A manager at the Hope House.
A waitress at Stephanie’s Cabin.
And a Clatsop County worker’s wife living in Ocean Park, Wash.
Three women on the North Coast each lead different lives.
But they have one experience in common. Each is a survivor – not a victim – of breast cancer. And in their diagnoses, they have each found strength, freedom and inspiration in the smallest of things.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, sprinkling pink throughout communities all over the nation. But with the tutus, fun runs, kitchen utensils, bra-decorating competitions and other activities that help to raise money and awareness for the cause comes the reminder of how many women, and men, will be affected by the disease.
In 2011, more than 39,000 women died in the United States from breast cancer.
It’s a scary figure, but it also holds hope, when compared to the numbers even a decade earlier. According to the American Cancer Society, the breast cancer rate in women age 50 and older has fallen two percent per year since 1990.
“There was a time when I would not have survived,” said survivor Tracey Schrott. “I had a certain cancer that was aggressive that without a certain kind of treatment, 10 years ago, it would have killed me.
“We’ve come a long way.”
That certain kind of treatment is called Herceptin, introduced in 1998. It’s a man-made antibody that turns off signals to a type of breast cancer that produces a protein called HER2. When paired with chemotherapy, Herceptin aims to treat that type of cancer that can metastasize to other parts of the body.
Hope House manager Mel Langston got the treatment.
So did Ocean Park resident Karen Manning.
“Before Herceptin, my kind of cancer would have been a death sentence,” Langston said.
Schrott, Langston and Manning were each diagnosed with breast cancer during the summer of 2011.
Each are now out of remission and onto another title – survivor.
These are their stories.
Schrott, 53, is from Santa Cruz, Calif. She moved to Warrenton nearly 10 years ago to be closer to her sisters. She is a waitress at Stephanie’s Cabin restaurant in Astoria.
When she discovered a lump in the shower last year, she said she thought it was a side effect of menopause and possibly inflammation.
“So I ignored it for a while,” she said. “But it got too big to ignore. So I went and I had a mammogram and sure enough, it was nasty and it was breast cancer. My immediate thought was my daughter. How am I going to tell my daughter? I was heartbroken for her.”
Schrott’s daughter’s father had died of melanoma a few years prior to Schrott’s own diagnosis.
So when she told her daughter, now 33, she said she had “ductal carcinoma,” another word for the disease.
“I couldn’t even say breast cancer. I just couldn’t say it,” she said. She also had to break the news to her grandson, now 12.
Then, it was time to begin treatment.
Schrott endured 18 weeks of chemotherapy, all at Columbia Memorial Hospital, thanks to the hospital’s visiting oncologist and its expanded oncology department.
“When I first went to the oncologist, my knees were literally knocking like a cartoon. I was flailing from the shock of really what was going on,” she said.
Chemo treatments weren’t as bad as she expected. The vomiting was minimal, and she didn’t wait for her hair to fall out.
“I immediately shaved my head. I didn’t want to see it fall out because I would probably crazy glue it back on. I’m one of those,” she said. “I took my daughter with me. She didn’t cry, I didn’t cry. I shaved my head. It was liberating. I was thinking, ‘just get it over with already.’”
After chemo wrapped up, Schrott went through five weeks of radiation. She had 18 lymph nodes removed from her arm. Then, she underwent a double mastectomy – removal of both breasts.
“I only had it (on one side), I didn’t have to have a double,” she said. “But I’ve heard so many stories of how it comes back and I didn’t want to be lopsided. So I was just like, ‘take them both! Have at it.’ I didn’t care. I wouldn’t miss them.”
Schrott says the journey through cancer was a blur and a surreal experience. She does, however, know how thankful she felt to the staff at the oncology department, including Dr. Robert Raish and the nurses at Columbia Memorial Hospital. “I never met a person in my whole experience that I didn’t like,” she said. “The nurses and the doctor were so kind and it made all the difference.”
Her family and friends also made her experience possible, keeping her “brave and laughing.”
Today, Schrott is cancer-free. During her own battle, her sister died of cervical cancer. Schott keeps her sister’s memory close and her fingers crossed because she knows that cancer could return one day.
But now, she’s living her life. She’s back to work after an eight-month break, she gave up cigarettes and keeps her hair buzzed short describing it as a “freeing” experience when she can shave her head. She is also undergoing breast reconstruction, a slow process because of radiation burns inside her body. Her left arm is still tingly from the lymph node removal but feeling will return in time.
“I have no intention of ever growing my hair back,” she said with a beaming smile. “I don’t care. And I want to represent all of the time. There are people right now going through chemo that don’t have any hair and I’m like, ‘I’m here for you.’ I have no intention of growing my hair ever again. I have clippers upstairs and I just shave it. It’s very liberating actually. I’m free now. I’m free.”
Schrott also encourages all women to get mammograms so they too can beat the disease.
And if you know someone who is going through cancer, she said, every little bit helps.
“Something as simple as walking your dog. My big concern was who is going to walk my dog. It sounds so stupid, right? But it was very important to me and was stressing me out. So I had people walking my dog and that was such a huge help,” she said. “So if you know someone going through this, even the simplest things can make all the difference.”
Mel Langston, 65, likely had cancer for three years before she was ever diagnosed.
Her nipple had inverted in 2008. But test after test, her results came up clean.
“It was sort of a strange thing,” she said. “And I thought I felt something underneath it, so I went to Providence Seaside. They did a mammogram and sonogram and found nothing. And the radiologist came in and checked me out also while I was there, so I had a couple of people looking at my body at that point.
“I got the results back and the mammogram was negative, the sonogram was negative. Everything was negative.”
Fast forward to 2011, she says, and her nipple was still inverted. But then, she developed a rash.
“I set it aside,” she said. “I went into the my local doctor. I made the appointment on Monday. I saw him on Tuesday. Wednesday, I got a mammogram and on Thursday I had an appointment to meet with a surgeon. He immediately scheduled a biopsy for the next week.
“It was cancer.”
Meanwhile, her latest mammogram and sonogram still turned up negative.
Langston went to a surgeon in Portland, where another imaging tool was used – a gammagram, specific to the breast.
“Saw it clear as day,” she said of seeing the cancer through the imaging. “I went through surgery in Portland and I have a daughter in Portland that I stayed with for two or three weeks after surgery. She did all of the stuff for me, the drains, the whatever, the 50 medications I was on. She really took good care of me.”
Then, she returned to Astoria. But in Astoria, she lived on her own and going through the struggle of chemotherapy, cancer and recovery alone can be a scary thing, she said..
“I truely don’t know how anybody does it on their own,” she said.
Langston moved in with her daughter in Astoria. She has six children and 18 grandchildren. Shaving her head became a small family event.
“I was in the house with her for the entire chemo,” she said. “And I was really glad. I think being on your own and going through chemo would be much worse, much worse. There was someone I could call in the house if I needed anything, and I did. I had a hard time with the chemo.
“My daughter shaved my head. She sat me in the kitchen in a chair and was shaving my head because it was already falling out. And one by one all of the kids came in, four of them, and then her husband came in and he was standing there, too. I wasn’t nervous. I really didn’t care or feel bad thoughts about losing all my hair. The only thing I found was that I had pointy ears,” she said with a laugh.
“It wasn’t some traumatic thing. It was just a thing. Just something you do.”
Meanwhile, she completed a remarkable feat – Langston earned her Ph.D. while completing the treatments. She would be ill in bed, get up and work on her dissertation for a few hours, and then go back to bed, she explained.
Piece by piece, she finished it.
“I wear a lot of hats. And cancer affected all of those hats,” she said. “This was a driving force.” Her degree is in health psychology, studying psychological and behavioral processes in health, illness and health care.
“I had a lot going on in my life. And cancer didn’t take over my life,” she said.
Langston has been in private practice since 2007. She serves as a child custody evaluator. And for the last year, she has managed the Hope House through First Lutheran Church, part of the nonprofit Lutheran Community Services Northwest, working with young people and parents on counseling, education and abuse prevention.
She’s now a survivor of breast cancer and her faith and family brought her through. She said she wasn’t afraid of death, having experienced a lot of death in her family over the years.
Her mother died of cancer – melanoma – when Langston was six months old. Her father died of a heart attack when Langston was 17. She has older sisters and other family members who have also passed away.
“I wasn’t really afraid of that at all,” she said. “The hardest part was the chemo. I said, ‘I don’t know if I would want to do this if I had to do this again.’ But I know I would. I have no doubts about it. I never really got caught up in the fact that I had breast cancer. I knew that life would return to normal and it has, pretty much.”
Last week, Langston moved out on her own.
She called herself grateful after the experience, realizing that her cancer could have been much worse.
Karen Manning, 57, discovered she had breast cancer through a mammogram.
It was not her first mammogram because of her family history.
Her mother beat breast cancer years ago.
“I thought it would be surgery first, once we found it, but it was chemotherapy,” she said.
Her diagnosis came in August 2011.
“And then surgery and then radiation.”
She also received Herceptin treatment for one year.
Manning has lived in Ocean Park for the last two years, coming from Tillamook where she worked in maintenance for the U.S. Forest Service. Her husband, Tom, now works in emergency management for Clatsop County. He sat through each of her chemo treatments with her at Columbia Memorial Hospital. Chemo was difficult, she said, but staff at the hospital told her she responded well to the treatments, where a lot of people suffered from it.
“I was really blessed on that,” she said.
Radiation treatment came next in Longview, Wash.
“I told my kids over the phone, not on Facebook,” she said with a laugh. “I told my daughter, ‘Don’t put this on Facebook!’
“It wasn’t too hard to tell them because they caught it early so it was kind of scary, but the outcome has been great.”
Manning’s recovery has been smooth, she said. She too is no longer considered in remission but a survivor of the disease.
Her lifestyle has changed. “I’m just enjoying life more!” She’s been following the steps recommended to her by Raish, the Oregon Health and Science University doctor that treated all three women, to increase her survival rate. Eating right, exercising, and “just the normal steps of trying not to get cancer.”
She’s taken a break from working so she can focus on her recovery.
“I put that on hold until I’m sure I am done with everything so I can be dependable,” Manning said. “You’re going through so much when you have cancer. So many doctors’ appointments, it’s crazy.”
But early detection has given her a life to keep living. Her two daughters know to watch for cancer themselves.
Manning said she worries but, “what can I do? There’s nothing I can do but keep telling them, and they know.”
“Get mammograms, give yourself exams, and be vigilant!” she said.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.