In the mid-1990s, Sheila Wilson thought there was no need to get a mammogram until her 40th birthday. But at the age 35, the bottom of her world fell out from under her.
It was 1995, and the Cleveland Street resident was performing a self-breast exam while showering. Moments later, she was screaming at her husband, Tim, to rush into the bathroom and feel the lump she had just discovered.
“I’ve always heard that if it moved, it was OK,” Wilson said. “But this was solid. It felt huge. And I started to cry.”
The results of an initial needle biopsy came back negative for cancer, and Wilson thought it was a false alarm. But her physician, Dr. Gregory Millis, wasn’t satisfied. After performing a lumpectomy, he had the tumor examined.
The following Monday, she met with her doctor again.
“Dr. Millis said: ‘Kiddo, I’ve got some bad news for you.’ I said: ‘What bad news could you have? You already told me I didn’t have breast cancer.’ And he said: ‘Well, the pathologist checked it out, and yeah, you do have breast cancer.’”
Wilson initially felt optimistic the lumpectomy had removed all of the malignant growth. But after a month of weekly treatments, she learned she would need a
Her husband refused to accept that conclusion and took his wife to the IU Medical Center in Indianapolis to get a second opinion. The couple had heard that Dr. Robert Goulet was the best breast care surgeon in Indiana, and Shelia Wilson maintained hope that a mastectomy could be avoided.
“But when Dr. Goulet came in, the first words out of his mouth were ‘How are your kids?’” Wilson said. “When he said that, my hope just dropped out of the bottom.”
There were no complications with the breast removal and reconstructive surgery. But as she began to recover, Wilson saw the emotional impact her cancer was having on her two sons, who were in fourth and eighth grades at the time.
“My younger son kept hugging me, but my older son didn’t want to be around me,” Wilson said. “He stayed at my sister’s house. That hurt me a lot, but I understood.”
What was more difficult to understand was the number of adult friends and family members who also seemed to be avoiding her.
Phone calls and visitations suddenly stopped, and Wilson initially felt abandoned. She wondered if they mistakenly thought her disease was contagious.
When undergoing chemotherapy, Wilson experienced a number of negative emotions ranging from depression to anger.
“But then, during treatment, this little, elderly lady told me: ‘Hon, we’ve got cancer. But cancer don’t have us,’” Wilson said. “That’s when I turned around. I started to get positive.”
After a change of medication reduced her radiation-induced nausea, Wilson no longer waited for friends and family to start calling her. She started calling them. She reminded them she was still the same person, and if they didn’t know what to say, they should just talk about
As she discussed her condition with her oldest boy, he confessed his fear that his mother might die while he was with her. She reminded the teen that, with or without cancer, God always chooses “when our number is up.”
“They had never been around anyone so close that has cancer,” Wilson said. “They were wondering ‘why her?’ But I told them that if God chose for me to go through this experience, then all of you can go through it with me.”
When she finally felt the worst was behind her, Wilson suddenly saw the toll her ordeal had taken on her husband.
“He held it all in until I was done with everything. But then, he fell apart,” Wilson said. “When I got sick, I was just thinking of me, and he was trying to be strong. And when he fell apart, I fell apart. But we got through that, and it made us stronger. It made us closer.”
Today, at age 52, Wilson says the cancer appears to be completely gone, but she still tires easily.
Weakness remains on the right side of her body 17 years after surgeons removed a shoulder muscle to make a pocket for an implant. And Wilson says she wishes doctors had today’s medical knowledge and technology when she underwent her mastectomy, so she would have had more options.
“But I’m here,” Wilson said. “And each morning I wake up, I thank God for every day.”
And she has advice for other women who suddenly find themselves facing the same experience.
“Keep a positive outlook. Yes, it is scary. When you hear the ‘C’ word, your world falls apart. But when you think positive throughout that experience, you are going to have a positive outcome.”