“I’m so blessed. Absolutely blessed. I’m a 20-year-survivor of breast cancer,” said Joyce Lorance, a 55-year-old Hermitage woman who was first diagnosed when she was 35.
First found in her right breast, she had a mastectomy but wanted no part of any reconstructive surgery, she said, until about five years ago.
“I decided I wanted reconstruction work done. That’s when they found the second cancer in my left breast,” she said.
The first time, Lorance said, it was pain that drove her to seek medical treatment. “It was throbbing. Just throbbing and I put my hand on the area and I could feel it aching. It was so huge you didn’t even have to press on it to see it,” she said.
Her family physician, Dr. Gregory George, sent her for a mammogram and a biopsy. “I was awake for the biopsy and when I saw all the stuff coming out of there, I just knew it was cancer,” she said.
Lorance was just finishing training as a dental assistant when she was diagnosed. The first surgeon she contacted left her feeling very upset. “He just came out and said ‘You have cancer and I don’t know if you’re going to live or die,’ and my husband, Dewey and I were just shocked,” she said.
“I told him about my schooling and he said ‘You can forget about school. We’re talking about saving your life here,’ and left the room.”
“I was a little bit in a whirlwind here and my husband was strong in front of me, but I think when he went to work, he broke down,” she said. A co-worker of her husband got him the name and number of a breast surgeon recently featured in Good Housekeeping magazine.
She decided to seek treatment in Pittsburgh from that surgeon, Dr. Norman Wolmark, who is now affiliated with Sharon Regional Health System.
“He was just wonderful. He told me the tumor was huge but asked if I would help with a research project they were doing. They wanted me as a patient,” Lorance said.
“I wanted to be in on the research even if I couldn’t save my own life. Maybe I could save somebody else,” she said.
Dr. Wolmark removed the breast and set her up with radiation and chemotherapy specialists.
She spent ten days in the hospital on “a cancer floor” where she describes having an experience she’ll never forget.
The only pain she said she had, was headaches, which she blamed on the stress of her illness. “But to see all those other people, with all kinds of cancer, well I just wanted to be radiant, to walk around with a gracious smile and try to be a blessing to them,” she said.
“I never questioned why I had cancer. I knew that if babies could get cancer, and they never even had a chance to live, well why not me?” she said.
Breaking down in tears she said, “I was 35. I had lived some. I had a wonderful husband, two precious children and I was so blessed from that even if I didn’t make it,” she said.
Doctors removed 27 lymph nodes and all were negative for cancer, she said. Chemotherapy treatments were very difficult, she added.
“After the third dose I truly thought I was dying. I was so sick and yet I can’t describe it. It was like everything smelled like medicine and I couldn’t taste anything. I was just so, so sick,” she said.
She lost her hair after the first treatment but hated wearing a wig. “If you came over to my house, you saw me bald. I only wore it when I went out,” she said.
Shortly after she finished her last chemotherapy treatment her hair began growing back. At the same time, she began working as a dental assistant, having graduated from school despite the initial surgeon’s assessment.
She thinks she may have been prone to cancer not because of a family history but because she wore herself down. She worked nights as a nurse’s aide and spent her days babysitting. “For years I didn’t sleep,” she said.
She finally began taking better care of herself and decided to have a right breast implant. “And they found something in the left breast. So it worked out that I can have matching breasts now,” she said.
“I’d had a lot of years to think about the ‘what if’s’ and I knew I’d gotten through this before. I want to live,” she said.
Though doctors describe her as “in remission” Lorance said she is cancer-free. “I don’t have cancer anywhere in my body. I’m clean from cancer,” she said. And she has a message of hope for others who are newly diagnosed.
“Your frame of mind has a lot to do with it. I try always to look at the glass as half-full. Life it just too precious to sit in a corner and hide. Lift yourself up,” she said