tissue, I was going to leave it at that. But Candace pushed me and wouldn’t let me stop until I had an answer.”
She was referred to the Knoxville Comprehensive Breast Center.
“I was there all day long. I saw the surgeon. He was not all that worried, either, because it appeared to be fibrogladular tissue,” Dedra said. “But it turns out the tumor was hid behind the tissue. That’s why they weren’t picking it up.”
She had a biopsy that afternoon and was told to come back the next day for another biopsy, as the first didn’t go deep enough.
“I went back for the second biopsy and it was diagnosed as inductal carcinoma, grade three,” Dedra said.
It was a surprising diagnosis for an active, healthy 41-year-old woman, with no history of breast cancer in her family. An MRI narrowed the size of the tumor down to 1.8 centimeters.
“It was scary at the beginning, but I talked to the surgeons and investigated all of my options and, once a plan was in place, I had the attitude that this was what we were going to do and let’s get it done,” Dedra said.
“There was also a lot of praying,” added mom Sharon Reed, who’s been by her daughter’s side every step of the way.
Within a month, she was undergoing surgery to remove the tumor and six weeks later began the first of four aggressive rounds of chemotherapy.
“They hit me with everything they had,” Dedra said. She adjusted her pink survivor hat, they had given her after completing her chemotherapy. “I worked hard to get this hat,” smiling.
Overall, the treatments weren’t too taxing. She and her mom made little mini-trips out of those appointments, staying in Knoxville overnight, and she said her oncologist helped make sure she didn’t get sick from the strong medications.
“I would sleep through it and then get up, which is good because I have a seven year old that doesn’t allow you you take time off,” she said.
The final leg of her journey has been radiation treatment, taken daily for seven weeks at the Cumberland Medical Center Regional Cancer Center.
When it came time to begin radiation therapy, the trip to Knoxville from Spring City seemed so far to make five days a week for seven weeks. She returned to doing research and met with Dr. Zach Fowler at CMC, interviewing him before making a decision.
“As soon as I met him and his nurse, I knew this was the place I was coming to,” Dedra said. “They kept me here for two hours. They talked me through every bit of it.”
There were tough times along the way. Her family was struggling with the loss of Jason’s job, and living off retirement savings. Dedra’s job didn’t offer benefits, though her employer worked with her through her illness, even offering to continue paying her while she was out for treatment. In June, Jason started a new job with insurance benefits and the family is getting back.
Through it all, they’ve been her support system.
“My family has been my backbone through all this, and they stood by me,” she said, adding dad Cledious Reed had been a tremendous support to her, as well.
When her long hair started to fall out following chemotherapy treatments, friends shaved their heads in a show of solidarity.
Her brother and sister both raised funds to help the family with travel expenses.
Her community even came to her aid, with several benefits held to help the family and people she didn’t know volunteering to help however they could.
“A lady I didn’t even know set up dinners for us every night after my surgery,” she said. “There was just a lot of support from everywhere.”
Trish Vaughn also called regularly to check on her and see how she was doing.
“Ever since I came here for my mammogram, she has called every other week to check on me,” Dedra said.
She shared her story on Facebook and, from that, many friends went for their first mammograms.
“I tried to stay positive and let people know, it’s breast cancer. You’ll get through it,” Dedra said. “I truly believe God hand-picked all of the people who have rallied behind me through all this, family, friends, medical personnel and a great community.”
She was happy to share her story with other women, and offered a bit of advice for those who may be reeling from a cancer diagnosis. There will be tears and fears, and a time of uncertainty while waiting for test results, but it’s important to get a grasp on what your dealing with and what all your options are.
“It’s your body. It’s your life. You control it,” she said.
“The most important thing is to get ahold of it and feel like you’re making your own decisions. There’s a lot of fear in not knowing. But I got all my ducks in a row before I made my decisions, and they were truly my decisions.”